Persona 3 Portable

I’m not entirely sure that when I started this blog I’d keep things going for quite as long as I have. This article marks my 200th review, a staggering milestone as far as I’m concerned; since starting this blog nearly 5 full years ago, I’ve slowly seen it turn into a weekly project that I try to adhere to partly out of pride, but also partly because this little blog has long since become the best outlet I’ve ever had for managing my own mental health. It feels appropriate, then, to celebrate so many reviews with not just a game that I adore and want to waffle about, but also one which I consider a pivotal part of that wider journey of managing mental health. I’m sure everyone has their own game or games which speak to themselves in a powerful, personal way and trying to explain precisely why they are so meaningful can be a difficult task. Nevertheless, that’s what I’m going to try and do, alongside explaining just why Persona 3, and specifically its PSP (and, at time of writing, soon to be PS4-bound) remake Portable deserves your attention.

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Persona 3 (PS2, PSP [reviewed])

Released Jul 2006 | Developed / Published: Atlus

Genre: JRPG | HLTB: 74 hours

The first thing I remember thinking about Persona 3 when I originally played it is its protagonist and opening has such mid-aughts emo chic. Your character, a floppy-banged slouching lad, headphones on and eyes down, arrives on a late train in the city of Iwatodai. He’s so lost in his own little world that he somehow fails to notice the fact that at midnight the entire town undergoes a dramatic change as a sickly green moonlight settles over the night and giant blood-red coffins rise from the ground and encase the population. We’ve all been there I guess; when you’re vibing to some music obviously we can all miss the world turning into a monstrous hellhole, as you do. Upon his arrival at his new dormitory he learns both that he is part of a small group of special people, all of whom attend Gekkoukan High School and share his dorm, and of the existence of the Dark Hour, a strange extra hour which occurs every night on the stroke of midnight. During this time most people are unaware, sealed in those bloody coffins, but for the unfortunate souls who find themselves conscious during this time, they are hunted by Shadows, dark creatures which seek out and prey on the minds of humans. Survivors shamble around the town in a zombie-like state, leading to a rising tide of people afflicted with “Apathy Syndrome”, as the town’s media begins to term them.

However, our hero and his dorm-mates are special. They have the ability to summon Personas, huge monstrous representations of their own psyche, and command them in their fight against the Shadows. Together they form the Special Extracurricular Execution Squad, or SEES, and are tasked with not just fighting the Shadows, but also trying to find out how to end the Dark Hour once and for all. That’s easier said than done; during the Dark Hour, their school transforms into a vast non-euclidean tower called Tartarus which stretches off far into the sky. And, as if that’s not enough, they even still have to deal with the greatest horror of all – being at school!

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The game is split into two distinct parts. During the day you live out what I can only describe as a slice-of-life anime: you go to school, you hang out with friends, you chill out and spend time at the various places to hang out around Iwatodai. It’s a kind of like a series of light simulation elements, but it’s important to engage with all these bits of the game though because they all work to supplement your performance in the JRPG bits of Persona 3. Alongside your regular combat stats which get beefed up as you level up in battle you also have to try and manage social traits like your Courage, your Academics and your Charisma. These are manipulated in contextual ways; for example, answering questions in class can make you smarter or make you seem more confident and charismatic. There’s a range of ways you can level these stats up: performing at karaoke, drinking coffee that’s rumoured to make you more charming, playing quiz games, even praying at a local shrine. Part of the point of leveling up these stats is because you’ll do better in school and in turn earn rewards, but also because certain Social Links are locked off behind you having enough of a particular stat. You might not be able to start one because, say, you’re not popular and charismatic enough to hang out with them, so you quickly come to realise that these non-combat stats are just as important to manage as your levels and personae.

Social Links are one of the game’s most enjoyable features. With them, Atlus has basically gamified the process of being friends with people. Each Social Link is linked to an arcana of the tarot (e.g. the Priestess, the Empress, the Chariot, etc), as are the personae you can summon. Advancing a given Social Link basically just involves spending time with the person or people attached to it; doing so earns a hidden amount of points which advance you towards the next level of the Link and when you level up you’ll unlock a new scene with that person. Each Social Link tends to wind up delving into the psyche or trauma or insecurities of whoever you’re making friends with; for example, hanging around with your classmate Yukari, who seems on the surface to be popular and chirpy, dives into her bad relationship with her mother. Many wind up deeply tragic or full of pathos, such as the drunken Buddhist monk who ran away from his family due to his own sense of shame or a young man who runs ideas for his storybook past you in-between discussing his rapidly progressing terminal illness, and it is in these Links that some of the strongest writing in Persona 3 can be found.

