I tend to think of game criticism in terms of how I would fix the problems I encounter. Just my style, I guess. I very rarely play a game and think, “this flat out sucks and would never be good”; it’s almost always possible to think of a world in which whatever I’m dealing with would be fun. Working out what changes need to be applied first is an interesting mental exercise.
So I have at least two more Persona 3 Portable posts in my head, in addition to this one, but I wanted to get this one up first lest people think I’m gushing about the game. I’m really not. In fact, I don’t like it very much at all! I say this as a dude what’s played all three versions and paid for two of them. Obviously I’m somewhat torn on the game; the things it does well it does really well… perhaps better than any contemporaries. But what it does poorly it does very, very poorly. The experience isn’t smooth enough.
So what does Persona 3 do poorly? Tartarus.
Outside of its “life sim” mechanics, P3 is a dungeon hack. Pure and simple. Very early in the game you are introduced to a giant tower and told, in no uncertain terms, that you have to reach the top. Indeed, except for a smattering of storyline events there is nothing else to do in the game but go into Tartarus. Like all RPGs, every game system in P3 is geared towards advancing your hero’s combat ability, and Tartarus is the only place to get your combat.
It is the game. That’s just a fact.
Let’s look at what Tartarus is, then. The tower is comprised of randomly-generated floors with warp points
strewn throughout. Each floor contains maybe a treasure chest or two, a small army of black blobs and the stairs up to the next floor. Travel is one-way; you can go up, but not down. Many (but not all) floors have teleporters that will take you back to the entrance, where you can manage your party, heal up, swap Personae around, and save your game. The structure of Tartarus is such that, at any given time, there is a barrier on Floor X that you cannot cross until you’ve reached a pre-determined point in the story.
Now, the story of P3 takes place over a single school year, beginning in April ’09 and ending (presumably) in April ’10. You have a limited amount of actions you may take during each day, by which you accomplish things like schoolwork, a part-time job, managing your social network, shopping for equipment, and so on. Of course “go to Tartarus” is one such action; deciding to go to the tower eats up a whole evening, and you do not get that time back. Efficient time management is, of course, also the game.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the best way to attack Tartarus: you explore as much as you can in a single sitting, so that you clear huge swaths of it in a single nighttime “action”. If you can get your whole block explored early enough in the lunar cycle, that frees up your evenings for other tasks, many of which are nighttime-exclusive.
“So what’s the problem with that?” you ask. The problem is, Tartarus is huge and it is boring. Every hallway looks exactly the same. Virtually none of the treasures are worth picking up. Monsters in each block only pose a challenge at the very beginning of your exploration. You hit a point, after three or four floors in a new block, where you are simply scraping off the cruft.
And there are a lot of floors. The first block is about fifteen floors long. The second climbs all the way up to thirty-five. Later blocks are even longer. You can spend hours and hours in Tartarus at a go.
You do have a few things working in your favor. First, there are the warp points. You can warp back just about whenever you want, although you can only warp into the dungeon at pre-determined spots. At least, that’s how I remembered it working in vanilla P3 and P3 FES; in P3P there’s an option to start at whatever floor you left from. (This may, however, simply be a concession made for carebears like me who play on Easy.)
Second, the game has a mechanic in place that forces you to leave the dungeon before you’re ready. After a while your party members will start to become tired, which reduces their battle effectiveness. Eventually tired characters will abandon you to the tower and go to bed, leaving you by yourself. You yourself will get tired too, and at that point there’s really no reason to hang around. This forces you out of the dungeon when you might otherwise stay in. The flip side of this is that tired characters won’t want to go in Tartarus, either, and your spotter informs you of this fact before you leave. This gives you an incentive to take some other nighttime action when you might otherwise go to the dungeon.
(I’ll point out, too, that you can regulate your own Tiredness to some degree. You can “cure” it by going to bed early, which uses a nighttime action, or by visiting the health spa, which uses a daytime action. So if you really wanted to push yourself, you could hack the dungeon until your eyes bleed, use a daytime action to heal yourself, then go back the very next night.)
Third, because this is a game about high school kids and all the trouble and/or drama they get into, your teammates will sometimes be pre-occupied with nighttime actions of their own. It’s usually disadvantageous to go to Tartarus without a full party, so that’s another reason to stay home. If it’s your spotter who’s busy you’re simply told “you can’t go”.
So we have a system in place which should work to get you out of the dungeon before you get bored with it, and another in place which should work to give you a reason to stay home when you otherwise might go. These two systems together seem like they would encourage you to take Tartarus in bite-size chunks throughout the month, rather than all at once.
So here’s the problem, at long last: neither of these things work. No matter how you slice the mustard, the winning move is to do as much Tartarus as you can, as early as you can, in a single nighttime action.
