Sunday, August 18, 2013

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3's The Answer's Worth

Well, I've successfully managed to not mess up my plan to do a Shin Megami Tensei rant once a month for the rest of the year during the very first month. So far, so good. Thanks to Ecclesiastes for looking this over for me, making sure it wasn’t complete crap. You’re a prince, sir.

Warning: This rant will reference directly important events of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3’s ending. It’s a great enough game, and a great enough ending, that if you haven’t already played SMTP3 from start to finish, you should avoid this rant. Go do something else instead. Watch a movie, draw some ponies, eat a delicious meal of gumbo, play SMTP3 since you haven’t already, I don’t care. Just don’t you spoil this for me. By spoiling it for you.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 is an absolutely terrific RPG, one of the best I’ve played and well worthy of the honorable title of Shin Megami Tensei. It’s a pretty universal hit, too, in that the strong majority of people who have played it enjoyed it greatly, as well as a cult classic that managed to get nearly as much attention from the RPG community as one of SquareEnix’s numerous overhyped, inferior offerings. I can’t help but be pretty pleased by that fact. I feel like at least half of the truly excellent RPGs are sadly quite ignored (even more than RPGs usually are, I mean) while many of the mediocre or outright bad ones are highlighted (Final Fantasy for the last 10 years, for example), so when one of the popular ones happens to actually DESERVE its renown, it’s a happy treat for me.

The thing with SMTP3 is that it was popular enough that Atlus decided to milk the game for all it’s worth. Almost a year after SMTP3’s release, Atlus rereleased the game as Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES, which had several additions built into it. The Social Links were easier to progress, for example, leaving a little extra time during the game’s course to experience its other content, and some new content was added to the main game, most notably a Social Link for Aigis (which turned out to be one of the best in the game). Most importantly, a post-game quest called The Answer was added, which transferred the role of protagonist to Aigis, and set out to clear up some ambiguities about SMTP3’s ending and show us how the game’s cast reacted to the tragic passing of Minato.

Now, I’m not too terribly familiar with the SMT fanbase in general, so I could be wrong, but I’ve gotten the general impression from people I’ve spoken with that The Answer is not particularly liked by a significant number of players. I don’t think there are many that outright hate it, but the general outlook I’ve perceived is a negative one. And I don’t think that’s really a fair assessment.

Now, to be fair, I have to acknowledge that in some regards, The Answer IS not so good. Specifically, when one looks at it with the perspective of a practical consumer. If one were to equate the differences between SMTP3’s original and FES versions, the FES version is less like a rerelease of the original game (since the original had only come out less than a year prior, and for the same system), and more like the original game with a standard Downloadable Content package (the extra stuff in the main game) and an Expansion (The Answer addition). But you’re not just buying a DLC and an Expansion--in order to experience the FES version’s benefits, you had to pay for the whole game all over again. Fine for a consumer who hadn’t happened to purchase the original version (like me), but not so great for anyone who did. Now Atlus did take a small step to better the situation, in that you could, I understand, transfer your original version’s save game information to the FES version and be able to retain some of the stuff from the first version, so it at least wasn’t a total loss, time-wise, for the owners of the original SMTP3. But the fact remains that anyone who had bought the original and wanted to experience the FES version’s benefits was forced to pay the full price of a new game for what could only very generously be called even half a game’s worth of content.

I’m not sure what Atlus could have done about this, admittedly. Playstation 2 games aren’t really designed with the ability to be modified and added to later. Still, I feel like it’s a raw deal for the customer, and surely there was SOMETHING they could have done. I mean, just off the top of my head, maybe they could’ve had 20 or 30 bucks knocked off SMTP3’s FES version price upon purchase for anyone who could prove that they purchased the original. Like, have’em show a receipt (and ID, perhaps) to the retailer to prove they had previously bought a non-used copy of the original game as they get the new one. Something like that. But as it is, the SMTP3 FES version, and by extent The Answer, IS something of a rip-off.*

But by its own merits? Well, I don’t really have a problem with The Answer. I think that the returning cast are portrayed pretty well, and although their character development isn’t ever as strong as it was at times during the main game, it IS there, and it’s certainly not bad. I thought that the scene where Mitsuru’s comforting Yukari was really quite good, in fact, and Aigis’s character is handled pretty well and in a way that expands her beyond the tenderly wise, yearning, and loving role she had, while still properly acknowledging and building off of it. I like the general premise of the story, and while I think that the plot advances a bit slowly at times, it’s overall worthwhile to experience, and learning the truth of Minato’s fate is a pretty poignant moment.

