Review: Persona 3 Portable (Sony PSP)

Persona 3 Portable
Genre: RPG
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: 07/06/10

When it first came out some three years ago, Persona 3 was a surprisingly fresh and interesting entry in the Persona franchise specifically as well as the Shin Megami Tensei series in general. Combining dungeon crawling mechanics, randomized dungeons, and the standard combat formulas that had made the series work as well as it had for years with interesting time-based stipulations, dating simulator-esque conversation systems that leveled up your ability to create new Personas, and literally hundreds of hours of gameplay, Persona 3 was an interesting and well developed game at the time that completely reinvented the franchise it was a part of and generated a lot of positive publicity for parent company Atlus. After the release of an expanded version of the game, Persona 3 FES, as well as a sequel in Persona 4, Atlus has decided to re-release the first game a third time on the Sony PSP. Dubbed Persona 3 Portable, the game includes many of the enhancements and expanded social links introduced in Persona 3 FES while also incorporating several enhancements from Persona 4 and the option to play through the game as a female protagonist, complete with new Social Links, among other things. Granted, Persona 3 wasn’t exactly begging for a re-release, considering that the other three games mentioned in the above writing have come out at about a one per year schedule, but the necessity of the title is somewhat less important than whether or not the game is a worthwhile addition to your PSP library in the first place, so let’s take a look.

Persona 3 Portable essentially tells the same story as its predecessors with minor changes here and there, but if you’ve never played the prior two releases, some explanation is warranted. You take on the role of the protagonist, who you can name as you see fit, who is moving into a dorm and joining Gekkoukan High School as the game begins. This would be a very boring game on its own, of course, so upon arriving, you’re basically thrust into a big “we need to save the world” plot involving a mystical tower, supernatural powers and ethereal evil. As it happens, your character is one of the gifted few who can perceive the Dark Hour, an hour that elapses exactly at midnight, outside of the perception of normal folks. During this hour, beings known as Shadows can run amok, killing people who accidentally find themselves trapped in the Dark Hour and afflicting people with something known as Apathy Syndrome, which basically makes you a gibbering mess who cries out about the end of the world. So it’s basically like watching Glitter, only less painful. Of course, your character isn’t simply able to perceive the Dark Hour, said character is also capable of fighting the Shadows by way of summoning a Persona, which is meant to be a manifestation of your internal self made corporeal, complete with the ability to cast spells and such. This ability essentially puts you in the position of joining up with the school’s Shadow Hunting club, SEES, who have two goals: scale a mystical tower known as Tartarus with the intention of discovering what its purpose is, and eliminate twelve powerful Shadows that will appear on every full moon with the intention of banishing the Dark Hour once and for all. Nothing is as simple as it seems, of course, as you will discover by playing through the game, and there are a lot more elements to what it going on than first meets the eye.

Now, Persona 3 had a fairly acceptable plot when it first came out, but Persona 3 Portable doesn’t really do a lot to expand upon said plot, other than adding in some new dialogue bits here and there. The problem with this, aside from the obvious “if you’ve played the prior games you’ve played this” issue, is that the plot of Persona 3 Portable doesn’t hold up as well as it did when it first came out. This isn’t to say that the plot is BAD, mind you, so much as it is to say that it’s underwhelming when compared to the other three games in the series. The character development isn’t as in-depth as it was in the other games, specifically Persona 4, and while the game tries to get around this by offering a female protagonist option and the male party members as social links when playing as her, this isn’t quite the same thing as installing said party members as Social Links from the start. This, of course, is because I DON’T WANT TO HAVE TO PLAY TWO HUNDRED HOURS OF A GAME TO GET ALL OF THE PLOT IF I DON’T HAVE TO. You can’t really explore Junpei and Yukari’s personal motivations in one session, period, and the game doesn’t do a good enough job on its own of really exploring these motivations when compared, again, to how Persona 4 handled this thing. For example: when Akihiko has his big epiphany and evolves as a character, it’s a powerful scene that makes sense in context and shows that he’s grown as a person. When Junpei does it, yeah, it’s his crowning moment of awesome, but it’s not really a moment of personal growth or evolution, it’s just him getting pissed and evolving because he lashed out on someone. Persona 4 makes a big deal about character evolution and personal growth stimulating the evolution of the characters, but Persona 3 has a few scenes where the story seems to go “Oh, okay” and evolve the characters just to get on with things, which is weak in comparison. The ending still feels generally unsatisfying, the whole “you work for a major corporation but have to buy your own gear” concept is still inane, and the female protagonist story arc is mostly identical to that of the male protagonist story arc, except with new Social Links that don’t add enough to the experience to be worth buying the game again and a couple new events that, again, don’t add enough to the experience to be worth buying the game again.

