2007 was a banner year for video games, but one that didn’t quite get the attention it deserved was Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3. Maybe it was because it was the third game in a cult series that hadn’t had an installment since the PS1, or perhaps it was the fact that P3 shipped on the PS2 two years after the new generation of consoles began, but for whatever reason, the stellar RPG went somewhat unnoticed despite favorable reviews. Atlus released Persona 3 FES the following year, which added to the story and brought improvements to the already fantastic turn-based JRPG gameplay. Now Atlus is set to release Persona 3 Portable, a handheld adaptation of the addictive game. While three separate versions in as many years may seem like overkill, it’s clear that there was more of this story to be told, and I’m glad it found its way into the PSP installment.
Like the other games in the Persona series, Persona 3 puts you in the shoes of a high school student in modern-day Japan with a special power: the ability to summon Personas and use them to fight demons. In P3, this group is known as the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad, or SEES. The members of SEES live in the dorm and carry on a normal teenage existence during the day, joining sports teams, attending student council meetings, making friends, and dating. At the stroke of midnight, however, the Dark Hour occurs, a period between midnight and 12:01 a.m. in which few people are conscious. The Persona-users spend this time fighting Shadows in the ever-changing tower called Tartarus, which just happens to appear over their high school during the Dark Hour. Ultimately, each member of SEES has to find his or her own reason for fighting while trying to save humanity and study for midterms.
For veterans of Persona 3, the story is largely the same, but the introduction of a new protagonist allows you to view it from a different set of eyes, which makes more of a difference than you might think. P3 and FES both had the same silent protagonist, a blue-haired and mysterious male. While the male lead is still available in P3P (and recommended for first-time players), the game’s biggest addition is a female protagonist, allowing those who have played through the game multiple times to experience it in a new way. Upon choosing the female, changes in social interactions are apparent almost immediately. The females in SEES no longer regard you as a possible suitor, but a confidant and friend, while new romantic possibilities will open up.
These interactions are important because of the game’s implementations of Social Links, a brilliant gameplay mechanic that ties together daytime and nighttime activities. As you spend more time with the people with whom you have established relationships, your Social Links grow, and this is translated into experience when fusing Personas. Personas can be collected in Tartarus and fused together in the Velvet Room, which is another common thread between all Persona games. Each relationship represents one of the Major Arcana, such as those you would find in a deck of Tarot cards, and all Personas also fall into one of these categories. As you make and advance Social Links, the number of Personas you are able to fuse will grow, and those in the same Arcana as relationships you have developed will gain experience upon fusion. Because of this, it’s just as important to make new friends as it is to fight Shadows, and this mechanic really illustrates the balance between normal high school life and that of a Persona-user that the protagonist struggles with.
The other big change to Persona 3 Portable is that the battle system has been refined, with the modifications to Persona 4’s battle system being implemented in this game. The biggest problem with Persona 3, and really, one of very few issues I had with the game, was that you could not directly control your teammates in battle. You could issue orders, such as “heal” or “conserve SP”, but there would still be times when they would do foolish things that would negatively affect the outcomes of battles. All of those indirect orders still exist, but you can now take complete control of all characters in battle, which I find to be preferable. This eliminates most of the frustration from the original Persona 3. Also, like in Persona 4, leveling up certain Social Links will allow other members of SEES to perform cooperative attacks or take a mortal blow for you in battle, which is especially handy since death of the protagonist means the game is over, even if other party members are still alive. Of course, that fact alone means that there will still be a few cheap and unavoidable deaths, causing you to restart from the last save point.
Playing as the female character obviously changes social interactions and adds new Links to be explored, but something I really liked was the fact that you could now develop relationships with male and female members of SEES. Much like in Persona 4, the importance of friendship is stressed much more than that of high school romances, something that didn’t always come through in Persona 3. You will get to see new sides of your male dorm mates in P3P, but there are also subtle differences in the way Yukari, Fuuka, and Mitsuru approach you, since you’re no longer trying to get in their pants. Even when none of your Social Links are available, there are more things to do; in particular, the after-school jobs from P4 were included in P3P as well, allowing you to improve stats while earning yen.
Many other small tweaks have been implemented in Persona 3 Portable to make the handheld experience more refined. While there’s no Quick Save, something that would have been appreciated while wandering the seemingly endless levels of Tartarus, there are more save points, and you can quickly jump from location to location around town without having to physically travel there. There’s also a new overhead view, with the protagonist only viewable in profile form, which is a little jarring at first; instead of walking to people or objects to interact with them, all selections are made by a cursor on the screen. The last one takes some getting used to, but before long you won’t even notice that your character is not onscreen as you wander around town making friends.
Despite being on the PS2, Persona 3 was known for having high production values and a unique, anime-inspired art style. While this is still clear in the character art, the incredible cut scenes from P3 have been removed from the portable version. This is definitely a disappointment, especially for new players who never got to experience the PS2 version of the game, but in all honesty, it feels like a fair trade-off for the ridiculous amount of new content that was included. The visuals obviously aren’t as strong as those in the console version, but P3P can still hold its own when compared to other games on the system. The good news is that the catchy soundtrack is still in the game, and is as fantastic as ever. The voice actors from P3 also returned to record new interactions, and some minor characters have received new profile art, allowing you to really get a better look at them. Load times have been shortened from the PS2 version, which is even more impressive when you consider that the PSP is known for long load times; they can be reduced even further when the game is installed on your memory stick. I did notice that P3P took longer to load while in Tartarus, but it wasn’t any worse than what would be considered an acceptable load time.
Over the last few months, as I followed the development of Persona 3 Portable, I hypothesized that it could actually be the definitive version of the game. Even though P3P doesn’t include the epilogue story from FES, it’s probably the version I would most recommend to new and returning players. After playing the 100-plus-hour game twice before, I still found myself immediately sucked in once again, and the improvements push the already fantastic game over the top. If you missed out on Persona 3 when it first came out, and skipped FES in 2008, then now is your chance to rectify that. Persona 3 Portable is one of the strongest games in the PSP catalogue, and a shining example of a role-playing game done right.