The Persona series has been referred to by many avid JRPG aficionados to be one of the standout franchises in the genre. The series has built its reputation on challenging dungeon crawling, memorable characters, unique battle mechanics and an addictive level-up system. The staples of the genre were really set in the third Persona game (technically fourth, but that’s another story), with the previous games adopting a style similar to its parent franchise, the Shin Megami Tensei series.
Persona 3 has seen two enhanced releases since its original debut on the PlayStation 2 back in 2006. The first enhanced release was called Persona 3 FES, and featured an extra epilogue campaign called The Answer. This review focuses on the second release/port for the PSP in 2010, which featured a more visual-novel style of exploration, and added a female protagonist for veteran players to have a whole new story experience with.
Persona 3 starts out with you in the shoes of a player-named transfer student, who’s starting out his new school life in Gekkoukan High. This player character also has the power to magically summon a physical manifestation of his personality, known in this game as a Persona. Conveniently enough, you are shifted into a dorm where every other student has this exact same power, and after a while in traditional JRPG fashion you get thrown headfirst into a plot where the future of the world lies in the balance.
Keeping the whole theme of teenage heartthrobs with suicidal tendencies aside, the plot of Persona 3 is generally pretty solid, with some well-paced segments and some truly heart-warming (and equally heart-wrenching) moments that will certainly leave their impression on you. While there are some plot points that are hastily wrapped up, the overall story arc is solid, and well worth experiencing for any person that enjoys the Japanese brand of storytelling in video games.
One thing worth mentioning is that in the PSP release of Persona 3, all anime cutscenes were removed due to hardware limitations. Instead, the game adopted a more visual novel style of storytelling instead. While for the most part this style reverberates well with the overall tone of the game, some major events in the story have their immersion somewhat hampered without being able to notice more visual cues, such as the structuring of the environment and the expressions on the character’s faces, among other things.
Persona 3’s gameplay is pretty much split in two halves. During the day, the game plays as a simplified life sim. You live the life of an ordinary high school student… and by ordinary, we do mean ordinary. You go to school, attend classes (where you try not to doze off), hang out with friends, play video games, eat food, and – the most important of them all – try and bang the brains out of every living thing that might show even slightest sign of possessing a vagina (or a dick in the case of the female protagonist).
One of the unique mechanics that has become prevalent in future Persona games was first applied in this iteration. In order to obtain more powerful Personas, one must interact and form bonds with various NPCs, each of whom have their own side stories going on in the background, as you put your body on the line in order to prevent the extinction of humanity.
However, after the final hour of the day ends, your party can experience an additional 25th hour, known as the Dark Hour. During this time, you can explore your school (which turns into a monster-infested tower called Tartarus during this hour, if you weren’t keeping up), fight bosses to unlock certain areas, train your characters and – during a full moon – eliminate anything that the story throws at you.
It’s during this phase that the flaws of Persona 3 are the most noticeable. The general layout of Tartarus is procedurally generated every time one steps inside, which means that while the dungeons might have a different layout, the look and design remains the same. It doesn’t help that aside from a change in the textures, the floors of Tartarus are virtually identical. This leads to extended dungeon-crawling segments to become more of a slog over time, filled with the same treasures and monsters you’ve been encountering this whole time. The items that you get during this arduous phase are, more often than not, lower than the current equipment you probably have, which means that most treasure chests and cards are pretty much meaningless for most of your play through.
The combat system of Persona 3 Portable is somewhat different from Persona 3 FES. In traditional JRPG fashion, you can individually control each member of your party in P3P, while in FES the most you can do is issue orders in order to change the behaviour of your party. The protagonist is also limited to one weapon type in P3P, while in FES he could equip all types. Another minor addition is the ability to defend, which was absent in the PS2 releases.
During the day cycle of the game, exploration is simplified to selecting different icons in an area to initiate a specific action. This can be anything from switching areas to hanging out with a friend and/or potential lover. This is a departure from the original and FES releases where both town and dungeon exploration was in 3D, and was probably done in order to accommodate the PSP’s limited hardware.
The other major area of this game where you’ll spend a lot of time in is Tartarus; a 264-floor high slog of a dungeon full of repetitive and boring visuals, odd structural placements and the general problems that plague procedural generation. There are moments when the climb stops being a challenge and starts being more of a chore, and Persona 3 hits that note pretty early during its 70+ hour campaign.
Like most good games that come out of Japan, Persona 3 absolutely knocks it out of the park when it comes to the music. Depending on the scene, the music really gives it a life of its own. Whether it be happy, sad, epic or quaint; Persona 3 understands the various moods that its music can create, and it uses this understanding to provide a great musical experience. If you’re a video game music aficionado, then I highly recommend these tracks for you to listen to. Perhaps you’ll understand what I’m talking about.
The voice acting is also impressive, showing that no punches were pulled during its English localisation. Each character speaks with a voice that perfectly resonates with the character he/she is portraying, leading to a cast of characters that truly become more intriguing and fleshed-out over time.
Persona 3 has stood the test of time, in no small effort due to ATLAS’s renewed efforts to make the title more approachable with multiple releases and ports. Its great story, charming cast of characters, simple-yet-tactical combat system and unique social mechanics truly make it one of the pioneers of the genre.
While the dungeon crawling might become somewhat boring and lacklustre over time, it’s only one minor chink in an otherwise impenetrable suit of armour. The Portable version also doesn’t have the benefit of story cutscenes, but makes up for it with a new female perspective to the whole story.
If you’re a fan of JRPGs, then stop wasting your time reading this review and pick up this gem on PSN. If you’re a fan of good games then this is obviously a must-buy, although you should be clear about the kind of experience you’re going for when you purchase this title.
|+ Great setting, story and characters||– Tartarus has poor procedural generation|
|+ Excellent music, good voice||– No cutscenes or 3D exploration (except Tartarus)|
|+ Combat enhanced in Portable release|
|+ Forming Social Links is fun and addictive|