This is our second playtest of Persona 3 Portable. For our previous import playtest, click here. Additionally, please note that the text below contains minor spoilers if you haven’t played at least 10 hours of Persona 3.
It isn’t often that you get the chance to take a fresh look at one of your favourite games ever and re-evaluate it from a different perspective. Likewise, it isn’t often that developers get the chance to fine-tune a single game not once, but twice, in an attempt to file away the rough edges and add something meaningful to it at the same time.
Persona 3 Portable is one of those rare instances, and part of the appeal is making note of the little tweaks Atlus have made to the genre-defining game they first released 4 years ago. While Persona 3 was an incredibly forward-thinking product for its time, it still suffered from flaws that might have prevented people from enjoying it as much as they could have. The way the game required you to approach grinding in Tartarus. The effect this had on how you utilized your time for establishing and strengthening Social Links and living your life. The manner in which you navigated through the different locales.
Persona 4 did a great job of addressing a lot of those issues and demonstrating how to streamline an RPG, but what makes P3P interesting is that it features even more tweaks over and above those that P4 introduced to the series and, perhaps, gives you an idea of what Atlus are thinking in terms of design improvements for future titles.
Not everything you’ll see in P3P is an improvement, however, and this is due in part to the system it’s been ported down to. Whether or not you’ll find it worth your time is going to be entirely subjective. Have you already played Persona 3 before? Did you get to play FES? Are you male or female? How much do you like to get inside the heads of fictional characters and attempt to examine what makes them who they are?
And while the most obvious change to Persona 3 Portable is the addition of a new female character — hereby referred to as “Minako,” as the fans have dubbed her — the other change will make itself much more apparent once you actually have the game in your hands: P3P is much more of a visual novel-esque experience than the original.
ImPERSONAting a Visual Novel
P3P opens with an introductory song named “Soul Phrase,” the accompanying visuals of which are a little reminiscent of an MTV-esque music video. That kind of approach might work for Kingdom Hearts, but it feels a little out of place in Persona. It doesn’t suit the game’s atmosphere as well as “Burn My Dread” or “P3 FES” in my opinion, but others might feel differently.
Once you start a new game, you’re first asked to select your gender. The game actually suggests playing as Minato (male) if it’s your first time experiencing Persona 3. I picked Minako, since she’s the major new addition to the PSP version. After you’ve made your choice, the story begins with the familiar scene of a train headed to Iwatodai station. Here’s where you’ll start to notice the differences.
This entire opening sequence isn’t a movie like in Persona 3 — instead, it’s presented like a visual novel, with still images and text describing the scene. “The station entrance is buzzing with activity,” a dialogue box tells you, as an appropriate image fills the screen. It then cuts to an image of a dorm room, where a certain someone has a gun to her head. The dialogue box appears once again.
Of course, she ultimately decides not to do it, exclaiming, “No, I can’t!”
The scene then changes back to the train once again, now at Iwatodai Station. The clock strikes 12, and you experience the Dark Hour for the first time. “Something about the atmosphere seems odd,” the game tells you. “As you walk from the station, you notice coffin-like objects lining the deserted city.” Cue image of the Dark Hour coffins.
The change, while interesting, doesn’t work nearly as well as the original anime cinematic, with an expressionless Minato walking through a jungle of coffins with his headphones on, entirely unaffected by the Dark Hour, interspersed with scenes of a trembling Yukari as she points her Evoker to her head. It’s understandable why Atlus aren’t positioning this game as a replacement for the original Persona 3. As great as having a portable, more streamlined version of the game is, certain crucial elements of its design had to be stripped in the process.
Once you arrive at the SEES dorm, you’re greeted by a familiar boy in stripes. He wants you to sign a contract. Once you agree to take responsibility for your actions from that moment forth — AKA, fill in your name — one of your new dorm mates appears to greet you. Except, she “is holding something looks like a gun.”
Again, this scene is presented visual novel style, and all you see is a portrait of Yukari. The “gun” is nowhere in sight. If you happen to miss the line that says she has a gun (like I did), you wouldn’t know she was carrying one. That is, until you get to ask her about it moments later in a dialogue choice. At times like this, the drama and tension feel like they fall flat compared to the original game.
This scene also highlights one of the nicer additions to P3P though — that there are more dialogue choices scattered throughout the game. I’m not entirely certain if they actually amount to any significant changes as far as character relations go, but they’re there, and they compliment the visual novel presentation very nicely in addition to making you feel more like you’re role-playing. Atlus even took the time to create different dialogue for Minato and Minako, which is fantastic for further replays of the game.
A Cursory Presentation
Once Yukari leads you up to your dorm room, you exchange a few words, and get to ask her a question again. While the wording is different depending on your gender, the two question choices are virtually the same: A) What’s up with the contract you signed? or B) Who was that kid down by the reception?
Naturally, she has no clue what you’re talking about in either case. This is where the game first begins to feel like Persona 3 proper. Slower, more talkative scenes, naturally, don’t suffer from merely being on a smaller screen. The foreboding “Troubled” track kicks in, giving you your first portable taste of that creepy P3 “something’s not right” vibe. I found myself feeling a little envious of people who would be playing the game for the first time.
Once the conversation ends, you’re inside your dorm room, and catch your first glimpse of the new UI. Instead of controlling a 3D model of your character, everything in the background is pre-rendered (including characters, if there are any in the scene) and you move a cursor over the environment to click on objects or people to take a closer look. Hitting the R trigger displays icons over everything you can interact with, which is extremely useful.
