Anyone who has bought an Altus game will probably have a solid case for a lawsuit on the grounds of imprisonment; so lengthy and involving are their RPG titles that it’s a given that you’ll be tied to your console, sinking days of your life into the game while your loved ones ponder your whereabouts. Of course, when their output is as intensely addictive, staggeringly deep and astonishingly fun as Persona 3, your love for them is guaranteed be the fastest and most severe case of Stockholm Syndrome in recorded history. Mercifully, Atlus have now released Persona 3 Portable, a PSP port of the beloved PS2 game, and like a captor sending a photo or allowing a phone call to your family to let them know you’re still alive, you’ll be able to keep in touch with people while keeping the game in your pocket on standby ready to pick up at a moment’s notice. The bad news is that it’s still just as stunningly great a game with even more to offer in its new incarnation, so expect to get swept up in it all over again, only now you’ll be able to neglect work and friends wherever you go, offering little more than monosyllabic grunts to anyone who attempts to pry you away from its addictive and alluring pixels with pesky conversation.
“What’s Persona 3?”, you might ask. Well, those who’ve played it before will know all too well after a PS2 release and a lovely director’s cut version. For newcomers though, you’re in for an amazing treat (don’t let the numerical title sway you – it’s a completely standalone game that requires no knowledge of the series). In Persona 3, you’re a modern-day transfer student moving to Japan to study in the halls of Gekkoukan High. Your first arrival in town awakens you to something profoundly weird about this new place: the strike of midnight brings with it ‘The Dark Hour’, a hidden period of time between one day and the next, during which monsters roam the town, feasting on the consciousness of the living as the town sleeps unaware.
Gekkoukan High is home to S.E.E.S. (the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad), a rag-tag group of attractive young students who are able to stay conscious through The Dark Hour. They’re also blessed with the gift of Persona – a massive physical manifestation of their inner psyche equipped with all manner of magical tricks which they can conjure up to fight the Shadows. Naturally, you’re there for a reason, and soon you’re joining the ranks of S.E.E.S. on a mission to kick much monstrous ass and explore the mysterious Tartarus (a strange, hulking tower that only appears during The Dark Hour), all while juggling friends and getting your homework done on time. It’s a superb mix of inviting RPG gameplay, a wonderfully dark, incredibly deep and immensely fun Buffy-esque story with great characters, a dash of distinct Japanese weirdness (that your Persona is summoned by a magical gunshot to the head is just one dash of the memorable craziness) and a funky, severely catchy J-Pop soundtrack.
Making things a little more accessible to the masses and a tad more varied for fans of the Shin Megami Tensei series that Persona spun off from, Persona 3 offered up two games in one: a fusion of RPG dungeon-crawling, turn-based battling with a deep, fun and involving high school social simulator. At night you’ll have the option to slice and summon your way through Tartarus in tried-and-true RPG fashion, exploring, snagging items and weaponry while levelling up your character in preparation for mandatory Full Moon events on the calendar – usually major boss battles. By day though, you’ll attend class as a normal student, forging relationships with classmates, sitting through lectures, joining extracurricular school clubs, hanging out at the mall after class – all of which is involving, infectiously fun and perfectly tied into the creating and levelling of your character.
Social Links, though in most cases completely optional, offer up a massive boost in your Persona; each Social Link corresponds to a certain class of Persona – the stronger your social bond, the more powerful the corresponding Persona will become. It’s a formula carried over into all facets of school life – choose to sleep through class and your energy will improve, giving you a dose of pep and longevity in battle at night, but stay awake through lectures and your ‘academics’ level will increase, potentially opening up other Social Links. How you chose to spend your time is up to you, and how you shape your character affects how your game unfolds; certain characters, discriminative fiends that they are, will only spend time with you if you’re intelligent enough, or you might need ample courage to talk to someone more popular, while others will only be available if you joined their social club at the start of the year. Not only are the social aspects wonderfully tied into the RPG elements, each Social Link is its own cute, charming and funny extended storyline in which you’ll befriend, romance or help your new pal through some emotional hurdles during the weeks and months. It’s all the fun of high school with none of the risk of atomic wedgies and getting pantsed.
