It's been a pretty sweet couple of years for Atlus's Shin Megami Tensei series. With several critically acclaimed, internationally successful titles like Persona 4, Devil Survivor, and Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon, the brand's stock has been on the up for some time now. Taking a page from Square Enix, the company has responded by remaking and re-releasing classic titles, beginning with Revelations: Persona back in April. And so it is that Persona 3, arguably the most popular entry in the series, has received a second remake, this time on the PSP.
As a big SMT fan I am biased, but not in the way you think. To me this game felt too explicitly like a cash-in. It does not add much to the SMT mythology nor is it in any way an improvement on the original – much worse, it is a downgrade. As someone who has been fortunate enough to enjoy the SMT titles that never made it out of Japan, I am firmly in the camp that thinks Atlus would have served its fans better by re-releasing both Persona 2 games on PSP, or perhaps even older entries from the SMT series. Imagine Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment together on one UMD in an enhanced port with an improved translation, voice work, and new music.
I wish I were reviewing that.
Persona 3's gameplay is divided between dungeon crawling and school / dating sim drama. The first has not changed much. You'll still explore Tartarus, the game's main dungeon, gradually climbing to the top while powering up personas. The compendium, fusions, full-moon bosses – all of it works just like the PS2 original. There are a few new requests (side missions) and combat has been reworked in the image of Persona 4. You can now take direct control of party members. One annoying omission: main characters are now limited to only one weapon type.
The biggest change from the original game is that you now have a choice of using a male or female main character. While the game does not really play differently, the characters you meet and various story sequences will change based on who you pick. A female protagonist will greatly alter the school sim portions of the game, with several new S-links and romantic partners emerging on the scene.
The mechanics of this section have also been switched to a visual novel style. You no longer take control of a character and walk around maps. Instead you move a cursor and just highlight where you want to go and who you want to talk to. It's efficient and it works, but I preferred the original format as you'll see in the section about graphics.
P3P also adds two new difficulty levels for people who love or hate challenge. That plus the female MC are pretty much all this title has on P3 FES. Lacking the first remake's "Answer" section, the two games are about even in terms of content. As to which plays better, I have to give it to the PS2 entries. 'Visual Novel Persona' might work for a DS spinoff, but here it seems like a bastardization of an already strong game. Unlike the Tales of Vesperia port I reviewed last month, P3P cannot stand on its own since it cuts content and does not improve on the core gameplay. Don't bother with it if you have never played Persona 3 – get FES instead.
P3P is a downgrade, plain and simple. While some PS2 games can make the transition to PSP without losing anything (Disgaea anyone?) Persona 3 is not one of them. All character models have been noticeably simplified. What's more, you won't even see them often thanks to the change to visual novel style. Outside of Tartarus you'll pretty much only see characters as still art. On top of that, most of the anime cutscenes are also gone, meaning every dramatic moment and dialogue has been reduced to voices and text. It is a good looking PSP game, but it does not do justice to the original title.
Always an SMT strong point, P3P has a fantastic soundtrack thanks to a fistful of new tunes for the female protagonist. While I preferred some of the male MC's battle themes, the difference in quality is negligible. The new opening theme "Soulphase" is an improvement over "Burn My Dread," and the city map theme "A Way of Life," is delightfully addictive.
Voice acting and effects are almost identical to the original, with a few more changes to the former. There is new voice work for the female MC's scenes, however some voiced scenes have been cut. The quality is still strong as it was in the original P3, with Ikutsuki and Takeba being personal favorites.
Persona 3's main narrative never did much for me. The uninitiated can check out one of the several other reviews on this site for specifics. tl;dr version – demon-summoning teenagers battle monsters to unlock the mystery of 'shadow hour,' a nightly window of frozen time that occurs at midnight and is only experienced by persona users. Also: dating sim.
The best writing was reserved for the latter portion. The S-links and dialogue trees with all of the main character's friends are a treat to experience, and the slow-simmer pacing and freedom of progression give you a myriad of reasons to keep coming back.
My real beef with P3's story is that I just did not fall in love with the characters as so many other SMT fans did. Junpei and a few NPC's being the exception, none of them struck me as believable or even intriguing. Story may be the greatest strength of the PSP port, however, since you now have two vastly different perspectives to choose from. Using a female character will show you very different sides of Akihiko and Shinjiro. The ending has also been tweaked. Nevertheless, lacking "The Answer" portion from FES, P3P falls short of being the definitive chronicle of the Persona 3 story.
The original Persona 3 was in the 80% range for me with the FES additions putting it around 85%. Similar gameplay with a much better story puts Persona 4 in the 90% category. With that as a starting point, this iteration necessarily falls below 80%. It plays and looks worse than the original and the added content will not do much for people who are not already obsessed. Ultimately, P3P is a fan service game that does a good job of imitating the original. If you loved it on PS2 and are in the mood for another go around, have at it with the female MC and enjoy the new perspective. Pretty much everyone else need not apply.