Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 Portable (P3P) is Atlus' second Persona rerelease for the PlayStation Portable. I covered the first, an enhanced version of the original released last year, and found a lot to like despite the title being well over a decade old. Instead of releasing its immediate successor, Atlus decided to skip ahead to Persona 3. That's actually stranger than it seems because the series is now on Persona 4, released in late 2008, and that was after a rerelease of Persona 3 on the PlayStation 2, Persona 3 FES. In truth, P3P is an amalgamation of everything from the original third release up to today. In addition to elements from FES and 4, the core of the third has also been updated and refined, which all make for a package creating one of the best dungeon crawlers on the market.
A (very) quick primer to the series is that the player assumes the role of a character-named male or, new this time around, female, who are recent transfers to Gekkoukan High School. Shortly into their first semester, they come to realize that there is a Dark Hour that is hidden between days when shadows feed off of unsuspecting people, leaving them in coma-like states in the real world, and that they can summon powerful representations of their inner selves known as Persona to fight the creatures. After joining the on-campus Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES), players will lead their team throughout the floors of the Tartarus, a giant labyrinth filled with shadow creatures. The bond between the members of SEES is just as important as their combat abilities, and players can strengthen their friendships (and Personas' abilities) by joining clubs, conversing, and hanging out with other students.
The game is broken up into two parts, by day and night. Days are further broken up into three periods: Morning, After School, and Evening. During the day, players are students, who must go to class, join clubs, shop, study, and socialize. Classes vary between dull lectures or questions, both of which can be used to advanced the player's academic rating; or, in the case of being given the option to sleep, improve their condition. As the Tartarus leaves inhabitants exhausted the next day, it becomes important to look after the condition of every group member. Sleep can be sacrificed for a number of other activities, including studying (academics) and hanging out with friends (building up Social Links to strengthen Personas). Clubs and hanging out also lead to different storylines with other characters, including revamped ones for the male protagonist as well as entirely new ones for the female. Shops can be visited to access items, including food for health. A police station also serves as an item shop, with the officer on duty paying out some cash to help out the SEES as well as providing new clothes, weapons, and items, in addition to purchasing items brought in.
The night is whenever the shadows emerge, the Tartarus comes into existence, and the players go from mild-mannered students to sword- and bow-wielding warriors. Despite some concessions to subsequent advancements in the series, it will still take a while for those fans that've spent time with Persona 4 to readjust to 3's combat. Newcomers, however, will find a fairly straightforward but robust system augmented by a rich and clearly defined magic (re: Persona) system. Combat has been significantly improved over the original release, with players now able to control each party member in addition to letting the AI take over. Fighting is still done with a variety of weapons, split between special attacks and Persona abilities. Each enemy also has a weakness that can be determined by an off-site team member, who can analyze most creatures to determine its elemental and physical strengths and weaknesses. Those who have the Personas selected with abilities of an enemy's weakness will not only get an attack bonus but also an extra turn. Personas can also be switched out so that parties have a more balanced representation of attack types – fire, lightning, ice, etc. If a player finds their party lacking a punch, they can also merge Personas together to form different, stronger Personas in the Velvet Room, which also has its own side quests that involve looking out for items while in Tartarus. There's always something to do or plan for.
Parties can even be split up when navigating Tartarus. While this allows for more ground to be covered quickly, to find access points and loot, teammates are made more vulnerable due to being alone. If a teammate does engage an enemy – or falls, as happens whenever Death appears – an indicator is given so that players can rush to assist. I found sticking together for the initial run to be the best way to clear a floor because a first hit on an enemy on the map means getting an advantage during combat; likewise, if they land an attack first, they have an advantage. Victory can also result in cards of various types – money, experience, Personas, or even nothing – that can be selected in blind pick-up games after battle. The entire combat portion is nice, using a simple, intuitive menu system and control scheme. The ability to control teammates is very welcome, and the inclusion of two new difficulty levels – even easier and insanely hard – provide a great entry point for newcomers and an additional challenge for vets.
Some other simple but excellent changes involve navigation. Previously, the player controlled the protagonist when they entered a daytime area. Now, instead of running from the end of one hallway to another, a cursor is used to zip to hot spots for faster access. Even better, a pop-up menu has been added for even more convenience. While this might take away from some of the feel associated with embodying the hero, I found the time it saved to be well worth the trade-off.
Some concessions were made to accommodate the platform. Most notably, the game no longer has cutscenes. The switch to static maps with hot spots, as mentioned, does dampen some of the feeling of interactivity, creating a slight disconnect between the player and on-screen hero, but the inclusion of stylish portraits does help to alleviate some of the impact. Unfortunately, the system doesn't really lend itself to extended sessions. While it isn't uncomfortable to play a few hours using a dualshock, a few hours on the PSP, at least for me, leads to some cramps. For a game that's so long and addictive, that's a hassle. Although, there is a big plus to the system, and that's the ability to install much of the necessary data, which significantly cuts down on load times.
The key element to a player's enjoyment of P3P, or the series in general, is how they feel about grinding. In many cases, grinding, the task of battling for hours on end to gain experience and loot, can be downright boring. In other cases, such as with the Persona series, I find it a relaxing and engaging way to spend my downtime. The computer can be challenging, there are a lot of side features to break up the hours of combat, and the variety of skills and Persona abilities (and the Personas themselves) keep things interesting. This is by no means a short game; it's not uncommon for a hundred plus hours to be sunk into a Persona title, and this is no exception. Some simply won't have the time or inclination to spend so much time on one title, and that's understandable. For those with the time and the love for mounds of combat, few PSP titles are as interesting or enjoyable as P3P.
While it's not Persona 4 or Persona 3 FES, Persona 3 Portable is an interesting release in its own right. Some items, like cutscenes, had to be left out, while some of the older character models might lack the kick for some, but the story, new character and social links, as well as the enhancements made to navigation and combat system all make for a fantastic dungeon crawler. Those who aren't fond of grinding or prefer more concise adventures might not have the patience or desire to bring P3P to heel. However, for those that love a good grind or are looking to sink months into a surreal world of high school students battling demons, attending school, and socializing during their downtime, Atlus has just the thing for you.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)