Platforms: Sony PlayStation 2, Sony PlayStation Portable
Developer/Publisher: Atlus
Genre: Role-Playing Game
ESRB Rating: “M” for Mature (Ages 17 and up)

Sometimes I get so caught-up in Final Fantasy that I just forget there are other — often better — Japanese RPGs out there. But other JRPGs there most certainly are, and I’m in love with quite a few; Wild ARMs 3Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed KingXenosaga, and Star Ocean: Till the End of Time are a few personal favorites of mine. But there’s one franchise that sticks out in my mind more vividly than the rest, and that franchise is Shin Megami Tensei, which at present I’ve only really scratched the surface of. There are a number of different spin-off franchises beneath the SMT brand umbrella apart from the main games (the most recent of which is the PS2’s Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, the third game in the main series). The most popular of them — at least here in the States — is probably the Persona series, which includes five games, a number of enhanced re-releases, and a fighting game spin-off of its own. While sharing many aspects of its parent franchise, including the familiar line-up of demons which serve as the various “Personas” the player can wield, this particular series of games very much does its own thing — the third and fourth installments in particular.

This review covers two specific versions of Persona 3: the expanded PlayStation 2 re-release, Persona 3 FES, and the more recent enhanced remake for the PSP, Persona 3 Portable. Right off the bat, I’d like to say that I highly recommend this game to anyone who enjoys JRPGs, and maybe even to those who dislike how “samey” JRPGs tend to be (unless you have an intense hatred of Japan itself or something, as the game takes place there). But the question of which of these two versions would be best for you is still worth thinking about, as both have some rather significant ups and downs that set them apart; one might go so far as to say that neither is a truly “definitive” version.

Persona 3 follows the adventures of a silent protagonist (commonly called “Minato Arisato” amongst the fanbase) who spends his days attending the local high school, hanging with friends, and hitting up the local karaoke joint… and spends his nights exploring Tartarus, a tower filled to bursting with demonic Shadows. Shortly after moving to a new town and enrolling at Gekkoukan High, the player gets roped into a secret school club’s efforts to combat the Shadows that emerge every night during a hidden “Dark Hour” that occurs at 12 A.M. sharp, leaving a growing list of victims as complete vegetables with each passing night. S.E.E.S. (short for “Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad”) is a group composed of those rare individuals who not only are able to experience the Dark Hour, but who awaken to the power known as “Persona,” the only means by which Shadows can be defeated.

What is a Persona, you ask? A Persona is a demon or spirit that manifests as a reflection of the wielder’s psyche, and which can kick major ass when summoned. And how does a member of S.E.E.S. tap into this power? By taking a gun-like device called an “Evoker,” pointing it at their own head, and pulling the trigger. It’s like symbolism, but with shock value! Incidentally, most Persona-users have only a single Persona at their command, but you as the protagonist are special — you have the ability to store multiple Personas and switch between them as needed in battle. So obviously, as the new guy, you’re the leader.

It’s a simple enough premise, and if there’s one issue this game has it’s that a fair amount of game time happens between major story events, so if you’re the type of gamer who plays for the story, this game might not quite do it for you. The plot is good and the characters well-developed, and there are a fair few twists here and again to keep things interesting, but I wouldn’t call the story the driving force of this game. This is actually a JRPG that I play primarily for the gameplay; as tends to be the case with Shin Megami Tensei, the challenge level is fairly high, but unlike most turn-based RPGs, the game seems to be specifically engineered to ward off power-leveling.

The game’s combat always occurs at night, when (at the player’s discretion) S.E.E.S. may explore the mysterious tower that Gekkoukan High School transforms into during the Dark Hour. Tartarus is a massive, randomly-generated labyrinth dungeon to which the player will be returning throughout the course of the game; floors are randomly mapped-out and previously-explored floors change their layouts with each passing in-game “day.” Rather than the random battles common to RPGs of the time, Tartarus is full of roaming Shadows which the player can strike from behind for a preemptive strike (or get jumped by if they’re just not paying attention), meaning that prudent players who know how to pick their battles can make more progress up the tower per night than players who insist on fighting every Shadow they come across. Spending too much time fighting battles in Tartarus will tire your characters out and eventually they may even get sick; the stat penalties incurred when this happens make even random battles inordinately dangerous. Characters only recover to “Good” status after spending a few in-game calendar days without exploring Tartarus, so the player has to balance training their characters and Personas at night with all of the more mundane concerns that daytime brings.

