Disclaimer: To keep things simple, I won’t be assigning names to the male or female protagonists in this write-up, even though the populace seems to have decided on “Minato” and “Minako” respectively.
Persona 3 was the game that drew the most attention to the Shin Megami Tensei series. Its extraordinarily well-done social links system combined with an amazing story and atmosphere drew people in, earning it numerous awards and great reviews all-around, so it was no surprise that Atlus decided to build off of it with Persona 3: FES, which included an added epilogue The Answer, and then later with Persona 3 Portable for the PSP.
Persona 3 Portable, from now on referred to as P3P, is essentially a remake of the first Persona 3 game with adjustments made to almost all aspects of the game — everything from dungeon trekking to battling to the social links were adjusted, and the player now had the option of choosing the gender of the protagonist. Let’s start from the game system changes first.
P3P was released after Persona 4, which touched up several systems from its predecessor, so it’s no wonder that some aspects of that game were moved on over to P3P. One of these changes is the dungeon. No longer do you have to worry about making it all the way to the next Terminal in the dungeon to go back to the ground floor to heal. Once you quit the dungeon through one of the one-way exits, you can go back to the floor you were last on, like in Persona 4 without any worries. Also, the moment you return to the base floor, you get healed completely. In addition, you don’t get fatigued like in Persona 3 anymore. Instead of fatigue being determined by the number of battles you face, it is now set so that you are automatically fatigued after almost every dungeon trek, but you never actually get tired during the trip (or at least, in my effort to wear my characters down to the bones, I haven’t). Other changes to Tartarus include random effects on floors. Sometimes, experience gained will increase on one floor, and sometimes (the most annoying one in my opinion) the floor is dark and there is no auto-map.
All in all, while Tartarus has gotten a lot easier to go through, the changes have also reduced some of the challenges related to the dungeons. I’m sure most would opine that going through 250+ levels is harrowing — and I’m not disagreeing — but in this case, it’s almost as if most of the challenge has been taken out of the game.
I remember when I played Persona 3 I would actually be stuck on a floor and wonder, “Should I go on and run past all the enemies, heading for the elevator point, or should I play it safe and call it a day?” With the current system, the point is moot since you can just go back to the first floor, heal, and then return right where you left off. Since you don’t get fatigued, you can run through a dungeon as much as you want in one day without any concern for your party’s endurance (although you’ll be really tired the next day). Indirectly, this also makes Social Links a little easier to manage, since, if you’re persistent enough, you could probably run through all of the available Tartarus levels in one day, opening up the rest of your evenings for your social life.
As for the fighting system, players of Persona 4 will feel right at home. First off, it isn’t possible to change weapons — you’re stuck with a short sword for the male and a naginata for the female. Another change is that you can now control the other characters manually instead of having to hope the AI makes the right moves. The knocking-down system is the same as in Persona 4 as well.
Outside of battle, the changes are more obvious. Instead of running around Gekkou High or in Paulownia Mall, you move a target around a mostly static image of the area. People you have started a Social Link with are marked by a speech button over their hards. When talking with other characters, their image is shown on the screen with the dialogue. The best addition, though, is the much-welcomed Square Button, also borrowed from Persona 4. With this button, the player can travel from one area to another almost instantaneously, making jumping between areas so much easier.
Despite all of these nifty system changes, the greatest change from Persona 3 to Persona 3 Portable is the addition of the “girl route.” At the beginning of the game, you can choose your gender. Although there are significant differences between the two routes, the general content is the same. The protagonist still transfers to Gekkou High, still meets Pharos, and still has to fight against STREGA and the twelve Master Shadows and the ensuing boss. Of course, there are a few minor changes, such as what happens if Shinjirou’s Social Link is maxed out and what happens when you go out on the quests with Theodore, Elizabeth’s male counterpart, but for the most part, the story stays the same.
Differences range from small things like dyeing the entire menu system pink and changing the “Master of Tartarus” boss theme and “Mass Destruction” battle theme, as well as most of the outdoor themes, to more important changes, like the ability to hold a part-time job that will increase stats and your money or the fact that you only earn yen in battle if you choose it from the Shuffle.
By far, though, the greatest difference would be the new Social Links. A few of the Social Links are completely in place from the male route like the Hierophant’s, Hanged Man’s, Tower’s, and all the Links with the females on your team. However, since your clubs have changed, gone are the original club-related links like Chariot, Justice, or Fortune. Instead, they are either shuffled to new characters — Hermit is Hasegawa Saori, a girl in the community service club, for example, and Chariot is Iwasaki Rio, a girl on your sports team, which is either tennis or volleyball — or reassigned to the males of your party. Kenji’s Magician arcana is now Junpei’s and Yuko’s Justice arcana is Koromaru’s — predictable since their Persona are of the same arcana – but there are also instances where the Social Link arcana doesn’t match the Persona they use. Akihiko’s Persona is of the Emperor arcana, but his Social Link is Star, and Shinji is the Moon arcana even though his Persona is of Hierophant. Perhaps this implies that the Social Link arcana is determined more by their relationship to you than by their own affinity?
Either way, the new social links are entertaining. I felt just as connected with the new characters as I did with those in the original game, and I loved learning about new aspects of the lives of your fellow SEES members.
What if you want to take the relationship one step further and start dating? Since you’re now a girl, you can start a relationship with the male characters in your party … but with limitations. Ken and Koromaru are automatically removed from the list of potential candidates, and Junpei is already taken (yes, I tried). This only leaves two people, Akihiko and Shinjirou. As far as I know, it isn’t possible to start a relationship with those outside of the SEES either.
This extremely small pool of choices makes me wonder about some of the changes made to the game from the original male route. It seems like Atlus tried to keep all the same possibilities open, which is great, but there are some aspects that don’t work as well with a female character simply with the choices presented. With the Junpei route, it is almost essential to complete his route before he meets Chidori because after that he starts visiting her whenever he has free time, and with the Shinjirou route, you have to invest all your time on him to finish his route as fast as possible or else it is impossible to get a Rank 10. This happens with the Fortune route as well, which belongs to a character I won’t spoil here.
Another point I noticed character-wise is that I had gotten the impression when I had played the male’s route in the original Persona 3 that he was very passive. Usually, his words were soft-spoken and often whatever the person he’s talking to wanted to hear. (A better description of his personality can be found in this discussion.) However, in the case of the girl protagonist, it seemed to me that most of her words had a lot of energy behind them. She was cheerful and bright and, more importantly, she had her own personality. This change made it slightly hard for me to relate to her, but it also suited her appearance more. We’ll have to wait for the English release to see if this impression remains the same after localization.
All in all, I enjoyed playing P3P. However, it is very much the same old Persona 3, just with new Social Links and certain aspects of the system from Persona 4 fitted to it. Oh, and for those curious, I named my character Reika Higurashi – 日暮虹花.