A few months ago, Atlus launched a Japanese teaser website that was counting down to some sort of announcement. Many have been speculating that the announcement is for the long awaited next installment in the Persona series. Then a couple of days ago, Atlus also launched a nonstop livestream that continued the countdown, with Persona related trailers and short videos every several hours. With less than a day left on the countdown, I am beginning to get excited for the announcement of what is almost assuredly Persona 5. This anticipation has got me thinking about how much I love this series, and also about which game in the series is my favorite. It’s a long running debate among fans whether Persona 3 or Persona 4 is the better game, so I’m going to take a detailed look at each of these games determine which I think is better.
Unsurprisingly, these two games share a lot in common from a gameplay perspective. Persona 4 is pretty much a refinement of the gameplay concepts introduced in Persona 3, so like you would expect, improvements were made. One of the biggest improvements was the addition of the ability to control your party directly. In Persona 3 you only had direct control over the main character and were limited to giving tactical commands to your party members such as “conserve SP” or “go for knock downs”. This created a situation where the challenge of combat was just as much about learning the AI tendencies of you party members and knowing how specific commands would cause them to behave as much as it was about dealing with enemies. In Persona 4 you could directly control you party members like you would in any turn based RPG, selecting their commands from a list. The system in Persona 3 was a neat idea that made the characters feel like individuals with their own tendencies rather than tools for you to use, but ultimately the gameplay considerations come first, and the system in Persona 4 is better in that regard.
Other than that, the gameplay of the two games is largely the same, so Persona 4 gets the edge.
Like the gameplay, the design of these two games is incredibly similar, with Persona 4 once again being an iteration on the systems of Persona 3. However, in this instance the improvements made are somewhat offset by some steps backward. The most immediate improvement is the way the game handles dungeons. In Persona 3, there was only a single dungeon that consisted of around 250 floors. There is no getting around the fact that a large portion of Persona 3 consisted of grinding your way through a single dungeon that didn’t change much visually from floor to floor. Persona 4 is a huge improvement in this regard, with eight unique dungeons consisting of around 10 floors each. Even if you choose to clear each dungeon a second time to fight the optional boss, that is still only 160 floors compared to the the 250 or so from Persona 3. The result is a shorter game but also one with much better pacing and far less grinding (though not none).
However, while dungeon design is much better in Persona 4, there are some other elements of the design that took a step backward. The RPG elements of Persona 4 were simplified slightly compared to Persona 3 and some interesting mechanics were removed. In Persona 3, physical attacks were divided amongst three damage types: “slash”, “strike”, and “pierce”. This played into the weakness system making physical weapons and physical based characters specialists in certain types of damage, just like magic users. By rolling these damage varieties into the single category of “physical damage” in Persona 4, it meant that enemies were now never weak to physical damage and physical based characters couldn’t really contribute to exploiting enemy weaknesses. This in turn reduced the number of overall categories for weaknesses and resistances, making it easier to have all your bases covered with your party configuration while also marginalizing physical based characters. In addition, there were also some other minor elements removed such as weapon fusion and combo skills, which just contributes to the feeling that Persona 4 is a game with slightly less depth than its predecessor.
Because each game has an edge over the other in one area of design, this category is a draw.
Like most role playing games, the story is the focal point of each of these games, and it is fantastic in both. Both feature long and in-depth stories that play out over the course of dozens of hours. Persona 3 revolves around a group of high school students that belong to the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (or SEES). They spend their nights fighting shadows and investigating the mysterious tower dubbed “Tartarus” which materializes every night during the “Dark Hour”. Persona 3 has a very dark tone, especially in comparison to Persona 4, and has some genuinely surprising twists (and some not so surprising). The story evokes things like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, being about a group of high school students gathering after hours to fight monsters and being led by an adult member of the school faculty that knows what’s really going on. The story moves at a snail’s pace, but every development is compelling and the writing is extremely good.
Persona 4 also stars a group high school students that fight shadows, but rather than being recruited into an organization they simply stumble into this scenario. It all begins with two murders in their small hometown and a rumor about a mysterious TV phenomenon known as “The Midnight Channel”. The main characters soon find they can enter another dimension, the “TV World”, which is inhabited by shadows. Persona 4‘s story is actually primarily a murder mystery, with the end goal to uncover who has been kidnapping and murdering people using the TV World. This encourages you to play along with the characters in the game since you the player are trying to piece the clues together and figure out the identity of the murderer just as much as the characters are.
While I love the story in both of these games, I have to say I prefer Persona 3 just slightly. When it comes down to it, the story is the driving force of Persona 3, while often it takes a back seat in Persona 4 for hours at a time. Persona 3 also feels like the stakes are a lot higher, and the twists and turns the story takes in that game feel much better earned than they do in Persona 4. It also helps that Persona 3 has clear antagonists for the majority of the game with genuine payoff, while Persona 4 features no clear antagonist for 90% of the game and then pulls the same bait and switch three times in a row right at the end of the game, each time feeling less earned than the one before it.
The Persona 3 story gets the edge over Persona 4’s story.
Each of these games feature outstanding characters with well written dialogue and fleshed out personalities. Most importantly, they have struggles that feel realistic and relatable, even though they’re taking place in a world of demons and magic. I have my favorite characters in each game, but the simple fact is that characters are the focal point of Persona 4 whereas the story is the focal point of Persona 3. So much of Persona 4 revolves around the characters, their insecurities, relationships, and struggles with maturity. Persona 4 is a game about characters set against the backdrop of a supernatural murder mystery. Persona 3 certainly does have some great character moments, but they aren’t as frequent or as in depth as they are in Persona 4.
There are several points in Persona 4 where the main narrative is all but forgotten in favor of purely character driven sequences that last a significant amount of time. While I love the characters in both of these games, Persona 4 dedicates so much more time to character development and interaction that it is the clear winner. It’s not so much that the characters themselves that are so much better in Persona 4, but that the implementation of characters is better. In addition to the story placing a lot more focus on the characters in Persona 4, every one of your party members has an available social link, which is unfortunately not the case in Persona 3.
The characters of Persona 4 get the edge.
Like most aspects of these games, the music is simply outstanding. Both games were composed by Shoji Meguro, and he absolutely nails it in both instances. However, if I had to choose which game I thought had better music, it has to be Persona 3. Like the game itself, the soundtrack of Persona 3 is much darker than Persona 4. It features a lot more jazz and hard rock, with excellent/ridiculous Japanese written English rap verses performed by someone that clearly speaks limited English. The Persona 4 soundtrack is a lot more upbeat and features more pop type music. The soundtrack of both games fits perfectly with the tone of the game, but I just find myself personally liking the Persona 3 soundtrack a bit more.
The music of Persona 3 get the edge.
Although I fully intended to pick a clear winner before actually writing this, it turns out the games wound up tied. Across five categories, each game won two with the games tying in the “design” category. Despite them tying in the head to head matchup, the edge still goes to Persona 3. The tie breaking aspect for me is the tone of the games.
Both games deal with some heavy themes and more than a little death, but the lighthearted nature of the visuals, music and dialog in Persona 4 create somewhat of a disconnect with the events that play out in the story. The hamfisted way the story concluded in addition to the fact that a happy ending was never really in doubt make the whole game feel like it had less weight. Persona 3 has this feeling of impending disaster that pervades the back half of the game, and the darker tone serves the story much better. You never get the sense that everything will work out like you do in Persona 4, and indeed it doesn’t. The bottom line is Persona 3 felt a lot more dire than Persona 4. You could argue that these elements fall under the category of story, which Persona 3 won anyway, but I feel they are significant enough to make a difference. By the slightest of margins, Persona 3 is the winner.