Let me start off the review with stating the obvious: many people will probably complain and bestow Persona 3 for the PSP (P3P) with the label of "cash-in." Naturally, this begs the question: did Atlus release a portable version of the game too soon after its release on the PS2? Especially considering fans were treated to an expansion, FES, about a year after its release, which is not included in the portable version, it's a valid concern. Here's something I firmly believe, however: if you're going to re-release a game on a different platform, you might as well make sure it's a game that's worth it. Without a doubt, that's exactly what Persona 3 is.
Let's turn back time to when Persona 3 first saw release. The year was 2007 and the PS2 was an RPG machine, but it was also suffering from quantity over quality. Naturally, RPG fans had seen their fair share of games with cookie cutter characters and stories. Enter Persona 3, a game that turned the genre on its head. Have you ever met a character like Junpei? Did the characters holding the gun-like evokers to their heads send a chill down your spine the first time you saw it? Have you ever experienced such a dark story with an equally deep dating sim that went beyond simply wanting to win over a character? Persona 3 let you get into the nitty-gritty of characters' souls through the social links. So, here we are, almost three years later, and to date, I haven't had a game affect me quite like Persona 3 did. I've played through Persona 3 multiple times and, I'll admit, I was skeptical about a release on the PSP because Persona 3 is so near and dear to heart. As soon as I loaded it up on my PSP, though, all that skepticism vanished. Playing through the game again on the PSP was not only like taking a fond trip down memory lane, but it also provided me a new experience with the game through the eyes of a female. In my opinion, Atlus tweaked just enough of this game to make it a worthwhile experience for those hardcore fans who have played through the game already, along with giving those who missed out more than enough reason to give it a spin.
Oh No! You've Awakened Your Persona - The World Now Depends On You
Fans of Persona 3 already know the story all too well, but for you first timers, I'll give a brief run down. In Persona 3, you're a transfer student who just started attending Gekkoukan High School. Besides having all the pressures of being a teen, like making friends and adjusting to a new school, you soon realize something odd is going on in the new town you're in. That odd thing is the dark hour, an hour that exists between the cracks in time, and it strikes at midnight. During this time, the regular joes of the world simply sleep in coffins with no idea or recollection that this is going on. But, see, you and a few others are able to exist in that hour, and this is the time where you can fight creatures called shadows that crawl through the night. The protagonist finds out quickly that he (or she!) has the ability to awaken personas with dramatic power. S/he is even more special than the normal persona user, as s/he can awaken multiple personas. Throughout all this, you become a leader of the group SEES, students that hunt shadows during the dark hour in a dungeon called Tartarus. Tartarus is a twisted nightmare of Gekkoukan High School with 263 floors for you to explore. You're constantly trying to figure out the mystery behind the dark hour and shadows, and each floor you take down brings you one step closer to that truth.
I don't want to spoil anything for anyone, but Persona 3's story is dark, deep, and full of a lot of heart. What makes this story tick, though, are the characters: Junpei, Yukari, Mitsuru, Akihiko, Fuuka, Koromaru - all members of the SEES group. Whether it's Junpei and Yukari's back-and-forth banter or Mitsuru's straight laced demeanor (she will hurt you if you break the rules) or a cross between Fuuka's insecure shyness and Akihiko's overconfidence (really he wants to be superman), there's a great balance in the group of main characters. Even Koromaru, who doesn't actually speak - for reasons I'll let you discover - manages to steal the show with his sincere loyalty. And even if none of these characters meet your friendship needs, there are plenty of non-player character social links for you to explore to give you a deeper insight into certain characters' psyches.
