First Impressions: Burning dread on the go
Once more known for their localization of Japanese games from a wide range of companies, Atlus leveraged the PlayStation 2 to show western audiences that they have killer in-house development. By releasing numerous in-house role-playing games under the Shin Megami Tensei banner, Atlus gained notoriety for delivering challenging, lengthy RPGs that were unique and stylish ? unlike anything else out there. This was most evident with the 2007 release of Persona 3 ? an innovative mish-mash of dungeon crawler and life simulation, operating on a day-to-day schedule where time progresses with every choice you make. Though its sequel ultimately became the critical darling and Internet sensation, Persona 3's unique take on the Japanese RPG is what set the stage for this success. Perhaps to further capitalize on this newfound popularity, Atlus is repackaging Persona 3 ? this time for PSP. Dubbed Persona 3 Portable, this handheld version revamps the core of the game to be even more portable friendly, along with delivering on something that was once planned for the PS2 release.
Fans of Persona 3 might already know that initially Atlus planned for two main character choices ? male and female. This was ultimately cut for time reasons, with just the male protagonist available. Persona 3 Portable rectifies this however, as you can now choose between the familiar P3 main character, and a brand new female character. If one were to choose the male character, the game plays out exactly like it did on PS2, but choosing the female path ? affectionately dubbed ?Hersona? - makes it a very different game, with unique dialog and numerous changes to the life simulation. The plot remains the same; you still play as a member of a ?school club? called SEES (Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad) out to discover the reasons and motivation behind the ?Dark Hour?, a bizarre time period between 12:00am and 12:01am where almost everyone mutates into a coffin. The ones who don't ?transmogrifiy? are either broken by the Dark Hour and develop what the game calls ?apathy syndrome? - it basically turns them into zombies. The rest, well, they have the ?potential? to fight back with a Persona.
Fighting monsters in the Dark Hour is only half the game, however. During the daytime, the main characters must go to school, take tests, join school clubs that don't involve killing monsters in the dead of night, and socialize with other students at Gekkoukan High School. Socializing takes up the majority of your daytime activities, with at least a dozen friends and potential significant others to hang out with. These ?social links? allow the main characters to create more powerful Personas for use in the dungeon crawling side of things, and maxing out these friendships leads to the ability to fuse the very best allies. While the male side of the game is unchanged, with the same links and likely the same storyline, the female character is completely revamped, with the ability to hang out with all the SEES members regardless of gender. Compare this with the original Persona 3, where the main character could only hang out with the female SEES teammates. The caveat to socializing is that you can only hang out with one person a day; once you start a sequence, you can't go back, and nighttime will fall. Thus the life simulation becomes quite heavy on time management; though it's possible to max out every Social Link in one go, it requires precision.
Persona 3 Portable's school and life simulation aspects are mostly unchanged, but the game does cut at least one corner. Instead of freely being able to roam through school and town, everything is done in a point and click manner. For instance, in your classroom, you get a static image of the entire room and any potential Social Links are dropped in various places. Just by moving the analog stick around, you can highlight a character to speak with them and trigger events. The addition of the Square button feature from Persona 4 will allow you to quickly hop between areas, streamlining the process even more. It's kind of a bummer to not have free control to wander around the city, but it's likely a memory decision made to allow for the second main character, given the reduced disc space on PSP.
Thankfully, the dungeon-delving is relatively unchanged. Tartarus ? a massive tower with no apparent top ? is home to hundreds of monsters dubbed ?Shadows.? With other party members, each equipped with their own Persona ? the goal is to reach the top of the tower and discover its secret. The main dungeon crawling is unchanged from the PS2 version, in that you have full control of your character. This allows you to explore every nook & cranny of a floor before moving on, as well as engage Shadows on your own terms ? no random battles here. The randomized floors make each trip different, making it a new adventure every time. It's impossible to get to the top in a single day though ? barriers are installed to limit progress until important story points are completed. Many floors come with difficult boss encounters that must be won in order to progress. The game won't punish you for falling behind, but it makes it more difficult later when enemies get harder.
Fighting shadows is done in a turn-based affair, and includes something dubbed ?One More?, where landing a critical attack or hitting for an enemy weakness grants the character an extra turn. By default, the only character you can control is the main character. However, new to P3P is the ability to issue direct commands, taken from Persona 4. Whether or not this breaks the balance of the game is yet to be seen, but it definitely will cut down on stupid mistakes the AI tends to make. Also taken from Persona 4 are some of the battle skills party members learn by advancing their Social Link, such as pushing the main character out of the way when instant death is about to hit. How this will work for the male character is unknown ? as his Social Links are unchanged from regular Persona 3, there's no hanging out with male party members. Thus, they wouldn't be able to learn these added skills.