At first, the Tiredness mechanic does its job well. Throughout the first block it’s rare to get through more than a few floors before someone starts whining about needing a nap. The enemies are easy enough that you can get by with two PCs, but that’s just putting off the inevitable. However, the heroes quickly outlevel the dungeon, and this seems to enable them to go further and further on the same amount of steam. My party just cleared a full fifteen floors of the dungeon without breaking a sweat, a feat which took several hours of slogging in real-time but only a single nighttime action in the game. What are these people, machines?
Later in the game, the Tiredness mechanic is even less prominent simply because you can swap out a tired character for a fresh one. Junpei not feeling well? No matter — Mitsuru is ready to rock. At the point I finally quit playing vanilla P3 I had seven player characters to work with — enough to man two full parties and then some. And one of them was a robot. I don’t even think robots can get tired. Maybe she’d need an oil change eventually?
Raising these concerns with the P3 fanbase has, perhaps deservingly, earned me a fair amount of scorn. You’re not supposed to play Tartarus like that, they’d say. Or, Tartarus is mostly optional. You only have to play as much of it as you want. And so on.
But I want to play all of it. After all, every important character in the game has told me I need to get to the top. If there’s nothing important at the top, why have it in the game? And I want to do it in as few trips as possible, because every trip to Tartarus is a nighttime action I’m not spending on something more interesting. I cannot play a game in a way I know to be inefficient; it drives me crazy. I’m the type of player who would rather be bored now in order to ensure some payoff in the future. The catch is, if I stay bored enough long enough I’ll quit playing before I ever get to that payoff. This indeed is what happened to stall my first two attempts to play P3.
Wow, that was a pretty long rant about this stupid boring shitty awful dungeon. So what are the fixes, then? I can think of a few:
1) Tiredness should be more prominent, and more difficult to cure.
This is really the biggie. As the thing that both forces you out of the dungeon and prevents you from going in, this mechanic seems way too forgiving. If characters got tired more quickly, and it took more resources to reverse the effect, it would be detrimental to spend hours mopping blobs out of purple hallways. For one thing, there should be no substitute for natural rest; if you get tired you should have to spend a nighttime action healing it. And if you get sick (which is what happens if you push yourself past the point of being tired) it should require two nights of rest. The result: you would never, ever want to stay in the dungeon to the point of getting tired, since doing so would cost you an action you needn’t spend otherwise. And exploring while tired would be right out.
The game would have to give better feedback. I’m thinking two warning messages per character: one when they’re starting to get tired (but actually is not, yet), and another just before they actually cross the threshhold. Reach the first message and you know it’s time to start looking for an exit. Reach the second and you know it’s time to get out right this second, even if it means using a precious escape item.
Ideally, this would happen after four or five floors, not fifteen. And the result is taking the tower in more bite-size chunks over the course of the month without the bothersome sensation that you’re being inefficient.
2) There should be fewer floors.
This is a no-brainer. The biggest problem of Tartarus is that there’s too much of it. When your next exit is eight floors away, that’s easily an hour’s slog. Shorten the stretch between each block and you might balance the game out so you spend equal amounts of time grinding and socializing, which is much closer to what it seems like the game is trying to do.
3) The Dark Hour should be an hour long.
Since Tartarus only appears during the Dark Hour, and the Dark Hour is presumably only one hour long… it makes perfect sense to force you out after sixty real-time minutes. In fact, this could replace the Tiredness mechanic entirely! You go in and a clock starts. At sixty minutes the game forcibly kicks you out. It becomes impossible to clear fifteen floors at a go because your characters cannot physically traverse that much terrain.
I’m not a monster. The clock wouldn’t run while you were in the entryway managing your party, or in the Velvet Room tinkering with Personae, only while actually in the dungeon. Even so, this would stretch Tartarus exploration across a few nights by necessity.
I don’t think there should be any penalty for being inside the dungeon right when the clock ticks over. Just a quick message, “The Dark Hour is about to end; we’re pulling you out using [plot contrivance that exists for only this purpose]. Hold on.”
4) Release the game on a portable system.
Obviously they didn’t do any of those first three things. The reason I took a chance on buying the game again, then, is because I believe I can stomach Tartarus by playing it at work. It was really tough playing P3 FES in my game room, on my futon, holding my Dual Shock 3. I could look at the shelf and see all the games I wasn’t spending that time playing. And my computer was like right there. Killing blobs was a stupid way to spend my time.
At work, though? While waiting for a 600-page report to print, or babysitting some automated computer task? Carving my way through Tartarus is a fine way to spend my time. It becomes something akin to mapping a hallway in Etrian Odyssey, or fighting through a gateway in Dissidia o12. Clearing the first two blocks in P3P hasn’t been the least bit monotonous.
I do still wish the game forced me to balance the two aspects of the game more evenly, but I’ll take what I can get. And I got this game for $16, so that’s fine too.