As I was playing through Persona 3 Portable recently, something quite interesting dawned on me. I alluded to this in my review, but I’d like to discuss it in more detail and perhaps get a good discussion going around the subject. What I realized was that, in everything that really matters, Persona 3 isn’t so different from Mass Effect. Mass Effect, especially the original, belongs to a sub-genre of RPGs that gamers typically consider to be about as different from Japanese RPGs as you can get, so why am I going and comparing two completely different games within two completely different sub-genres? Think about it a moment, though. Are they really that different in the areas that really matter?
Why do I even bring this up? It is mostly just my convoluted mind playing tricks on me, to be honest. I came up with a crazy thought and, the more I thought about it, the more I realized it wasn’t too far from the truth. I think the disparity between fans of JRPGs and fans of WRPGs calls for a wake-up call. Every time I see a thread on some random Internet forum about one or the other, there are always haters that place their preferred RPG style up on a pedestal like no one can touch it. But, the truth of the matter is, these sub-genres may not be as different from each other as you think, and comparing these two very different yet oh-so-similar games seemed like the right idea to help make people aware of this.
So, open your mind a bit (I know, it’s difficult) and follow me on a journey as I take a look at various aspects of these games. You may be surprised just how similar they are.
The Similarities – Things That Really Matter
Pre-Defined Characters: One of the things that made Mass Effect stand apart from most other Western RPGs as of late was the fact that the game had a strong, pre-defined main character in Commander Shepherd. Sure, you had some options to decide on when “creating” your Shepherd, like whether they were male or female, the color of their hair, their background and even, as you progressed through the game, whether they leaned toward the “rainbow and ponies” mentality or would go around grabbing trouble-makers by the balls just because they could. I admit I mentioned this one first because, truth be told, it is more of a JRPG trait than anything.
Typically JRPGs have strong characters, very defined, with no player interaction to design their personality or role in the story at all. For the most part, this is the way it is in both Persona 3 and Mass Effect. While you can alter dialog, decide your character’s gender and choose which relationships to build upon in both – the main character is very well defined and follows a particular story from beginning to end. A few differences may be made along the way based on choices the player makes, but ultimately you end up at the same place.
Branching Dialog: Another thing that Western RPG fans are quick to mention is that JRPGs typically do not have branching dialog and your choices in any questions you do get asked really don’t matter. While that may be true for the most part, since we’re talking about Persona 3, those who think that way might as well throw their preconceived notions out the window. The Social Links allow the player to pursue which relationships with other characters they want and do so in the way they want. Do you want to be a complete ass? Go ahead. The dialog will reflect it and, if you’re not careful, you may get your relationship stuck in a rut or severed completely with that person. This is much the same as Mass Effect’s branching dialog and relationship-building with members of your crew. Say the wrong things and the entire rapport you have with someone might go down the toilet.
What about main story dialog? You have different choices in both games that affect the dialog, including choices you made while designing your pre-defined character. Are you playing a female? Some NPCs may treat you differently. Persona 3 has pop-quizzes while you’re in school – answer correctly and you get a stat boost, answer incorrectly and you get none. Stat boosts help you establish Social Links which, in turn, make you stronger in battle. You know what? That actually sounds like a deeper system than the branching dialog featured in Mass Effect.
Really, this is something WRPG fans hold so dear to their hearts, yet it is typically done in a very lackluster way that hardly integrates the two parts of a game like Mass Effect into one cohesive package? So, I say one thing to get one reaction and one little event, or say another thing to get another reaction and possibly a different event. How does that help me during the battle segments? Oh, right, it doesn’t.
But, just for the sake of argument, before I go on too much of a rant, we’ll just meet on level ground and say both games have similar branching dialog options that affect the game ultimately in ways that really make a difference. Shall we go on?
Free Roaming: While both Mass Effect and Persona 3 aren’t sandbox games, they do offer a very similar style of open-world-ness. You can’t go anywhere you want any time you want from the start in either game. However, eventually you will be able to have that freedom. In Persona 3, you can pretty much do anything you want throughout the majority of the game. Do I want to build up Junpei’s Social Link or Yukari’s? Do I want to eat at Wild Duck Burger (for a Courage stat boost) or have a drink at Chogall Café (for a Charm stat boost)? Do I want to study at my desk in the evening (for an Academics stat boost) or go into Tartarus and explore, leveling my characters up in preparation for the next big boss fight?
Let’s compare to Mass Effect 2, shall we? Do I want to go mining or do that side quest I picked up back on The Citadel? Do I want to do Miranda’s loyalty mission or not? Do I want to explore a system to see what I can find or go back to Omega and finish a side quest? The world in each game has a finite amount of space to explore and specific areas – whether they be planets, malls, space stations or restaurants – to check out. Choosing when and where to go is much the same in each game, it is just defined differently by the amount of locations and the way the game progresses.
