Persona 3 was an interesting release back in 2007, coming as it did almost two years after the 360 (one year for PS3 and Wii). It could easily have been one of many forgotten gems, buried in the sand to be discovered only by the adventurous RPG archeologists among us. Luckily, P3 is a fantastic game with a unique flavor of its own. It not only survived its initial North American release but got a follow-up “expansion” a year later. Riding on that success, it has now been ported to the PSP as of the 15th of July.
While the game is not for everyone, after 25 hours of playtime I’ve come up with a quick recipe that may tell you if you’re a candidate for its enjoyment. You take the dungeon crawling and adventure aspect of Shining in the Darkness (or the dungeon crawling bits of Etrian Odyssey, if you don’t remember Shining) and you add a tiny dash of Pokemon catch-em-all madness and teenagers shooting themselves in the head while sprinkling in large dose of Japanese eccentricity. When you’re done stuffing that into the disc you tie it all up with a mysterious plot involving the end of the world you’ve got the beginnings of Persona 3. For the sake of brevity I’m only going to concern myself with the combat and exploration elements of the game, but be advised that there’s a whole lot more to this package. Sound good? Let’s continue.
Persona 3 is, at its heart, a dungeon crawl. All of the combat takes place in Tartarus, a mysterious tower that appears in the world during the Dark Hour – a space of time that happens between midnight and 12:01. The main character, along with a handful of others, are among the few that can experience this time, with the rest of the population transforming into a coffin until the dark hour has passed (don’t worry about the details, it will hurt your brain). All of the floors, except for those that contain bosses, are randomly generated every time you step into the tower every single time. If you enter at any floor to explore and then leave before climbing to the next you will be treated to a new layout the next time you return. Lest that sound too intimidating, each floor is generally bite sized and takes only a couple of minutes to explore. This aspect of the game’s design lends itself unnervingly well to the “just one more” phenomenon that can consume your entire night, so if you frequently fall into that trap you should know what you’re getting into.
To make things more manageable you get a mini-map on screen at all times, with the layout being drawn as you walk through the halls. Monsters, or shadows as the game terms them, show up as bright spots so you can avoid them if you’re in a tough spot or deliberately seek them out if you’re looking for combat. If a shadow sees you they will immediately attempt to close the distance, which gives you a limited amount of time to strike it with your weapon before battle begins. Should you fail to strike it before the distance is closed the enemies will get a free turn. However, it’s just as possible to sneak up behind the shadow and strike before it notices you, granting your party the extra turn instead.
Combat is turn based, though unlike a lot of other RPGs it stresses a rock paper scissors strategy to a higher degree. Unlike a lot of games where you can happily ignore elemental strengths and weaknesses, P3 revels in making you constantly search for the sweet spots. If you strike an enemy with an attack it is weak to, or critically hit, you can follow up with another attack immediately. This is important, because if you don’t take advantage of these weaknesses the enemy certainly will. If you’re not on top of your game the enemies will happily strike your weakness, and then do it again with their extra turn (oh yes, they get one too). While occasionally unnerving when battle takes a sudden turn for the worse, it does help keep you on your toes so the combat doesn’t feel ho-hum as the hours progress.
While this may sound excessively brutal, in practice, the system works in your favor more often than not. This port, unlike the console iterations, does provide the option to play through with easier difficulty settings where combat is easier and, should you die, you get a number of continues in case you were silly enough not to save. You have to make the decision early on, however, and cannot change your mind should you find it too easy. I would, of course, recommend normal.
Leveling up is a two sided process. Your character gains HP and SP to spend on skills, with physical skills costing hp and magical ones costing sp. Your stats and elemental weaknesses are provided to you by your personas. Each persona belongs to an arcana, modeled after the arcana of a tarot deck (Fool, Devil, Magician, etc), and each arcana has general strengths and weaknesses on top of the persona’s quirks. The arcana essentially function as classes, where some are geared towards combat – with high strength and physical damage attacks – and others are more magically inclined, with high magic stats and powerful elemental spells. The beautiful thing is that you don’t really have to stick to one or the other as your main character can switch personas once per turn, without losing an action, to exploit different skills as the need arises. The number of personas you can have at once grows with you, but even at the beginning of the game you can have six, making it easy to be prepared.
Personas can be gained from battle, but the majority of them will be obtained through fusion. As you gain personas and use them in combat they level up alongside you and learn new skills. In time, you can use fuse personas together to create a more powerful one. The fused persona will start at its own base level and has its own base skills but will also gain some of the skills of its ‘parents’. In addition, should you have a social link that corresponds with that persona’s arcana it will gain bonus experience. These links are what you spend the majority of your time obtaining and nurturing when you’re not exploring Tartarus. Initially it may seem tedious to have to level each persona as you get it (as they can be of a different level than you) but in actual practice the best approach is to fuse several lower level arcana into a persona that is of a higher level to match your character. This prevents the dungeon crawl from bogging down to the point where you can’t progress because you have to grind up.
This all only scratches the surface. As the game progresses you gain the ability to fuse personas into weapons, take on time-sensitive kill quests to carry out in Tartarus, fetch quests over the daytime hours, fusion quests where you must create a persona in such a way that it inherits a specific skill, or you can mount rescue missions for regular people who find themselves stranded in Tartarus, all while minding your calendar to hang out with the people and groups that you like in the daytime hours.
If you’ve been looking for an RPG to spend some time with, and don’t mind – or crave – something just a little different than usual, then I heartily recommend you make some time for a little Persona in your life.