You can't stop the Persona 3 remake.
The original was released in Japan in 2006, but North American gamers didn't get it until 2007, at which point Japan got an updated version of Persona 3 called Persona 3 FES, which included a staggering amount of new content. Fortunately, Persona 3 did well enough in North America that Persona 3 FES was also brought over, and at a budget price to boot. Shortly thereafter, we got Persona 4, a sequel that built heavily on the previous game.
Here we are in 2010, and Persona 3 is getting yet another re-release, this time for the PlayStation Portable. Even if you love Persona 3, it's difficult to justify buying it a third time. However, Persona 3 Portable looks to be the definitive version of Persona 3 and isn't just a simple port. The changes and modifications are absolutely staggering, far more so than the difference between Persona 3 to Persona 3 FES. If you're a fan of Persona 3, you owe it to yourself to give the PSP iteration a shot.
For those unfamiliar with the plot of Persona 3, you play as a young student who recently transferred to Gekkoukan High School, and you quickly discover that something strange is happening. Between 11:59 and midnight, time stops and mysterious creatures called Shadows terrorize the city. Most people are unaware that this "Dark Hour" exists, and only people who have the special power of Persona retain their consciousness during this time. Unsurprisingly, you are one of these Persona users, and you must find a way to stop the Shadows before they destroy the city. There are plenty of twists and turns, and I won't say any more about the plot for fear of spoiling it for newcomers.
The basis for Persona 3 Portable is Persona 3 FES. Most of the changes made to The Journey section of the plot in FES are retained in Persona 3 Portable, including Weapon Fusion and the Aigis S. Link. Likewise, a number of the small mechanics changes and additions have been brought over almost identically. Players should be warned that this title does not include The Answer bonus section, which was added to Persona 3 FES.There are certain areas that reference The Answer, but those hoping to find that section of the story will have to play Persona 3 FES (or watch the cut scenes on YouTube). Fortunately, there is a ridiculous amount of new content to make up for this omission, and most of it will probably be more accessible to players anyway.
The largest change to the game comes in the form of the new exclusive female story. When starting the game, players can choose from either a male or female character. Depending on the selection, there will be a bunch of minor changes to the game, along with a few major ones. The female character is not just a palette swap of the male character, either; she is portrayed as a different person, with different responses and reactions to certain events. NPCs treat her differently, and even certain segments of the plot have been altered. If you're a male player, it's generally worthwhile to give the female story a shot, as it adds a very different perspective. You'll even see a few familiar cameos that won't show up if you play as a male character.
The biggest change to the female plot comes in the form of new social links. Chariot, Fortune, Hermit, Justice, Magician, Moon, Star and Strength have changed, and in many cases, these links are members of your party. Akihiko is now the Star link, Ken is the Justice link, and even Koromaru the dog gets a chance to shine as the new Strength link. These links provide new insight into characters who were less developed in prior Persona 3 iterations. Sometimes, working with these links as a female lets you alter the plot in ways that a male character cannot. It seems easier for a female character to max out her links, as she has access to more nighttime links. This takes a lot of pressure off the player who is trying to get every possible link to achieve the maximum rank. Additionally, the mysterious Elizabeth can be replaced by her brother, Theodore, for female players who would prefer a male counterpart in the Velvet Room.
Male or female, you're going to be spending time inside Tartarus, the mysterious dungeon that appears every night during the Dark Hour. The dungeon basics are unchanged, and the levels, bosses and enemy layout are almost identical, but don't think that means that Tartarus is exactly the same. The fatigue mechanic has been removed, so your characters no longer get tired while adventuring, unless they are knocked out in combat and you don't revive them. Instead, as in Persona 4, you have to pay to recover hit and spell points. The save clock at the entrance of Tartarus doubles as a healing station, charging you obscene amounts of Yen to recover your health.
Even if you've reached the top floor of Tartarus, you're still going to have to venture inside because every so often, the townspeople somehow get trapped, and they must be found before the next full moon. Failure to rescue them in time leads to their deaths. As if saving lives wasn't important enough, some of these townspeople are your social links. If one of them wanders into Tartarus and isn't rescued in time, you lose the link forever. On the plus side, every person you rescue earns you a fantastic reward from the police officer who runs the local weapon shop. These prizes tend to be extremely useful and are worth the time you'd spend rescuing the person. There is a time limit involved, but it's pretty generous. If you've been advancing steadily in Tartarus, you should have no problem rescuing the townspeople, but if you're slacking off, you may have to push forward to save them before they end up as monster bait.
If you've played Persona 4, you know it retained a lot of the basics of Persona 3's combat while fine-tuning and improving the other gameplay mechanics. Persona 3 Portable takes most of those improvements and brings them back to the original game, so the gameplay is similar, but there are enough changes to have a severe impact on how you play. The good news is that these changes are almost universally for the better. The most notable change is that your party members can now be controlled directly in combat so you don't have to deal with Yukari using medicine on herself when your main character is about to die. Just as in Persona 4, you assign all of your party members to be directly controlled, which has a tremendous impact on the gameplay. You can be so much more effective in combat when you're not dealing with the sometimes-inept AI pulling all the wrong moves. Even if nothing else had changed, direct control over your party makes Persona 3's combat experience far more enjoyable.