Persona 3 Portable looks good on the PSP, though there are some noticeable losses in the conversion from the PS2. The models and such are somewhat lower resolution, obviously so in many respects, though when compared to other games on the PSP they look pretty good all around. The models also lack a lot of the animation of their PS2 counterparts, especially their faces, which basically are static texture maps, but, again, this is a small complaint. The game has also removed most standard overworld maps, replacing them with static images and hot points you can interact with by moving a cursor over them and pressing a button. While this greatly simplifies the act of interacting with the game world, it’s also visually basic in comparison to how the previous games in the series handled things. The cutscenes from the prior games, both animated and in-game, have also been removed, and have instead been replaced with talking head scenes, similar to how Social Link scenes worked in the prior games, only with no in-game graphics to accompany them. The visual changes made to the game were obviously made in the spirit of reducing the pressure put upon the disc space and system loading, and they’re interesting enough that they don’t hurt the game significantly, though fans of the console releases may come away disappointed. The audio, thankfully, is in no way hurt by the move to the PSP. The voice acting is as plentiful and as well done as ever, and additional voice acting has been added in, both to change some dialogue when dealing with the female main character and to add some dialogue to Social Links, similar to how Persona 4 would occasionally voice otherwise text-based scenes. The music is as fantastic as always, and some new tracks have been added to the game, mostly when playing as the female main character. The sound effects are pretty much fantastic all around as well, both in and out of battle, and while very little has been noticeably added to this section of the audio, what’s here works.

The gameplay of Persona 3 Portable, as with the two games it’s derived from and Persona 4, is pretty simple at its core, though once you scratch the surface all sorts of complexities come flying out. Most of your time will be divided between wandering around the city of Tatsumi Port Island (as I understand it), talking to the populace to glean information and upgrades, or hacking your way through monster-filled dungeons, earning money and experience points to upgrade your characters. Combat and navigation are a breeze, as you’d expect, and combat is purely turn-based, meaning if you’ve navigated a menu in your life, you’ll have no problem navigating the combat here. Combat itself works as most RPG fans would expect: you’re given a team of allies to fight alongside against teams of monsters, and each goes in order from first to last until everyone’s gone, which starts the turns over again. All of the standard elemental concepts most games have been doing forever are here as well, as each monster and character has different degrees of ability in fire, ice, wind, lightning, light, dark, and strikes that dictate their ability to resist these attacks (or take additional damage from them as the situation dictates), as well as different stats (Strength, Magic, Endurance, Agility, and Luck) which dictate the character’s base abilities to take and give damage. Again, none of this should be surprising to fans of the genre, and most folks should grasp all of this fairly quickly.