Rocked to DEATH by Orpheus, the Master of Strings. Hell yeah.

Daytime is where Persona 3 differs wildly from its predecessors, as day-to-day school life and the social interactions that come with it are very much part of the gameplay. The player is given free reign on most days to roam around the school and a few particular social hot-spots around Iwatodai and Tatsumi Port Island — this is the player’s chance to stock up on weapons, armor, accessories, and recovery items, but more importantly, this is the player’s chance to spend time with the game’s various NPCs, many of whom have their own personal issues or quandaries and most of whom (if they have character portraits) provide the protagonist with valuable Social Links that zap his Personas with a shot of extra experience whenever the player creates one via Fusion (more on that in a bit). The name of the game really is “Social Link” during the daytime, as there are a limited number of “days” in the game and certain NPCs are only available during specific days of the week. While making the correct dialogue choices required to advance your relationships rather than screw them up isn’t exactly hard (one could almost say that the secret is to simply nod and smile), balancing all of the game’s varying Social Links with training at Tartarus, as well as with such options as going to the movies, eating at a specific restaurant, or studying at the library to boost your character’s personality values — thereby opening up other Social Links further down the line — can be fairly tricky. It helps to know that if you have a Persona in your protagonist’s arsenal whose “Arcana” class matches the Arcana of the Social Link, you gain more points toward the next rank every time you earn them. (The in-game message telling you so is a bit vague on that point, so it’s worth pointing out here.)

Social Links, which are basically just level rankings tracking how deep your bonds are with the people you meet, are a fairly fun gameplay mechanic and present some interesting little subplots and side-stories, although they’re rarely demanding or difficult by any stretch. The daytime sections of the game play like a fairly simple social-simulator, which doesn’t sound like much when spelled out like that but presents a more interesting non-combat side of things than most RPGs tend to have going for them (Dragon Age II in particular could have benefited from some aspects of this system). When it comes to the combat, however, Social Links only really factor in to Persona Fusion, a mechanic similar to demon-fusion in main-series Shin Megami Tensei. Persona Fusion is a service provided by series mainstay Igor and his lovely assistant Elizabeth — who of course spend the entire game chillaxin’ in the Velvet Room, which fans may remember from previous games. Players can opt to fuse either two or three of the Personas in their current lineup together to create a single, new Persona that can randomly inherit skills possessed by the Personas used to create it — which often grants them abilities they never would have learned on their own. Social Links matching the Arcana class of the Persona you create will inject that Persona with a healthy shot of EXP based on the Link’s current rank, often causing the Persona to jump up three or more levels the moment it’s born.

Minato: “Meh, who cares. I mean, pshaw… it’s not like rumors can COME TRUE, or anything…”

This is the sort of game mechanic that has potential to be very Guide Dang It, but Persona 3 neatly side-steps that particular problem by letting the player see what Personas they can create with all their possible combinations, as well as what skills they’ll inherit, before the player commits to anything. So while there’s a degree of experimentation required to get the most out of Igor’s services, you don’t actually have to waste anything because of it.

Speaking of the Velvet Room, Elizabeth will eventually provide you with another thing to waste your days with: a list of sidequests ranging from requests to slay a specific monster and bring back an item it drops, to fetching a specific item or items during the day in Iwatodai, to escorting Elizabeth around on dates in the human world (which is always amusing). The quests are usually pretty simple (although a certain kind of quest, the “Find this item on this specific day” variety, is a bit cryptic until you realize you just neat to talk to a certain party member at the dorm on the day the quest tells you to find the item and they’ll just up and give it to you), but the rewards are always worth it if you complete the quests in a timely manner. A rare few can be rather annoying, but it’s a welcome dose of extra things to do.