From what I’ve gathered from the idle conversation of friends and asking around on GameFAQs, there are a few main problems that people have specified regarding The Answer. The first is Metis, the new character. Well, I can’t really argue part of this idea. Metis hasn’t got much depth as a character, and her personality’s neither especially memorable nor appealing. Still, I don’t feel that Metis is a significant detracting factor of The Answer. She does serve her purpose for the plot as the only one supporting Aigis as the group becomes divided, and even if her character adds more or less nothing to the adventure by her own individual merits, I don’t think it takes anything from it, either. And I would argue that the same thing could be said for Akihiko and Koromaru in the main game (and The Answer, for that matter), and no one seems to have much of a problem with them.

Another problem I’ve seen people state about The Answer is how it ends. The Answer ends with Aigis seeming like she should have died, but continuing to live on even though her internal robotic parts have been fried, with the only explanation of this phenomenon being Fuuka’s theorizing that she seems like she’s alive now. It’s been said that this is more your standard improbably everyone’s-happy-sunshine-and-rainbows-for-all Disney ending than a Shin Megami Tensei ending. I suppose I see some logic to this; it IS kind of quickly thrown in there, just as quickly resolved, and has an almost overbearing positivity to it. But I actually think that despite how rushed the idea is, it’s important to The Answer, because it’s ultimately showing us the Tarot’s transition from end to beginning. As I mentioned in my overly long SMTP3 and 4 Tarot comparison rant, the Major Arcana of the Tarot basically symbolize a journey of self-actualization and human understanding, beginning with The Fool, where all is blank and the journey’s potential is raw and unrestricted, and ending with The World, the end to The Fool’s journey through the Major Arcana, at which point the cycle shall begin again at a higher level with a new Fool, just as every close to a journey of understanding in life marks the beginning of a journey of a new kind. Aigis’s death as an android and as what she once was is the moment of The World Arcana in The Answer (perhaps even of SMTP3 as a whole), as she has reached the end of her small journey of understanding, and her rebirth as something alive, a being ready to join the world in a new way, a better way than she could before, represents a new beginning for her, the moment when she once again becomes The Fool, new, fresh, having all the understanding and lessons of the previous cycle within herself and ready to embark on a new journey to grow in new ways. Hell, in my opinion, this is also the start of the next cycle of the journey began and completed by protagonist Minato, for it was his journey from Fool to World in the main game that has brought all of this about, and the greatest pieces of understanding that Aigis gains from her journey through The Answer are those that Minato learned, embraced, and embodied. To me, Aigis’s beginning a new cycle is the proper completion and continuation of Minato’s as much as it is hers.

At any rate, in a game that so brilliantly and artfully employs and embodies the considerable wisdoms and themes of the Tarot, an ending like this in some degree is pretty crucial. Yes, looking at this strictly on its surface level, it is a bit too cheerfully feel-good, and too contrived to BE cheerfully feel-good. And don’t get me wrong, that IS a problem--one of the many great aspects of SMTP3 is that on top of all the immense towers of insight and wisdoms and art is a story that’s genuinely fun, interesting, and creative, making it a game that’s not just brilliant, but good even at surface level (which is sadly often not the case with works whose greatness is underlying), so for the actual, literal events and storytelling value of The Answer’s ending to be lacking is disappointing. Nonetheless, what truly makes SMTP3 exceptional, even brilliant, is its commitment to the subtle, underlying themes of the Tarot, and so I have to say that I view the happy end of The Answer as a good thing, because it all adds up to what it should.