Where the game begins to come into its own is with the actual Personas themselves. Your characters all come equipped with Personas when they join your team, each with its own specific abilities and elemental resistances/weaknesses, making them vauable/useless as the situation dictates. Your main character is not hampered by such restrictions, however, as he can summon any Persona you can fuse, allowing you to be the party Swiss Army Leader, changing your functionality as needed in the heat of battle. This allows you to not only change up your tactics as needed, but also allows you to plan ahead for whatever boss encounters you might face. Your allies will see their Personas level up as they do, which keeps things uniform as far as they’re concerned, but your Personas level up at a much slower rate, meaning a Persona that was impressive five levels ago is now lagging behind. That’s where the Velvet Room comes in. The Velvet Room is essentially a Persona science lab of sorts, as it allows you to fuse your Personas together to make brand new models as needed. This is where you’ll end up getting most of your Personas from, as fused Personas are also more powerful than those you acquire otherwise. Fusing Personas is a tricky endeavor at first, as you have to take into account the levels of the Personas being fused as well as their Arcanum Sign (think of this as their ‘type’, more or less) in order to have an idea of what the resulting Persona will be. There’s also the consideration of HOW you would fuse them together, as you’re offered a few different options (some build basic Personas, while others are meant for special Personas that can only be built a certain way), thus allowing you all sorts of interesting ways to create the ultimate internal killing machine. Your allies are more or less attached to the Personas they earn when they first come into their own, which is done for storyline purposes (these Persona are supposed to be the embodiment of their “true self”, while your character really doesn’t have a “true” self, since, well, he’s you), however, meaning that you have to also pay attention to who you select for battle before you go out into the Shadow Realm; exploiting enemy weaknesses allows for extra turns, added damage, and the ability to dog-pile on the enemy for massive damage, but enemies can exploit your weaknesses all the same, so it helps to pay attention to what you need to stay alive in battle.

Navigating dungeons is done from a third-person, behind-the-back perspective, allowing you to rotate the map to see your surroundings as needed. You can see items and enemies in the world as you run around, which can allow you to grab items and avoid combat (or sneak-attack enemies) as you see fit. The combat of Persona 3 mostly takes place in the gigantic tower known as Tartarus, which is a multi-story tower divided into sections that open up as you defeat various major boss monsters in the story. Each section of Tartarus is filled with enemies, treasure and teleportation devices that return you to the entrance, and the visual patterns of each section change somewhat as you progress. You’re also given an overhead map to look over as you move through the dungeons, which allows you to see where you’re going and where you’ve been, and as you progress, your support characters Mitsuru and Fuuka will show treasures and enemies on the map, which is also helpful for planning out how to navigate. As you fight your way through Tartarus you’ll reach floors containing sub-bosses every so often who you’ll have to take out in order to proceed, and each section has a gated off endpoint that only opens once you’ve defeated a major boss. The various major bosses you’ll have to face show up at pre-determined points in the story, for the most part on each full moon, giving you a set time period in which you will need to complete the tasks set before you. Persona 3 Portable retains the exhaustion system from the prior game, where characters would become tired as they engaged in battles and such in Tartarus, but it removes the negative performance aspect of this system, as well as the need for characters to leave the team and return to the dorm once they were returned to the ground floor, thus removing the noticeable negatives of the system overall. The Shuffle Time lottery system from the prior games is back in full-form, meaning that you can potentially grab Personas, healing, cash or weapons from a series of shuffled cards, though the possibility exists of getting nothing or, worse, summoning the Reaper, a powerful Shadow who pretty much chases you through the floor until he catches and kills you, you kill him (which isn’t likely to happen early on), or you leave the floor. He’ll also show up if you putter around too long on a floor, which is a good incentive to keep moving if nothing else.

Outside of the combat, there are also a ton of things to do in the game, most of which revolve around your Social Links, your personal skills, and other novelties. Many of the characters you meet, including some of your own allies, forge Social Links with your character relative to their Arcanum that allow you to improve your ability to summon Persona of that Arcanum, essentially allowing for experience point boosts upon summoning them. Maxing out a Social Link will allow you to summon the highest level Persona from that Arcanum, which makes paying attention to these links worth the effort, as these Persona are amongst the best in the game. As with prior versions of Persona 3, upgrading Social Links doesn’t directly affect much more than the ability to summon higher level Personas, but Persona 3 Portable does incorporate the upgrades that came from maxing the Social Links of your party members into this version, including group attacks and the ability for allies to take a death blow for you, which is a nice addition. There are also personal stats to work on, of which there are three (Academics, Courage, and Charm), each of which will open up new conversation options throughout the game, open up new Social Links, and improve how others see you, depending on how you advance them, which makes them worth upgrading as needed. The game also offers part time jobs to take on, new missions to take that allow you to save trapped people who are stuck in Tartarus, and changes around some of the mechanics of the game from prior incarnations, such as how Fusion skills work (they require items now and are not available by default) and how Tired status can be fixed (you can use items to nullify it now), among other things, so this isn’t the exact same game it was before all the way around.