By night, however, you’ll be swapping the light-hearted school adventures for more dark and dangerous exploits, braving the labyrinthine tower of Tartarus, progressing as far as you can during The Dark Hour while giving your character a healthy boost in experience points. It’s a rather elegant turn-based RPG system, slowly and steadily easing you in at your own pace while you learn the ropes, deep enough to satisfy RPG stalwarts and simple enough for more casual gamers to handle. You’ll wander Tartarus one maze-like floor at a time whenever you like, with blob-like Shadows visible on the screen and the radar, so thankfully there’s no annoying random battles. Striking a Shadow to trigger a battle without them spotting you will give you the advantage when the fight starts, and vice versa. Battling is relatively simple in essence: the aim is to exploit the enemies weakness with your range of elemental magic attacks. Your supporting characters’ Persona all have their own strengths and weaknesses – Junpei is handy with fire-based skills, but can be downed by wind attacks (as can we all in the face of flatulence). Find and strike against your enemy’s Achilles’ heel and they’ll stumble, allowing you to swarm in with a devastating follow-up attack, repeating until they’re wormfood.
While your pals only have one Persona and thus one limited but increasingly powerful magical toolset, you have the convenient ability to use a whole stack of varied Personae, each with their own diverse range of magical attacks, physical strikes and healing mojo. You’ll gain new Persona cards at the end of some battles, so you’ll have the option to find and collect them like Pokemon, or fuse them together to make a new, more powerful single Persona. This is where your Social Link power comes into play. Providing your created Persona falls into a class that has a strong corresponding relationship, it’ll fuel each melting pot fusion with an added dose of incredibly powerful flavour. The secret ingredient is, indeed, love. It might sound complicated, but the mechanics of battle and Persona fusion are easy to pick up even for RPG newcomers. It’s also just as engrossing and addictive as the more gentle, charming daytime gameplay elements, and you’ll likely be tied between wanting to explore and fight through another few levels of Tartarus or whether to move onto the next day and see how your Social Links will unfold, to say nothing of the fantastic overarching storyline. Thankfully the harmonious balance of both halves and the choice of how to spend your time means that neither element ever grates, though much like leaving an essay till the last minute, if you slack off completely on levelling up in Tartarus, you’ll be stuck with a tiresome grind the day before the bosses’ calendar dates.
So that’s Persona 3 in a hefty nutshell. What’s changed for Persona 3 Portable? Well, an awful lot and surprisingly little, depending on where you look. In the jump to a handheld platform, sadly, 3D third-person roaming around school and town had to go, replaced with a mixture of menus and static, isometric views of corridors with still character sprites similar to the first Persona. Pointing and clicking on characters and doors will trigger conversations or leave the area as you’d expect, or pressing the square button will bring up a list of local locations to jump to. It’s a quicker mode of travel that removes fundamentally little and adds its own gorgeous, lovingly-rendered 2D character portraits, though it does give the game a slightly more restrictive and condensed feel at times, losing some of the charm and immersion of wandering Japan or Gekkoukan High freely. It helps that all the same characters and locations are still available, from Mitsuru’s female stalker to that fat kid outside the arcade, while the inside of Tartarus is handled exactly as in the original, 3rd-person exploration and all. The fantastic anime cutscenes had to go, too, which is a shame considering how beautifully they were handled. The story content of these scenes is now covered by a combination of still 2D backdrops, character images and narration, while all the great voiceover acting from throughout the PS2 version is present and correct.
The losses are a sad but necessary concession in cramming an epic, 100+ hour RPG onto a portable console, and understandably might leave you with the ‘I’ll stick with my PS2 copy’ feeling, until you see just how much added content Atlus have managed to fit in. The aforementioned downsides are unfortunate, but minor, while the new additions are abundant and astounding. The first change you’ll notice is the option to choose between the familiar male protagonist, in which case you’ll experience essentially the same game as you did on the PS2, or a new female character, who comes with her own wealth of new Social Links. It’s an option that sounded merely cosmetic and superficial when announced, like a frilly pink interface draped over the same story, but in practice it’s amazing how great a job it does at providing an almost entirely different game experience. The story at large is the same, naturally, but character dynamics, certain sub-stories and dialogue are entirely different – Yukari shifts from the romantic interest to gal pal confidante, while the entire S.E.E.S. team are available as Social Links, should you want to date the guys, along with other new characters to bond with. There’s even a choice between Elisabeth or an entirely new male assistant at the Velvet Room to offer up that list of strange optional requests.
