For fans of the genre Japanese RPGs can often be a life-changing event. With a large percentage of the games clocking in at well over a hundred hours if you want to do *everything*, it is easy to see how people can associate major life events with whichever Final Fantasy they happened to be playing at the time. JRPGs expect you to grind through levels, harvest items and micromanage skillsets, all the while laughing in your face as they ever-extend the space between save points. The good ones manage to make you feel thankful for the opportunity to progress through them, offering item and level rewards at appropriately spaced intervals. The best ones demand the entirety of your waking attention, your wilful progression through save points analogous to a desperate driver daring themselves to pass yet another motel on a trip through the Everglades.
Persona 3 Portable falls squarely into the later category, proving itself to still be a doyenne of the genre more than five years after its initial release on the PS2 in Japan. The gameplay is split between a more traditional dungeon crawling JRPG and a light take on the Japanese simulation genre. The choices you make and the relationships you create within the simulation section directly impacts the limits of your ability to efficiently transverse the dungeon sections of the game. These halves of the game perfectly compliment each other, providing a welcome escape from the excesses of each genre whenever your feeble Western mind tires of playing either section. Part of the wider Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series of games (which itself is essentially a spinoff from the Megami Tensei series) the game functions well as a standalone; series fans may well see various cross-over elements and characters but your appreciation of the gameplay is not dependant on an encyclopedic knowledge of the series dating back to the late eighties.
The game itself is a port of the PS2’s Persona 3 with various facets of the experience optimised for the PSP. While the original game should be enough to draw any RPG fan to the table the additions made to this PSP iteration make it a must-buy even for those who have played through before. The biggest change is the addition of the option to play as either a male or a female character; whilst this doesn’t have any impact on the dungeon crawling element of the game it wholly changes the available relationships and mini-storylines you can follow in the simulation aspect. Combat has also been tweaked with P3P allowing you to take direct control of your party members’ combat options rather than allowing the AI to process commands dependant on generic tactical settings. Navigation in the simulation section is now governed by a point-and-click interface and characters in conversation with you are represented by anime cut-outs. All in all the experience feels immensely fresh and the title feels far more native to the PSP than the majority of games developed directly for the platform!
From a descriptive point of view one element that seems curiously Japanese is that the Persona series uses teenagers as the focal points for its stories. In P3P you play the part of a silent protagonist who has recently moved to the area, joining the local high school. Each day a period of time known as the ‘Dark Hour’ occurs during which Shadows of various classifications roam the local dungeon Tartarus and sometimes escape into the outside world. Most individuals during the Dark Hour are transmogrified into coffins, with a very few able to remain conscious. The members of Gekkoukan High able to remain awake during the Dark Hour have been organised into a group know as the ‘Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad’; your character leads SEES in its investigations into the Shadows, taking control of the explorations into Tartarus.
It is within Gekkoukan High that many of the significant events of the simulation side of the game take place; along with your night time dungeon crawls you are expected to play through a school year, sitting class, taking exams and using school resources as you see fit. Rather than feeling like a chore (cough, the classes in Bully) the school setting feels extremely natural very quickly. The fast navigation options available to you allow you to zip around the city of Iwatodai at will and conversation topics change enough as the game progresses for you not to feel too put out at clicking on the available people to check if they have anything new to say. Each side story that you explore is meaningful, with even minor characters well fleshed out and emotionally engaging. Several tacit in-game warnings exist for those who would mess with these virtual emotions, and it would be a callous player who would try to date multiple NPCs at once.
On the dungeon side of the game there is a strong take on the traditional JRPG crawl. Most nights during the Dark Hour you can take a party and explore the many floors of Tartarus. Each floor is randomly generated when you enter, and some can have special features associated with them (a floor full of rare treasure for example). The pre-combat map is drawn in the third person and includes the bonus of being able to order your group off to explore or fight as you see fit. Whilst this speeds up considerably any dungeon grinding in areas you may vastly overpower the majority of forays into the tower will see you stick together with your party members in order to maximise the chance that you have the specific skill or spell to progress past whichever random encounter you may find.
There are enough item drops and equipment choices to keep things interesting, but not too many to keep track of. Some quest rewards and random drops change the appearance of your party’s characters within Tartarus; an early favourite is the female only ‘Battle Panties’ item which dresses your girls in a Xena fashion. More of an ironic take on RPG stereotypes than an indication of what else you can expect to find, the best result of equipping them is the reaction of your party members when you try to talk to them. This attention to small detail is found throughout P3P, in everyone from main characters down to the NPC that may only appear once in a random side alley.
Combat itself is turn based, reminiscent of the Final Fantasy series (or indeed a hundred other JRPGs). Each character has a physical attack that they can perform themselves, but every other attacking move occurs through the use of their persona. These are elements of your personality that you can unlock as you progress through the game and represent P3P’s take on the more magical side of life. Personas can provide you with elemental spells, status buffs and debuffs as well as healing abilities. They are essentially used for every part of combat that could be considered vaguely fantastical which adds to the integrity of the game’s setting. Interestingly some personas develop the ability to make physical attacks themselves, and casting these costs you health instead of spell points thus allowing you an additional resource to exploit.
The relationships you build with your class mates and others you meet along the way have a direct impact on the dungeon crawling side of the game through the use of your character’s persona. Levelling up your personas is an arduous chore especially if you attempt to do it as you naturally progress. Instead P3P points you towards the ability to fuse different persona into one stronger being. These fused creations are then imbued with additional power depending on the level of the relevant social link – if you time a fusion right and create a persona that is of a high level and then receives a good experience boost from a social link you can provide yourself with a great tool to further your explorations. Personas that you find or create can be added to a compendium, and then retrieved at a later date for money; this encourages experimentation and ensures that you are always looking for good fusion opportunities as you progress through the game. Fused personas also have the ability to inherit certain skills from the personas that created them, allowing power gamers to create beings of awesome power – the rest of us should just be happy to luck into a couple of sweet combinations.
From the port quality through to the intrinsic mechanics of the game P3P delivers sheer class throughout. It is somewhat upsetting that the game has turned up over here in the twilight hour of the PSP – Persona 3 Portable represents everything that we hoped the PSP could deliver back when it was launched. The game offers you the chance to play an optimised, excellent and critically acclaimed PS2 game while on the move, and if you buy it digitally you can even (probably!) play it on the Vita. If you own a PSP now then you literally have no excuse not to experience this game – go away, buy it, and then enjoy what is simply one of the best games to have ever come out of Japan.