ESRB Rating: M (Mature)
Hours Played: 150 (no, that’s not a typo)
Progress: Finished the game
The Persona franchise is a popular series by the RPG aficionados at Atlus. What makes it different from many of its counterparts is that it is set in a contemporary Japan instead of Tolkien-esque fantasy worlds or post-apocalyptic futures. The fact that it centers around a group of high school students, though, is not particularly different considering that every other game produced and published by a Japanese software company seems to involve uniform-clad highschoolers. Persona 3 Portable (P3P) offers a hand-held remake of the excellent PS2 title, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, with additional content in the form of a new playable female character and unique story segments. So how does this franchise fare on Sony’s portable console? Read on to find out….
P3P puts you in the shoes of a quiet high school student who is transferred to a new school and finds that squeezing more hours out of the day suddenly doesn’t seem all that improbable when he uncovers a hidden hour in between midnight and 1AM, dubbed the “Dark Hour”. While all other people are sheltered from this Dark Hour by virtue of eerie coffins that appear right where the people were at midnight, you find that there are like-minded people who are also able to experience this nightmarish world and wouldn’t you know it, they live in the same dorm as you! There is a purpose behind the aforementioned coffins, however, as they keep people safe from the roaming entities known as “Shadows” who will attack anyone not locked away during this time. You and your dorm mates are luckily not defenseless as you have the ability to summon powerful creatures known as “Personas”, which are beckoned by pulling the trigger on a device known as an “Evoker”, while it is pointed at your head no less.
P3P is one of those rare RPGs that keeps the story going at a steady pace throughout instead of fizzling towards the end. Your ultimate goal in the game is to find out the source of the Shadows through exploration of the massive tower known as “Tartarus”, which only appears during the Dark Hour. A good chunk of the game is however spent developing relationships with your school mates and various people around town. By talking to them and undertaking different activities your “social rank” will increase, not only does this tighten the relationship between you and the other person, but it also increases the “Arcana” (your Persona’s elemental affinity) associated with that relationship. As in-game days pass, new events constantly develop causing relationships to evolve, new NPCs to become available and circumstances around the school to change. Because this happens constantly during the entirety of the game things stay fresh and it never feels like the story is running out of steam. There are a lot of story elements that we’ve seen before and will feel predictable such as the pursuit of very highschool-esque relationships and dorm members’ social insecurities, however the tales behind many of the game’s NPCs are fascinating, moving and occasionally downright endearing. Because P3P takes its time, the story develops far more organically than the typical paper-thin fare we see in many RPGs and the player benefits greatly from a more engrossing experience.
It all could have ended there and things would’ve been just peachy, but to appease people who might already own the console version, Atlus added a new playable female character with unique story segments and character interactions. While this often just boils down to hitting on the boys instead of girls, it does occasionally bring something fresh to the table and at the end of the day is an addition that Atlus could have easily omitted, but didn’t.
While P3P has plenty of strong points, the graphics are an unfortunate omission from that list. The anime artwork in the Persona series has always been top notch and although that artwork is still present, sadly its only in the form of still images and not full motion cut scenes (as in the console versions). We only find 3D models when venturing into Tartarus where dungeon crawling and combat takes place. The main characters, enemies and Personas are chunky and not nearly as refined as what the PSP has the potential to pull off. The randomly generated dungeons are surprise, surprise, incredibly generic and uninspired, leaving us with very little visual eye candy. I have to admit however, that the character design is very good, especially on the Personas, while there are countless different Personas to obtain and fuse, most look extremely imaginative with well-drawn character images. The great story and incredibly deep gameplay kept my mind of the dialed-down graphics most of the time, but exploring the many levels of Tartarus’ bland dungeons got frustrating long before I hit the 100 hour mark.
The music in P3P benefits from its contemporary setting by combining pop tunes with hip hop lyrics and dance tunes. While this might not be everyone’s cup of tea, the upbeat soundtrack is a welcome change of pace from the usual RPG-fare. Voice-acting is incredibly solid, especially for a JRPG, which typically suffer from poor English voice-overs. This makes the game a lot more bearable as there is a ton of voice dialogue throughout. While the player can choose which tunes to listen to while dungeon crawling, there are only four to choose from, causing you to run out of options long before the 125+ floors in Tartarus have been explored. While it is a fault of virtually all RPGs and not just P3P, it has to be mentioned that constantly looping the same battle music during the hundreds of enemy encounters the player will experience is just plain stupid. Developers need to include more variety in battle music to stop gamers’ ears from chronic bleeding, after all, in RPGs the time spent on combat is often just as substantial as the time spent on exploration and the variety in battle music needs to reflect this.
There are three different types of environments with different control that the player will experience. The “field”, which is a 2D environment with “hot spot” icons signifying locations that can be entered like your classrooms (in the case of your high school), stores (in the case of the two different malls around town) or other locations in the city, is mostly navigated through the directional buttons (D-pad) or the analog stick, with the X button as the main action button, O button to cancel commands, triangle button to access the menu and the square button to access the travel shortcut menu.
In Tartarus, or the “dungeon” if you will, the player has full 3D movement but as usual the D-pad is more satisfying to use than the analog stick. X is once again the action button, but also enables your character to swing his weapon to engage enemies which are visible within the environment. There’s a delay between the button press and weapon swing, which is extremely annoying and can lead to enemies engaging the player first, causing a “surprise attack” making the shadows go first in combat. All other button prompts are pretty standard and not worth mentioning.
