04 September 2010

RPG Week — Persona 3 Portable

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 is a landmark title in the RPG world. It stole the heart of many RPG fans, myself included. The game was fresh and new, and it felt so good. It was everything we were wanting and weren't getting from a genre that seemed to be stagnating.

Yes, I used to be a Final Fantasy loyalist, but Persona 3 changed that. Megaten has become my series of choice. Goodbye Squaresoft, hello Atlus. And I don't regret it, as Atlus has proven its love for its fans, the "Atlus Faithful."

Persona 3 Portable is actually the second time that the original PS2 game had been released. The first release was called Persona 3 FES, and was the version I originally played. That one was, essentially, a rerelease for those who missed the original's smaller scale release, but it also featured an additional short story called "The Answer" which tried to wrap up some loose ends from the main story.

Persona 3 Portable does not include "The Answer." Instead, it allows the player to play through as both genders (one at a time, of course). Though the main plot remains essentially the same, differences occur in how other characters interact with you when you play through as the female. Obviously, who you can date will vary depending on what gender you are. Sorry guys, but you can't be a lesbian. However, your general friendships will differ as well, as you bond with the female cast in a totally different way, and your relationship with the guys becomes tinged with sexual tension. Honestly, it's slightly awkward having Junpei slobber over you after he was such a buddy in the male story. That damn, horny pervert.... Now I see why Yukari was annoyed with him sometimes.

As the new Persona games blend traditional RPG gameplay with that of dating sims, characters play a very important role in the course of the game. For one, the cast of playable characters is fairly large and exceedingly well developed. Not only do characters have very distinct personalities, but they also have distinct relationships with other NPCs. Furthermore, main characters tend to be fairly dynamic in their personalities and grow and change as the story progresses.

The Social Link game mechanic, which is the piece borrowed from dating sims, has you hang out with characters and develop your relationship with them. So, of course, this involves a lot of character interaction and relationship building. Throughout the course of the game, you will get to know a lot of characters. Of course, unless you use a guide to get 100% Social Link completion the first time through, there will be some character whose story arcs you won't complete and thus you never fully get to know them with one play-through. This adds replayability, but it also means that different players will come away with slightly different experiences.

Overall, the characters are well-written and interesting. Some may be less interesting to you than others, but this usually comes down to player preferences.

The story is rather complex and involved, but the calendar system (in which you play through the game day by day, doing a little bit each day) helps break it up and keep it all manageable. There's a lot to learn, and much of the plot resolves around figuring out exactly what's going on and how to set things right again.

Essentially, there is a hidden hour that exists at midnight of which most of us are not aware. However, those with the power of Persona are able to enter this Dark Hour, a time when Shadows run rampant. Shadows and Persona are both monstrous beings (demons), but Personas are controlled by a human mind while Shadows are Man's enemy. Furthermore, during the Dark Hour, a mysterious tower called Tartarus appears, which the party sets about exploring in an attempt to understand why the Dark Hour exists. Similarly, every full moon, a powerful shadow attacks the city and must be defeated.

However, aside from the nightly activities, there is a whole waking world as well in which you attend class and hang out with friends. Sometimes, the concerns of the Dark Hour will bleed into your normal life, but at other times it can be carefree and relaxing. The Social Links can be just as fun to play through as the main story, and adds a lot of complexity and appeal to the game.

I've somewhat covered this before, but the storytelling is somewhat genre-bending in its style. You make decisions that affect your relationships at school and around the city, which in turn allow you to fuse stronger Personas for use during the Dark Hour. It is perhaps weird that, in some ways, the waking world does not affect the standard RPG game mechanics even more. From a purely gameplay perspective, building up Social Links provides relatively low rewards in the Dark Hour, and yet Social Links are a very large part of the game. The fact is, you don't build Social Links solely for the benefits, but because it's fun. You want to get to know the characters and learn their stories. And hey, you get some bonuses from it!

