One of the few truly successful JRPGs of the past few years, Persona 3 makes its way to the PSP with the sort of grace and quality that we wish all ports would exhibit. Rather than just switching the platform, it revamps several of its core faculties to take proper advantage of the PSP. It corrects the parts of it that didn’t work as well, while maintaining those that made it arguably one of the best RPGs in recent memory.
As in the original PS2 version, Persona 3 takes place around a Japanese high school where people are beginning to suffer from an apathy syndrome. This is revealed to be the doing of demons who come out during the shadow hour, a secret realm that occurs each night. Only a few people are aware of its existence and can interact with it. Hoping to stop the spread of apathy, they take it upon themselves to fight the demons. You play a transfer student to the local high school who happens to be one of these lucky few.
The story sounds odd, but is nonetheless interesting and grows more so as the game progresses. The real grip of it though comes from the extraordinary focus on social interaction. At night you might play a teenage demon hunter (cue the Buffy theme!) but during the day you’re a run of the mill high school student. You need to work hard to juggle your studies, part-time jobs, after school clubs and of course, relationships. You can generally only do one or two things a day, and as you advance this can become addictively complicated. It possesses the “just one more day” feeling of strategy games like Civilization. Moreover, it’s impossible to do everything in just one playthrough, making multiple outings quite viable. This is amplified by the game’s inclusion of a new playable female character. Rather than just changing the sex of main character, the developers went the full mile and redid many of the dialogue and relationship options for this alternative campaign. In short, Persona 3 Portable is literally almost twice the game than the original.
Accompanying this management portion is a simple but challenging dungeon crawler. During the shadow hour it’s possible to enter the tower of Tartarus, which is built of randomly generated floors that slowly lead you upward. Exploring Tartarus is a key part of the game, both for providing a bit of variety for when you get tired of the game’s social management and moreover for preparing you for the challenging story events that transpire at the arrival of each full moon.
Combat inside Tartarus is pretty standard turn-based fair. You pick your actions, attack your enemies and then they do the same to you. The PSP version improves on the combat by allowing you to control your allies directly. The PS2 version left this to the AI, leading to some sometimes precarious situations in which you could only hope they would act as you wanted them to. Giving you the reins makes many battles feel much more strategic and above all else, under your control which is always a great thing to have.
Linking the gameplay and social interactions are the titular personas. Mystical representations of each character’s psyche, the personas give you access to a number of powers. Your main character has the ability to craft and control a number of different personas. The social management bit ties into this cleverly. Your personas are made more powerful when you advance yourself socially. In other words, the more friends you make, the more powerful you’ll be in battle. Ignore your classmates and you’ll find yourself seriously handicapped when you venture into Tarturas.
If any complaints can be made about Persona 3 Portable, it’s that some concessions had to be made to bring to the PSP. The PS2 version featured a number of nicely drawn, anime cut scenes. These have been removed in the PSP game and are replaced by static drawings and voiceovers. Both of the latter are well done, but they don’t quite shape up to the original’s presentation. Moreover, while I found point and click style navigation of the PSP version to be convenient, veterans of the PS2 game may miss being able to plod about the normal world on foot.
Those minor qualms aside, Persona 3 Portable is probably one of, if not these best RPG on the PSP. It just blows away its competition with its originality, addictive gameplay and overall quality. Fans of the original version will love it, and newcomers will have a new opportunity to learn why it reaped such praise back in 2007. If you have a PSP, enjoy RPGs and haven’t picked up Persona 3 Portable, you should. It’s the JRPG that proves JRPGs don’t have to suck.