Persona 3 Portable is a tough sell. The original Persona 3 was released to solid reviews, despite a few nagging flaws. At the time the original game was being translated, Persona 3 FES was released in Japan. It seemed unlikely that English-speaking gamers would get that, but overwhelming positive response was enough to justify Atlus bringing over FES, with all its new features. Shortly thereafter, we got Persona 4, which was made with the same engine as Persona 3 and had just enough new features to stand out. We're up to two versions of the game, and one very similar sequel.
Persona 3 Portable is yet another remake of the original Persona 3, and since U.S. gamers just got FES in 2008, it feels weird to buy the game again a scant two years later, especially when a sequel is available. Portable is an example of how to do a re-release right. It may be the same game, but it contains enough new content and gameplay updates that it feels less like a port and more like the definitive version of Persona 3.
Persona 3's plot has remained relatively unchanged. 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 PM 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.
While the basic story is the same, Portable contains an entirely new viewpoint. At the beginning of the game, you can choose to play as either a male or female character. If you play as the male character, your experience will be roughly the same as in Persona 3. However, if you play as the female character, the basic flow of the plot is different, and the events and character interactions change. The female character is also more upbeat and chipper, so your dialogue choices reflect that. The male character fluctuates between sullen or friendly, but the female character can be more optimistic or sarcastic. Likewise, characters will treat her differently based on her gender, with some being more or less friendly, and certain events only occur on her path. While you shouldn't expect a different ending or drastically altered plot, there are enough twists to make things surprising even for Persona 3 veterans.
There are a few special specific sequences that only the female protagonist will see. The real advantage is in the new Social Links, which reveal more about some of your party members. Characters like Shinjiro and Akihiko, who otherwise get less development than Junpei or Yukari, can shine in these sequences, and it makes the party feel more fleshed out. Much like Persona 4, you feel like there is more of a connection to your party and the events of the main story, instead of feeling slightly disconnected as they did in Persona 3.
The female plot is more fun for Persona 3 veterans to play, since it represents a "what if" story. You get to see a lot of events from a slightly different perspective, and you see what would have happened to some of your Social Links or party members if the male protagonist hadn't been around. The new Hermit and Chariot links felt a tad bland, although that may be because the male version's Hermit link is amongst the most enjoyable in the game.
The majority of the "real world" gameplay in Portable is unchanged from FES. The new features like the Weapon Fusion are still there, and most of the other small changes and fixes remain. A few new features are available, but almost all of them are directly tied to Tartarus, the mysterious tower that appears during the Dark Hour. Inside Tartarus, you have to venture through over 200 randomly generated floors to reach the top of the tower and discover the true secret. However, you can't do the entire tower in a single night. The higher levels are blocked off until you advance the story. By the time you can reach the top, you'll be in the final month of the game and preparing to face the final boss.
All this is pretty much the same as the original version, but there's a significant change. The stamina system from Persona 3 has been removed, and the game adopts the Persona 4 system. Characters no longer get tired when exploring Tartarus, unless they fall in battle and are not revived before you move to the next floor. Players no longer regenerate their health and SP when they return to the first floor of Tartarus. You have to pay a fee at the save point on the first floor to recover.
Unlike Persona 4, there's no way to make this cheaper other than random chance. Occasionally, the clock will give you a discount for that day, but you have to hope it's in a good mood. Fortunately, before you go into Tartarus, Fuuka will tell you whether or not it's a cheap day. You can actually clear entire sections of the tower in a single day. As you advance, however, it can get really expensive. Toward the end of the game, it would require all of my cash to heal my team. On the other hand, past the midway point or so, you don't really need to worry about that. You'll find Persona with SP regeneration and healing items that can replenish all your needs, which lets you spend more time in Tartarus.
Tartarus is dangerous to characters outside of the main team. During predetermined days during the year, some random townsfolk will vanish into Tartarus. Sometimes they're just random schlubs, and sometimes, they're your Social Links. You have to find them before the next full moon or else they'll be killed by the Shadows. This has a permanent effect on your links, as you can imagine, so it's in your best interest to rescue them. Theodore or Elizabeth in the Velvet Room will tell you roughly which floors the kidnapped people are on, and all you have to do is go to that floor and rescue them for some hefty rewards. It's a nice way to encourage players to visit Tartarus more often.
Exploring Tartarus is basically the same as it was in the original game, although the combat system has seen a complete overhaul. Persona 4's improved version of the Persona 3 combat engine has been ported back to the original game, and it is almost a universal improvement. The biggest and most obvious change is the inclusion of Direct Control over your party members. This means that you can now give them direct commands in battle instead of choosing AI patterns. While Persona 3 was fun, the AI sometimes got too wonky, and you ended up losing a fight because Yukari used medicine on herself instead of on your ailing main character. Being able to directly control your party adds so many potential new tactics to the mix. This does make the game noticeably easier, but only in good ways. Battles are so much smoother when you can order Akihiko to use debuffs intelligently or Mitsuru to not to waste her time with Mind Charge.