One of the only unfortunate minor issues inherent in the PS2 versions of Persona 3 was the slightly awkward inbuilt misogyny of the bishōjo-esque Social Links. Essentially all Social Links with female characters ended romantically, and sure, there was a minor penalty if you dated a girl while in a relationship with someone. But once you’d maxed out the relationship, had a girl fall in love with and – in some heavily-suggested cases – sleep with the main character, the game then forced you to ignore them and romance another girl if you wanted to level up a different Persona. Your scorned lover would linger in the halls, cooing about how you’ve brightened their life and they’ll always love you, apparently unaware that you’re now dating their friend. Awkward… It resulted in the main character feeling a bit like (for lack of a better term) a gigantic cheating manwhore. Thankfully it’s an issue countered by the female protagonist in P3P; inherited from Persona 4, you now get a turning point in Social Links where you’ll decide if a relationship will turn romantic or stay platonic, which along with a more even balance between female friends and male pals/love interests, makes juggling social links feel less awkward and their endings less lingeringly unfinished.
That’s not all that’s carried over from Persona 4 though. Also included is the option of working after-school jobs at the mall or cinema, giving you even more choice how to spend your time, while earning cash and a boost in charisma, intelligence or courage, so your slave labour doesn’t go unrewarded. Most notably though, the battle system has been tweaked a shade, allowing a more versatile experience. In the PS2 iterations you only assumed control of the main character in battle, issuing blanket orders to your team to focus on healing or to attack with gusto (but not pesto, that could get messy). For the most part it was a well-performing system, but occasionally when left to their own devices, characters would made daft choices, like opting to heal themselves instead of you in times of peril, despite you having the ability to revive them if they fall, but your death resulting in the end of the game. For P3P, you have the option of assuming direct control of every character, allowing for more precise strategy and a more enjoyable battle experience (though you can stick with the old system if you choose). Also new are the addition of skill cards – bonus cards gained when a Persona levels up that will gift a Persona you create with a certain elemental skill they wouldn’t otherwise inherit in fusions, giving the creation of Personae an added flavour.
Unfortunately though, it’s not all roses and joy, and along with the necessary anime and free-roaming sacrifices, there’s a foible or two to be found. The lack of Persona 3: FES’ added bonus story ‘The Answer’ means it’s not quite the definitive version of the game. The 2D visual change does an admirable job at conveying the story and capturing near everything from the original, but some moments don’t work as well in “visual novel” form (Elisabeth’s coin fountain moment, for instance, doesn’t work half as well as a descriptive gag without seeing it). In a trait carried over from the earlier versions, the naming of spells can prove troublesome. Each spell carries a fancy moniker (Bufu is ice, Agi is fire), which may not be as bland a term as ‘Freeze’ or ‘Implode’, but unfortunately trades obviousness for obtuseness, especially when you’re trying to discern the nature of a Tentarafoo skill or the difference between Tarukaja and Rakukaja. With an aim towards constantly switching Personae to exploit different enemies’ weaknesses and trading in your familiar Persona for new fused ones often to get a jump in power, it can be hard to recall which skill belongs to which Persona. You can jump into the menus and find out, but on-the-fly during battle, it’s not always easy to remember and can result in a wasted turn if you switch to the wrong Persona by mistake. It’s not something that comes remotely close to ruining the gameplay, but it can be annoying at times.
Tiny troublesome quirks aside, Persona 3 Portable is an astonishing achievement, wonderfully condensing the sublime Persona 3 experience and story into handheld form with surprising little lost in translation, while adding essentially a whole new game in the form of the female character. Persona 3 has always been heavy on lifespan and replay value, with its epic, dense 100+ hour story, all the social link stories that you didn’t choose the first time around and all those calendar-specific quests and requests you missed. P3P bafflingly manages to find even more value and rewarding gameplay to offer up, with the choice of protagonist providing more variety for newcomers or gamers of the fairer sex, and a wealth of new story, tweaks, additions and improvements to give seasoned Persona 3 fans ample reason to pick it up. It’s arguably not just the best RPG title on the platform, but the best damn game on the PSP, period. A great bonus is that Persona 3 already comes ideally-packaged gameplay-wise for a mobile platform, with its rationed bursts of calendar days and Tartarus nights (unfortunately not the title of a Persona-themed cabaret musical) providing the perfect fit for those on-the-go quick-play urges. Just don’t be surprised if you get stuck in that perpetual loop of playing for “just one more hour…”
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 Portable is available to buy on UMD or on the PlayStation Network now.
Click here to order the Collector’s Edition UMD version from Amazon.co.uk