Review: My honors class requires me to kill stuff. Lots of stuff. Oh, and date people.
Releasing at the tail end of the PlayStation 2's legendary lifecycle, Persona 3 became a surprise hit for the remaining PS2 audience thanks to its unique take on the Japanese role-playing game. Since then, there's been two new takes on the Persona 3 universe: Persona 3 FES, which came with numerous refinements to the formula & a brand new epilogue to further flesh out the ending, and the game being reviewed here, Persona 3 Portable for Sony's PSP. Though the franchise has thrived on PS2, the day-to-day design of P3 is absolutely perfect for a portable, and that shines through in almost every aspect of Persona 3 Portable. While series veterans will have to triple-dip to experience this refined take on the game, it's worth the trouble ? the additions and further refinements can make the game seem like a different beast entirely. For new Persona 3 players, just know that you're getting one of the PS2's very best games in convenient portable form.
Unlike the real world, Persona 3's take on Japan consists of twenty-five hour days. Most of the population is unaware of such things, but it's true. Between 12am and 12:01am, a ?hidden? time period known as the Dark Hour appears, and things get rather strange. Electronic equipment stops working, electricity cuts out, and people transform into giant coffins. At the same time, unusual creatures called Shadows roam the streets looking for people to prey upon - by awakening them from their Dracula-esque state and effectively sucking the life out of them. Thankfully, there are some people who manage to stay awake and alert during the Dark Hour; these people have the ability to summon a ?Persona? to do battle against the Shadows. Naturally these Persona users are your average high school students, and they even have a school club for dealing with them. Dubbed SEES or Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad, this team of do-gooders seek to end the Dark Hour. Duh.
Obviously veterans of Persona 3 know the story, know the players, and know how it all shakes out. So you might ask, ?what's in it for us??, and you'd have a good reason to ask it considering this is the third time you've been asked to spend money on Persona 3. Which is why Atlus has implemented something long asked for ? a choice of protagonist. You can still select the original P3 main character, but in addition players can select an all-new female main character with her own unique adventure. It's not exactly a brand-new game ? the story progresses the exact same way, with all the same events as the male side ? but with a different character personality, unique dialog, the addition of employment options, and brand-new Social Links, it's got enough new stuff to make it worth another run. Otherwise, Persona 3 Portable contains everything from Persona 3 FES on PlayStation 2, save for The Answer epilogue that was included in Persona 3 FES.
Persona 3 originally drew attention for its unusual mix of standard Japanese life-simulations and the ?roguelike? dungeon crawling aspects that occur during the Dark Hour. Persona 3 Portable retains this formula, with only a few adjustments to the core of the game. During the daytime, your character acts like your typical student - they go to school, attend class, participate in after-school clubs and activities, hang out with friends, and take part-time jobs for some easy money. This section of the game isn't really all that intense ? you're asked questions in class sometimes, and have to take exams every couple months... but it doesn't actually affect the game itself. Everything else, though, is vital to making progress through the meat of the game. Making friends unlocks their Social Link, which is tied to a specific Tarot Arcana. Each of these ?classes? have their own set of unique Personas (which we'll get to later), and completing each S.Link grants you the ultimate Persona of that Arcana. It makes more sense when you play the game, really. In a sinister way you're really only using these people to strengthen yourself, but hey. The S. Links are unchanged on the male side of the game, but playing as the female main character switches up almost half of them, to allow for relationships with all your party members.
The big (and fairly controversial for some) change is the move from the standard RPG exploration to a visual novel style atmosphere. No longer can you wander the school or town with your character, who is replaced by an icon that wanders around a static screen where other people stand around and wait for you to speak to them. Adding to this flavor are cutscenes that feature just character portraits and a generic backdrop based upon the location rather than the standard game cinema. It's a little jarring at first, and at times seems like a poor way of telling the story, as it has to actually explain events rather than seeing them happen in real-time on the PS2. Obviously this was done as a way to account for the smaller size of a UMD disc (not even mentioning the inclusion of a second playable character that carries hundreds of new spoken lines), but it's still a tad weird - especially for vets of the game. That said, this change has streamlined the pace of the game, which is imperative for a portable title.
