The average high schooler who thinks his/her life is in turmoil has nothing on Arthur, my name for the hero of Persona 3 Portable. It’s not just that he’s a transfer student, the new kid in school. For Arthur is one of a handful with the ability to fight the “Shadows” that rob people of their will to live, and so, despite his tender age, the fate of the town is in his hands.
Not wholly in his hands, luckily. For backup, most visibly, Arthur has the schoolmates with whom he goes dungeon crawling – the friendly Yukari, Junpei the class clown, and cool older kids Akihiko and Mitsuru. They’ve proven their worth so far, Yukari with her healing and wind magic, Akihiko with his fists and lightning magic, Junpei with his whacking great two-handed sword, and Mitsuru radioing in directions and calling for backup if the team gets separated.
But building social links (“S-Links”) to others will also boost Arthur’s inner powers, and there are a lot of potential friends he can make: the elderly couple who run the local bookstore, the little girl who hangs out at the shrine on Saturdays, his buddy from the kendo team, even the person he plays MMOs with on the odd Sunday. He doesn’t know anybody especially well yet, but he’s made a decent start.
It’s only been a little over a month since Arthur moved into his new school and discovered his powers, but he’s settling in well. He’s aced his midsemester exams (for which Mitsuru owes him a present). He’s making a fair few new friends. And last but not least, he’s defeated several tough bosses and plenty of lesser foes. Things are looking up for our young hero – and they’re most definitely looking up for Persona 3 Portable.
As far as I can tell, the core of Persona 3 (refer to my initial post for the premise of the game) is its dungeon-crawling RPG combat. From a min-maxing perspective, the other, social aspects of the game ultimately seem to boil down to the bonuses they confer in the RPG element*. Even raising the main character’s stats by studying, singing karaoke or going to trendy coffeeshops will ultimately affect his/her ability to strike up relationships with certain other characters, which in turn, affects the bonuses carried into the dungeon crawl.
Note my use of “as far as I can tell” and “seem”. Except when looking up specific, narrow questions, I’ve departed from my usual RPG practice by minimising my use of FAQs for this game. And that is because Persona 3 is the most I’ve ever roleplayed in a single-player RPG. Back in my “intuitive gameplay” post, I talked about two different ways of looking at a game – as a set of rules to be mastered; or as a story to be acted out. And there is a certain tension between those two mindsets: when I can see that the “optimal” choice is grossly out of character, “unrealistic”, or ”ahistoric”, this hurts my suspension of disbelief. For Persona 3, I’ve gotten around this by simply not looking up the optimal choices.
So, free from concern about min-maxing, I’ve been spending the game’s precious resource, time, in a way that best brings the “Japanese schoolkids” theme of the game to life. My main character, Arthur, raises his Academic stat by paying attention in class, praying at the local shrine in the afternoon, and studying in the evenings, not because I think it’s optimal, but because it’s what I think he would/should do. He raises his Charm because that stat will be used in his relationship with one of my favourite NPCs in the game, and if I want to see that dialogue, so does Arthur. And he spends his time with people whose company he enjoys, not necessarily those who’ll give him the most useful bonuses. (The one time powergaming concerns drove me to hang out with a NPC I found annoying, I imagined Arthur gritting his teeth and making noncommittal remarks the whole time.) It’s a liberating feeling to simply play “naturally” and focus on my favourite character interactions, without worrying about the minutiae of builds, boosts, and seeing every last bit of content!
About two and a half months have elapsed since the start of the game. Arthur is all set for a certain storyline event in a week’s time, and he’s well on track for his exams in two weeks…
* Specifically, social links will affect the EXP/levels of your created “personas”, the spirits that do the heavy lifting for you in battle.
Compared to other RPGs, Persona 3’s modern-day world may seem mundane. The main character buys healing items not from armourers and apothecaries, but from the pharmacist at the shopping mall. He/she traipses through school hallways rather than half-sunken temples or bridges in the sky, and his/her haunt is the dormitory lounge rather than a castle.