Elizabeth’s sidequests may seem pointless and random… and that’s because they are.

The combat system itself is standard turn-based fare, of the sort employed by the likes of Final Fantasy X — the player enters commands on a turn-by-turn basis, rather than all of their commands at once at the beginning of a round. Scoring a critical hit or attacking an enemy with its elemental weakness will knock the enemy off its feet and give the attacking character an extra action for that turn, although this particular mechanic swings both ways; the enemy can take advantage of it as well. If you manage to knock down all enemies at once, your party can perform an “All-Out Attack,” which is nothing more or less than all of them dog-piling the enemy party in a cloud of dust, devastation, and comic-book sound effects.

Unless you’re playing on Easy Mode, the overall challenge level in combat is fairly tense. Single random encounters will rarely be a danger, but between the amount of health or magic you use up with every battle, the dangers of fatigue, and the occasional more powerful enemy, the “long haul” can be quite dangerous. This is one of the few RPGs I’ve played that managed to hit me with multiple Game Overs outside of boss battles.

The catch, at least in FES, is that the player can only directly control the actions of the protagonist, which is a puzzling limitation when you consider that both Persona and Persona 2 (both games in the dualogy) allowed players full control of their entire party. During the protagonist’s turn, the player can set the party’s Tactics however they like, based on whether they want a character to act freely, heal and support, focus on a specific target, or simply sit on their thumbs. At first the list of Tactics is short and simple, but as the story progresses and the S.E.E.S. Social Link ranks up, new and more specific Tactics are gradually added to the menu. There’s also no “defend” option, merely a “wait” command — another oddity, since in early stages of the game it’s often prudent to wait around a turn when you encounter a new Shadow so that Mitsuru, your radio support, has time to analyze its weaknesses. This is where Persona 3 Portable earns a definite point over the PS2 versions: it uses the Persona 4 combat system, which includes not just a guard command and full party control, but a few interesting tweaks like the ability to make knocked-over enemies dizzy for an extra turn if you hit them hard enough while they’re down.

When you’re facing down four or five Shadows and your protagonist just happens to have the spell they’re all weak against, that’s when you know it’s a party.

Portable‘s more refined combat comes at a price, however, as a few notable aspects of the gameplay were changed in more questionable ways. For one thing, in FES and the original release, having two specific Personas in your arsenal at one time allowed the protagonist to cast special Fusion Spells, but Portable removes this mechanic and relegates the Fusion Spells to the role of combat items. Likewise, the protagonist’s ability to equip multiple weapon types in the PS2 versions was removed from Portable for no discernible reason; they can now only wield the weapon type they start with (one-handed sword for the male protagonist, naginata for the female). On a less negative note, however, climbing Tartarus in Portable is a lot more manageable because it gives you the option to instantly skip up to the highest floor you’ve reached when you approach the entrance, as in Persona 4‘s dungeons. Characters also do not become fatigued by merely fighting in Portable, although they will get tired if they’re knocked out at the end of a battle and are revived, as well as when you leave Tartarus — the upshot being that you can do as much as you want per night, allowing for a lot more grinding.

Bosses in this game can be quite a handful, doubly so because there’s no real possibility of being significantly over-leveled unless you really work at it. You’re not likely to be under-leveled when you reach a boss unless you skip a lot of combat, but even so you should save your game and heal up before fighting them; you’re likely to fail once or twice while working out what spells to cast and what Personas to use. This is largely because, no matter what version you play, if your protagonist is defeated, it’s instant fail no matter what state your allies are in. This is especially annoying when the enemy happens to have area-of-effect instant-death spells, as Murphy’s Law dictates that everyone will dodge except the one whose death actually matters.

You can’t see it in this screenshot, but the letter on her left boob is “J.” No, I’m not joking. Atlus is weird like that.

