Persona 3 Portable
Teenagers, guns, demons and philosophical phrases throw themselves upon you the first minute of the opening sequence. Yup, this is definitely the same Persona 3 game that we played on our PS2s a few years ago so what's it doing on the PSP? Perhaps with the surprise success of it's sequel, Persona 4, Atlus decided to bring P3 to the masses for both new and old players to the franchise with it's improved gameplay mechanics and expanded story. While I think buying the same game three times is absurd, P3P brings a lot of changes to justify the purchase.
Persona 3 begins with the player character, a transfer student, arriving to the sea-side city of Iwotodai. Even minutes after departing the train station you can already sense that things are not as they should be. Coffins litter the streets, the city is stripped of power and a large, yellow moon eerily hangs up above. Upon arrival at your dorm and signing a mysterious contract with a boy you're greeted by two young women, Yukari Takeba and Mitsuru Kirijo who also happen to be your school mates. Tired from your long journey you to bed as tomorrow marks your first day at Gekkoukan High School where you and your friends will be spending most of their time.
Not long after, your dorm comes under attack by horrible creatures known as Shadows. Such dangerous circumstances results in you calling fourth your power with the aid of an Evoker, a gun-like object that that summons a Persona. This eventually results in you joining a group called the Special Extracurricular Execution Squad, or S.E.E.S. for short. Their duty is to fight any shadows that threaten the city during the Dark Hour, a period of time that's hidden between midnight and the next day. What's more, the shadows appear to be coming from Tartarus, which is essentially your school transformed into a large, towering structure filled with shadows. But don't worry, your school is back to normal when the Dark Hour passes.
As if juggling school and exploring the many floors of Tartarus wasn't enough to keep you occupied, you'll also be establishing Social Links with your school mates and the inhabitants of Iwotodai. Social Links are perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the game. Taking a few pointers from visual novels dating simulators, you'll be spending time with various characters and helping them overcome their problems. Whether it the old couple at the book store, the young girl troubled by her parents divorce or your foreign classmate enamoured by Japanese culture, each social link presents a different story to progress through. How well you progress on these events depends on what answers you give off a set number of phrases for each situation.
Taking part in social links and other actions takes time of course. A day is broken in separate periods, Morning, After School and Evening. An average day will consist of school in the Morning (from Mondays to Saturdays), After School where you'll be able to engage in social links or increasing your attributes and then the Evening where you can do a small number of things or explore the hallways of Tartarus. Your social and school life is determined by three important attributes, Academics, Courage and Charm. These three govern how well you do in school, which social links you can establish as well as small number of actions outside of those. Having the appropriate attributes at the right time can lead to rewards and who doesn't like rewards? During day and evening you're allowed to wander around town as well. You can go to the Karaoke Bar to improve your courage, play a game at the arcade to further your persona's stats or stop by the Police Station to buy new weapons and armour. Keeping an eye on your time schedule is critical as well since every full moon results in boss battles that you need to overcome in order to progress through the story line, so planning how to spend your time at school, friends and training at Tartarus to prepare for such events are essential.
Probably the most important reason why you would establish social links is because each character is associated with the Major Arcana found in the tarot cards. Ranking up these social links provides bonus experience points to fusing personae. Fusing personae takes place in the mysterious Velvet Room inhabited by Igor and his assistant Elizabeth (or Theodore). Whilst exploring Tartarus you'll collect a number of Personae that when fused together, creates a new persona. Each persona has unique strengths and weaknesses but all of them are associated with a particular arcana and how powerful they will be upon creation depends on the strength of the social links that you forge over the course of the game. At some point you'll have access to the Compendium which stores the personae that you've collected and fused. This allows you to acquire previous personae that you've registered for a price. It's incredibly useful since you don't have to run through Tartarus with a fine-tooth comb in order to look for one persona for fusions. Just make sure to register them into the compendium before you fuse.
In battle these personae are essentially the magic users of the game. Your team mates will have their own unique personae but unlike them, you have the ability to change which ones to use. Since each one has different statistics, it's important to change to the appropriate persona during your turn to fit the situation. The shadows that you'll encounter have strengths and weaknesses to various elements, those being ice, fire, wind, electricity and for harder shadows, dark and light. Exploiting these weaknesses whilst protecting your own is key to winning any battle. For example, casting a fire spell on a shadow that's weak to fire immediately gives you an extra turn meaning you'll be able to wipe out a large group of shadows without taking a single hit. Of course, smarter enemies will also exploit your weaknesses so watch out otherwise things will go pear-shaped for you and your team mates. Despite being a turn based RPG, the action itself is quite intense. If it all goes well, good battles tend to last no longer then half a minute.