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Leveling up Social Links offers a concrete improvement to the combat side of the game as a higher Link lets you craft higher level Personae of that arcana, and it also grants a massive EXP boost to newly created personae. However, it’s unlikely you’ll see everything in one run; some Links exist only in very short windows or the person you want to hang out with is only available on specific times or days. You can only do one activity per day and evening, so you have to pick and choose carefully what you want to engage with. It can make for a frustrating time for completionists; although you can see everything on a single playthrough, it makes for a very tight and controlled schedule and often it’s much more enjoyable to just go with the flow.

The other side of the game takes place in Tartarus. Each evening you can choose, rather than doing an activity, to wait until the Dark Hour and take your team to explore Tartarus. The gimmick of Tartarus is that the vast majority of the floors within it are procedurally-generated, with set floors for bosses. Each of the boss floors also has a teleporter to make travel through the tower a bit easier, and because they’re fixed often I found that exploration sessions were very much built around at least reaching the next one. Your progress through Tartarus is limited by your progression through the story; there are only so many floors accessible to you at any one time and eventually if you climb high enough you’ll hit a gated floor that remains sealed until the next major story event has occurred.

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As you wander each floor trying to find the stairs to the next one you’ll inevitably end up in combat with the Shadows. Combat is strictly turn-based and highly reliant on an elemental resistance-and-weaknesses system, not unlike Pokemon – except, y’know, much darker. During battle each character can summon their Persona, which is how you cast spells and perform special attacks. While each of your party gets just one persona, your main character is special and can have multiple personae jostling around in your head. This gives you a huge degree of tactical maneuverability as it allows you to ensure you’ve got a big enough range of personae to be able to answer any threat. It’s also an absolute necessity if you’re not playing the PSP Portable re-release, for one important reason.

In the original and FES re-release of Persona 3, you cannot control your party members and must rely entirely on their AI to make the right decisions. You can attempt to push them in the right direction by setting some tactical options for each character, but it’s limited. As far as I’m concerned, this is a cardinal sin of JRPG design; not only is it pretty boring to just sit and watch the AI make decisions for you, reducing your agency and input in the combat, but it’s also a large part in what makes the game difficult, particularly once you’re in the later stages of Tartarus. The Shin Megami Tensei franchise as a whole has a reputation for punishing players and Persona 3 is no exception. It doesn’t take too long before the random mooks are throwing instant-death spells at your entire party or trying to knock you down and take extra attacks by exploiting your party members’ weaknesses, a strategy which, I might add, they employ with ruthless efficiency. While there’s a lot of love for the standard edition of Persona 3, I’m of a frankly militantly-held opinion that taking the control away from the players in combat is both a cheap way to increase the difficulty level of an already tricky game, and is a nigh-unforgivable design decision. Thankfully the PSP remake fixes this by allowing you to change each character’s in-battle tactics to full player control and as a result the combat is immediately significantly better.

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The Portable remake also features a smaller, more subtle change that nonetheless has a big impact on your exploration of Tartarus. As you wander around the tower, your characters can remark on the toll it’s taking on them. In the originals this was a warning that your party members were changing condition from “Good” to “Tired”. When they did so, it more or less meant their time in your team for that night was over as Tired characters miss more and are more likely to get knocked down, and in turn this meant you’d have to try and rush to find a teleporter, return to the first floor, switch party members, and then go back to the last fixed teleport point and start climbing again, hoping all the while that your main character wasn’t also Tired since they can’t be swapped out. Portable removes this entire palaver; while characters will still complain, they won’t become Tired until the following morning. You might not be able to do multiple nights in a row exploring Tartarus, but it’s much easier to push on through a single session of Tartarus, making the entire process of exploration far more accessible and simpler.

As I mentioned, no matter how into the dungeon grind you get, you’ll eventually come up against a roadblock. You can only explore so far before Tartarus refuses to let you go any further and instead you’ll have to wait until the next full moon event before any more of it unlocks. Every in-game full moon the Shadows are at their strongest and a super strong one appears outside of Tartarus, requiring you to mobilize the team and take it out. These sequences are far more structured than the regular Tartarus sections, with unique environments and each acts as a culmination of the month’s events in the slice-of-life sections, as mysteries and disappearances in the NPCs rise the closer to the full moon you get. It’s also where a lot of the narrative starts to unfurl as your party dig into the origins of the Dark Hour, and why it seems to be localised around Iwatodai.

