Without The Answer, the story leaves too many questions.
This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of. This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of. Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not. Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad. Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about. Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.
(Anthony writes:) Well, well, well, look who’s back with another correct opinion about a Persona game. I saw your reactions to the last video I wrote and knew that I just had to come back for more. Your anger gives me strength after all. This time, however, I actually have a positive opinion for once, so do me a favor and put the keyboards down, at least until you’ve watched the whole video for a change. You know who you are.
Now that I’m done taunting everyone, let’s get to the meat of the matter. Persona 3 is my favorite game of all time, and I don’t think it’s exactly a controversial opinion to say that it was an absolutely phenomenal game. The story, the characters, the battle system, the music – it’s not only the gold standard all other Persona games are judged by, it’s easily one of the finest JRPGs ever designed.
Somewhat more controversial is the fact that I liked Persona 3 FES – no, I loved Persona 3 FES. For those not familiar (because boy we’re getting granular this week), FES – short for “Festival” – is a re-release of Persona 3 for the PS2. It comes in two parts. The first, The Journey, is just the original game with a bunch of added quests, game modes, better level design, etc., and is generally considered the best way to play Persona 3. But the second part, The Answer, is almost universally hated by the Persona community. It’s seen as a 30-hour grind-fest that was tacked on just to justify selling the same game again. People claim that its story misses the point of what The Journey was all about, derails what was already a finished narrative, and makes all of the friends we’ve come to know and love moody and out-of-character. Most people would recommend that you skip it for Persona 4, but you all know how I feel about that game’s story, don’t you?
So how’s this for a hot take: Persona 3 FES’s second story The Answer is an extremely core component to the story of Persona 3, and not just something that the writers threw together to add something new to the game. Fair warning: this video will be EXTREMELY spoiler heavy for both Persona 3 and The Answer, so if you haven’t played the game already or don’t care about how one of the finest RPGs of all time tells its conclusion, stop the video now. You have been warned.
The Answer takes place a few months after The Journey’s main character (hereafter referred to as “Minato” so that I doesn’t have to keep saying “Protagonist”) sacrifices his life to save the world from killing itself with its own apathy. It’s an incredibly depressing time for everyone, as their leader has now departed from life without really saying a satisfying goodbye to any of his friends. Weird Japanese storytelling hijinks ensue and it turns out that the whole SEES gang is re-living the day of March 31 over and over again like an incredibly depressing version of Groundhog Day. A new Shadow Elimination machine named Metis tells the groups about a set of keys they have to collect to fix everything – this is an RPG, after all – and our erstwhile heros have to decide whether to use these keys as intended to end the time loop or to use them to travel back in time and prevent Minato from sacrificing himself. Unsure of what the right answer is – or if there even is a right answer – the group of friends end up battling each other as they try to figure out what the best decision is both for the world’s sake and for the sake of their own hearts.
That premise right there is enough reason to slog through The Answer’s somewhat repetitive gameplay. Beating up a group of characters who you’ve spent a whole year fighting alongside is both a shockingly melancholy turn of events and a really cool setup for the game’s fights. Plus, it’s a chance for you to learn even more about the purpose of each member of the group and why they would go to such lengths to protect their beliefs. Take Yukari for example. She’s probably the most hated character in the entirety of Persona 3, and in The Answer she attempts to steal the keys in order to save Minato even though it would doom the world in turn. “God,” you sigh to yourself, “what an annoying character. Isn’t it obvious that this is the wrong choice?” And then, after you defeat her, Yukari breaks down and admits herself that she feels like she’s too weak to put the fate of the world ahead of the chance to see her friend one last time. That’s a real moment of human weakness. We’d all like to believe that we’d do the right thing when put in a terrible situation, that we wouldn’t be selfish, that we would have fought the Nazis or worked with the Underground Railroad or made all these noble sacrifices that, statistically, we probably wouldn’t have. Yukari isn’t weak for giving in to her humanity – in the end, she’s strong, because she can admit that she’s having trouble with what she knows she has to do.
I honestly believe that this moment is one of the strongest character realizations in gaming history. It takes talent to make a character evolve in such a way, as Yukari’s journey throughout the main story of Persona 3 makes her feel like the most human out of everyone, and making this scene matter more than almost everything else. And better yet is the moment where the group comes together in order to help her come to accept that the needs of the world take precedence over their own feelings.
Here’s the thing. The ending of Persona 3’s base game is depressing. People complain about how the characters are “moody” in The Answer, but how would you feel if you were a high schooler and your best friend died in your lap? Not just your best friend, but the leader of your group – the one who was supposed to be the strongest and the smartest and the bravest of all of you. You’ve just suffered an incredibly traumatic event, and the only person in the world who could help talk you through it isn’t around anymore to help. As players, we expect the protagonists of a story to grin and bear this sort of thing – we expect them to be able to shoulder it and press on because they’re the heroes, and they’re better than normal people.