You can move your cursor with either the analog stick or the D-pad. Holding down the O button makes it move faster. In addition, the □ button function returns from Persona 4, allowing you to bring up a shortcut menu of nearby locations you can travel to. It’s a great idea in theory. The problem is, while the cursor system feels great in smaller spaces, I eventually missed the freedom of being able to move my character around.
Having everything be pre-rendered affects the drama at times, too. Since there are no more 3D models for your characters outside of Tartarus and boss events, there’s no animation to speak of either. The game relies almost solely on still portraits and text to convey feeling, which is a noticeable downgrade if you’ve played the PS2 originals. Body language goes a long way toward moving the narrative along, and the original P3’s attention to detail was sorely missed.
Then again, 3D models have their downsides, too. A few days into the game and you arrive at the scene where the SEES dorm is attacked by a Shadow. As per the original script, you run up to the roof with Yukari, who tries to summon her persona, but can’t muster up the courage to do so. Your character then decides to take matters into his / her hands, and puts the Evoker to his head.
This scene isn’t presented visual novel style, but using the ingame 3D models. It’s a step up from still images, but considering the models are entirely expressionless with no facial animation to speak of, it’s another noticeable step down from the wicked cool “per…so…na” scene we all remember. While this might sound nitpicky, Persona is very much a game that lives and dies by its atmosphere, drama and characters. The downgrades to those don’t break the game, but they do cheapen the experience a little.
Persona 3: FEM
Underneath all these flaws, however, lies Persona 3; one of the best RPGs in recent years. Flaws notwithstanding, if the underlying game is strong enough, it will show, and luckily P3’s strengths shine through. I found myself marveling at the fact that I didn’t mind playing through the game all over again, given how heavily plot and character-driven it was.
Part of the reason for this, of course, is Minako. She’s nothing like her male counterpart, and it’s immensely interesting to see how Atlus chose to characterize her. As you’ll recall, Persona 3’s protagonist left a lot up to the imagination. The game told you a few things about him — namely that he was kind of mental and that he was practically born to play the role of saviour — but everything else, you were allowed to fill in yourself. The way he spoke to his friends, how outgoing he was, what his feelings were regarding the situations he found himself in, and so on.
Personally, I viewed him as an aloof, but sincere sort of chap with an iron-strong sense of justice. He often preferred to hang out by himself or with maybe a single friend at a time — certainly not a large group — and given his natural talents and mature outlook, tended to be a loner even though he had plenty of great friends both in and out of SEES. He was a perfectionist, and posessed every commendable trait you could possibly want in a human being, but this was also precisely why he was always so alone.
Minako, however, doesn’t suffer from this tragic irony. She’s outgoing, isn’t afraid to speak her mind — unlike Minato, who I felt sometimes said the things people wanted to hear — and gives the impression of a far more carefree creature. Part of the reason is that there’s no 3D model of her, standing hunched over, hands in her pockets all the time. Even despite the slightly creepy red eyes, she comes off as more joyful, occasionally boisterous, and perhaps a tiny bit cynical. The pink UI helps, too.
She also shares a different relationship with some of the characters you likely got to know in P3. Junpei, for instance, will reveal things about his past to her that you didn’t know before. I can’t speak to whether or not female players will find her more relatable than Minato, but she’s certainly cut from a different cloth. For instance, in my experience, it felt great to not have to give a hoot about your Academics stat for once (not that I’d allow her to be a complete failure either though).
And while Minato, in my own experience, never seemed to cave from all the pressure he must have been under from leading SEES, she occasionally has her moments of fragility. For example; there’s a dialogue option that results in you bursting into tears after barely managing to defeat the first major full moon Shadow inside the moving monorail and getting out in one piece.
Ultimately, I found myself role-playing her as someone a little more “real” and less prepared for the role of a messiah. Building up an entirely new character and seeing her take on familiar events is easily P3P’s biggest appeal.
In addition to the female protagonist, P3P also features a whole bunch of other tweaks that make the game a more easily-digestible experience. Here’s a few of the more prominent ones:
- You can now resume exploring Tartarus from the floor you left off.
- Leveling up your various personae results in them giving you a skill card. This card can be used to teach a skill to another persona that wouldn’t normally learn it. You can also duplicate these cards at the shrine, making it that much easier to build up your team.
- Certain parts of the soundtrack such as the battle theme have been changed for the female route. While they aren’t all as strong as the original OST, they do go a long way toward helping define her unique character and perspective.
- There are more difficulty levels, which makes grinding and deaths more manageable.
- Running out of SP is no longer an issue — you can now heal HP and SP at the Tartarus rendezvous save point. There’s also no more fatigue while grinding, so you can keep going as long as you like. This, in turn, makes managing Social Links a lot easier.
- You can control individual characters in battle, just like in Persona 4. I found myself needing to take control of Yukari a few times because she either tended to heal a little too often or not often enough, depending on the orders assigned to her.
All said and done, no one can deny Persona 3 Portable is a fantastic game. Not only was the PS2 Persona 3 a thoroughly enjoyable experience overall, its individual elements were extremely well-directed as well. At its best, P3P builds upon the strengths of the original, and at its worst, it is nowhere close to being bad or even mediocre.