Story presentation is relatively simple for a PlayStation 2 game: cutscenes play out with stock animations, anime-style emotes, text dialogue, and character portraits with appropriate expression changes when needed. Important scenes have voice acting for the dialogue, and to the game’s credit it’s all very good voice acting, but less important scenes such as pop quizzes at school or Social Link events require the player to read and… imagine. The plot itself is structured to occur over the course of a calendar year, with major plot events occurring at every full moon (though there are plot events scattered hither and thither in-between, too). It should be noted that there is a bad ending as well as a good ending, but this is based on a single choice toward the end of the game and it should be fairly obvious when it happens what the “right” choice actually is.

Persona 3 Portable takes a major hit in the presentation department, with all of its anime cutscenes having been removed, most cutscenes reduced to still-frame slideshows with character portraits representing characters, and all town sections presented as point-and-click “menu” images rather than actual areas to explore as in the PS2 versions. While the gameplay doesn’t suffer at all for the change, it does lose some of its impact and is definitely another unquestionable negative for that version.

An example of the PSP version’s town exploration mechanic. On the plus side, at least it doesn’t take so long to jog to the other side of the room!

Musically, the game has a catchy line-up, although certain tracks may not be to a given player’s taste no matter how “good” they technically are. Shoji Meguro and the other composers who worked on additional tracks in FES and Portable did a good job, which is helpful because this is one of those pesky games where you’re going to be hearing the same handful of tracks over and over again — one theme for battles, one for each section of Tartarus, one for school, one for town, one for the stores, one for Social Links, and so forth. Lacking the variety of other RPGs, it can get a bit stale after a while.

The graphics aren’t anything to write home about, partially because this is a PS2 game but mostly just because they didn’t do as much with them as other RPGs of the time so the result looks a bit low-budget. Character models are relatively low-poly, and while the interior of Tartarus gets a new coat of paint with every “block” you advance through, it’s obvious that the dungeon is comprised of a bunch of stock hallways. This level of presentation value may have been passable at the time, but it hasn’t aged all too well, so the view from this side of 2011 is a touch unflattering.

If you happen to still be interested in the game at this point in the review, the last thing worth talking about would be the pros and cons of the different versions. The original Persona 3 is always an option, but FES is literally the same game with additional content — and Persona 3 FES is now available on the PlayStation Store as a PS2 Classic for the PlayStation 3, at the respectably low cost of $10, which is a bargain indeed for such a fantastic RPG. Persona 3 Portable is a bit more of a question mark next to FES, and here’s why.

The female protagonist of P3P, sporting one of those oh-so-special alternate costume armors and a hockey stick in place of her customary naginata. What can I say, she was feeling sporty that day. Also, Yukari was playing some Christmas-themed roleplay with her boyfriend but got called in on short notice and didn’t have time to change.

Persona 3 FES has several things that Portable doesn’t; anime FMVs, actual in-game cutscenes, Fusion Spells as actual spells… and an entire playable epilogue chapter that the PSP version didn’t include for some reason. This extra mode, called “Episode Aigis” in the Japanese version and “The Answer” in English, is a thirty-some hour post-ending story starring Aigis as the protagonist and featuring all of the members recruited to S.E.E.S. during the course of the main story, and is entirely focused on combat and dungeon-crawling. I can’t say much about the story without spoiling the ending of the main game, but it’s an interesting follow-up and quite fun to play but for one rather dominant flaw: you can’t change the difficulty, and it’s locked into Hard Mode, which means it’s a brutal-as-all-the-hells bloody fudging grindfest. Depending on personal preference, it may be better to simply watch it on YouTube than to actually play it, but this is a significant amount of content and it’s simply not there at all, modified or otherwise, in the PSP version.