However, other mechanic changes from Persona 4 have also been carried over. In Persona 3, hitting enemies with elemental attacks against which they are weak would knock them down and make them miss the next turn. At the same time, your party members would gain an extra turn every time they hit an enemy's weak point, and the same applied to enemies who attacked your party members. Persona 3 Portable uses the Persona 4 system instead, so damaging an enemy knocks him down but doesn't make him lose his turn unless you hit him with another attack against which they are weak. This makes it harder to keep enemies stun-locked than it was in Persona 3, but since your party gains the same benefit, you actually suffer a lot less from having a weakness exploited. This is further improved by the introduction of the Persona 4 Guard mechanic, which lets you defend against enemy attacks and prevent foes from striking your character's weak spots. It makes it a lot easier to use your favorite party members, even if they happen to be weak against enemy attacks.
Also returning from Persona 4 are special party assists, although they come in a slightly different form. In Persona 4, leveling up your party members' social links would cause them to gain new abilities and, eventually, new persona. Since Persona 3's persona evolution is tied to the plot and the male character doesn't have social links with all party members, these abilities are now tied to plot progression. However, most of the special bonuses have been carried over in a modified form. As the game progresses, your party members will gain the ability to endure lethal damage from attacks or take a lethal blow that would have wiped out your party leader. They even get the ability to perform a co-op attack on an enemy whose weakness has been exploited. Unlike Persona 4, these co-op attacks are not exclusive to certain characters. Instead, each one is an assured critical hit against an enemy on the field. These abilities do a lot to prevent some of the potential frustrations encountered in the game's previous iterations. If enemies get a lucky critical, you may end up in a bad situation, but that's better than getting a "Game Over."
Your main character is almost unchanged from Persona 3's, version, regardless of whether you're using the male or female lead, but there are a few notable and important differences. For one thing, your main character no longer has the ability to equip any weapon. The male character is limited to one-handed blades, while the female character uses the new naginata weapons. Unlike Persona 4, this is actually a real limitation, as the game retains weapon attributes. Weapons are still divided into the slash, strike and pierce categories, and both genders' weapons are of the slash variety. In order to get the other types, you have to create Persona capable of using the strike or piercing attacks. It adds an interesting layer of strategy to the game because picking a proper physical-based Persona now depends on more than just choosing the strongest attack. There is a handful of new Persona available, such as the Mokoi and Neko Shogun.
The real interesting change to Persona comes in the form of skill cards. Every Persona has one, sort of like the Sources in Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey. When a Persona reaches a certain level, it'll give you this card, which you can use to teach the skill to any other Persona in the game, makeing fusion less of a hassle. If you're trying to give a certain move to another Persona, it's far easier to find the proper card instead of performing complex fusion trees. You can also get skill cards as prizes for doing optional side-quests throughout the game. Each card can only be used once, although a mysterious creature located at the shrine will offer to copy one of your cards once every five days. Not all moves are available as skill cards, though; some of the most powerful moves in the game are exclusive to a specific Persona and can't be transferred to another.
Another change comes to the special fusion spells that could be performed in Persona 3. Previously, you needed two specific Persona in your party to use these spells. They were of varying usefulness, but most of them required such unusual combinations that players never saw them. Persona 3 Portable changes these spells into usable items. You can exchange rare jewels for these items or skill cards at the antique shop, so you can get some powerful abilities with surprising ease. This is balanced out by the fact that the all-powerful Armageddon spell is further limited in its usefulness. No longer can players equip the proper Persona and steamroll everything in the way.
All of this sounds like it makes Persona 3 Portable easier, and it does. Being able to control your party members and pass moves between Persona makes the game a lot friendlier, but there are also plenty of challenges for hardcore gamers. There are new optional super-bosses, including a special cameo from Persona 4. The bosses should provide an interesting challenge to gamers who think that the basic game is too simple. There are also two new difficulty modes. Beginner makes the game even easier and gives players many chances to retry a battle, but Maniac mode is only for Persona 3 experts. It makes enemies more powerful, places severe limitations on your Persona Compendium, and various other PSP-throwingly difficult traits.
The one area where Persona 3 Portable is a downgrade to Persona 3 is in visuals. There is the obvious change in visual quality from the PS2 to PSP, but the character models and cut scenes have also been replaced by 2-D "visual novel" cut scenes. All actions are described in text instead of being portrayed on-screen, except for a very few major scenes where animated sequences have been replaced by brief cut scenes. It's a step backward, but it also speeds up the text and gameplay a lot. Skipping through cut scenes, especially ones you've already seen, can be done in a fraction of the time that it took on the PS2.
Outside of Tartarus, you don't directly control your character. Instead, you move a cursor and point at the characters or objects that you'd like to interact with; moving around town is much easier because you can zoom between places in a matter of moments. The game even includes the Persona 4 quick travel button, allowing you to select your next location from the menu instead of having to walk there. It's a sacrifice of visual quality for speed, but most players will find it to be a worthwhile trade-off.
The mechanics and plot in Persona 3 Portable have been changed and adapted but almost universally for the better. Being able to control your party members does wonders for the combat system, and the new female viewpoint provides a very different perspective. Persona 3 fans who are on the fence about purchasing Persona 3 Portable might be swayed by these new additions, and the gameplay improvements make this title ideal for newcomers to the series.
More articles about Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 Portable