The battles are based on classic turn-based combat systems, but with a few adjustments. Firstly, the main character can change Personas, which will give them access to different abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. This in itself adds a good bit of complexity and strategy to the battle system. Furthermore, hitting enemies with their weaknesses does more than just extra damage. It will also knock the enemy down and allow your character to act again. However, the enemy is also able to take advantage of your weaknesses, so you need to be careful. Being able to play the strengths and weaknesses to your advantage is essential, and failure to do so can quickly spell death. Also, if you happen to knock down all of the enemies, you can perform an All-Out Attack which does a great deal of damage and is frequently the goal in battle. Ultimately, the combat is both challenging and rewarding (although occasionally a bit frustrating).

There have been a few changes to the gameplay between the PS2 versions and the PSP release, though mostly for the better. The battle system follows the corrections made in Persona 4, allowing you to give direct commands to the other members of your party. The PS2 versions only let you give the AI basic orders on what strategy to use. The rest of the party would otherwise act independently of the main character, who was the only one directly controlled by the player. It also adds the mechanic in which your party members can take a mortal blow for you (because you lose when the main character dies, whether or not the rest of the party is okay).

Navigating has been changed to a map-and-cursor system which works pretty well. Still, I think I liked the older system more, where you would actually run around as the character in all the environments in the waking world. Now, you only get to run around in the dungeons.

The Persona games have phenomenal music, but I have to say that I don't like the new tracks in Persona 3 Portable as much as the ones in the original. In particular, I liked the older battle theme more than the newer one. There are a few gems amidst the new tracks, though, and it retains some of the original soundtrack.

The graphics are also quite good, with excellent art direction. The 3D sprites are simple but surprisingly emotive and the 2D artwork is beautiful. Again, though, P3P doesn't do it quite as well as the PS2 releases. The 3D character animations during many of the storyline scenes are removed in favour of just the 2D character designs and text. This is generally fine, except when it means that some of the humour conveyed by the old 3D models has to be given through, essentially, written stage cues.

Perhaps stranger, though, is that the old 2D cinematics have been replaced by 3D animated cutscenes that just aren't as good. See for yourself.

In the PS2 versions:

In Persona 3 Portable:

I don't know if they keep the original cutscenes intact for the male protagonist's storyline. If so, then I guess maybe they just didn't want to have to do the drawn animations again, and opted for a simpler solution? Or maybe it was some sort of space constraint on the UMD? Whatever the reason, it's a bit of a letdown. I mean, really. Watch those videos again. That first one is way more badass.

All and all, though, it is exciting to see Persona 3 in a portable form, and most of it holds up pretty well. The female protagonist is a nice twist and allows for a lot of exploration of how people treat you differently based on your gender. The gameplay is generally improved from the older iterations, but the ambience is arguably a little weaker. Especially those cutscenes... Honestly, it's hard to say which version is better, FES or P3P. I guess that in some ways, I will always love FES the most.

However, I must say that playing through Persona 3 again on the PSP has ironically made me realize that I like Persona 4 more. Although I resisted picking a favourite at first, I must ultimately admit that I like Persona 4's characters more. The game is generally more light-hearted as well, which is not to say that Persona 3 never has comedic moments, just that they are a little less plentiful. Persona 4 is certainly the happier game, and with happier characters. Maybe their problems aren't as dramatic, but they remind you a little more of your own friends and family.

I also like the "awakening to your true self" motif in P4 more than the darker political intrigue and Messiah story of P3. And let's face it, Persona 4 had the better gameplay and, although Persona 3 borrows its improvements in that department, it does so at a loss of some of the ambience.

But don't get me wrong, Persona 3 is still a great, great game worthy of being played, and it deserves a place in the Video Game Hall of Fame for everything it did first and did right. Persona 4 just improved upon it, which is kind of like saying, "Someone figured out how to make chocolate better." That's an achievement in its own right.

I will be finishing up RPG Week tomorrow with a game that has a very, very special place in my heart: Chrono Cross.

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