Persona 3 Portable – Staff Review

Following the port-heavy schedule for the PSP, Persona 3 Portable builds on what was already a great game, adding new features, more combat options, and a huge whack of new plot in the form of new Social Links. Unfortunately, not all the alterations really work, as there has been some excessive tinkering with the game’s balance, and the technical limitations of the handheld platform have resulted in an oversimplified interface that causes some serious issues with suspension of disbelief. The end result is a game which feels a bit overworked, but has the potential to provide an excellent experience.

The story of Persona 3 attempts to put the player in the shoes of a high school student, but with a disturbing twist. A transfer student to the prestigious Gekkokan High, the player arrives late at night, and it is immediately clear that something is wrong. Anything electronic has shut down, the sky has turned a sickly green, and every living person has been transformed into a huge black coffin. In short order, the player is drafted into a fight between Shadows — monsters that roam the hidden Dark Hour — and humans capable of using Personas, which can best be described as weaponized personality traits. Over the course of the school year, the player will form Social Links to improve their Personas, becoming closer to the people around them in an attempt to defy the inevitable end that fate has set out for them. The story of Persona 3 uses strong themes that focus primarily on the search for a meaning in life, and the inevitably doomed, but not purposeless, fight against the unavoidable end that awaits every living thing. Though it might seem a little morbid, the story is in fact quite hopeful. In the final analysis, the point of the story is that even though everyone will eventually die, the bonds we form during our lives and the impact we have on other people can not only hold back death, but defeat it entirely.

Other carryovers from Persona 4 include co-op attacks, and the ability to have your party members save you from a fatal blow.
Other carryovers from Persona 4 include co-op attacks, and the ability to have your party members save you from a fatal blow.

For those who have played one or both of the previous versions of Persona 3, the main draw of this iteration will be the inclusion of a female main character, who brings her own Social Links to the table as well as a personality vastly different from that of the male main character. The new protagonist is enough to make the story feel far fresher than one would expect from the third time through a game, since her Social Links tend to deal with characters that the male main character had a far more passive connection with, such as Akihiko, Junpei, and Shinjiro. The female lead also gets the lion’s share of mechanical improvements, such as the ability to decide whether a relationship turns romantic or not, a change sadly not shared with the male.

Persona 3 features a turn-based combat system which encourages a focus on elemental attacks by way of the One More system. In short, a move that hits a weakness will grant the attacker one more turn, as well as knocking down the target. In Persona 3 and FES, being knocked down would burn one *additional* turn, as the character or monster stood up. However, in Persona 3 Portable an additional turn is only lost if the target is hit by two consecutive moves that they are weak against, a holdover from Persona 4. The practical upshot of this alteration is that the player now must choose between the extra damage of an All-Out Attack or further turns (which on the whole is a more balanced and reasonable approach).

The game’s balance has undergone a number of other small, yet significant, alterations, and unfortunately not all of them are for the better. For example, the effects of becoming fatigued while exploring Tartarus only show up after you leave the dungeon, which removes an annoying artificial limit on how long players could explore the tower. On the other hand, instead of curing the party automatically and for free whenever they return to the ground floor, players will now have to pay the save point to heal them. This really just ends up replacing one artificial limit with another, given how quickly and painfully the costs for healing rise.

There are some changes, however, which are undeniably a step in the right direction. Powerful Fusion spells have been removed, replaced with items that have the same effect but which are bought from the Antique store with gems. This is a particularly good move, as it not only removes the ability to crush everything in the late game with the balance-shattering Armageddon/Victory Cry combo, but also makes it possible to have useful early game Fusions like Cadenza and Best Friends throughout the entire game. Similarly, Personas now give up Spell Cards, which instantly teach a Persona the ability on the card, meaning creating a fully-customized party is now far more feasible. In addition, a wide variety of optional bosses and challenges have been added, giving players an opportunity to make use of these newfound powers. Between these changes and the ability to directly control your characters in combat, this rebalancing is generally to the game’s benefit.

Unsurprisingly, the visuals of Persona 3 have taken a bit of a downturn in its migration from the PS2. Though the overall style has made the transition without too much damage, the alterations made to the interface cause significant issues. The single biggest issue is the alteration of the normal field exploration from a normal walk-about-and-chat to a point and click interface, with the player character replaced by a cursor. This was probably done because of technical limitations, but for a game which is attempting to immerse the player in the world of a high-school teenager, the inability to actually walk around school or explore the town is a definite blow to suspension of disbelief. On the whole, the interface is easily navigable and simple enough to figure out, and the player does get a more traditional movement system while exploring Tartarus, but the fact that it actively works against the game is a significant problem.

The main character’s switch in gender has required the re-recording of a fair number of voiced lines, and there are a few here and there whose volume and tone are a little off, but for the most part, the old and new lines mesh well. Similarly, though most of the soundtrack is unchanged from previous versions of Persona 3, there have been a few new additions. The female main character gets her own combat and walking-around-school music, as well as a few other tracks unique to her side of the game. The new tracks really help differentiate the female side of the game from that of the male, providing a slightly more feminine twist to the soundtrack.

Push dog to talk.
Push dog to talk.

While Shin Megami Tensei games often feature modifiable difficulty levels, Persona 3 Portable takes this to a new level, offering no fewer than five difficulty settings right from the start. This ranges from Beginner, which allows the player to restart battles should the unthinkable happen, to the aptly titled Maniac, which not only boosts the damage output of enemies and the cost of resummoning Personas, but also allows for absolutely no carryover during New Game +. On the whole, having direct control over party members, access to useful Fusion spells throughout the entire game, and the ability to customize Personas with Spell Cards makes Persona 3 Portable significantly easier than previous incarnations of the title, but the ability to set the difficulty level with such precision should help smooth over any misgivings players have on this subject.

In the end, the improvements to the game’s more arcane and unbalanced elements make Portable the more player-friendly version of Persona 3, but the damage that the more haphazard attempts at rebalancing and actively repellant new interface inflict cause some serious issues. On the whole, I would recommend that players new to the series to start with one of the console versions, but Persona 3 Portable‘s new elements and deeper look at some less developed characters should make it highly attractive to Persona fans.

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