Review by JowiStinks
The definitive version of one of the greatest RPGs of all time.
Persona 3 is a game that, if you're of the mindset to enjoy it, will suck you in with no hope of returning until the story has thrown its final twists and turns at you. It is a phenomenally deep experience, one that even at its age today manages to obliterate expectations of what an RPG can be. What it lacks in its presentation, Persona 3 Portable more than makes up for with unforgettable characters, an intriguing storyline, and an unusually creative battle system. If you have a PSP/Vita and haven't checked out this blockbuster entry in the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona spinoff series, you owe it to yourself to experience this treat of a game as soon as possible.
The concept of Persona as a series is quite different from the usual Shin Megami Tensei fare; however, while it separates itself on a thematic level, the maturity as well as the pacing and humor of the narrative remain on par with the best of SMT. Persona 3 tells the tale of the Dark Hour, an hour "in between days" in which the local high school is transformed into a massive dungeon called Tartarus. While the Dark Hour occurs, ordinary humans are Transmogrified into coffins (ensuring they will not experience the ordeal) and violent creatures called Shadows roam the world. The central characters of Persona 3 are members of SEES (the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad), residents of a local dormitory who have made it their mission to exterminate the Shadows using psychological manifestations of themselves called "Persona." What sounds like standard anime fare quickly becomes a darker and more psychological affair as the plot begins gaining acceleration.
Whether or not you care much for this type of story, it's hard to deny that Persona 3 spun one of the most deeply moving and relatable yarns of its day. Even today, the amount and quality of the narrative is quite astounding for a video game. All of the characters in this game overflow with true-to-life qualities that make them very easy to relate to, and you'll find yourself growing rather attached to them as each of their individual story arcs experience the twists and turns of the plot as a whole. As for said plot, where the game does take its time introducing characters and concepts in a long expository period, the payoff is that the pacing for the rest of the tale is so excellent you'll be kept on the edge of your seat. Serious, emotional moments are filled with fantastic writing bolstered by the outstanding performances of the voice cast; likewise, humor is inserted with similar success in areas of the story where things might be getting a bit too somber. Persona 3 does a wonderful job of immersing you in its world, helping you fall in love with the well-defined characters that make it up.
And this is definitely a strong point for the game to drive home, given that one of its bigger concepts is that of the Social Link. While you, as the nameable protagonist and a member of SEES, are tasked with obliterating Shadows in the massive halls of Tartarus, your first order of business is actually to establish yourself as a resident of Iwatodai and a student at nearby Gekkoukan High School. Doing so builds up your Social Links, ties with people you know outside of the Dark Hour that contribute to the bonuses of Personas you fuse in the future. In addition, it adds an interesting dating-sim aspect to the game in between dungeon runs, allowing you to forge friendships and relationships with your classmates and some very quirky personalities. Each of them has a story, and you'll see them grow and confide in you from the beginning to the end of your relationship. All that said, one of the more bizarre out-of-sync moments in the game is the fact that your maxed-out Social Links will never really make an effort to talk to you again. It makes sense as a game mechanic, but it throws off the feel of the relationship-building aspect. Regardless, it adds a welcome change of scenery for those who might get bored grinding in the seemingly endless halls of Tartarus.
That's not to say the game is a bore when it comes to the actual RPG elements; the battle system itself is actually quite innovative for a game of its time. On the surface, it really is a standard setup: you've got your physical attacks, your magic, your healing spells, and your buffs and debuffs. But the game throws a major curveball in its nonstandard utilization of an advantage/disadvantage system. In many games, certain enemies are weak to certain types of attacks and resist others. Here, the same holds true, but with a different effect: every enemy or ally that is hit with a supereffective attack will be "knocked down" for a turn, giving the successful attacker an additional move and the potential to wipe the floor with the rest of their opponents. If the person knocked down is hit again, they will potentially become "dizzy" and lose one more turn. This system carries so much weight in battles that it acts as a nice supplement to the usual RPG statistics. Even if you've got a distinct statistical advantage over the enemy, one successful exploit of your weakness can flip your victory into a catastrophic failure. The same, of course, holds true for you: take advantage of the enemy's weakness while monitoring their strengths, and you've got battles whizzing by as the experience points come rolling in. This unique mechanic gives battles a surprising tactical element that makes them more suspenseful and less about how long you've spent grinding. That said, though, the periodic major boss battles take little to no advantage of this feature and, while they do feature some interesting twists to the formula, they often devolve into pointless hours wasted if you haven't spent a significant enough time grinding. This, coupled with the fact that the grinding itself is a chore, is probably the gameplay's only tedious sticking point.
In addition to the battle system itself, a large portion of your time in the game will be spent preparing for said battles. Persona 3 features the addictive fusion system that has made Shin Megami Tensei a favorite of RPG fans. This time around, it's even more rewarding; each rank up you receive on a Persona's corresponding Social Link nets you a bunch of experience that can lead to it leveling up immediately and gaining new skills. This is coupled with the fact that each of the 170+ Persona are displayed with their own 3D model and introduced with an occasional voice-acted battle cry that makes the experience of battling truly memorable. As usual, the Persona fusion and weapon fusion (fusing one of your Persona with a weapon to create a unique piece of equipment) are astonishing time-wasters and add a fantastic level of strategy to an already deep set of rules.
The PSP version of Persona 3 adds a slew of exciting new features to an already great game. First and foremost is the addition of an all-new female main character, whose Social Links feature new story arcs and occasionally entirely different characters than the original male version. As well, new items give you the ability to teach Persona moves in a style similar to the one-time-use TMs of older Pokemon titles. The whole experience is streamlined with easier travel and quicker menu navigation, albeit with much less striking visuals than the original PS2 version.
Overall, Persona 3 is a superbly deep game that broke many of the RPG conventions of its day. The story is full of twists, turns, and surprisingly fleshed-out characters. The gameplay, though occasionally getting stale in the way it requires you to grind, is nonetheless a pleasant diversion from the usual statistic-based battles of other role-playing games. It's a thoroughly fascinating experience from start to finish, and it's impossible not to give it a full recommendation to any fan of RPGs who hasn't taken a look into this twisted but charming adventure. It's my favorite RPG of all time, and it's even better with the additional features of the PSP version.
Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Product Release: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 Portable (US, 07/05/10)
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