The main game is about one hundred hours long or more (no, really), depending on the things you do and the choices you make, and with two endings to unlock, you might well think that’s enough for the game, but apparently Atlus thought otherwise. You can also play through the standard New Game Plus, which allows you to carry over your Persona Compendium (where your Persona are registered when you create and improve them), personal skills, levels, inventory and money, among other things, into a new game. Aside from that, there’s also an additional dungeon, Monad, on top of the main Tartatus Tower, which is really rather vicious to play through, as well as hidden bosses to face, the option to change elements of the ending in a New Game Plus, and Persona 4 cameos to see depending on your chosen gender. For those who have never played the game, Persona 3 Portable is easily the most complete version in terms of main game content available, and even for those who have played the games, the game includes all of the main content from Persona 3 FES, as well as some interesting new changes and added content that make the game worth checking out for fans who want some more of the game.

That said, while Persona 4 felt like a yellow coat of paint and some house repair on the old frame of Persona 3, Persona 3 Portable feels like someone hung up some wind chimes and stuck a few garden gnomes out front of Persona 3 and called it a new game. The game does a few new things here and there, and yes, many of the changes (being able to control all of your characters, for example) are for the better, but that doesn’t mean the game doesn’t feel like the exact same game with some visual changes and minor additions squeezed in. The combat is mostly identical to that of Persona 3 and virtually spot-on identical to that of Persona 4, and there are no noticeable mechanical differences here from those two games. That these mechanics are improved all around when compared to Persona 3 is hardly enough of a motivation to make this re-release worth playing on its own, and if you bought both Persona 3 and the FES expansion pack, it’s going to be VERY hard to accept buying yet ANOTHER hundred hour game that is mostly the exact same thing.

It also doesn’t help that many of the issues that have come along with the games from the beginning still afflict Persona 3 Portable, sometimes in an even worse capacity than before. The prior games, given enough time and dedication to a rigorous schedule, COULD be completed almost entirely in one playthrough, though most players would find that they would have to play the game twice to see everything there was to see. Persona 3 Portable REQUIRES you to play through the game AT LEAST twice to see everything it has to offer, if not more, thanks to the multiple protagonists and added S-Links, and assuming that you’re willing to follow said rigorous schedules to see everything as quickly as possible, you could be playing the game three or more times through. I mean, yeah, okay, this isn’t the biggest complaint one can lay against a game, and it sounds kind of silly to badger a game for offering too much content, but by the same token, who WANTS to play a game for three hundred hours just to see all of the Social Links to fruition, especially when the rest of the game makes no noticeable changes from one iteration to the next? The game also follows its predecessors in making Rush sporadically useless by making multiple enemies, especially on later floors, invulnerable or resistant to physical attacks, and while I was expecting this thing, it bears noting, once again, that Rush Combat is more than likely going to end up getting you killed if you’re not paying attention. The game still also ends if your character suffers an Instant Death attack or dies in battle, much like in every Shin Megami Tensei game of the past ten years that isn’t Digital Devil Saga, and as this happens a not-insignificant amount on any difficulty beyond Easy, casual players will also want to be mindful of the fact that the game is a significant challenge, though Easy Mode alleviates this somewhat by giving you ten extra chances, while the newly introduced Beginner Mode allows you THIRTY retries, in case you’re really, really bad at the game.

Which, unfortunately, brings us to the final, and perhaps largest, complaint against Persona 3 Portable: at the end of the day, it’s still a complete remake of a game that has already been remade once, and as remakes go, it’s not nearly impressive enough to justify its existence or price tag. It’s very much a hacked-down port of the console game, as virtually every animated cutscene has been removed from the game entirely, as have the various non-dungeon overworld zones, leaving the game with static maps and visual novel-style talking head cutscenes for everything. This somewhat makes sense from a disc space perspective… until you realize that, compared to something like Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, which is significantly larger than its PS2 predecessors in terms of content, this game doesn’t seem like nearly as significant an expansion. Adding a female protagonist is nice, to a point, as are the expanded Social Links available to her, but the fact is that these are minor additions to what is, in essence, the exact same game as Persona 3 FES, only without “The Answer” included. The game is also technically unimpressive, as aside from the visual step down, lack of cutscenes, and lack of 3D environments in non-dungeon environments, the game is also a noticeable loader, even with the game installed to the memory stick. Battles can take a noticeable amount of time to load at various points, and the game will often have a several second gap between dialogue popping up on screen and audio being played that wasn’t present in the PS2 version of the game. While it might be unreasonable to expect the game to LOOK exactly like the PS2 release, it shouldn’t be unreasonable to expect it to be as finely tuned as said game, which this most certainly is not.

