In case anyone was wondering, I’m still playing Persona 3 Portable.
Well, I am. And let me tell you, it’s pretty darn enthralling. I understand that later games in the series do everything Persona-y better, which is fair. At times, P3P has felt repetitive. But even though you’re essentially playing “wash, rinse, repeat” with everything from general battles to school-time interactions, each iteration feels fresh. Finding and developing your arcanas is pretty much the same process, but the story of each person from whom those arcanas rise is completely different. And you do have some choice in maneuvering your interactions with those people, from being nice to being sarcastic to being uninterested.
On the opposite side of that coin is the Tartarus. With at least six different blocks (I’m in block six currently – are there more??? Don’t answer that.) and hundreds of levels, one might think that its turn-based combat would eventually become stale. After all, there are only a few dozen different types of shadows (enemies), and even though their names, stats, and skins change as you progress, you’re essentially fighting the same shadows over and over. And yet, each block of the Tartarus – different blocks have different appearances – still manages to feel new. That’s thanks, in part, to the Tartarus’s recurring theme.
There’s nothing quite like great ambient music in a game. This is music that doesn’t necessarily tell a story itself (like Super Metroid’s various themes), rather it lingers in the background and adds quiet notes to the atmosphere. And if you’re not listening closely enough, it’s easy to miss. This is very true of the Tartarus theme, which is really just a single phrase of simple electronic beats that are looped again and again. For most of my first few hours of play, I hardly noticed it.
Only then, a funny thing happened. At a certain point, an option became available to change the Tartarus’s background music. There were four different pieces from which to choose, so I tried them all. And…
…they were all terrible.
Okay, not strictly speaking. As musical compositions, they are perfectly fine. Their qualities range from zippy to introspective to aggro to sweeping, and they each lend a different feel to the game’s flow within the Tartarus. But with each one, all I found was that I missed the original music. It may have something to do with my own current slant toward chill and downtempo music, but the original theme is a theme that soothes and sways, kind of like the feeling of being a boat on a gently moving river or a lightly-swinging hammock.
But the best part about the theme is its almost imperceptible evolution. As the video above demonstrates, the theme changes ever so slightly in each block, becoming richer, deeper, and stronger as you progress. It’s a subtle but genius way to instill music in a game. Because when you hear it, no matter which iteration, you know where you are and what to expect. The Tartarus is simultaneously an ever-changing structure – no two levels have the same layout or the same enemies – and an omnipresent beacon. It only makes sense that it’s musical theme should represent a juxtaposition between stagnation and advancement, which it does with flying colors.
Lede image taken by cary, Persona 3 Portable © Atlus, Sony (2009-2011)