But that’s not what real heroes are like. Real heroes are human beings. What’s amazing about them isn’t that they don’t grieve, it’s that they are able to move past the grief. And far from the opinions of many players, Persona 3 FES’ The Answer isn’t depressing – it’s the most beautiful and hopeful part of the whole game, because it shows that Minato wasn’t the only hope for the members of SEES. It shows them learning to hold each other up, learning to move past their grief and to become just as heroic as their fallen leader by making their own sacrifice. And their sacrifice isn’t that they choose to die like Minato did – their sacrifice is that they choose to live, to keep going despite the fact that it’s so painful that destroying the world feels like an option that’s preferable to that pain.
A while back I wrote an article for Hey Poor Player about how Persona 3 saved my life. Without going into too much detail, at the end of 2011, I was in a massive state of depression. I was working a dead end job that was draining on me, I dropped almost every friend I had in high school, I wasn’t continuing my education, and by the end of the year I was spending my nights alone in a car. My closest friend, knowing that I had been a massive fan of RPGs since childhood, lent me his PSP and a copy of Persona 3 Portable, and I begrudgingly started my first playthrough.
From the very beginning, I was hooked. Not only was the gameplay revolutionary, but the story rocked me to my soul. The characters in Persona 3 go through their own personal hell as the game continues – a character loses his first love, family members get killed, and a betrayal makes everyone question whether they should even be fighting in the first place. But no one gives up. No one quits, not even when Shinjiro gets shot and is unable to be saved. The game continues, and the main characters gain new confidence in themselves and awaken newer, stronger powers, turning standard RPG progression into a metaphor for overcoming life’s hardships.
The Answer isn’t some kind of “betrayal” of that idea, it’s not a “departure” from the ideals of the base game – it’s their ultimate realization. It starts as the most brutal situation the members of SEES have found themselves in, and it becomes their greatest triumph. And the ending of the base game is all about Minato – the last moments are about making sure he passes away peacefully, largely ignoring the rest of the characters’ reactions to the biggest moment in their lives. That’s important, because it gives the player the closure they need to deal with such a harsh finale, but only in The Answer does SEES get the closure they need. Without that, the story is incomplete.
Yes, playing through the dungeons of The Answer is the worst part of the FES package. It reuses assets from Persona 3, and with no compendium, you’re forced to rely on picking up personas from battle for fusion. And the default difficulty (which can’t be changed) is set to “Hard,” making it overall much more brutal than the rest of the game and requiring quite a bit more grinding. But I have two things to say about this. The first is that just because it can’t keep up with the greatest RPG of all time doesn’t mean it’s that bad – Atlus used to pride themselves on hardcore, level-grindy JRPGs, and this is just a natural continuation of that. It takes more from other Shin Megami Tensei games than from the Persona spin-off series. Plus, the fact that the bosses require more strategy makes them a lot more fun.
And the second calls back to what I said earlier: Persona 3 is all about blending mechanics and story, making them metaphors for each other. A lot of spinoffs or DLC for games ignore the story so far, like when Deus Ex: Mankind Divided had to come up with a BS excuse for you not to have all the augs you had in the first game. I admire the fact that The Answer doesn’t do that – the lack of social links might make the game harder, but it also shows how much more difficult life is without Minato, which is probably also why the game is locked to “hard mode.” This is the group’s greatest challenge, their darkest hour – shouldn’t it feel like a painful challenge? I can see why it doesn’t appeal to everyone, but the gameplay does enhance the story and make the overall product much more emotionally affecting.
But whether you agree with this assessment of the gameplay or not, The Answer is still an essential part of the full Persona 3 experience, and it makes me sad that so many people say that you should skip it. It may be the worst part of the game, but its story wraps up loose ends beautifully, reminds us that no story is ever truly over, and ends on a positive note that reminds us to keep fighting.
When the credits rolled over my first playthrough of Persona 3, I broke down and cried. The game had given me the tiny light I needed at the end of the tunnel in order to get my life back together. As the year ended, I got a job that could feed me and made connections with newer, healthier people than the ones I’d left behind. I thought less and less about wanting to end it all. And The Answer – which I played later – is an enormous part of that feeling, that message of hope against all odds and all evidence that the game is all about. Persona 3 and The Answer are games that I truly believe everyone needs to play, and while my feelings on the next game in the franchise remain stubbornly the same, I hope even the people who hate me will go back and see just how much Persona 3 and The Answer have done for the JRPG community.