Not only does the game have a good cast of characters to keep you company, but the plot is full of surprises. There are a lot of twists, a lot of touching moments (I still think Junpei's relationship is one of the most heartfelt relationships in the land of RPGs), and the best part is that all that you encounter in the story wraps up together into something powerful. It makes a strong statement about the lives you touch and how you can have an impact on people. It's strong and solid. This is doubly true in the portable version, as players can take control of a female main character. There are several new social links for the new main character, as well as the ability to look further in-depth to some characters that weren't explored fully in the original title. I'll admit, some of the new social links are better than others, as there are some that do feel tacked on instead of bringing anything meaningful to the table, but the character development in many are top-notch. The only real downside is the slow progression to the story events that take place during the game. Sometimes it will feel like you've gone way too long without a story segment, but thankfully, you have more than enough social links and smaller side skits to keep you at bay.
It's All About Persona Fusion, Social Links, and Exploiting Enemies' Weaknesses
At its core, Persona 3 is a dungeon crawler with a touch of SMT - it's about exploiting enemies' weaknesses and defending against their strengths, and if you don't, you're going to end up face down in the dirt. No doubt a big portion of the title is the concept of demon (or rather, persona) fusion, where players will get stronger and stronger by combining their persona and creating more powerful creatures. This is enhanced by players' social links, so it's important not to simply dungeon crawl. There are more than a few new persona in this release as well, so those who didn't play FES on the PS2 will have more creatures than they had before. The battle system is a traditional, turn-based battle system, much moreso than its PlayStation 2 big brother. The PSP version takes a cue from Persona 4 and allows players to control every member of their party, rather than just being able to issue vague strategic suggestions. Gone are the days where Mitsuru casts Tentarafoo when you are about to die and need her to heal you. Also borrowed from Persona 4 is the ability to do team attacks when your opponent is knocked down. It's especially helpful when you can't use a strong attack against all of your opponents to do an all-out attack.
Another new aspect of the PSP version of the title is life outside the dungeon. Instead of maneuvering through the city as the character, you're presented with a cursor that you can move across new, 2D artwork of the environments. It works well for a handheld title, although those who haven't played the original title might not know where everything is, and the 'snap-to-an-object' part of the cursor isn't always 100% functional. Another feature poached from Persona 4 is the part-time job system, where the main character can earn additional money and boost stats at the same time. Jobs will improve over time, so more money will be earned and, occasionally, greater stat bonuses will be granted. All of the changes in P3P have enhanced the gameplay and made everything better; there's nothing added that hinders the game simply because it's a handheld title.
Now, that's not to say that Persona 3 Portable is the definitive version of the game in every way; portable gamers did have to lose something to get their game on the go, and the number one loss is the game's graphics. That's not to say that they are bad in any way. The game has been retooled completely for the PSP screen, so everything still looks sharp, but the actual character models aren't as impressive, and the 2D artwork for out-of-dungeon environments just doesn't have the same appeal as the 3D environments from the PS2 version. Animations in the dungeon look great, from movement to battle, but the models themselves are lower quality. It's not the largest gap in graphics from the PS2 game to a PSP port, but it still feels somewhat wrong to me.
If you've played Persona 3 before, you already know the in-game music tracks are very memorable - and can be an acquired taste. P3P tried to add some variety to the tracks by adding brand new songs, and, for the most part, they are good. They heighten the atmosphere, but at the same time, there is little that is amazing about these tracks. They function admirably for their purpose, however. All the voice acting is top-notch and helps define the emotional moments throughout the game. There are new voice tracks for the female character's dialogue and social links, and even the new battle voice for the female character fits her like a glove.
A Sense of Familiarity While Still Feeling New = Win
Needless to say, there are three types of people that should play Persona 3 Portable: people who have never experienced Persona 3 before, Die-hard Persona 3 fanatics, and those who want to take Persona 3 on the go. Atlus did the best that was possible to make something that was so familiar to many gamers feel new again. Those who aren't familiar with the game have the incentive to play through the game twice to experience both male and female viewpoints. It might be said that the small amount of time that has passed handicaps this game, as it may still be fresh in many minds. However, I think that it's the perfect amount of time, as I was able to revisit all of my favorite characters, and experience such a powerful story again with nothing but complete admiration. The only way you'll be disappointed is if you go into the game expecting a brand new game. For all those looking to play an enhanced version of an old favorite, there's no better way to do it than Persona 3 Portable.