I have OPINIONS! about the various incarnations of Persona 3, but tonight I just want to point out how incredibly bad ass this game sounds. You know how sometimes all you want to do with a game’s audio is kill it and listen to the radio instead? Persona 3 is the exact opposite of that. This is the soundtrack you want to listen to while playing other games. I credit three reasons for this strange, yet welcome, phenomenon:
#1: The soundtrack is unique.
The setting of Persona 3 is present-day Japan, so the game does it up right by eschewing the standard melodic fantasy-style soundtrack for something more modern and more funky. There are a lot of pop and hip-hop influences, something you could actually imagine teenage kids listening to, but each individual track is still suited to its area or scene. After school errands-running is accompanied by a restful, happy tune. School itself is punctuated by a somewhat droning song which calls to mind the sensation of boredom without actually being boring. And so on.
That’s not what really makes the soundtrack work, though. Two things help bring the whole package together quite nicely: first, though most of the OST is inspired by the Top 40, the game knows when to break that mold and do something more traditional. Exploring the endless, demonic tower or stepping into the otherworldly Velvet Room trigger songs much closer to what you’d expect from a JRPG soundtrack, and for good reason: you’re not in modern Japan anymore. And second, the whole soundtrack is designed to stay in the background. Though you’ll hear the same five or six songs over and over again, none of them ever become tedious; they’re composed in such a way that you could listen to clips of them on an endless, repeating loop without ever really focusing on them.
The last game that really accomplished that sense, in my opinon, was Final Fantasy XII, which had songs that would loop for an hour or more while you slowly cleared away a huge area map of monsters and treasures. None of Persona 3‘s songs are marathoned like that, but the effect is much the same: the music sits back and lets you enjoy the game.
#2: The voice acting is exquisite.
I was wondering if the word “exquisite” would be too strong to use in this context, but then I remembered how bad voice acting is in pretty much every other game that comes out of Japan. So no, I think the verbiage here is exactly right.
I don’t actually know how voices are recorded for video games, but playing a lot of Japanese ones I get the sense that individual actors are recorded in different sessions. Two characters don’t really have a conversation in these games, so much as they simply talk at each other. There’s no flow. The disc loads Voice Clip 61-A, then Voice Clip 61-B. Even if the writing and localization are sound, the effect can often be ruined by bad — or mediocre! — voice acting.
The Dissidia games are particularly bad about this. Every line in the game has an unnaturally abrupt pause right in the middle, as though each line requires the disc to load two clips separately. Every single line in those games is “I’ll never forgive… what you’ve done!” Never mind a lack of conversational flow; Dissidia has weird disconnects within single lines of text, as though the actor were given just a long list of lines to read into the mic, without being told which ones need to go together. (This is particularly noticable with Shantotto, whose lines are supposed to rhyme, and would, if only someone had told the voice actor that.)
I mention all this because Persona 3 doesn’t have any of these problems. The quality is such that it really sounds like the actors were all sitting around the same mic, at the same time, reading a script. As an added bonus, they don’t grunt and gasp and sigh like so many game and anime characters do. Get it right, people! “…” is a silent pause, not an intake of breath!
#3: The battle music kicks ass.
I’ve always felt that more attention needs to be paid to the standard battle music in a JRPG than every other song in the game combined. I mean, that’s the track your player is going to spend more than half his time listening to, right? So it had better be stellar.
Persona 3‘s battle music is the hip-hop number “Mass Destruction.” And it’s one of my favorite battle songs of all time:
Now, just to listen to it, you might not see what’s so great about it. It’s essentially just backbeat and some nondistinct rapping, followed by thirty or so repetitions of the word “baby”. However, as the base of P3’s brisk battle system, interspersed with constant examples of the aforementioned exquisite voice acting, it works beautifully. I got tired of a lot of aspects of the P3 battle system, but the music wasn’t one of them.
But ah, I’m currently playing the new PSP version, Persona 3 Portable, which replaces “Mass Destruction” with a new, somewhat jazzier song called “Wiping All Out”. I might consider that a mortal sin, if the new song weren’t still worthy of being in the Top Five Battle Songs Ever:
(Disclaimer: I’m not clear whether “Wiping All Out” replaces “Mass Destruction” unilaterally, or just if you’re playing the female hero.)
“Wiping All Out” works for all the reasons “Mass Destruction” does. Both songs do everything right: loud, distinctive intro to herald the start of the fight; strong and speedy beat that accentuates the brisk combat; mild lyricism to retain the game’s Top 40 motif.
Interestingly, I couldn’t really see myself putting P3’s soundtrack on a playlist and going about my day. This isn’t the kind of music I typically enjoy! But it’s pleasing enough, and fits so well with the context of its game, that I fell in love with it. Does Persona 4‘s soundtrack have similar properties? Because I’ve never played that game, and therefore have no context, and as a result I can’t really get into its music in at all the same way.
Maybe someday we’ll get Persona 4 Portable and I’ll figure it out on my own.