But there are a couple of twists. First, Persona 3 is set in modern-day Japan, and to a Western gamer, odds are that will be at least a little exotic. The game takes place in the big city, so many of the differences will be muted. But there are some you’ll notice straight away. The dialogue is laden with “-san”, “-kun” and other Japanese honorifics. The main character can pray at a Shinto shrine, either to boost Academics before an exam, or divine his/her fortune and strengthen a relationship. School clubs are a Big Deal. There are even love hotels.
Second, Persona 3 contains a bunch of little touches that help preserve the internal consistency of that setting, and hence, the player’s suspension of disbelief. Trees change colour in between seasons. NPCs change their outfits depending on the weather and on whether they had school that day. But for something a bit more substantive, take the game’s scheduled exams, two sets a semester. They form part of the time management aspects of the game. They’re well flagged, in dialogue and on the in-game calendar. They do have an in-game effect. And so, it makes perfect sense that right before exam-time, your party members lock themselves in their rooms to study – leaving them unavailable for dungeon-crawling.
That said, Persona 3 mostly limits you to a single city, unlike the typical RPG, which has you travelling across cities and continents. While this is also consistent with the game’s premise – most high school students stay put in one place – it does mean that this isn’t really a game about the joy of exploration. Still, when the characters do get out of town, on holiday or on school excursions, the destinations are well-realised enough for me to delight in running around and talking to every NPC – and they’re also host to some of the funniest scenes in the game*.
How does that single city hold up over the course of the game? Pretty well (though not perfectly), actually, helped by the little touches and the odd change of scenery I mentioned above; by plot sequences that take place in new parts of the town; and by constant interaction with NPCs through plot sequences, other social encounters, and even the periodically refreshed dialogue from nameless townspeople. That’s no small feat, after all the time I’ve spent with the game. I’m not that far from the end, now, and I‘ll be interested to see how the designers might wrap up the player’s experience with this world…
* Which, I suspect, owe more to anime tropes than to real-life Japanese culture.
As you can see above, most of my previous discussion of Persona 3: Portable has focused on one half of the gameplay: the social/high school life simulation. But what about the other half of the game, the dungeon crawl?
You’ll tackle Tartarus, the game’s dungeon, one randomly generated floor at a time. Each floor may contain chests or a portal out. It will contain the staircase leading to the next — and it will almost certainly contain groups of monsters, depicted as black blobs that wander about the dungeon floor. Bumping into these blobs will trigger a battle (no annoying random battles here, thank heavens!). They’ll chase you if you come within their sight, and if they run into you, odds are the monsters will get the first turn in the resulting battle… but strike a blob with your weapon, which is easier if you sneak up from behind, and you’ll move first.
Once combat begins, it looks like your typical menu-driven, turn-based JRPG: each party member* can attack, defend, use the special powers conferred by his/her inner spirit, the titular Persona, etc. Unique in the party, the main character can switch between different Personas, each with different strengths, weaknesses and powers; other party members are stuck with just the one set of abilities.
The twist to this system is the critical importance of targeting vulnerabilities. Attacks in the game are divided into nine types — Pierce, Slash, Fire, Electricity, Light, etc — and different party members, and different enemies, are weak against different types of attack. If a combatant is struck by an attack that targets his/her weakness, the resulting critical hit will knock him/her/it flat. And every time a foe is knocked down, the attacker will get an extra turn. Finally, if all monsters are knocked down, the party can launch a devastating “all-out attack”.
The significance of this is that the game encourages you to chain multiple critical hits in the same turn, culminating in an all-out attack. So if you get in the first move — remember, by striking monsters with your weapon on the dungeon map — and the party has the right damage types at its disposal, you can go through trash mobs like Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western, where he could pull his gun and mow down three bandits before they even blinked. Conversely, if the monsters move first and they’re especially powerful, or you’re especially unlucky, it’s possible to wipe in a single volley of queued critical hits (luckily, monsters can’t launch all-out attacks…).
