Ladies and gentlemen, Chad Grover!
You take on the role of a mysterious transfer student who arrives in Iwatodai via train late one night only to discover that something spooky is going down. A dark green aura fills the air, the moon glows with a warm yellow light, and filled coffins litter the otherwise empty streets. Supposedly, there is a hidden 25th hour to every day, known as the Dark Hour. During this time, beings known as “Shadows” roam around the city attacking anyone who has not transmogrified into a casket. Yes, they are coming after you. But, why have not you changed just like all the others? And what is the meaning of this eerie and disconnected time span? Keep reading to find out.
That is to say, if you haven’t played this game already. And if you haven’t, you really should (unless you’re short on free time, then avoid it like the plague). What’s your excuse for not playing it? If it’s not “I don’t like good games” then you shouldn’t have any. I mean, it’s already been released a total of three times. First as Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 back in 2007 for the PlayStation 2. Then, boasting roughly 30 extra hours of bonus content, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES in 2008. And finally, distributed last July, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 Portable for the PlayStation Portable. As its name implies, the game is indeed compact. Many sacrifices were made to fit the original game onto a Universal Media Disc, which can hold up to merely two gigabytes of space. Anime cutscenes are dropped, most navigation is done by way of a point-and-click interface, and “The Answer” from Persona 3: FES is missing. Even so, this is easily the greatest 45 dollars I’ve ever spent on a video game. The main addition to this version is the ability to play as a female protagonist, which radically changes certain elements of the game (I’ll touch on this later). My first play through took me about 100 hours or so to complete, and I cannot even imagine doing so again from the female perspective any time soon. This is serious bang for the buck.
Anyway, despite their train running late and the strange current events, you press on to the dormitory. On arrival, you are greeted by a pale, sickly younger boy. He informs you that, to proceed, you must sign your name to a contract, which will hold you accountable for your actions. Naturally, this is the point where the player inputs their character’s name. Now, I am not overly fond of silent protagonists, which is mostly the case here. However, being able to embed yourself into them in this manner certainly helps. I had named the protagonist after myself before I was made aware that he had a canon name, and therefore felt a stronger connection towards him. Once that is done, the Dark Hour ends and the boy vanishes. The time is now after midnight. Two girls descend the stairs and nervously approach you. The one, Takeba Yukari, and the other, Kirijo Mitsuru. Both students of Gekkoukan High School, where you are transferring to.
Persona 3 features an assorted cast of characters, some of whom are handled better than others. Really, there are only two worth mentioning in this review (otherwise I could go on forever). First, there is your friend and fellow classmate, Iori Junpei, colloquially known as Bropei by the fans. Sporting a baseball cap and goatee, Junpei is simply the easiest to relate to. His favourite activities include not caring about school, shamelessly flirting with every girl in class to no avail, and playing net games. A genuine slacker, and an underdog. But, what makes him such a great character is the transformation that he undergoes, metaphorically speaking, from beginning to near-end. I will not spoil anything, but it had me convinced that Junpei is actually the most mature person in this game, despite past preconceptions.
Secondly, there is dorm mate and potential love interest, Takeba Yukari, who I had previously mentioned not long ago. Typically regarded as the game’s heroine (provided you aren’t playing through as female), Yukari is very popular at school resultant of her good looks and pleasant personality. She actively participates in extra curricular activities as a dedicated member of the archery club. Despite this, she is far from perfect. She is not quick to trust others, attributable to her personal family issues, and struggles in school with average grades. Even a significant portion of the fan-base is not overly fond of her, particularly due to her actions and general attitude exhibited in the game’s expansion pack. Regardless, I felt as though she deserved a nod because she seemed the most real to me.
On the topic of female characters, earlier I mentioned that choosing to play as a female protagonist, which is exclusive to Persona 3 Portable, and its main selling point, radically changes aspects of the game. The gameplay of Persona 3 is separated into two components; both of which revolve around your high school. During the day, the game functions similar to a dating sim. Each day is divided into several periods of time: “Morning”, “After School”, “Evening”, and so on. When you are not in school (which you will be, usually, given the Japanese educational system) you are free to spend your time accordingly. Work a part-time job for money to afford items and equipment, or develop your social attributes–academics, charm, and courage. The greater these are, the greater your social status will be, and the more friends you will have. The gender of your protagonist alters who you can befriend, the clubs you can join, and who you can pursue romantically.
Why is this important? Because of the Dark Hour, which is the second component. During this 25th hour of the day, your school transforms into a diabolic, seemingly never-ending tower called Tartarus. Your job is to climb the tower, while defeating the Shadows that wander each floor. To do that, you summon Personas–mythical beings like Shadows that are evoked from the characters’ psyches to protect them. The protagonist possesses the innate ability to summon more than one Persona, unlike the others, so that you may mix and match for each situation. The more friends you have, and the stronger your relationships are, the more powerful your Personas will be. Think of it like Pokemon. Except better.
Persona 3 boasts an impressive soundtrack. I am no expert on music, but I can tell you that this is one of the most stylish in gaming. “Mass Destruction”, “When the Moon’s Reaching Out Stars”, and “The Battle for Everyone’s Souls” are my favourite of the flock. Moreover, the English localization crew does a terrific job considering its small size. No more than ten voice actors worked on this game, and they all deserve serious credit for their performances. Minus Fuuka’s. But complaining about her is like crying over spilt milk at this point.
Persona 3 Portable is a welcome addition to the Persona franchise, and a great way to experience this noteworthy RPG while on the go. Despite its minor shortcomings, it’s one of the PSP’s best games, and will remain that way until the handheld’s timely death. If you are a fan of Japanese RPGs, own a PSP, and have not yet experienced Persona 3 in one of its many incarnations, pick up this game now. You owe it to yourself.
a sample of the soundtrack