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Persona 3’s Ending Is Still Incredible Almost 20 Years Later

Persona 3 is almost 20 years old, and as I stated in our review, Persona 3 Reload, the new remake of the classic RPG, solidifies how it was incredibly ahead of its time. Reload knows not to mess too much with a good thing, and that includes preserving its ending, which, after recently experiencing for the first time in over a decade, I can confidently say still stands as one of the best conclusions in video games.

Persona 3 follows a group of high schoolers from Gekkoukan High School called the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (S.E.E.S.), led by protagonist Makoto Yuki. These students are regular teenagers by day, but by night, they face demonic shadows that infect the city of Tatsumi Port Island during a secret “Dark Hour” after midnight. The crew spends months of their school year fighting monsters in Tartarus, a tower that springs up during this hour where their school usually stands.

By the time you reach December in the game, these kids have dealt with so much loss. Each comes from either a dysfunctional home or has lost their family entirely, and over the course of Persona 3, they also face the death of a teammate and betrayal by the adults whom they trusted. Ultimately, all they really can count on is each other. And in the end, they learn that all that hardship was seemingly for naught.

Late in the game, a young man named Ryoji Mochizuki shows up at the team’s school. He’s a transfer student who has a murky past and a thing for Makoto, but he reveals to the group that he is a harbinger of Nyx, an apocalypse-bringing monster set to descend upon Tartarus and bring about the end of the world. He tells S.E.E.S. that this destruction cannot be stopped, but after growing close to the team, he wants to offer them a way out of the despair: if they kill him, the Dark Hour will cease, and they will lose all memory of their struggles this past year. But that means they will also forget about the world’s impending doom. They’ll be able to live out the rest of their short lives in ignorant bliss.

The only other option is to face Nyx head-on. Ryoji pleads with them to take the easy way out, as he doesn’t believe they can defeat such a powerful being. But this is a Persona game. We’re going to face whatever comes our way with the power of friendship.

The final two months of Persona 3 before Nyx arrives are full of introspection for the group. Everyone is steeling their resolve to fight, and that means dealing with the stages of grief before they reach acceptance. Tensions are high, and it results in some standout scenes like one in which Junpei, typically a chill, comic-relief character, lashes out at Makoto, claiming it’s all his fault, as it’s revealed Makoto acted as a seal for Ryoji after the harbinger was imprisoned within our hero, growing into a more powerful form throughout Persona 3. But like a working muscle, as the group nearly tears itself apart, they build themselves back up even stronger.

Before they fight Nyx, the group makes a promise: Once this is all over, they’ll meet up on the school’s rooftop after graduation. Even knowing death is likely inevitable, the group makes plans to see each other in a few months’ time, whether that’s feasible or not. It’s emblematic of a youthful “plan as if you’ll live forever” mentality that I can’t help but admire as I enter my early 30s. These days, my friends and I still do this. We hear an event is being planned in a year’s time, and we say how we’ll all fly in and meet each other, but the truth is, we don’t know if that day will ever come. As you grow older, you still make plans, but you start to accept things you’ll probably never get around to. You can only put these things off for so long before they’re no longer a possibility, and that starry-eyed wonder of youth starts to fade as time goes on.

But that wonder is still a fire in these kids’ hearts, and so, determined to save the world or die trying, our heroes reach the top of Tartarus and face Nyx’s avatar. Persona 3’s final boss battle is a gauntlet of puzzle-like, turn-based fights, as the avatar cycles through different strengths and weaknesses, requiring you to change up your strategy constantly. But even so, it’s not enough. Nyx’s avatar can’t be defeated with our swords, fists, and magic-wielding Personas. But if we sealed it once, maybe we can again.

Ultimately, Makoto faces Nyx alone, and it’s here that Persona 3 merges its turn-based combat and social sim elements to stunning effect. After getting a pep talk from every person you’ve created a bond with, you engage in a one-on-one fight with Nyx’s “core.” It casts the spell Death multiple times, nearly taking Makoto down each time, but between every attack, your teammates call to you, reminding you of your promise to meet with them on the rooftop. Again and again, the game reminds you that “the power of friendship surges within you” until you unlock a new ability: Great Seal. It’s the final ability you cast in Persona 3, and it will seal Nyx once more and prevent the end of the world. But you’ll notice its cost to cast is different than most abilities.