When night falls, the game changes. There is a fair bit of socializing and some activities to be found at night, but in general you'll be using this time to play the RPG aspect of Persona 3. The dungeon crawling takes place at a location called Tartarus, which takes the form of a giant tower that only appears during the Dark Hour. Compared to the major alteration of the life simulation aspect with P3P, the dungeon delving has remained mostly unchanged from the PS2 versions. In this mode, you and your party climb Tartarus and its randomly generated floors to battle mini-bosses, uncover rare items, and complete unusual side-quests for a specific character. Oh, and you get to fight Shadows too. To keep the game balanced, there's always a point where you can go no further, but in general you have free reign to wander the dungeon and level up without a lot of restrictions. New to the exploration are rescue missions ? you'll get a call every so often explaining that someone wandered into Tartarus unknowingly, and unless you go get them, they die. Sometimes this person is a Social Link, which obviously would end said relationship if you let them perish. However, the rewards are good enough that you shouldn't ignore these side-missions.
Persona 3 Portable's battle system uses the very familiar turn-based setup of a classic JRPG. In the initial releases of P3, the game handicapped you by only allowing control of the main character. You could issue some basic orders in an attempt to steer the decisions of your party members, but even then they tended to do stupid stuff which made the game way harder than it needed to be. Persona 4 added the ability to manually control everyone, and Persona 3 Portable continues the trend. It makes the game pretty easy, but that's why there's five difficulty levels to choose from. If you don't want total control it's off by default, with manual control buried in the ?tactics? section of the battle menu. The core of P3P's battle system is the ?One More? feature. Basically, if you hit the weakness of an enemy, you gain an extra turn for some follow-up damage. Also coming from Persona 4, if you use an attack-all spell that hits just one enemy for their weakness, you still get the One More ? something absent from the original P3. In the same vein, enemies can pull the same tactics on you; if they hit a party member's weakness, they get an extra turn. And oftentimes they can be brutal in their follow-up spell.
What makes Persona Persona is, well, the Personas. While your allies only have their singular Persona that learns a wide variety of skills throughout the game (along with magic spells of a specific element), you are a ?Zero? in that there's no set alter-ego. Instead, you can collect new Personas from post-battle shuffles and from Fusion. By visiting the Velvet Room (a staple of the series since the beginning), you can combine your collected Personas to create newer ones that inherit some skills of their, um, parents. This process is the absolute key to success in Persona 3 ? if you stick with the basics, you'll find yourself hurting. This is where all your Social Links come into play; by leveling up with them, the experience earned allows for faster leveling up post-fuse. Maxing each S.Link also opens up the ability to create the ultimate form of a specific Arcana. The process of fusion is simple and addictive ? collecting them all definitely has a Pokemon-esque feel. Your Persona collection also helps with relationships ? if you have a Persona in your inventory that matches the Arcana of your ?friend?, it moves along the process of using them for your own selfish needs that much quicker.
Though Persona 3 is a few years old now, it maintains its charm and unique qualities ? qualities that don't often appear in the genre. In retrospect the basic turn-based gameplay is a bit long in the tooth, but Atlus has designed it to be both strategic and fast-paced. Atlus RPGs are notoriously challenging, and Persona 3 can continue the trend ? the game absolutely punishes poor play and makes things even worse for those who don't bother to learn the mechanics of both battle and Persona fusing. However, the addition of manual control makes things significantly more manageable ? no longer are you at the mercy of your teammates who sometimes do really dumb stuff if left to their own devices. The life simulation stuff isn't really challenging per se; it's just a very addictive take on a different kind of strategy ? managing the life of a student. The ultimate challenge is completing every single Social Link ? a task that requires the kind of day-to-day micromanagement that would make Starcraft fans envious.
We've already covered Persona 3 Portable's switch to static backgrounds and character portraits for cutscenes and general exploration, a core component of the visual engine. When exploring Tartarus you get a look at what the game really looks like... for the most part. Obviously it lacks the detail of the PS2 games, but it looks good enough. The tower itself occasionally changes its design after a set amount of floors, but even then it maintains a basic look from bottom to top. In general, while it saves memory and allows the game to fit onto a UMD, Persona 3 Portable kind of wipes away the great art style ? you're given a taste with the visual novel-esque scenes but with the removal of city exploration and the culling of all the animated sequences (likely done not for memory reasons, but because they'd have to redo them to include the female character) it's a visual shell of what could have been. On the other hand, the great soundtrack remains, and even has a solid selection of brand-new music for the female character that sets her apart from the guy. For P3P they added a lot of new voice acting (mostly to embellish the cutscenes and allow references to the female character), and it's fine... but there's a notable volume difference between old and new lines, which is rather jarring.