For most fights, this system works very well. It pushes you to prepare for battle by using a well-balanced party and keeping a varied selection of Personas on hand. It means there’s a bit of tension on the dungeon map, as you take care to sneak up on monsters, or conversely run like blazes to avoid having the monsters run into you. And given the number of trash mobs you’ll fight, it keeps ordinary battles moving at a good, brisk pace.
Where this system doesn’t work so well is in boss battles. It takes a long time to defeat the typical boss monster, and a simple, elegant system built for speed is not well suited for protracted pounding matches. My boss fights tend to turn into repetition of the same pattern of moves over and over – A attacks, B buffs then attacks, C debuffs then attacks, D heals. And as a result, I am often all too glad when boss fights are over.
Still, on the whole, I like Persona 3: Portable’s battle system. It’s not every boss fight that stretches on for too long. And even those that do are outweighed by the fun I have as I tear through the game’s ordinary encounters.
* This is a change from the PS2 version, in which you only directly controlled the main character — your party members had their own AI.
Over the weekend, I finally finished Persona 3 Portable (not long after I finished my Conan the Barbarian post, in fact). In the coming weeks, watch this space for a spoiler-free review, and possibly a “Storytelling in Games” analysis piece. For now, I can say, wow, it was a very good game, maybe even a great game (I’ve yet to make up my mind). Very brief, and very spoileriffic, first thoughts on the game’s ending below the cut:
2006 was a big year for video games. That year, two of the current generation of consoles launched: the Playstation 3 and the Wii. The rival Xbox 360 launched the previous year, but 2006 saw the debut of one of its signature franchises, Gears of War. And the king of the previous generation, the Playstation 2, was at its zenith. In 2006, Capcom released the stunning (and superb) Okami; Square Enix gave us Final Fantasy XII… and in Japan, Atlus released Persona 3, the latest instalment in the Shin Megami Tensei franchise. When Persona 3 made its way to the West in 2007, it received a glowing reception; when I finally played the game, last year, I expected the world of it. It did not disappoint.
To be sure, Persona 3 received a few coats of paint in between 2007 and 2011. An enhanced PS2 version, Persona 3: FES, added an epilogue and tweaked the core game; the PSP port I played, Persona 3: Portable, added an alternate, female protagonist and imported some of Persona 4’s gameplay enhancements (though it also had to replace in-engine cutscenes with still art and “talking heads”). But the core of the game has been the same throughout. You guide a modern-day high schooler through one year of his (or her) life, allocating precious time slots between studying, shopping, socialising with one of ~20 people – school buddies, an elderly couple, a little kid, and more – and, uniquely for a teenager, dungeon crawling. The “social simulator” and “dungeon crawler” halves of the game are linked: the main character derives his/her combat abilities from guardian spirits called Personas. Each Persona, and each possible character relationship, is assigned to a given “arcana”, and the stronger a friendship, the stronger a newly created Persona of that arcana will be.
This design has several implications:
First, it brings Persona 3’s gameplay in line with its subject. Regardless of story, the gameplay in most RPGs (Japanese or Western) usually skews towards combat – but with its social simulation, its evenings spent doing homework, and its bites grabbed on the way home from school, Persona 3 conveys how its teenaged hero actually lives.
Second, the need to manage time weaves interesting choice into the fabric of gameplay. Do I hang out with character A, because I want a Persona of the relevant arcana to clear this stretch of the game? Do I push him to Tuesday so I can see character B instead? Should I spend my evening dungeon-crawling, or should I hit the books instead?
Third, more subtly, it fosters roleplaying. In a video game, we roleplay by making choices: Do I back this side in a dispute, or that side? Do I obey my lord, or follow my own conscience? These choices are typically discrete: the end of a quest might offer multiple solutions, or the main plot might branch off at specified points. In Persona 3’s case, the plot might be linear, but the constant stream of choices allows players the same opportunity. Yes, you can approach it as an exercise in powergaming… but it was far more rewarding for me to decide “as my character would”, spending time with NPCs I liked, and behaving consistently with the personality I imagined him to have.