That said, Persona 3 Portable does bring some worthwhile added content of its own to the table. I am referring of course to the new option to play through the game as a girl (who in fanfiction is most commonly named “Minako” and “Hamuko,” among a few others). As the game specifically spells out when you start a new game, this isn’t just for female players; playing as the female protagonist changes up most of the social-interaction content, with characters that were simply buddies or pals in the main game being potential romance options while the male lead’s lineup of possible girlfriends become eighty percent of your “friend” options. More interestingly, every single party member has a Social Link when you’re the female protagonist, so you now have the option to get to know each of them on a more personal level, which helps you feel more connected to your battle buddies. Some Social Links that the male protagonist had aren’t available to the female lead (such as the “Online Game” Social Link with Little Miss Persona 2 Reference), but by that same token there are a few new Social Links exclusive to the female protagonist, such as the new sports club character or Shinjiro. As an added touch, the female protagonist has more frequent dialogue choices, and her options tend to be livelier — in keeping with her more cheery and exuberant appearance and mannerisms. She also has the option to exchange the original Velvet Room assistant for a man named Theodore, although to be honest in my playthrough I kept Elizabeth so I’ve not the foggiest clue about this new guy or what he brings to the table, apart from him being voiced by the same guy who voiced Jonny in Catherine.

In addition, most of those tracks you hear over and over during the course of the game as the male lead are changed up for the female’s story — she gets her own battle theme, sub-boss theme, town theme, Social Link theme, school theme, and so forth. It’s actually quite refreshing, and all of these new tracks are great in their own way. I actually kind of prefer the battle and mini-boss themes over the originals, although I still wish the game had multiple battle themes like Nocturne does.

If the only thing you took from this screenshot is “Why is Yukari using suction-cup arrows?” then my work here is complete.

There’s enough plus-and-minus between the two versions that I actually advise anyone who really likes whichever version they play first to get the other and play that as well. Fortunately, apart from the obnoxiously long intro story scenes, Persona 3 has decent replay value for an RPG, between its New Game Plus feature and completing the Persona Compendium (which is sort of like a Pokédex, except you can register the current state of your Persona and re-summon them for a price at any time if you dismiss them or use them in Fusion) is a fun little time-sink if you happen to be klepto enough for it. There isn’t as much replay value as there could be, though; for example, when the game gives you a choice between joining kendo, swimming, and track teams at school, you might think it’s a choice between three different Social Links, but you always meet the same character on the team you choose and experience almost entirely the same side-plot with them. (Persona 4 did this right with the choice between drama and band clubs, which both have a different Social Link character with a different personal problem.)

Another complaint that I have, since we’re on the subject of Social Links, is the fact that you can’t hang out with a girl unless you want to date her. It’s annoying because the only way to get all of them ranked up to max in one playthrough is to methodically date one girl after another and then dump them each out the window, which of course makes me feel like a complete jerkass. You do keep the ability to make the bonus Personas that max-rank Links unlock for you between playthroughs, though, so it’s not really necessary. I just wish you had the option to go through with the Social Links without actually “going out.” I mean, what god of stupid decided that guys and girls can only hang out if they’re eventually going to have sex? Or that they can only have a close bond if it’s a romantic bond?

Portable‘s female protagonist is much better about this; she can pal around with all of the male characters without being railroaded into a romance with them, yet another improvement to the game that carries over from the Persona 4 formula (where the protagonist can befriend girls without necessarily dating them). The male protagonist is still forced to date everyone in the flippin’ universe if he wants to max out all Social Links in a single playthrough, however. Which, while entirely possible with no notable gameplay penalty, tends to make one feel like an utter jerkass.

There’s one last point to mention when it comes to replay value: FES has only Easy, Normal, and Hard difficulties. Portable adds an even easier Beginner Mode, and an even more ridiculous Maniac Mode. I haven’t actually played either of those, though. My brief foray into Hard Mode in FES was frustrating enough.

Bottom line: Persona 3 is awesome, full stop. Not perfect, but awesome. There’s a bit of a decision to be made about exactly what kind of awesome you want to play, but it’s still awesome no matter what kind of awesome it is.

Now get out there, pick up this game, and shoot yourself in the head already!