It wouldn’t be a stretch to say Persona 3 was one of the best games of 2007. Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga, the previous “MegaTen” titles to grace the PlayStation 2, were fairly removed from the usual Japanese-Role Playing Game paradigm, but Persona 3 wandered even further outside genre lines. Classic MegaTen demon collecting and JRPG-staple dungeon crawling were firmly in place, but layered through every facet of the gameplay was the acclaimed Social Link system; Persona 3, in regard to both mechanics and plot, was as much about slaying demons as it was forging and maintaining relationships with other characters. One couldn’t survive without the other, and that brilliant balance was enough to propel the player through a 70 to 90 hour experience.
Nearly three years later, Persona 3 is now portable.
The overall feel is still the same. You’re the new kid at Gekkoukan High, you feel the overwhelming impulse to make friends, and the general populace is still turning into coffins during the “Dark Hour” every night at midnight. You join the Special Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES) with classmates and friends who can summon persona and maintain consciousness during the Dark Hour, and together you ascend the seemingly infinite tower of Tartarus fighting demons and looking for an answer. Narratively speaking, Persona 3 Portable is still thoroughly Persona 3, albeit with a few shuffled rules and surprise spins on top of the existing twists and turns.
From a simple overview the daytime portions of P3P appear unchanged. Each tightly structured calendar day presents you with the opportunity to accomplish a number of activities. Answering a question correctly in class, for example, boosts your academics while singing karaoke after school raises your courage. A number of activities can boost courage, academics, and charm, which then creates opportunities to make new friends. Social Links are born, and the more time you choose to spend with your Social Links directly corresponds to the power of Persona you’re able to summon in combat or create in the Velvet Room. The challenge arrives with figuring out how to budget your limited amount of time throughout the week.
For those new to P3P, Social Links are undoubtedly the heart and soul of the current Persona experience. While flirting with the opposite sex, cheering up a terminally ill young man, or visiting an old couple at the bookstore in your demon-slaying downtime might sound like the epitome of awkward Japanese game design, it’s quite the opposite. Each and every relationship you choose to forge features a legitimate story arc filtered through a fantastic localization. Your actions, typically expressed as dialogue option when your friends are conflicted, realistically determine their fate, up to and including your very friendship. While their plight is sometimes laced with goofy humor, more often than not you’re dealing with mature subject matter. Social Links could have been a boring mechanic for boosting stats, but their masterful execution, three years later, remains my enduring memory of my time with the original Persona 3. Outside of its sequel, there still isn’t anything else like it, especially on a portable platform.
But that’s all old news to Persona 3 veterans. While the concept and general mechanics are unchanged, the means of accomplishing your goals has been overhauled to fit the PlayStation Portable. For starters, physical exploration of Tatsumi Port Island has been eviscerated and replaced with a cursor and static, albeit beautifully drawn, pictures. Initially, I considered this devastating. Persona 3 was one of the few games (along with Yakuza) where I was actually able to extract a sense of Japanese culture simply by exploring my surroundings. Though subtle, its atmosphere perfectly conveyed a Japanese adolescent urban lifestyle (and not to be misinterpreted as childish simply because the characters are young). The new point and click system gives the daytime portions of P3P much more of an adventure game feel, which, along with an improved quick-travel option, better fits the portable platform. Much more “to the point,” P3P favors exposition and progression over exploration and atmosphere.
After a few hours I still missed traditional exploration, but conceded that the new interface makes P3P much more accessible as a portable experience. It’s essentially a drastic refinement of the streamlined menu selection for Persona 4, only with the fat burned completely off. Budget concerns and the PSP’s technical limitations may have also been at fault, as the lower poly count and sheer amount of time and money needed to faithfully replicate Persona 3’s locals seem to suggest. Either way, the energetic dialogue is completely intact and now the star of the show. Emotive character portraits command the screen, and the sheer volume of voice work, even if a large portion was recycled from Persona 3, remains impressive.
It’s a girl!
Speaking of changes, I have yet to even mention P3P’s greatest departure; you’re given the option of selecting a female protagonist! A change in pronouns was a given, but a good chunk of the game has been completely reworked. Character reactions and, in some cases, entire social links have been revised with a female protagonist in mind. On the surface this seems fairly cosmetic, but from a more cerebral point of view it represented a dramatic change in how I approached the game. The first time I played Persona 3 I, quite frankly, concentrated on doing whatever was required to get in Yukari’s pants. Playing as a girl in P3P and not too terribly interested in male romance options, I spread my time around more and progressed further with a wider number of Social Links (including Koromaru!). Fleshing out my SEES teammates, in particular, was a great way to expand upon my previous experience with Persona 3.
If it wasn’t abundantly clear already, Atlus sure didn’t half ass anything; selecting a female character bleeds through the audio/visual experience as well. A significant portion of the music, both night and day, has changed. While a few remixes of original tunes pop up, a majority of the new music is completely original, albeit still in the J-pop/Hip-hop style of the original. I didn’t find the new music as endearing as the former tunes (maybe I’m nostalgic), but their seamless integration into the existing soundtrack is worthy of admiration. Even the menu gets a fresh makeover, with hot pink replacing the cool aqua of the original Persona 3.
In case you’re worried, the original Persona 3 and a majority of the changes (a new arcana, more stuff to do in the evening, etc) that arrived with FES, are delightfully intact. Selecting the original male character places you on a well worn path, complete with the music and social links we’ve known and loved in Persona 3’s past. Honestly, that alone would have probably sufficed as a respected rendition of Persona 3 on a portable system, everything piled on top further boosts P3P’s collective value. The only notable omission lies with FES’s bonus epilogue, The Answer. While the dungeon that composed that portion of the epilogue is still accessible, the narrative is long gone. A bummer, but hardly something to get upset over in lieu of all the extra content.
Dread to Burn
The dungeon crawling night time sequences bare a much kinder resemblance of Persona 3-proper. Tartarus, the cursed tower that begs exploration during the Dark Hour, is identical, with dozens of randomly generated floors populated with loot, demons, and (new to P3P) endangered NPC’s from the real world. Exploration is carried out in real time with an actual character model replacing your usual cursor. The polygon count is extendedly lower, but the animations are still top notch; visually, Tartarus is almost a direct facsimile of Persona 3.
But changed Tartarus has, albeit mostly behind the scenes. Before, you could only teleport back down to safety (or save!) if you were lucky enough to find a teleporter on your given floor. Now, every floor has a station that grants you that option. Speaking of safety, the first floor now has a healing station with extremely generous prices, making the game a tad easier. In fact, ease and accessibility represent the bulk of the changes to P3P’s night sequences. Skill cards, obtained by leveling up persona, grant you the ability to teach a particular skill to any persona. If you feel these concessions are dumbing down the challenge, fear not, as an even harder difficulty, dubbed Maniacs, is there for yourself loathing pleasure.
Combat, too, has received a significant overhaul. By far the most welcomed addition, direct from Persona 4, is complete control over your other party members. Setting general AI guidelines is still an option, but in certain instances (especially with the death of the main character alone resulting in a game over) I can certainly say I preferred direct control. Persona collection, combination, and implementation remains the endearing hook of combat, with skill cards making it feel even more like Pokémon than one may have previously thought possible.