The bottom line here is that Persona 3 Portable is still a fine game, and still worth owning if you’ve somehow missed out on Persona 3 or are looking to see the new content, but while this is one of the more in-depth versions of the game available, it’s really not the best, and it offers nothing worth owning if you’ve played the prior games. The story is the same as it ever was, for good or ill, and while the female main character does add some additional Social Links to the game, this doesn’t really do much to change the story overall. The game looks fine for a PSP title, though the visuals are noticeably cut down from their PS2 counterparts, and the audio is still as good as ever, though only the female main character really gets anything new in this regard. The game plays as well as it ever did, and features many new gameplay changes, both from Persona 4 and all its own, so that players who have played the prior games will have something new to see, and there’s plenty of depth to the game thanks to the new additions and the option for two different main characters. That said, the game feels mostly identical to Persona 3 FES with some elements from Persona 4 thrown in, can require two or more full playthroughs to see everything the game has to offer (meaning two hundred plus hours of play), and can be frustratingly challenging on anything beyond Easy difficulty. Further, the game doesn’t feel like a solid enough port of the original game, between the general lack of originality, the complete removal of virtually all in-game or animated cutscenes, the noticeable drop in visual quality, the lack of “The Answer” and the obvious loading times and audio stalling. If you don’t have a PS2, you missed the original games on the PS2 or you’re a big fan of Persona 3 and haven’t gotten enough of the game yet, you’ll find plenty to love about Persona 3 Portable, but if you’ve played the game once already in either incarnation you’ve seen a good bit of what this release has to offer, if not most of it, and in that respect, spending another forty dollars on a game you’ve already played with a few new additions is hard to recommend.

The Scores:
Story: ABOVE AVERAGE
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: CLASSIC
Balance: GOOD
Originality: BAD
Addictiveness: GREAT
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE

Final Score: ENJOYABLE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Persona 3 Portable is, for better or worse, a port of Persona 3 FES for the Sony PSP with more content, worse visuals, a lack of the substory “The Answer”, and some technical flaws. If you’ve missed the original releases of Persona 3 or are a huge fan of the prior games and want some more, Persona 3 Portable will scratch that itch nicely, but it’s not the best version of the game available, and anyone who’s played it already will find this release of the game to be more of the same. The story itself is adequate enough, if not perfect, and the choice of male or female main character differentiates the Social Link options for those who want a different experience from one to the other. The game still looks fine, if not as good as its console counterparts, and the audio is as good as ever. The game is still easy to play, offers a good range of challenge for the player and plenty of variety across the game, and thanks to some changes and improvements, either all new or borrowed from Persona 4, the gameplay is generally quite good all around. The game is very lengthy and in-depth, and thanks to the multiple difficulty modes, New Game Plus options and added content across two main characters, offers plenty of reason to come back for fans of the game. However, there’s little originality to the product, as it’s basically a straight port of Persona 3 FES with some new content added in and some elements from Persona 4 tossed in for good measure. Further, the game still features the same issues as the prior games, such as the need to play through a one hundred plus hour game multiple times to see everything and the odd gameplay and difficulty quirks, and this particular iteration of the game feels like an underwhelming port, between the content cut from the game and the odd technical issues that pop up frequently enough to be easily noticeable. If you’ve missed out on the original games or want to go through the game for the added content, Persona 3 Portable is a fine enough game to be worth checking out, but it doesn’t do enough to be worth the asking price if you’ve played the game before, and isn’t the best version of the game available.