The final environment is battle mode, which is entered after engaging an enemy while making your way through Tartarus. There are some helpful button prompts here, like the left shoulder button which allows you to analyze the enemies and the right shoulder button which shows the turn order. The triangle button toggles the auto battle option providing quick and easy access to your party members’ behavior. Overall the button layout is well thought out with handy command options, the responsiveness as mentioned in the previous paragraph, could be better.
This is one deep game. I could go into great detail about how Personas can be merged in a myriad of different ways, how they learn new moves as they level up, how their move-set can be customized with special “cards” teaching them new abilities, how the Arcana of the Persona you have equipped determines the elements you’re vulnerable and immune to, or how you can boost the stats of your Personas by using cards, obtainable by gems you earned in battle. I could also go into how you can buy, purchase or create weapons by fusing them with Personas. I could even go into the battle mechanic that rewards using elemental attacks your opponents are vulnerable to by juggling the appropriate Personas and critically striking all enemies so that you can finish them with a devastating team attack.
*Pant* And that’s just the combat… I didn’t even go into how developing relationships with your classmates and the people around town increases your affinity for the different Arcana (or elemental types), which will make your Persona stronger and grant level boosts to newly fused Personas of that Arcana. Completing all the interactions within a relationship with be rewarded with the highest level (10) of the related Arcana and allows the creation of a new and stronger Persona. Half the fun is actually exploring around town and finding new people who will, often with time, open the door to others, allowing you to level up Arcanas that were previously hidden.
Variety in the dungeon crawling is provided by the challenges offered up by Elizabeth, the coordinator of the enigmatic “Velvet Room”, a place where you can store, reclaim and create Personas. A list of quests can be perused with a maximum of three available to be claimed at any time. Different rewards can be obtained from quests, which need to be completed not just in Tarturas but also in town. Sometimes ordinary citizens can wonder into Tartarus (don’t ask me how they managed to get out of their coffin) and get trapped, it then becomes your job to track them down before they got lost forever. An interesting dynamic here is that these “random’ citizens can sometimes be NPCs that you would otherwise have been able to interact with, leading to newly unlocked Arcana. Leaving them to their fate means that this NPC disappears from the game world, kissing the opportunity to unlock the associated Arcana, goodbye. I loved the sense of urgency this created when receiving a call (unlike my basement suite they have awesome cell phone coverage in the Velvet Room) about another hapless citizen who wondered into Tartarus.
Combat, in fine RPG tradition, is turn-based (yes, I’m a purist), you and three of your team mates typically take on anywhere from one to six different enemies with lots of mini-boss and boss fights strewn in. You can issue commands while engaged in battle, or leave the “auto battle” option on if you prefer to focus your attention on the main character. In addition to physical attacks, elemental attacks can be used in accordance with the abilities of your currently selected Persona. Your character is unique from your teammates in that he can switch Personas on the fly, while they are strictly monogamous and loyal to only one. Your character benefits by being able to switch Personas to utilize an attack that the particular enemy you’re facing at the time is vulnerable to. You may subsequently want to switch to a Persona with healing or buffing abilities to ready yourself for the next encounter. It’s all well thought out, but after hour upon hour, dungeon crawling can’t save itself from becoming repetitive, especially once you’ve created your “super” Persona, possessing the majority of the most common elemental attacks and universal super attacks. That’s actually my main gripe with the overall gameplay, repetition becomes a huge factor, especially in traversing level upon level of the incredibly generic Tartarus. “New” enemies with a different color scheme don’t do much to break up the monotony. Atlus kind off did this to themselves by stretching the story over roughly 100 hours of gameplay. While the story and character relationships progress, the combat and dungeon crawling remain largely unchanged, making exploring Tartarus feel increasingly like a chore the more time goes on.
If you took a gander at the “hours played” notation at the top of this article you might have raised an eyebrow. Let me first state that I’m a completist and that for the purpose of reviews I spend a lot of extra time going through a game. Having said that, most gamers will spend upwards of 100 hours before they see the ending sequence, that’s great because that means a ton of content for you, the player. The dungeon crawling and combat that goes with it however, become tedious over time. The constantly developing story as well as the development of your relationships with all the different characters definitely keep you going and overall this is one of the deeper RPG experiences available. Even though the graphics take a big hit compared to the console version, the art style, music and setting are all extremely pleasing and I couldn’t be more impressed with the localization. Voice acting is great and the translation perfectly marries Japanese culture and slang with the English language to create a believable experience that stays true to the setting of the game.
Any RPG fan with a PSP should pick up this title, no questions asked. For those gamers who already own the console version the addition of the new playable female character (as great of an addition as it is), does not constitute another purchase. I love the constantly developing story, many relationships open for exploration, deep Persona customization/creation options and localization efforts of Persona 3 Portable. It is rare that we fault a game for being too long, but as mentioned before the dungeon crawling can become tiresome due to the uninspired level design. Everything else is rock solid, so what are you waiting for? Go get this title already!
+ Constantly evolving story, even dozens of hours into the game
- Overall story concept not very original
+ Great art style
- Rough polygon models
- Repetitive and generic level design
+ Great voice acting
+ Fun, upbeat music
- Repetitive exploration/combat music
+ Good implementation of control options
- Sluggish attack responsiveness
+ Deep gameplay
+ Great gameplay integration of NPC interaction
- Dungeon crawling is too repetitive
+ Tons of content (around 100 hrs)
- The game definitely loses some of its fun towards the end