Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 was one of the better late generation PlayStation 2 role playing games and it received critical and commercial success on that platform. It was so well received a second enanced version called Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 F.E.S. was released that improved the overall experience. Continuing Atlus’ trend of bringing their big brands to the PSP, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 Portable is available on the PSP platform and it is even better than the original versions in many ways.
Persona 3 was a somewhat controversial title in the revered franchise. The game focuses around a group of Japanese High School students who have a supernatural alter-ego, called a Persona, that they can conjure. Each game in the series has you conjuring your Persona in a different way, in Persona 3 you hold a gun object to your head that when fired triggers the summoning of your Persona. The images presented at times as characters learn to use their powers were bold, evocative and of course controversial. Ultimately the way of conjuring the Persona does not affect gameplay but the psychology of the action was explored briefly in the game to good effect.
Persona 3 Portable has you cast as a new student entering a dorm that only has a few students in it. As you enter town you notice that the area seems deserted and there are coffins lining the street. You quickly discover that there is a hidden hour of time after midnight, called the Dark Hour, when creatures roam the streets. Normal people turn into coffins but special people, like you, who can conjure their Personas, can move around the world during the Dark Hour. You soon realize that you are different and can conjure multiple Personas, merge them together for new types and generally have a higher level of power then your single Persona companions.
As the game progresses you realize you were assigned to this dorm precisely because you are different and you soon join the group called Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES). This group battles through the monsters and tries to protect the humans who cannot fight back against these monsters. It is a strange but interesting story and is right at home with the quirky gameplay, dialogue and characters.
The Persona series and Persona 3 specifically in this case is a very interesting mix of gameplay. On one hand there are the dungeon crawls possible during the Dark Hour in the strange tower Tartarus as you try to determine what is happening in the world. In these dungeons you free roam explore the 3D world encounter monsters as they wander about, fight them and gain experience for both your character and your Persona.
The gameplay in these dungeon areas is rich and completely unchanged from the PS2 version. You control your character as you roam around with your party following. You can split up and assign basic commands if you want to clear an easy level quickly. When in battle you can analyze enemies, attack with weapons or summon a Persona to attack for you. There is a deep layer of tactics in battle as enemies have weaknesses, if you hit them with those attacks you get a free turn as they are stunned. If you stun all enemies you can have a full party all out attack. Combat is quick, fun and engaging in the challenge and complexity offered.
On the other hand there is a fully featured ‘life simulator’ as you interact in a day to day basis in your life as a Japanese high school student. You will go to class, join teams, hang out with friends, get a part-time job and enjoy leisure activities. All of these activities have a purpose. Making new friends creates Social Links which make your Persona stronger when created if they correspond to the link type. The activities generally increase skill/skills as do attending classes and clubs. There are various stores that you can shop in to get new equipment and items which are essential as you progress through the dungeons.
The PSP version of the game changes the life simulation portion of the game significantly in the fact that you no longer explore the world in a 3D view. Instead you are presented with static screens containing easily identifiable characters and rooms you can explore. Clicking on them brings up 3-D avatars and dialogue (fully voiced) options that you can interact with. While this does pull you away from the immersive nature of truly exploring the world it makes the experience quick and painless and perfect for the handheld format of the PSP.
The other major change to the PSP version of the game is the addition of a female character you can choose right from the start. While it does not change the core story it greatly changes your interactions with the characters. In my PS2 play through with the male protagonist I was able to join different groups, date girls and befriend certain people. This is completely changed as the female character, the two main NPC’s, Yukari and Junpei, react and respond to you in a completely different manner as the female lead. Junpei, instead of being a pal and asking for advice about the girls, flirts constantly with you. Yukari is occasionally jealous but appreciates another female in the group. This dynamic extends to the clubs and other Social Link characters; it really did make the game feel fresh and exciting again despite having played the core experience before.