Wonderful Night for a Moondance: Persona 3 at 10.
July 7, 2009. It’s midnight. Everyone’s sound asleep in their standing coffins.
Well, almost everyone.
There’s a small group of armed teenagers sneaking into a love hotel.
It’s a bizarre tableau, perhaps, but it’s par for the course in Port Island – the main area of Persona 3 – where the street names are in French and the scientific experiments are wildly illegal, where war is being waged between a group of teenagers with attitude and the Shadows – the darkest, most shameful parts of the human psyche made… not flesh, exactly, but certainly something solid enough to knock our heroes flat, get an extra turn, then mess up your whole day.
This undertaking in particular is practically a microcosm of the game as a whole, particularly its combination of different genres and themes. It’s the third of your Full Moon Operations – pivotal events in Persona 3’s story. The progression of the plot, as the party have discovered at this point, focuses on the phases of the full moon. Every full moon, a powerful Shadow makes itself known to those still conscious during the Dark Hour, a ‘lost’ 25th hour taking place as the clock strikes midnight. Those who are not immediately turned into coffins for the duration of this phenomenon are either prey for the Shadows or, in rare cases, out kicking humanity’s inner demons in whatever passes for their teeth.
So the arrival of this Big Bad Shadow comes with a fair bit of build-up; the team has been spending potentially quite a good chunk of the month up to this point battling lesser Shadows in preparation for a moonlit showdown – even if the moonlight in question is a sickly green. Their anxiety as they approach the date is palpable.
Even before they take their Epic Quest into the perils of the local red-light district though, the dramatic tension has been broken up throughout by…well, other drama. The Protagonist interacts with several of his peers as well as characters (in the sense that they’re unusual, rather than fictional) about town, working through the issues of each, helping them confront their fears and insecurities and move on with their lives. Each relationship comes with an accompanying ‘Social Link’, a game mechanic in Persona 3 that shows you really can put a price on friendship: “Is listening to Kenji fantasize about his teacher for the nth time worth eventually being able to summon a towering, fiery giant that I can also turn into a flaming sword? Hmm…”
Such is the strange mix of gameplay that Persona 3 presents you with – the almost traditional dungeon crawling (well, tower climbing in this case) of its predecessors blended with what is basically a dating sim. Such is the strange mix of the story that the reason this month’s victims – groaning, shuffling, emotionally eviscerated people called ‘The Lost’ – have been appearing in pairs is because they’re getting caught rapid by monsters, like a classic horror movie without anything as subtle as ‘make-out point’.
You go from a scene where people tease each other over the risqué location of their upcoming life-or-death battle, to a surprisingly tense search of the hotel rooms for your opponent, to that pitched battle you’d been waiting for. Or at least, the one you thought you’d been waiting for. What follows is a somewhat uncomfortable scene where an unseen voice tries to tempt you – with your mind in a frazzled state of utter confusion – into giving all this world-saving business a miss so you can focus on your base desires.
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It’s that sort of game.
You’re bearing witness to one of the staple moves of Persona 3, and the series at large: blatant fanservice that often involves the teenage characters in ways that are intended humourously but can be distinctly uncomfortable if you think about them.
Or the fake-out. The fake-out could also be what you take from Persona 3.
Just as you’re thinking, somewhat fittingly given the surroundings, that you’ve been presented with something of an anti-climax, the game turns things around on you to present you with further obstacles. It’s perhaps one of the least surprising turns you’ll be faced with over the course of the narrative, but it sets a precedent for the rest of the game. If there’s one thing you’ll learn over the course of any given Persona entry, it’s that if it looks like the end, feels like the end, if every character acts as if it’s the end and tells you it’s the end multiple times – then you’re maybe halfway through. At best.
A more cynical soul might call it padding – you now have to break the correct (large and heart-themed) mirrors in order to proceed to the other, more powerful – as in it abuses more status moves, to the frustration of no traumatised gamer/writers in particular, really – Shadow that’s been trying to throw you off the scent. However, this sequence nicely showcases the intelligence of an enemy that’s more than just a monster of the month, but a thinking, cunning being that has multiple ways of giving you the run-around. Many of the best antagonists in this series have layer upon layer to their plans, so much so that large chunks of time are devoted to figuring out who the actual antagonist is and what it is they’re even up to.
To put this in perspective, the ‘Arcana’ Shadow that’s actually causing trouble here is hiding behind another Arcana Shadow, and your mission to destroy all these special Shadows plays into the plan of a person trying to summon an even stronger creature that will fuse with a yet more powerful force that crashed into Earth eons ago and indirectly caused the advent of the collective subconscious.
July 7 captures many of the elements that made Persona 3 a memorable experience. It was unafraid to throw a whole pile of seemingly disparate elements together, and use them in ways that drew the player in, whether to amuse, excite or horrify. It had boss battles with grotesque abominations, set in rooms with transparent walls in front of the shower. Scenes where the protagonist has their mind invaded by the enemy are punctuated with extreme adolescent embarrassment.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that Persona 3 introduced the concept of the ‘Wild Card’, the player’s unique ability to summon whatever creature/facade (for the two are one and the same) best deals with the situation – which in this context could be killing Shadows in another phase of reality, or getting closer to an alcoholic monk that hangs out in a nightclub. The game itself has a similar approach – changing from moment to moment to keep the player engaged. It’s this approach, in terms of gameplay and story, that made it the first of its series to make a significant impact in the West.