Most attacks you use in Persona 3 cost either magic-using SP, or physically exerted HP. The Great Seal costs all your HP. But it’s the only option you have. You cast it, and everyone calls out for you in the void. But miraculously, you return. Maybe we didn’t have to lose anything else.

The final few two hours of Persona 3 are superficially similar to those of the games that would follow. You get to walk around the city and talk with all the friends you’ve made, but unlike in Persona 4 or 5, something’s off. No one quite remembers how they met and became friends, and the upperclassmen seem especially distant. It’s as if all those months fighting Shadows and defeating Nyx never happened. Meanwhile Aigis, the shadow-fighting android, watches her friends from a distance, unsure how to talk to them now that they’ve forgetten everything they did together.

On graduation day, Aigis comes to Makoto’s room, and it becomes clear they’re the only two who remember what happened. Even if the others don’t recall, they’ll wait for them on the rooftop as they’d promised. The rest of S.E.E.S. attends the graduation ceremony like they’re expected to, but when student council president Mitsuru takes the stage to give her valedictorian speech, she realizes the speech she has written conflicts with her innate memories, and each of the crew reawakens to the truth and runs to the roof.

The final scene of Persona 3 shows Aigis and Makoto sitting on the roof. Throughout the game, Aigis has been struggling with her human emotions and her android directive and trying to figure out what it means for her to live for herself. She fought against her programming before when she saved everyone from a traitor within their ranks, but learning to care for others has also awakened her to the pain of losing them. When everyone wants to choose to fight Nyx, she doesn’t understand why they don’t take the easy way out, one that would relieve them of so much hardship.

On the rooftop, she explains to Makoto what she’s learned by protecting him. She recognizes that death comes in every life and that sometimes having someone to care for is all you can do. Though you may feel powerless to stop the pain and suffering of those you love, you can still find purpose in trying. She vows to protect Makoto with her life. It’s just one small thing, but it’s her purpose. She’s decided this for herself.

Makoto, however, notes that his eyes are getting tired. He comforts Aigis as she cries, but he’s finding it harder to keep his eyes open with each passing second. “My eyes feel tired” appears on the screen. You can choose to close them or “……” but no matter which you choose, he will close them just as the rest of the group arrives. He kept his promise to meet everyone on graduation day, but couldn’t stay a second longer.

Part of what makes Persona 3’s ending so incredible is that, despite it being clear in retrospect what’s happening here, the game makes Makoto’s passing subtext. The credits roll, and you never see the group realize that their leader has died sealing Nyx. But if you look back at the original fight, the Great Seal costs all your character’s HP, no matter how high your level is. It doesn’t have a specific, unattainable cost; it will take exactly how much health Makoto has when he’s fully healed. The fact that it’s never outright confirmed in the base game is why you can find decade-old forum posts of people trying to figure out if he did die in these final moments. This is further elaborated on in the playable epilogue, The Answer, added in the director’s cut Persona 3 FES (not currently included in Reload), but for over a year, Persona fans were left to wonder what happened, with the biggest clue being an ability’s too-high cost.

As hopeful as Aigis’ final words are, Persona 3 operates on the idea of “Memento Mori,” a Latin phrase about remembering that death is inevitable. This notion brings both pain and purpose, and Aigis’ realization as Makoto dies is a perfect encapsulation of both sides of this coin. People leave our lives without warning and teach us lessons we carry with us as we move forward without them. That loss may break us, but those new pieces, given to us by those who are gone, are still there when we put ourselves back together.

Death is an inevitable part of life, but nearly 20 years later, Persona 3’s ending is more timely than ever. As a society, we’ve dealt with an insurmountable amount of needless death in the past four years, between a pandemic and genocide unraveling while those in a position to stop it refuse to do so. I don’t know what I’m even doing here most days as I reflect on the people I’ve lost in the years since I first played Persona 3 Portable on my Vita 12 years ago. It’s so easy to fall into despair as every moment starts to feel vapid and meaningless in the face of so much loss.

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