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These aren’t the only changes for the PSP version. There are plenty of little alterations made including alternate versions of characters and Social Links that are changed from the standard edition of the game, but there’s also one particularly big alteration made for the purpose of condensing the game down onto the PSP, and that is that the fully explorable city of Iwatodai in the PS2 release has been cut down. Instead the city is presented via a series of tableaus and you use a point-and-click cursor to navigate. I don’t think there’s any less interactivity; you can still talk to every NPC and do all the same activities that are available in the standard release, but it’s still a significant difference in how the gameworld is presented to you. This paring down extends to the cutscenes, which are no longer fully animated in the Portable version, and instead resemble VN screens with text flipping between character dialogues and narration, although it is still mostly voiced, which is a welcome thing to be retained.

The single most dramatic change for the PSP release though, and probably one of the most widely-cited positive reasons to play it over the PS2 version, is the inclusion of a new, female main character. That doesn’t sound that wild, but it’s more than just picking a different character model. In fact, much of the game’s writing has been retooled to accommodate the new protagonist, and even entire Social Links are altered to include different outcomes or are set up with new characters. It’s also a great triumph of silent protagonist writing as the two different main characters manage to swell with personality despite their lack of dialogue. The original protagonist appears more quiet and sometimes morose, hiding behind his fringe and approaching the world with a reserved, almost defensive slouched posture. In contrast, the female protagonist is clearly far more bubbly; her responses when you need to talk back in dialogue are always more peppy and upbeat, and her animations reflect a more open and cheerful personality.

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Persona 3 holds a special place in my heart for a few reasons. For a start, I think it’s one of the best examples of writing about mental health in gaming. Characters undergo realistic arcs of depression, loneliness, despair, and ennui, and the game doesn’t shy away from showing the effects of that. Even when your team is working well in their efforts to combat the Shadows, when you take a moment to talk to your friends you can still see them battling with their own internal struggles. Sometimes they vocalize it to you, seeing within you a trusted friend and confidant. Often though they bottle it up, swallowing away their feelings and putting on a stoic front. It’s also startlingly realistic in its depiction of the causes of these feelings, and especially how easy it is to find oneself sinking. For a game about teens at school, it’s no surprise to find sometimes characters start to struggle due to seemingly innocuous reasons, like having a hard time with friendships or relationships; other times your friends will open up and reveal parental issues, worries about death, or feelings of isolation. I don’t think it’s too over the top to suggest that the themes to which Persona 3 speaks are deeply human and extremely easy to relate to.

It would be simple for that kind of writing to go nowhere or to be treated entirely tritely, but Persona 3 becomes a narrative of acceptance more than a narrative of neat resolution. With that, it functions as far more of a life lesson than a cute ending to any of these storylines would have been. For the characters that reach a satisfying conclusion it’s because they come to understand and confront their emotions. It was liberating, gratifying, powerful even to find a game prepared to take that route when writing depression. The Shin Megami Tensei franchise as a whole has a reputation for bringing darker, more mature takes on the JRPG genre than some of its more famous competitors, but for my money, Persona 3 is one of the finest examples of Atlus’ work because it realizes that maturity by presenting us with relatable, flawed, and tragically broken characters, and lets them work to help themselves rather than giving the player the responsibility of “fixing” them.

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Part of the point of picking Persona 3 for this blog milestone was because I knew I could talk about it and explain why I think it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played. Sometimes when a game’s good it can be tricky to put into words just why; the temptation is there to be like “well, look, it’s self-evident why this thing is good”, but that obviously doesn’t make for a compelling read. Persona 3 though has so much to dig into. It’s a huge game; mechanically it is complex and diverse, with a hugely satisfying combat system (provided you’re playing the Portable version, naturally) and a deeply engaging life simulator aspect that has far more depth than you might first expect. At time of writing I’ve only reviewed one other JRPG that tries to do something similar – Trails of Cold Steel – and while I do like that game a lot, it never goes as far as Persona 3; it’s skin-deep slice of life goodness, as opposed to what’s on display here. That alone can sometimes make Persona 3 feel intimidating, especially because you know you’re missing things; with each decision you make, you commit to a path that excludes something, or someone, else from your character’s journey. The only way forward is to accept it; to keep moving and to trust in your decision, rather than wallow in abject insecurity.

7/7 – TOP TIER. 

As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.

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