I haven’t been a fan of Shin Megami Tensei games for a terribly long time (maybe about a year), but in that time I’ve played as many entries as I could get my hands on. With Persona 3 Portable, I’ve found a greatly enhanced version of an already enjoyable adventure. From battle mechanics to the option to play as a female character, P3P has taken great strides to appeal to returning fans of the series, as well as open itself up to new players, and the results speak for themselves.
Featuring a ridiculously long story arc, topped with equal parts dungeon crawling and social simulation, Persona 3 Portable offers an experience that players cannot help but remember long past the day they put the game down. While not everyone may like what it has to offer, the game is more than any interested player could ever ask for, and stands to be a staple of the PSP’s RPG library.
So what can players expect after dropping full price for the title? Keep reading and see!
To be honest, much of this review is dedicated to helping new players see what this game has to offer. Fans of the series and of Persona 3 will likely already be aware of the changes made, so I think that, in keeping with some of those changes, addressing newcomers is the top priority.
So what exactly is Persona? This spin-off series of Shin Megami Tensei takes familiar elements from those games and rearranges them in order to make a more personal, psychological experience. It’s a series that prides itself on deep character development and lengthy storytelling, combined with plenty of dungeon crawling and pokemon-esque collecting and fusion of various creatures. With Persona 3, the series took a great turn, changing from a formula rich in dungeon crawling to more of a balance between that and a social sim, and the result changed the series forever. In this PSP entry, players are treated to an enhanced edition of the original Persona 3, and the changes help to both streamline the more tedious aspects and involve the player even more so than before.
Given the choice to select a male or female character, the player is thrust into the life of a Japanese high school student entering their junior year. Stepping off the subway and into town, all does not appear right; the night sky is green, the moon is huge, and coffins stand everywhere. Apparently deciding this is either normal for Japan or that he/she just doesn’t want to deal with it, the main character goes to their dorm and goes to sleep, after signing a contract regarding responsibility.
As it turns out, the student is of a rare breed who is able to perceive what is called the “Dark Hour”, a moment after midnight when time stops and people are preyed upon by strange beings known as “Shadows”. Skipping right along, the main character is inducted into a group of shadow-fighting fellow students, all of whom reside at his/her dorm. It is with this somewhat odd beginning that the player is introduced to what will be one of the biggest time-sinks of their life.
Quickly, the player is thrown into a routine – as we can all remember from high school, they must balance their personal lives with both their studies and preventing the end of the world via ascending several dozen floors of an impossibly huge, demon-infested tower. The result can be both immeasurably rewarding as well as incredibly frustrating. Talking to particular people and getting to know them better creates “Social Links”, which assist the player in various ways throughout the game. Each link is representative of a particular arcana from Tarot lore, and these arcana are also what serve as the various classifications of Personae, the beings of the characters’ inner thoughts that assist them in defeating Shadows.
Personae are basically like Pokemon, but with a healthy injection of various mythologies and badass-ness. They each represent some aspect of a character’s personality and identity, and are called forth by shooting oneself in the face with an “evoker” (read: gun). The player’s character has the unique ability to host and change personae at will, and thus is able to create new personae by fusing existing ones together in various ways. Several different mechanics come into play when doing this, but they are explained in great detail in various tutorial conversations and are easily understood.
As the story moves along, you’ll have to learn how to budget your time properly; as it is revealed early on, you have exactly one year to complete the game (according to the game’s calendar, not your own, thankfully), and the majority of your decisions will greatly affect how that year plays out. Befriending people, dating others, creating and destroying relationships all figure into how your character develops, how they perform in battle, and also dictate which of the many, many ending routes the game will take. Most decisions are one-shot affairs – if you make someone angry, they’re angry, and either you’ve got to perform damage control or live with them hating you for a good while. Likewise, not raising your attributes (such as Academics, Charm, or Courage), will result in you failing school tests, not being able to befriend others, and generally performing poorly in battle.
From a gameplay perspective this all takes what could easily be called an obscenely long amount of time, but thanks to the streamlined interface and ability to quickly go through conversations, what used to be some very tedious backtracking to various locations is all performed at the press of a button. Progressing through the school year is a deceptively simple affair, and it is easy to let time slip by without actually accomplishing much, which can lead to disastrous consequences in the later months. Players need to keep a sharp eye on what they’re doing, and even in some instances, plan ahead to make sure they don’t end up in an unwinnable battle or angering the wrong person.
Battles play out in typical JRPG style, each character taking turns to lay blows upon the enemy, with the enemies retorting in kind. What makes Persona 3 Portable different from its source material is that it allows for direct control of all characters (previously this was limited to only the main character), which can make battles fly by extremely quickly. Hitting enemies’ weaknesses will knock them down, allowing for an extra turn, and chaining these events together allows for quickly dispatching foes as you move through the various, randomly-generated levels of Tartarus (the aforementioned demon-infested tower). Of course, there are plenty of bosses, sub-bosses, and strange events that require some skill to defeat, and without at least some grinding the player will inevitably be squashed by later enemies.
It is both the need for grinding and the game’s soundtrack that I consider to be the most off-putting aspects of Persona 3 Portable. No one likes grinding for hours on end, though thankfully the potentially expedient way of doing battle can help to offset this. Also, the entire game is set to a J-pop infused soundtrack that many might find entirely displeasing.
Play it long enough and you’ll assuredly get used to the music, but if you can’t, you better be ready to turn the sound off and play your own, because you’ll be hearing the same tunes over and over again for most of the game. Some tracks are easier than others to hear repeatedly (the music for Tartarus’ entrance and exploration are quite smooth, for instance), but some are downright unbearable after the fiftieth time (the school theme).
In the end, Persona 3 Portable is a massive game. Don’t expect it to be something to play through in a few days, much less a few weeks. Multi-faceted, heavily nuanced events tie directly into your actions and decisions, yielding completely different results depending upon how one plays. The general mix of dungeon-crawling and social sim help to balance one another’s pitfalls, but either is a complete game in and of itself. New players will find a wealth of opportunity for different ways to play, and may see the need for a second playthrough almost immediately. Old players will be satisfied with a streamlined interface and new option for the main character, which yields a significantly different experience than before.
Streamlined interface, a smooth graphical presentation, competent voicework and consistent music all combine to make the game feel like a highly developed product.
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While the grind of dungeon crawling can be trying at times, proper utilization of skills can lead to quick, painless battles. The social sim half of the game helps to offset the monotony, letting the player make tons of decisions that affect the entire outcome in various ways.
Oft-repeated tracks of music can become boring quickly, and this repetition does not let up throughout the entirety of the game. Voicework is solid, which really helps considering how much dialogue this game has.
Many dozens of hours of play lie in wait for those who enjoy the game, and the wealth of decisions means a second playthrough can result in wildly different situations. Though the dungeon-crawling aspect remains the same, the effects garnered from certain decisions helps to make a second playthrough feel as fresh as the first.
Certainly a worthy entry for any fan of RPG's, Persona 3 Portable stands as one of the longest, deepest, most time-consuming entries on the PSP to date.