Perhaps the biggest complaint I’ve seen about The Answer, though, is its general pace of narrative. The simple fact of the matter is that most of The Answer is about the gameplay, not the plot, focusing more on traversing the dungeon and a higher difficulty for the battles.** Many of the times when you get a break to see the story elements, they’re more about character back story than the actual plot at hand. The real, main story of The Answer is mostly present at its beginning and in its last stages, leaving the majority of the time you spend with The Answer small side stuff and just battles, battles, battles. And...well, this complaint is pretty much totally legitimate. I mean, I think I appreciate the small bits of character history more than many people do, but they’re not all that important, or even particularly good. And you know my feelings on RPG gameplay, so increasing its quantity at the sacrifice of more time with the plot is NOT a good thing to me. Yeah, this is a real problem with The Answer, one that I noticed and was very displeased with as I played through it.

But you’s something I can forgive. Because, well, I think what plot IS there is worth it. The Answer provides us with a decent mini-story about how the SMTP3 cast reacts to the loss of their leader in SMTP3’s ending, and brings these broken people back to the state that Minato would have wanted them to be in, the state that he gave his life to provide for them--hope, personal awareness, friendship, and the optimistic desire to go out there and create a better world. It gives them, and we the players, the promised answer of what exactly happened to Minato, why he died, and provides a little more explanation on Nyx, as well, all in a way that is creative, interesting, and even inspiring--just what SMTP3 is supposed to be. A better understanding of Minato’s sacrifice makes him that much greater a hero, as well. I also appreciate some of the character development, even if there’s only a small amount--the stuff regarding Mitsuru and Yukari after they lose to Aigis and Metis was very well-done, for example. And ultimately, The Answer gives us what we must have from SMTP3: a story reaffirming just how powerful the human spirit can be, a reminder of how important it is to improve ourselves as humans to reach that higher level of spirit that Minato does, a story that finalizes the Tarot journey we saw before with Minato and makes the transition into the next cycle of the Tarot’s journey through Aigis (emphasized ever so cleverly by the fact that this new journey begins on April 1st, aka April Fools’ Day), and the idea that it is through our connections to those around us that we bring meaning to our lives and better ourselves as human beings.***

So in the end, what’s the verdict on The Answer? Well, it’s not as good as the main game of Persona 3. But SMTP3 is one of the top 10 greatest RPGs I’ve ever played. It’s a shame that its follow-up doesn’t live up to the game’s quality, but that’s still far and away from making it actually bad. It does what it sets out to, and even if it doesn’t give us as much content-per-playtime as it really should, what it’s got IS often good, and does, by its end, tie into the primary Tarot theme adequately. It’s not amazing, but I think saying that it isn’t good is a disservice to The Answer.

* Not the worst I’ve seen where add-ons are concerned, of course. Mass Effect 3’s Omega DLC, Dragon Age 1’s Awakening Expansion, and Borderlands 1’s Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot DLC are all bigger rip-offs, for example.

** At least, everyone SAYS it’s a higher level of difficulty. Oddly enough, I, personally, somehow found The Answer to generally be easier than the main game. I’m really not sure how that happened, but I can only guess that I was somehow playing the main game entirely wrong the whole time.

*** This is kind of neither here nor there, but I was just thinking the other day, as I rewatched the Season 3 Finale of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, how well MLPFiM fits with SMTP3 at times. I mean, one of the most important messages of that episode--a great message--can be found in how Twilight Sparkle solves her friends’ mixed up destinies by allowing their own selfless friendship to put them in the right place to rediscover themselves. The message is clear--sometimes by helping those we care about, we help ourselves even more. It’s just the kind of theme of the self-empowering nature of interpersonal connections that Persona 3 so excellently proclaims to us.


  1. I am the distant descendant of the daughter of an English duke, disowned for the scandal of eloping with an Italian serf. Think Romeo and Mercutio, and the mail wasn't a day late.

    My longhand way of saying I am no prince, and honestly, the farther from Prince Charles, the better.

    1. ...Okay, now I'm having flashbacks to Catherine's protests of pride in her Duchess-hood and disdain for princesses. Just when I thought you couldn't get cooler, sir. Semi-duke it is, then.

    2. Catherine from Embric of Wulfhammer's Castle, I mean. Meant to mention that.