Here’s something I discovered only after I got myself a Playstation Vita: the damn thing is a Persona machine. I’m not complaining.
A quick search on the PSN store reveals that every single numbered release in the Persona series is available on the handheld, including the never-before-released-in-English (in an official capacity, at least) Persona 2: Innocent Sin. That’s four games -- five if you count Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment as two games -- of demon-summoning-high-school-kids-intrigue. It’s a truly entertaining series, and one that’s as unique and offbeat as they come.
I’m here today to talk about the game that introduced me to the series in the first place. I originally played Persona 3 on the Playstation 2, but I’ve been replaying the game with Persona 3 Portable for the PSP and PS Vita, and if you’re willing to overlook a couple of minor drawbacks, I think you’ll find that it’s just as good or even better than its non-portable counterpart.
Persona 3 generated a bit of controversy when it came out, and it’s not so surprising: this is a game that features kids summoning mythological creatures (“Personas”) by shooting themselves in the head with what basically looks like a semi-automatic pistol. You get a taste of this right from the initial cutscene that introduces the game, and while you’ll eventually get used to the sight, it’s never stop feeling just a bit wrong. There’s something with the way the characters’ heads snap back after firing that’s just disturbing on a primal level.
That’s all very well in keeping with the Persona series itself, which is thematically a mix of horror, Japanese urban life, teenage angst, dark beings beyond the fringe of reality, and the kids who have inexplicably been bestowed with the power to hold back the approaching darkness.
The first two games were straight up traditional JRPGS skinned with modern Japanese trappings -- you formed a party, progressed through the world (the city), and fought through dungeons (school buildings, warehouses, what have you) as you investigated the mystery. Persona 3 bucked this trend by actually treating your city as a city -- it was a place to explore, shop, hang out with your friends, and live in. This fact is key in the transformation that the series underwent with Persona 3: it was a game about living someone else’s life day to day.
One distinct element of Persona 3 is repetition. As a new transfer student in the city, you will live out an entire school year in-game. This means going to class six days a week, sitting through the lectures of the same teachers, hanging out with the same kids in your dorm, seeing the same sights in the city day in and day out, and bumping into the same people out on the streets. When the clock strikes midnight, the world enters the bizarre nightmare state of the Dark Hour -- an extra hour in each day that normal people don’t perceive when Shadows roam the streets and the hero’s high school building transforms into a towering structure known as Tartarus. Getting to the top of this tower is one of the main goals you need to accomplish to solve the mystery of the Dark Hour, and this means fighting through level after level of its interiors in the evening.
By the time you reach the endgame, you will be intimately familiar with every aspect of your alter ego’s life, both fantastical and mundane. You will also be intimately familiar with the bouncy and ultra-hip JPop soundtrack, which is infectious on an insidious level.
Developing your relationships with the game’s cast benefits your monster summoning abilities in combat. Likewise, exploring Tartarus and defeating the bosses advances the story, unlocking more social opportunities for you during the day. The game is less about stats and crunching the numbers (although there are still plenty of numbers to crunch if you’re so inclined), and more about the cycle and the growing attachment you will develop with the world and its characters. I highly appreciated this twist to the usual system-heavy JRPG tradition.
The daily format lends itself well to a handheld format. It’s easy to identify stopping points because of the regular flow of time, and if duty suddenly calls while you’re either in the middle of an in-game conversation or a battle, you can just put the system to sleep and resume later.
Here’s the first knock people might have against the portable release: there are no 3D scenes and models outside of Tartarus. The PS2 version played more like a traditional RPG, allowing the player to roam around the city by controlling their avatar directly. In P3P, this is accomplished by moving a cursor through isometric renders of the same game locations -- not as glamorous, but all the content is intact, with even more sometimes added. There’s a tradeoff here: more content and faster travel at the expense of a better-presented game world. This didn’t bother me much since no dialogue or scenes were cut, and I appreciated the fact that the background art during conversations is new and very well done.
Another thing the portable version doesn’t have is the added scenario introduced in Persona 3 FES, which is the enhanced re-release of the game for PS2. For gamers who are after the unique social aspects of the game, this is no loss as the extra content is basically a huge dungeon crawler. I certainly didn’t miss it.
Now here’s the other thing that’s new with Persona 3 Portable: the game lets you choose your gender before you start a new game. It’s worth noting that I have never seen another game where your gender choice has such a big impact on the experience of playing: your choice determines the color of your interface, the conversations and relationships your character may develop, and even the music that plays in-game! The original Persona 3 only had the male character. Now playing as the female main character unlocks a whole new in-game soundtrack to listen to as well.
Persona 3 Portable is perfect for RPG fans on the go: it has a great plot, memorable characters, an entertaining battle system, and a unique presentation that doesn’t suffer from being played through in quick bursts instead of hour-long sittings.
There are more Persona games to move on to after this (and all on the Vita, as I’ve mentioned!), but this is the best jumping-on point I can recommend if you plan to experience the Persona universe as a whole. If you’re at all interested in anything I have mentioned up until now, check it out.
If you don’t have a Vita yet, why the hell not?
Persona 3 Portable is available as a digital download at the PSN Store.
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