Persona 3: The Slowest Game of (Last) Year

Once again, The Brainy Gamer has approached a subject far more elegantly than I. In his most recent post, Michael talks a little about Persona 4. In particular, although he really enjoys it (just like last year's version), he really criticizes the game's lack of pacing. I'm still slowly trudging through Persona 3, largely based off Michael's recommendation last year. Well into my 42nd hour with the game, and maybe only halfway through, I had been trying to figure out for days what exactly bothered me about the game.

I love the atmosphere of it. The characters, for the most part, are believable and interesting. You have a great deal of freedom in how you choose to spend your days within the game world. The plot is interesting. I really want to see why this giant tower exists that I occasionally venture into to fight monsters, and why some people want me to stop. Although, it is a bit slow-moving. Wait a minute! That's it. The plot is extremely slow, and the pacing is lethargic. Of course, I was only reminded of this thanks to Michael's well-written post on P4. But I'll throw in my own two cents anyway.

As I've already said, in general, I really like Persona 3. Yes, it has a lot of familiar RPG trappings, but I really enjoy the many twists and additions Atlus made to the formula. The problem is that in a game that is somewhat accurately described on the back of the case as taking 70+ hours to complete, how do you keep the player interested enough to finish the game? I suppose I'm enough of a completionist, and invested in the game enough temporally to force myself through to the end. The slow pace of such a long game is, in my opinion, a detriment to what is turning out to be an interesting plot.

A two hour movie can ramp up or ease down the tension within just a couple of minutes. Even books, which take several hours to read, are more adept at alternately maintaining suspense and providing relief to the reader. The problem is that in an RPG of the length of Persona, there is a lot of downtime. Like Michael, "I accept the idea that P4's (P3's) narrative is punctuated by many hours of dungeon battles that deliver virtually no story at all." While the dungeon crawling occasionally feels a little tedious, the always-difficult battles do keep me engaged.

But when the game returns to more "official" storytelling, as Michael says, the characters often reiterate multiple times things which I already know. They have trouble getting straight to the point. And since the major plot scenes are fully voiced, and I'm often in a hurry, I constantly feel disconnected from the game by constantly pounding on the X button to speed through the dialogue. Thus it sounds like every character has a stutter. I never let them finish a sentence, because I can read much faster than they can talk. Usually, I just want to get on with it.

One technical aspect of the game also frustrates me, as I try to force the game to pick up the pace. As a PS2 game, Persona 3 must do a lot of loading: when you first start the game, every time you open the menu, when you enter a new area, when you open a door. It's never ending, and in a 70+ hour game, the two seconds it takes to open the menu really starts to add up. So while the in-game clock may say I've played for 42 hours, 2-3 hours of that could easily be time spent opening the menu.

Compare this to the other RPG I've been playing, Dragon Quest IV on the DS. As a cartridge-based system, like the SNES which it closely emulates, DS games rarely, if ever, feature excessive amounts of loading. I can access menus and go to new areas in DQIV pretty much instantly. It's a much more seamless process, whereas the constant pauses in Persona 3 constantly take me out of the game and add to my frustration at not being able to pick up the pace a little bit.

The pacing and loading problems of Persona 3 are by no means a deal-breaker. Anyone who enjoys RPGs should by all means give the game a shot. But they really do detract from the game's ability to weave together a solid narrative. And when I have a huge stack of games waiting to be played through, it's really frustrating to be stuck in this turgid world. As much as I like Persona 3, the length and pacing issues really make me question whether I'll be able to muster up the strength to tackle the 4th iteration. Other games will probably prove to be more important.

At any rate, Michael, thanks for another excellent post, and for finally helping me to see the problems I was having accepting Persona 3.


Daniel Primed said...

Another interesting post about the Persona series. I would really like to invest in Persona 4 when it sees a release in Australia.

I particularly like your point about the loading sequences as well.

I just wanted to ask how you are approaching the game. Even though I lack the experience of playing these games, I can't help but ponder that maybe the experience from games of this length would be different depending on the player's approach. That is if they play the game over a longer period of time, in the same sense that Animal Crossing is intended to be played. Contrast this to playing the game game in a denser fashion.

It seems that unlike some games whose length is suggestive of a film, maybe Persona is more like a TV series. What do you think?

Korey said...

Interesting. In some ways, Persona 3 is more like a TV series. The way the game is structured, in that you play out each game-day as you see fit, is perfectly suited to short bursts of play. The only time you need to set aside a chunk of time to devote to it is during the monthly missions that form the core of the narrative.

On the other hand, I find that if I haven't played in a while, I easily forget what I was previously doing, just because the game is so big and there are so many options of how to spend my time. I can more easily keep my thoughts together and focus by playing through several days or weeks of the game at once.

Due to the way the game is structured (via a calendar), it really lends itself well to being played in short bursts over a longer period of time. A single extended play session can easily grow repetitive.

Perhaps more of the problem for is that I feel like an 80-90 hour game is excessively taking time away from the stack of other games I want to play.