None of the game’s elements is perfect. As a dungeon crawler, it suffers from some overly long and tedious late-game boss fights. As a social simulator, it loses a bit of interesting tension once you max out the main character’s stats around the halfway mark. And its main plot suffers from several flaws. Gameplay and story segregation create occasional plot holes; the plot is weakened by a reliance on in-universe logic (think “Captain, we have to replace the dilithium crystals!”) rather than character conflict; and it labours under a fundamental contradiction: it takes itself very seriously at the same time that it revolves around superpowered teenagers.
But ultimately, those flaws are minor compared to what Persona 3 does right. It’s a very good dungeon crawler, a very good social simulator/time management game, and most of all, it delivers the most precious attribute in an RPG: it made me care.It made me care about its world, the world I explored every time I sent the main character through town in search of a friend or a coffee. And through great dialogue and voice acting, it made me care about its characters. Their story arcs more than made up for my complaints about the main plot: not all were great, but some were hilarious, others moving. From the first hour of gameplay, I laughed at their antics; when the story turned sombre, I felt for them. And through their unfolding stories, the game was able to convey some surprisingly meaningful themes.
Evidently, a lot of players agreed with me. Not every game enjoys the recognition that it deserves, but this saga has a happy ending. The Persona franchise has gone from strength to strength: a PS2 sequel, Persona 4, came out in 2008, and in the limited time I’ve spent with it, it addresses every complaint I have about Persona 3. A PS Vita port, Persona 4: Golden, and a PS3 fighting game, Persona Arena,are both due out later this year. And most recently, Persona 3: FES has been re-released as a Playstation Network download for PS3. For anyone with a Sony platform, these games are easily accessible.
That’s a good thing. This is one game that every RPG aficionado should play, even those who normally don’t enjoy Japanese RPGs. With its marriage of a great concept and good execution, Persona 3: Portable wasn’t just one of the best games I played last year – it’s one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played. Highly recommended.
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I’m nine episodes into Persona4: The Animation, the anime adaptation of the excellent PS2/Vita RPG; as I would like to eventually finish the game (I am “only” 30 hours in), I have paused at this point in the anime to avoid spoiling myself. The anime is a lot of fun, worth the money I spent on it… and yet, I can’t shake the feeling that it is a guilty pleasure.
The anime does a number of things right. For one, it has very strong source material, with a great premise: Persona 4 follows several teenage friends who, in the course of investigating murders in their sleepy country town, end up fighting their own literal and metaphorical demons. P4’s characters are goofy (perhaps a bit more so in the anime), amusing (I’ve laughed so hard, the other passengers on my commute probably think I’m bonkers), and yet human and relatable. The anime’s fight scenes are spectacular – the titular Personas have never looked better – and its production values are excellent; the anime’s art is vibrant and attractive, and I routinely grin when it uses music from the game’s soundtrack. So what’s the problem?
Above is my new PlayStation Vita, running Persona 4: Golden! After a bit over a week, I think the hardware and the software were made for each other: the Vita is a fine machine, sleek and sharp-screened, while P4:G is one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played. P4:G is also long and deep (I clocked in at >90 hours on its predecessor, Persona 3: Portable), the kind of game I’d normally find difficult to finish — I frequently stall out on RPGs at the ~30 hour mark, such as Fallout: New Vegas, Xenoblade Chronicles, Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and even the PS2 version of Persona 4. But the Vita’s portability is a blessing: I can carry it around the house, play when I have a few minutes to spare, put it to sleep at the push of a button, and awaken it in seconds. That makes it perhaps the most convenient way to play long, intricate games such as P4:G — definitely more convenient than being chained to a PC/console. Vita, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship…
As an aside, so far, the Vita’s library isn’t huge, but I have several more games to chew through once I (eventually) finish P4:G: action RPG Soul Sacrifice came bundled with the Vita, and over several PSN sales, I built up a decent backlog of PSP RPGs (Gungnir, Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time). As for future releases, Final Fantasy X and X-2 are due out for Vita eventually, and who knows what other RPGs might come after that? After all, the PSP eventually bloomed into an RPG powerhouse, with the likes of FFT, Tactics Ogre, and Persona 3.