It's a great system that encourages players to fight intelligently and if you're lucky, you'll get a Shuffle Time after the battle. It's a mini-game that presents you a small deck of cards and shuffles them around for you to pick out. You can get a new weapon, some extra experience points or even a new persona. Taking a page out of Persona 4's combat mechanics, your now able to take full control of your team instead of letting the A.I. control them. Although the A.I. is smart enough to work it's way through boss battles the ability to take full control the action is a god-send for more experienced players who like to devise their own tactics. It's a minor change but it's very profound one nonetheless. The ability to Guard (that was absent in previous iterations of the game) instead of Wait is also handy for tougher boss battles as well. Overall, combat is much more fun then it was before. From time to time, inhabitants of Iwotodai will accidentally wander into Tartarus and will be marked as missing people. Rescuing these people before the next full moon grants rewards whenever you return to the police station otherwise they're lost for good.
Unfortunately, Tartarus itself just feels a bit too dull and long at times. You'll be climbing stairs upon stairs as you run around the randomly generated floors killing shadows and opening chests. While the improved combat mechanics makes this easier to bear it doesn't change the fact that you'll sometimes be going through the same floors looking for a particular shadow or item you need for a side-quest given by Igor's assistant. You'll find teleporters dotted around each floors of Tartarus and while most of them are one way tickets to the entrance, specific teleporters allow you to move directly to those floors, making exploring much faster. The floors themselves feel monotonous. Tartarus is broken into separate blocks, each consisting of about 20-30 floors or so and each block has a certain colour scheme to it. While it's not bad the first time you see it, you'll quickly get bored of seeing the same décor for the next hour or two. The soundtrack itself the same for every floor albeit some alterations to it but even that get's dull.
Fortunately, you'll have the choice of changing the music later on the game when you're exploring the tower but you've only got a choice of four. They're good tracks but it's probably not enough to shift your attention away from the monotonous floors that you have to wade through. Speaking of which, the soundtrack to P3P feels fresh and catchy as unlike most JRPGs, you've got J-Pop when the you're hanging around town, some bouts of hip-hop in battle to the more traditional, yet hauntingly solemn music of the Velvet Room. It's a strange mix at first but I found myself enjoying it as each track sets and fits the mood just right. The new tracks for P3P female character added by the same composer Shoji Meguro still retains that P3 flavour and thus is a welcome addition to the already large soundtrack.
The story itself has the same dark, mature mood of the original. Despite being high school students, the underlying meaning feels quite deep and emotional. Your social links will deal with a number of themes, each with an underlying theme. The writing has certainly a lot of depth to it as it hits the borders of philosophy, psychology and social issues and although it can occasionally feel a bit overwhelming at times I did feel immersed in the characters themselves, some were touching and sometimes even humorous. However, since it's on a PSP the game is rather restricted to hardware limitations. Space to be exact. So in order to keep the size of the game small enough, the anime cut scenes had to be removed. This means that most of the drama and emotion that you would originally get from watching the cut-scenes are lost. Even the scenes that were rendered in full 3D from the original are removed. Instead, all the cut-scenes are played out in a visual novel style. It's enough to get the point across but for those that played the original will find it quite jarring. It's a shame really since the some scenes were much more dramatic in their original form.
For the veterans of P3 the new changes and additions to P3P certainly adds more game to it as well allowing them to enjoy the same great story from a different perspective. The main story itself remains largely unchanged but the people around you and those that you interact with makes things more interesting. Certain story events feel fresher yet familiar enough to be engaging for the second (or third) time. The aforementioned gender specific social links, improved combat mechanics, a harder difficulty option, new art work, new music, a fast travel system (yay!), extra side missions and an all new, aptly named challenge room is enough to make P3 veterans fall in love with it all over again. It's not a perfect game in any sense but personally I found it as one of the more enjoyable, engaging and interesting games I've played in my time and I can't recommend it any more to you. So get your copy and get fightin'! Watching teenagers blow their heads off with a gun for seventy or so hours never gets old.