Warning: This post is just spoilerific for Persona 3 and Persona 4.
I finally finished Persona 3 over the weekend, and I can't say that I particularly cared.
Now, Persona 3 has its good points. The combat is engaging, most of the Social Links are well written and satisfying, there's good music, great art design, and all of the other check boxes you expect from an Atlus game. And yet, the core story left me completely cold.
This was a surprise, particularly given how much I loved Persona 4. So much of the games are identical (re: Atlus check boxes). Even the endings of Persona 3 and Persona 4 are almost beat-by-beat identical. A fight with an unkillable representation of the inevitability of death, protagonist undergoes ego-death, protagonist is brought back to life by bonds with others, protagonist uses the ultimate deus ex no jutsu to defeat said unkillable representation of the inevitability of death.
And yet, and yet, and yet, they feel so different. The Special Investigation Unit works so much harder than SEES to investigate the mysterious occurrences in their town. Persona 4 never stopped telling me to question everything, to develop and discard theories, to find the truth behind the fog.
Persona 3's plot twists were just things that happened: a mentor who betrays, a secret past brought to light, a generic Lovecraftian horror drawing ever closer. My expectations were never subverted because SEES never really tries to figure out what's happening. The plot twists and we follow, barreling down the corridor of fate.
And that's what the difference between the two really is. Persona 4 is a mystery leading to an answer. Persona 3 is a series of plot twists leading to...well, I suppose to a final plot twist.
A mystery is solvable. A plot twist is merely guessable. A mystery gives you little pieces of information that hint towards a hidden truth you are drawn further and further into. A plot twist smacks you in the back of the head while you're not paying attention.
Persona 3 isn't a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, not any more than Persona 4 is a perfect game. Certainly, the final death of the protagonist in P3 is a much bolder choice than P4's "Everything is Awesome" conclusion. Blue Hair McHeadphones comes off as much less sociopathic than Silver Hair VonSistercomplex. Example, further example, etc.
But at the end of the day, I prefer a decent mystery to even a good plot twist. In that regard, Persona 4 is the clear winner for me.