A lesser improvement, but still worthwhile, is the addition of the bonus party abilities from Persona 4. As the game progresses, your party members unlock new bonus abilities. They gain the ability to do things like perform a special follow-up attack on a downed enemy or knock your party leader out of the way of a fatal attack and take the blow themselves. These powers are nice but don't tend to be very useful. The co-op attack is just an automatic critical blow on another enemy. Likewise, being pushed out of the way of fatal attacks can be occasionally useful, but since it doesn't work on hit-all attacks, it almost never triggers when you really need it. However, beyond a certain point, all of your party members earn the ability to endure one attack that would otherwise be lethal, and it gives you a huge defensive buffer against a mistake.
The actual Persona haven't changed much since Persona 3 FES. There are a handful of new ones ported over from Persona 4, but none particularly change the face of the game. The biggest addition is that of Skill Cards. If you played Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, the Skill Cards will seem similar to the Demon Sources in that game. When you level a Persona to a certain point, it will give you a card, which can be used to teach any other Persona in the game the listed ability. This makes creating the optimal Persona far easier than it was in previous iterations of Persona 3. It almost seems too easy in spots, as you gain the ability to copy any card you have once every five days.
Creating a Persona that has some of the best spells or immunity can be done in about five minutes, as opposed to hours of tedious fusion in the original game. Of course, by the time you reach the point where you can create these kinds of Persona, the game is almost over. There are certain spells, like Alice's Die For Me!, which can no longer be inherited, but they're in the minority. You've also lost the ability to perform Fusion Spells, as those abilities are tied to special items that you can buy at the local antique shop. You can use them as you would any other item, although it's ridiculously expensive to get high-powered ones like Armageddon.
Persona 3 Portable is an easier game than its predecessor, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing because it puts a lot more control in the player's hands and prevents unfair deaths. There are some things that are a bit unnecessary, such as the endless tide of powerful rewards you receive for rescuing people in Tartarus, but it's not enough to make or break the game. For those who really want a challenge, there is a new Maniacs difficulty mode which is only for hardcore Persona 3 players and should provide more than enough of a challenge.
Another nice new feature is a lengthy series of side-bosses that you can battle during the final month of the game. The bulk of these bosses are powered-up versions of the bosses from the main story. They're strong and reasonably tough, although it's possible to power-level to the point where they can be easily dispatched. In some of the other fights, you're given a pre-defined level and set of Persona, and you must figure out how to defeat certain groups of enemies with what you're given. Sometimes these battles are group fights, and sometimes they only use the main character. It strongly encourages you to learn how to play the game, but the rewards are substantial. The prize for finishing all these battles is a chance to refight a powerful super-boss from Persona 4. Most players probably won't bother with this, but an additional challenge is a nice way to spice up things for returning gamers.
Persona 3 Portable takes an inarguable step backward in the graphical department. While the original game was told mostly through in-game character models, Portable goes for a "visual novel" style, where static character art is placed in front of a background. For a few of the major scenes, there are actual cut scenes, although they're simplified and are replacing what was a fully animated sequence in the original title.
The game really loses a lot of the details during some of the more dramatic scenes. It's difficult to discuss these sequences without spoiling anything, but suffice it to say that some of the ending sequences don't carry the same impact because of this. It's not enough to ruin the game, and the change is pretty unimportant for returning Persona 3 players, but it makes things a little less shiny for first-time players. Fortunately, the audio side of the game is still top-notch. The voice acting is quite good, although a few characters are just as awkward as they were in the original game. The female protagonist story has new music, most of which is pretty darn good.
This is the third release of Persona 3, and even for an excellent RPG, it's difficult to justify buying it again and again. However, Persona 3 Portable contains enough new features to make it a worthwhile purchase. The addition of the female plot adds enough new content to merit another playthrough, especially if you're a veteran and can catch all the changes. The real shining star is the much-improved battle system and gameplay mechanics. The gameplay changes solve almost all of Persona 3's major problems and make it a much more enjoyable title. For those who've never played Persona 3 before, this is easily the best version to pick up, as the game has aged wonderfully and remains one of the best titles on the market. The only downside is some subpar visuals, which mar a few of the game's important scenes. If you're a PSP owner with a fondness for RPGs, you owe it to yourself to pick up Persona 3 Portable. It's the best RPG on the system and is a must-have for anyone even remotely interested in the genre.
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