Developer: Atlus / Publisher: Atlus / ESRB: Mature (Blood, Language, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Violence) / Played on: PSP / Price: $39.99
Portable games are like your ex-convict sibling – they’re frequently judged on a lower scale. Sure, Frank may have stolen a few cars back in ’98, but he’s had a job for six months now, so he’s really doing great. Similarly, portable games are generally expected to provide a fraction of full console games and it’s all gravy. That’s why Persona 3 Portable is astounding. Persona 3 Portable is a great JRPG without qualification. P3P is a fantastic game unto itself, managing to recreate the original, and then some.
P3P’s story is largely similar to that of Persona 3, so here’s a quick recap for the unfamiliar: otherworldly shadows have started to prey upon average citizens during the “dark hour” – a time at midnight that most people sleep through unconsciously, ensconced in automatically-summoned coffins. A group of high school students with the unique ability to stay awake during the dark hour fight these shadows while maintaining their social and academic obligations. You transfer to this city at the game’s outset, and shortly discover the unique ability to switch “Personas,” or demon-like beings that augment your powers and provide magic abilities. Also, you summon these personas by shooting yourself in the head with a special gun. Weird, huh?
The story’s not all retread though. Additions in P3P freshen the story, even for Persona 3 veterans. Now, you can choose to play as the original Persona 3 male hero, or an all-new female lead. This changes more than just pronoun usage, as your relationship with the game’s cast changes fundamentally; you become just one of the girls with former romantic opportunities and vice versa with the fellas. Supporting cast members change as well, as an overbearing female coach takes the place of the absurdly self-driven male athlete from Persona 3. While the broad strokes of P3P’s story are the same as the original, the finer points are new enough to warrant attention even if you’ve already played Persona 3.
Like the story, P3P’s gameplay is largely similar to Persona 3’s with a few interesting additions. In a broad sense, two main modes comprise the game’s experience: the life simulator, where you pick activities in order to progress your social and academic standing as a high school student; and dungeon crawling, where you explore Tartarus – a multilevel tower composed of random floors, and filled with shadows. Life simulator play is a text and menu driven affair, while battling in Tartarus occurs through menu-driven combat familiar to most JRPGs.
The move to the PSP changes the life simulator presentation, with scrolling isometric 2D maps taking the place of the 3D environments of Persona 3. You can still perform all the same activities – talk to people, go to shops, study in the library if you’re a nerd – only now you do them by highlighting the person/door with a cursor instead of running your 3D avatar around. While the change may seem drastic, the experience is still remarkably similar to the original.
Bumping around Tartarus is all but unchanged, as P3P recreates the full 3D dungeon exploring from the original. Load times in Tartarus can be on the rough side, lasting around ten seconds for the initial load and another two to three for each battle. A 200MB data installation removes any noticeable load time though, making dungeon crawling technically problem-free. Despite some changes, Atlus has done a remarkable job in recreating the Persona 3 experience.
Mere recreation is impressive enough, but P3P adds some new features as well. Personas – the demonic entities you equip to fight the shadows – now give skill cards when leveled that can be used to teach specific skills to other personas, further extending the Pokémon-but-way-creepier vibe of the combat. Additionally, other students occasionally get lost in Tartarus now, and provide bonuses if rescued in an allotted timeframe. Outside of the dungeon, you can now work at stores part-time to earn money, and the game is far better about informing you when and where new characters appear so you can go chat them up.
Like the gameplay, P3P’s visuals are neatly divided into two categories. The life simulator segments are dominated by high-resolution 2D visuals, and look very nice thanks to a strong and clear art style. Character portraits are expressive during conversation, and NPCs are clearly identifiable in the environment thanks to an optional icon overlay and name pop-up when hovered over with the cursor. The full 3D dungeons run smoothly, though repeated textures dominate the dungeons thanks to its randomized layout. Battle visuals are clear and clean, and though some models are slightly less polygonal than their PlayStation 2 counterparts, the smaller display of the PSP makes the change barely noticeable.
Sound and music in P3P are just as excellent as the original, with the same voice acting and catchy pop music. Voice mostly occurs during plot events now, and though there’s an occasional pause to load up the audio, the playback is smooth and responsive. The game’s music is exemplary, including most of the tracks from the original as well as a few new ones depending on the gender you pick. In fact, the game’s music is annoyingly good; it will easily lodge in your brain and refuse to come out (I’m humming some of it now, in fact).
Moving around town and school is surprisingly easier in P3P than the original, thanks to the speed of the cursor and the ability to highlight NPCs, area transitions, and items. A quick-travel menu also simplifies navigation, making it easy to get wherever you want to go. The 3D dungeon segments control a little chunky, as it can sometimes be hard to judge the distance between yourself and an enemy shadow. Thankfully, P3P inherits the option to give direct commands to your teammates from Persona 4, saving you from the well-meaning but occasionally infuriating NPC AI.
Atlus could’ve drawn the line at translating the Persona 3 experience to the PSP and that would’ve been enough, but enhanced the experience with extra content and refinements, making P3P even better than the original. The effort is as unexpected as it is appreciated on a portable system, like seeing your ex-con brother Frank on the cover of Forbes. Despite the similar characters, gameplay, and setting, Persona 3 Portable is a notably different experience. As such, Persona 3 Portable is a great game for anyone looking for more Persona and especially those that missed out the first time around.