Can I also just point out that both these games are very linear, they just give the air of non-linearity? Having free will during the majority of the game does not a linear experience make, my friends. Make no mistake, you are still going from story trigger A to story trigger B to story trigger C, and so on and so forth, in both these titles.
A Deep, Involving Narrative: You can’t argue that both Mass Effect games, as well as Persona 3, have deep narratives. The games flesh out the characters well, explore their backgrounds in relationship to the main story and keep us on pins and needles the entire way. Again, a misconception is that JRPGs always have to have cliché characters and plots that bring nothing different to the table. They do tend to be this way sometimes, but not always – making a blanket statement will get you into trouble. Also, light and bubbly Persona 3 is not. It follows its Western cousins in having typically a darker, more mature story.
There are bright and cheery parts of Mass Effect, and the game is littered with light-hearted moments. However, overall the story is one of doom and gloom. In the second game you’re recruiting people for a suicide mission to save the galaxy as we know it. That sounds a lot like Persona 3. A group of people band together, you could even say they’re recruited, to go on what is, for all the characters know, a suicide mission to save life as they know it. Putting a group of characters in those circumstances works much like real life – the characters bond, they get closer to each other, work together and ultimately accomplish their goal, regardless the cost. That theme is heavily present in both games and works out admirably for the player, who gets to experience this all from the perspective of the main character.
The Differences – Things That Don’t Matter
Visual Style and Appeal: Mass Effect is a realistic RPG shooter, Persona 3 is a stylistic anime turn-based RPG. The two have vastly different visual styles. Does that really matter? No. I realize some people aren’t a fan of anime-style visuals. I won’t point my finger at any one group, but it is a pretty good bet you can guess who they are. However, I’m of the opinion that if you let visual style influence the way you perceive a game, you’re rather superficial.
It may sound cheese-tastic, but it’s what is inside that counts, not what is on the surface. I don’t go around dissing Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins or Oblivion because they have a realistic, dark visual style that is distinctly Western, so to speak. I love all three of those titles because of either the story, game mechanics or a bit of both. Also, we all know the Xbox 360 is more powerful than both the PSP and PS2 combined – that doesn’t matter in the least. We aren’t doing a graphical comparison (which would be completely unfair anyway). Don’t judge a book by its cover, because ultimately that is not important at all.
The Battle System: Can an RPG be defined by its battle system? Yes, it can. But should it? I don’t think so. Every game that involves fighting an opponent has some sort of “battle system”, yet people seem to think that fact is only relevant when it comes to RPGs. Why? Oh, that’s right, every single FPS game out there is basically the same. You point and shoot, so it is a given what type of “battle system” the game has. Mass Effect has more of a third-person-shooter battle system, if you will. More action based, sure, but does that ultimately define the game more than the open world, branching dialog, deep narrative and immersive character development? No, it doesn’t. Or, at least, it shouldn’t.
Persona 3 has a turn-based battle system. There is less in-your-face action involved. Does it really matter? No, because that isn’t what the game is about. Ultimately, these games are about the characters and the story that plays out with these characters, all for the benefit of the player. I believe that is what draws people to both these titles more than any form of battle system they contain.
The Hardware: Let’s get this straight here and now – the only time you should let hardware dictate a game experience is if you don’t own a console that a game is exclusive to. I don’t want to hear Sony fanboys crying about how their RPGs are so much better than Mass Effect and I don’t want to hear Xbox fanboys calling JRPG fans a bunch of spikey-haired emo kids. Grow up, people.
Mass Effect is almost synonymous with Microsoft, since that is the system that holds the game’s console exclusivity. The Persona franchise is, similarly, pretty much synonymous with Sony. (Note that, technically speaking, the Persona games are an offshoot of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, but who’s paying attention anyway?) If you call yourselves gamers, you owe it to yourself to try to find some way to play both these titles and expand your horizons a bit. Stop whining about which hardware is better and start talking about the games, because that is all that matters.
As you can see, both these titles are similar in many more ways than most people would give them credit for. Both Mass Effect games and Persona 3 have, in my opinion as a game reviewer, that spark that makes them special and I would probably rate all three games at a 9/10 or higher. So what if one is on the PS2 or PSP and the other is an the big, bad Xbox 360? That makes no difference at all. In the areas that really matter, the games are very similar. Sure, some mechanics are different here and there, but in the grand scheme of things they accomplish the same thing, just with very distinct flair from their opposite corners of the ring.
Here’s a challenge to you all: If you’re a very JRPG-oriented person like I am and have the mentality that Western RPGs wouldn’t have lasting appeal for you, play Mass Effect 2 and let me know what you think. Conversely, if you’re more of an action/shooter type of person and enjoy Western RPGs for their aggressive nature and gritty, realistic visual style, give Persona 3 Portable (or Persona 4) a try. It will require some patience on both ends if you’re playing something you aren’t used to, but I speak from experience when I say that it is going to be very much worth it.