A Brief Comparison of Persona 3 and 4
With no true prompting, the topic of the Persona series came back upon my mind recently. Though I've barely touched the first one, and never even picked up either of the two second games, I have played the far more popular third and fourth entries in the series. Given how much I enjoyed both of them I figured looking back at the qualities that made them stand out would make for a good retrospective. However, by only doing that I would be glossing over their flaws, and doing that would be a disservice to the games. Therefore, what better way to clearly display their inherit strengths and weaknesses than to contrast the two against each other?
If there is one thing that is cited most between the Personas 3 and 4 it is the tone. One can see this from something as simple as the color motif, Persona 3 has a darker shade of blue while 4 opts for bright yellow, both themes notable giving off a distinct allusion to the night sky and police tape respectively. Persona 4 has the protagonist form a ragtag group to investigate a series of paranormal murders with a theme of pursuit of truth as well as delving deeper into the thematic Jungian psychology. Meanwhile, Persona 3 has a theme of death, with the characters dealing with death of a friend, coping with their own inevitable deaths, the presence of death, and has the climactic battle as an analogy for the futility of escaping death.
This being said, the quality of a well handled story depends not on the tone of the story, but on how well it uses the tone to contribute to the overall narrative. Here, there are two decisive points in both 3 and 4 that define both the aforementioned themes of pursuit of truth and death that show how strong the storytelling is. Near the end of 3, the protagonists are faced with an inevitable demise and must decide how to face it. Over a period of an in-game month, they mull over and reflect on their lives and their next decision of whether to face it head on or null themselves to be none the wiser of their impending doom. Conversely, 4 has a fantastic scene near the beginning of the third act where the protagonists have confronted who they believe to be the murderer and find themselves as the only possible ones who can cast judgment upon him due to a kink in the legal system. The decision to make is not an easy one as the last victim the murderer took was an undeniably close character and this happens mere moments beforehand. The decision and how you go about making it made an impactful scene in the span of five minutes and as one of the most definitive ways in which the “silent” protagonist was characterized.
Between these two moments it’s like comparing a slow burn to a massive explosion. To say one is better than the other would be a matter of subjective taste. However, speaking subjectively, I did find that I enjoyed the scene in Persona 3 a tad more. In addition, I found the themes presented in Persona 3 to be handled much better and to have more meaning than the theme of truth in 4. Though Persona However, both games have very well done complex stories so when I say that I consider 3 to have the superior story I say that it wins only slightly. Point goes to Persona 3.
Both Persona 3 and 4 place a great deal of emphasis on developing the cast of characters they have through the gameplay of Social Links, a gameplay implement that has you spending time with characters and getting to know them better. Both entries delve deep into the issues of the many characters, but for this comparison let’s focus on the party members for both entries. 3 and 4 both have characters overcome some form of a hurdle or face some challenge that changes or develops their perspective, personalities, or nature. This is how each member of the party, save the protagonist, rebirth their persona (for newcomers, think of it like evolving a Pokemon). However, there is a clear difference between how Persona’s 3 and 4 handle their characters.
I mentioned this in the story section, but a key theme of Persona 4 is exemplifying the Jungian psychology to a greater deal, namely in reference to the aspect of the archetype of the Shadow. In this example each party member who joins your quest must first face their shadow, a being who exemplifies all the negative or shameful aspects of a character. These flaws manifest themselves in the boss fights, where much of the symbolism for these flaws is in effect. The above picture of Shadow Chie is just one of many of these shadows, each drwaing on these flaws of the characters for thier design. In effect, each character becomes far more three dimensional than the ones presented in Persona 3. This is not to say that Persona 3’s characters are not multidimensional, but merely that they don’t have the great flaws in their personalities to overcome that the cast of Persona 4 does. Persona 4 wins this category.
Both games are very similar to one another, being in the same franchise. Both are dungeon crawlers where discovery and exploitation of enemy weaknesses are paramount to the consistently challenging combat. Both juggle this with the dating sim-like Social Links that is used to develop the cast of characters and how the protagonist interacts with them. Both games handle these gameplay elements well, but falter slightly in execution to a degree.
In Persona 3, there was a bit of a gameplay experiment the developers did. To show the independence of the characters and try to make them feel more alive, they act freely on their own in battle. Though they can be given strategies, for the most part there is little the player can do to control the actions of party members during combat. This is somewhat bothersome as there are times, particularly with a certain character and her insistence on charming the last nearly finished foe, where lack of control over character actions can make a battle either more troublesome than needed or even costing a victory due to the inability to switch tactics mid-battle.
This gameplay aspect is removed from Persona 4, but that is not to say the game is without its own glaring faults, namely the pacing. Before the game really begins, an unskippable introduction lasting 2 to 3 hours occurs. A similar problem is present with the rest of the pacing, notable the time spent in-between dungeons. The dungeon segments are placed in-between the social segments rather than allowing the two to be accessible at any time such as in Persona 3. A dungeon will be finished only to have an hour or two of cutscenes and social links in between any necessary progression to the next dungeon. It’s a rather bothersome pattern as the true draw of the game is the dungeon crawling and with it dotted across the game it hinders the experience.
Both games have their flaws, and the true gravity of these flaws is subjective to the player. This round is a tie.
I place this category last as this category is the least important. Graphically the two games are very similar in quality. Persona 4 reuses many of the models of 3. Apart from that, the graphical quality for both games is likely the biggest negative to the game. Aside from character art, the graphics are very simple with little detail. It makes up for this with character design and a large emphasis on stylized menus.
However, both games make up for this with impressive soundtracks. The music for both is fitting and upbeat. A hip-hop theme works well with P3s urban environment, while the Jpop for P4s rural setting is very appropriate. At times, the most memorable parts of very emotional moments in both games are the tracks that play during these moments.
Neither game stands out in this regard as they both have fantastic soundtracks. Shoji Meguro wins this round.
This of course results in a tie for both Persona 3 and 4 overall. So which game could be said a newcomer should buy? That’s simply up to their own subjective tastes. I’ve listed the pros and cons of each game, so one new to the series would be able to determine which to buy first, if buy an entry at all.