Statistically speaking, the majority of players do not finish the games they start. Depending on the platform and what year the data was run I’ve seen everywhere from 65% to 90% of players not finishing their games. This stat baffled me when I first heard about it because it differs from my own playstyle – I put a lot of effort into finishing the games I play. If I don’t beat a game, the reason is usually because I stopped finding the game enjoyable to play. While it’s ultimately better for my mental health to put these types of games down and move past them, I still get a little disappointed in myself whenever I say goodbye to something because it wasn’t for me. My first dropped game of 2023 hits me particularly hard because it belongs to a series that I deeply enjoy: Persona.
If you read my first impressions of Persona 3 Portable then you have an idea of my history with the series as well as why I was drawn to this game. When I initially began to play Persona 3, I immediately recognized that it had some mechanical aspects which felt aged compared to the other games I had played, but I felt like those would be manageable as long as the story was solid. However, almost 80 hours into the game and with one in-game month left to go, I’ve hit the end of my patience with the gameplay regardless of my thoughts on the storytelling. So let’s dig into why I find Persona 3 Portable to be so frustrating as well as why I’m sad to see it go.
One of the most important aspects of modern Persona games are the social links, conversations you have with other characters in the world that tell you more about the people you go to school with or live in the community with. These social links also have mechanical benefits that vary from game to game. Persona 3 was the first game in the series to introduce social links and so understandably that mechanic is the least developed in this game. In gameplay terms, their only benefit is to increase how much of an experience bonus you get when you fuse a Persona that matches the arcana of the social link, and to unlock a powerful Persona of that arcana at rank 10. While a lot of the social links in this game are compelling and well worth the time regardless of the mechanical benefit, the lack of a stronger gameplay reward for social links means that I’m less motivated to complete ones that I’m not as interested in.
Social links are often connected to the next mechanic, your protagonist’s social stats. Social stats serve as gates to particular social links and you need them to be at a certain rank in order to unlock the social link tree for certain characters. Most importantly, three of your companions in the party need a particular stat maxed to even begin talking to them. This restriction motivated me to very quickly get my social stats to the maximum level, which has revealed itself to be a problem because there is nothing to do at night in this game other than raise your social stats. Once I got everything maxed out and hit the point where money was basically no longer an issue, nighttime became a completely wasted slot – especially after I finished the tower social link. I do think there is an intentional reason the game wants you not to have too many interesting things at night, and it’s all about pushing you towards the aspect of the game that really and truly has turned me off to it: Tartarus.
The way dungeons function has been one of the biggest differences between every Persona game I have played. In Persona 5, dungeons are authored locations with maps, puzzles, and scripted encounters. In Persona 4, each dungeon is distinct with its own atmosphere and music but the floors are procedurally generated. In Persona 3 there is one central dungeon that serves as the primary mechanical focus of the game, called Tartarus. Climbing to the top floor of Tartarus is how you are meant to spend your nights: exploring each floor looking for the staircase to lead you up to the next one with occasional boss floors checking to make sure you’ve leveled enough to continue progressing. During much of the main story, there are game-imposed stopping points that let you know you’ve made as much progress in Tartarus as you need to for that point of the game, and generally as long as you have explored most floors thoroughly you’ll also be at the right level to be competitive with the upcoming boss.
The back half of the game approaches Tartarus differently. Prior to that the tower is separated into blocks which you generally explore in two halves. The fifth and sixth block both open up all at once and have both a larger number of floors as well as a larger number of boss checkpoints to deal with. This significantly amplifies the amount of time you have to spend in Tartarus, and emphasizing rather than minimizing that mechanic has been the death knell for my enjoyment of the game. Tartarus is not a particularly enjoyable location to explore; there’s nothing to look at, the enemy designs are repeated with incredible frequency, and battles are generally straightforward and won’t require a significant amount of strategizing. Rather than being focused on exploration or mechanical challenge, Tartarus is a grindfest that adds hours of unnecessary padding to the game.
I’ve tried a couple of different methods to get around the problem of Tartarus. For one, when I play that section of the game I stop making the game my primary focus – gaming becomes a background activity for my real activity of watching a stream or bingeing a series I enjoy on YouTube. This initially helped but it didn’t take long for the grindy gameplay to get on my nerves – I could easily watch a fun YouTube series while playing a much more interesting game in the background, after all. I also tried getting through Tartarus as fast as possible. I stopped exploring floors for battles and pickups and instead just rushed for staircases as fast as I could. However, this has noticeably impacted my levels for my characters and now when I hit a boss checkpoint, my team really struggles. The last boss had me on less than 50% HP for most of the battle and I only managed to win because of using some rarer items and a couple of lucky turns. Now even in normal battles, my characters aren’t strong enough to single-round standard enemies by hitting their weak point and using an all-out attack. It is clear that I am behind in levels, and when I checked the recommended level for the final boss, I found that I am a whopping 13 levels behind on everyone except for my main character (who always has to stay in the party and so levels further than everyone else). This means that even if I manage to scrape by my last two checkpoint bosses and run to the stairs enough to get to the top of Tartarus, I still have to willingly engage with the grindfest of the tower if I want to be competitive against the final boss.
Every time I have some free time and I think about what game to play, Persona 3 Portable goes farther and farther from my mind. When I think about how much useless nonsense I have to endure just to finish out the story I get exhausted just thinking about it. What’s frustrating to me though is that I really do enjoy the story. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Persona 3 may have the best story of all of the Persona games I have played. It ties the supernatural elements to the main plot better than 4 and significantly better than 5 (you could cut the final dungeon and final boss from 5 and it would be a better game). The stakes feel real and there were some genuinely shocking, moving moments that took place and really left me empathizing with these characters and cheering for them. The cast is charming and even my least favorite main character is still more endearing than some of the more annoying characters in 4 and 5. I want to see their story through to the end, but the fact that doing it requires me to endure some of the worst RPG gameplay I’ve experienced in awhile has really turned me off to the idea. Perhaps I’ll try to catch someone’s stream or let’s play so I can see the ending that way.
While it is ultimately better to say farewell to a game that’s no longer enjoyable, this one definitely stings more than some of my more recent dropped games since I was so drawn to the story and cast. But while this will most certainly be the end of my backwards journey through the Persona series, what I can look forward to is the fact that the next Persona I play should theoretically be a step forward from the game I’ve found the most mechanically enjoyable, Persona 5 Royal. I can be done looking to the past and instead march forward to the future, and hopefully to a game which will be a huge step up from my most recent Persona experience.
Nothing wrong at all with giving this game a pass at the finale. If you haven’t I would highly recommend you watch a Let’s Play for the two different endings.
Even with the Quests you can do Tartarus doesn’t really feel like anything more then a, “I need to level up I guess” time
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