There's a reason that the PSP is still selling like hot cakes in Japan, and it's really very simple: they got a lot more games for the damn thing! Like the kid at school who gets picked last, we Europeans haven't had a huge amount of luck with domestic releases of some of Japan's finest titles. But, finally, one the finest JRPGs in existence has popped up on our shores and we can whoop and shout and link arms and dance naked in a field at solstice time and sacrifice an ox in celebration to the gods of import gaming (Too much! - Ed).
P3P is here...and that's a really, really good thing!
Persona 3 stands up as being one of the best RPGs of all time, even though that too took the best part of two years to make it over here. Set in the city of Iwotodai, a metropolis built thanks to the moneyed hands of the enigmatic Kijiro corporation, the player took on the role of a male student who went to school, flirted with girls and ate ramen by day and battled evil Shadows by night during a temporal vacuum at midnight in a labyrinthine, shape-shifting dungeon called Tartarus. You did this by pretending to blow your brains out with the gun-shaped Evoker and summoning a Persona, a powerful manifestation of your inner self that could kick some serious bottom.
The battle system was a fairly familiar affair, with the player able to swap between a number of Persona (themselves spread across 22 different potential Arcana, each with their own specific strengths and weaknesses), dishing out damage in traditional turn-based fashion, with the option of commanding your compatriots personally or giving them preset tactics - think Summoning Materia crossed with Pokemon. But the real allure came with the new gameplay choices for the series, juxtaposing one's everyday social life with the midnight monster mash, with an emphasis on social interaction that saw you creating and developing relationships with those around you to help power up your pantheon of Persona.
Much of that all remains unchanged, you still find your day broken up into chunks for studying in the morning and early afternoons, with after school time set aside to do with as you please, be it frittering away money around town in the hope of building up your Academic/Charm/Courage statistics, going out on dates or otherwise boosting the strength of your Social Links, or racing around Tartarus and using your sword to teach those pesky Shadows a lesson. There are opportunities to mix and merge the Persona you've collected along the way - the Tartarean battles occasionally dropping tarot cards that may gift you a new Persona, extra XP, money or, if you're unlucky, the jangling chains of the Reaper. The micromanagement and simulation aspects of the game are so engaging that it's often with some reluctance that I found myself heading back into Tartarus.
That's not to say that the battles are boring. Tactical adjustments, particularly when it comes to the higher floors in Tartarus, are wholly necessary, and the ability to take full control of the whole party is certainly a welcome one. Keeping you character in good nick, not letting him or her (more on that in a bit) get tired, means your chances of critical hits go up. Squeeze in a critical, or exploit an enemy's weakness, and you'll get another turn. Knock them over and you'll be able to pull out all the stops with an All Out Attack that sees all of the members of your party charge into a cartoonish cloud that comes complete with Adam-West-Batman-era exclamations of violence.
Of course, copying an identical game over onto the PSP was never really going to happen. For starters, Sony put in a request that mandated the delivery of some original content, and Atlus stepped up to the plate. The temporal nature of Persona 3, the calendar chipping away all the time, means that so often on the first playthrough there's a feeling there's much, much more to be had. In that respect, it was a cracking vehicle for replayability, and it was a game you could lose whole days in to begin with! Now, though, Atlus have expanded that even more by adding in a female protagonist. And no, it's not just a cosmetic shift either, although it does turn the interface pink.
With so much of the game dealing with social interaction, character relationship development and the charming nuggets of conversation and anecdotes of those around you, having a completely fresh perspective is actually a little jarring at first. Half of the game feels completely new to begin with, but it's welcome. It's a credit to the skill of the development team that they were able to turn what is essentially a game that is half-dungeon crawler, half-dating sim into one of the finest RPGs to date, but this addition almost doubles the basic runtime by simply embracing the notion that men and women aren't the same after all.
There are other changes too. gone are the 3D environments of the PS2 parent, replaced by beautifully drawn 2D backdrops that, at the touch of a button, reveal all of the objects and people with which you can interact. It does make the day-to-day aspects of the game somewhat less immersive, but the style will be pretty familiar to anyone who's played any of the Phoenix Wright titles. That said, it also speeds things up. Hopping between locales is an absolute cinch now, and you can bring up a mini fast travel menu just by hitting the square button. It's the same issue that occurred with No More Heroes 2, though conducted here for space reasons (UMD being a far more restrictive format), and it'll probably divide folks, but the detail in the backdrops is significantly greater than before and the slick speed of it all, coupled with virtually non-existant loading times, fits the portable medium perfectly.
And that's pretty much why this works so well. It's Persona distilled near-perfectly into portable form. True, there are some concessions, and they won't be to everyone's tastes, and neither will this game convert those who loathe the JRPG in all of its forms, but it's one of the very best exponents of that form in the palm of your hand. And we think that's pretty brilliant, really.
- New female protagonist offers fresh perspective
- Looks fantastic
- Streamlined: easier navigation, short load times etc.
- 2D settings less immersive
- Sadly none of the gorgeous anime cutscenes from P3
- Tartarus can get a bit repetitive
The Short Version: If you're a series fan, well you probably have it already, but for the newcomer this is probably one of the finest JRPGs out there. The new perspective makes it perfect for fans of P3 and, although it perhaps loses some sense of immersion and the story is nowhere near as good as P2, the streamlined features and new additions to the gameplay make it an utter joy.