IGN Review of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 Portable
Hopefully, you don't need me to tell you that Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 is an exceptional game. I mean, IGN's reviewed the game twice now -- once as a standalone game and again as the director's cut known as FES -- and each time the advice was simple: play this game. Now, the Shin Megami Tensei title is back as Persona 3 Portable, a hybrid that packs the story of Persona 3, the improvements of FES, and a new female character that's the PSP's own.
It's a hodgepodge that keeps what works while dealing with the limitations of the PSP, but it's still a stellar game that people looking for a Japanese RPG or cool story should play.
The thing that's always made me a Persona 3 fan is the story, and that remains largely untouched here. You're a transfer student in modern day Japan and upon arriving at your new home, you discover that this isn't just another boarding school. Every night at midnight, the citizens around you turn into coffins and a tower packed with evil beings known as "Shadows" appears. A select group of people has the ability to stay lucid during this "Dark Hour" and fight the Shadows. This group is the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES); they're all students, and you're one of them.
Yup, it's like Buffy the Vampire Slayer got into a head-on collision with the JRPG genre.
The rad story spills over into some rad gameplay. At night, you'll head to Tartarus with members of the SEES and battle all sorts of Shadows -- blobs of black, flying monsters, and so on. You'll fight them with swords and arrows, but your main avenue of vengeance are Personas, representations of the SEES members' personalities. These are massive creatures that pack special attacks such as fire moves and lasers and all sorts of crazy crap. They're nifty, and as you play, you'll be able to combine Personas to create super-powerful allies.
As you progress, your character and his or her Personas are leveling up off of the experience points you're earning, you're climbing to higher and higher levels of Tartarus, and the foes you face are getting tougher and tougher.
However, this battling is just going on at night. During the day, Persona 3 plays like a simulation game. You take your character to school, go to classes, join clubs and basically live like a high schooler. You'll need to answer questions in lectures and remember your work schedule while balancing time with your buddies. All of these decisions play into your character's stats -- charm, academics and courage -- and influence the way the world sees you, but the bigger deal is making time for your friends.
As you make acquaintances, you're establishing "social links." You strengthen these social links by hanging out and interacting with the people you've met, and in turn, those relationships make your Personas stronger. To kick ass on the battlefield, you need to pay as much attention to your social life as you do to what type of equipment you've armed yourself with for a night in Tartarus. That's all kinds of awesome -- especially because you're choosing what you're saying and whom your spending time with. Your social network is completely made up of your personal decisions.
All of that is nifty, but you could've gathered that by reading the two previous Persona 3 reviews. What's good and bad about the PSP version of this award winner? Well, most of it's good, so let's get the bad out of the way first. The beautiful anime cutscenes from the original game are gone. Instead, the story is told through static screenshots and voiceovers. Similarly, there's no more third-person free-roaming. You can still choose where you want to go after most classes, but now you just move a circle to interactable objects on the screen. You no longer walk your character through the halls of Gekkoukan.
Both of these losses hurt the experience -- but they don't come near crippling it. Losing the anime cutscenes is a bummer because they looked so good, but the story is easy enough to follow and I found myself connecting with the characters almost as much this way. The same can be said for the new navigation scheme. It works and gets you around, but you lose some of that immersion that came from wandering Japan. This game was already a few years old, and these handicaps make it feel its age.
Should any of that make you bail on Persona 3 Portable? No. I've already mentioned the solid story and cool battles, but Atlus has tossed a bunch of other stuff in here to make Persona 3 Portable feel as fresh as possible. For starters, you can now control all the members of your party -- a welcome addition, let me tell you. Back when you and I were playing Persona on the PS2, we had to rely on the AI to make the right choices in battle -- whom to heal, what Persona to use, etc. Now, you can switch tactics mid-battle and make those choices on your own. This is an awesome addition that makes the Persona 3 Portable battle system all the better.
The other big addition -- looking past the game's option to install data to your memory stick, its two new difficulty settings, and so on -- is that of a brand new character: a female protagonist. If you've played Persona 3 before, this change in the point of view is super-refreshing as the dialogue with other characters is now completely different. That "are they or aren't they" tension between the male protagonist and Yukari is gone, you being short with Junpei has a different connotation to it, and so on.
This is a great counter balance for folks who have already been though the main story, and it's an awesome way to extend your play time if you're picking up Persona 3 for the first time -- there are two stories for you to enjoy.