Version tested: PSP
Shown to a steadily flagging and slightly nonplussed audience at E3, Sony's new PSP marketing campaign focused on the portable's library of "full-sized" games, as a sleepy-eyed office worker talked up his 40-hour progress in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. If Sony wanted to make it all about the numbers, Persona 3 Portable might have been an even better shout; an already hefty runtime has been doubled with the addition of a female-fronted campaign, multiplying the replay value of a game that had plenty in the first place. The hour tally could easily reach three figures here.
Describing Persona 3 Portable as "half dating sim, half randomly-generated-dungeon-crawler" wouldn't be entirely inaccurate, nor would it come close to communicating the appeal of this terrific RPG. By day, you're sitting through lectures, chatting to schoolmates and flirting with girls; at night, you spend your time ascending the terrifying tower of Tartarus, offing demons called Shadows in turn-based battles. Again, that might sound about as appetising to the majority as an Uwe Boll double-bill, but Atlus has worked a minor miracle in not only making these seemingly disparate elements fun, but in skilfully placing them in an interdependent relationship that makes both sides feel equally important.
The game is essentially built around the Social Links you make with your schoolmates. Talk to someone during lunch and they'll usually ask if you want to meet up after school. Listen to their problems, offer sympathetic responses and your relationship with them may improve. Each key NPC - of which there are over 20 - is represented by a tarot card, which increases in power the stronger your ties to them.
These cards are key to your progress through Tartarus, as you fight alongside a group of fellow school chums who are all staying at the same dormitory. This isn't coincidence; you've been selected to join this cabal of demon-slayers thanks to your ability to summon internal Personas, powerful creatures who can do your bidding in battle, and whose skills are affected by the strength of your Social Links.
(It has to be said, it's still pretty unnerving to see just how these kids summon their inner demons, even if we no longer see the cut-scenes where characters anxiously finger the triggers of their 'Evokers', attempting to pluck up the courage to blast a pretend hole in their skull.)
The more links you make, the more Personas you can summon, and the more options you have should you decide to fuse two or more of these demons. A strong bond with someone will add a significant amount of experience to your newly-fused Persona, thereby allowing you to summon a demon several levels higher than your character.
There's a wealth of different Personas to choose from, each with a blend of elemental abilities and strong melee attacks. Thankfully, you don't need to worry about the rest of your party, as they're only able to summon one Persona each, and these will level up automatically as they fight alongside you.
The majority of the creatures you fight have one or more weaknesses to exploit; hit them with the right kind of attack and you get a bonus turn. It's possible to get through encounters without your opponent having had a chance to attack, particularly if you sneak up on a Shadow, as you'll be given a free go as battle commences. Similarly, if they spot you and hit you before you've drawn your sword, they'll get the chance to strike the first blow.
Knock all opponents down, or achieve a critical hit, and you get the chance to use an All-Out Attack. This allows all characters to race in and use multiple standard attacks in an attempt to finish the fight quickly and effectively, piling into a Tex Avery cartoon cloud replete with onomatopoeic text for all the smashes and thwacks.
In truth, Tartarus is more a training exercise for the full-moon events; a way of ensuring you're progressing at a steady rate so that you're sufficiently levelled for the large Shadows which emerge every month. While visits to the tower are entirely optional, Atlus subtly encourages you to explore by periodically warning you that a hapless human has wandered in and needs to be rescued, or through a character letting you know they're in the mood for a bit of monster-bashing.
There's a pleasing routine to your schooldays, yet also a good degree of flexibility in how you approach the game. The way you behave during lessons, the after-school clubs you join, the people you interact with: each fundamentally changes the options available to you, both during the day and at night.
It's a real balancing act, as spreading yourself thinly can give you a greater range of powers in battle but at the cost of their effectiveness, while building just two or three strong relationships could leave you without the power you need to swiftly dispose of a certain enemy. If there's one thing to be learned from Persona 3, it's that being the most popular kid in school isn't nearly as fun as it sounds.
When three kids approach you at lunchtime, all wanting to meet after school during an exam week when you're supposed to be revising but instead were planning to take a girl out for some ramen, you've got some tough decisions to make. It's little wonder your character spends his evenings putting a gun to his head.
All this, of course, is preaching to the choir for seasoned Persona fans, who'll want to know what, if anything, has changed in the PSP version. The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is quite a lot. For starters, the anime cut-scenes have been nixed, as has the 3D town exploration. This time you get an isometric viewpoint of the locations you navigate between, with anything and anyone you can interact with clearly highlighted, as a square-button shortcut allows you to instantly whizz from place to place.
If streamlining the game for portable play seems an eminently sensible idea - and it does quicken the pace quite noticeably - it also makes you feel slightly less a part of the world, more a detached observer. That said, the new 2D background art is splendid, while the character models look crisper and more detailed than ever on the PSP screen.
More significant improvements have been made to the battle system, with elements pilfered from the wonderful Persona 4. You can still leave your team-mates to your own devices if you wish, or give them general instructions on what to do in battle, but control freaks will relish the prospect of having everyone under direct command. This all but eliminates one of the original's biggest problems in the occasionally wonky decision-making of team-mates.
It's also impossible to overstate the importance of a brand new campaign, not only because it offers a different perspective on the story, but because the majority of your social interactions are brand new. This means more of those witty, charming and touching story vignettes, more superb voice acting, and more after-school clubs for the female character to join. If you ever wondered just how good Yukari was at archery, now you can find out, with tennis and volleyball the other options. Oh, and the menus are all given a makeover in pink, obviously.
Those less interested in grinding through dungeons will be pleased with a new Beginner difficulty, and at the opposite end of the scale, Ultra-Hard mode will see most players visiting Tartarus every night rather than just once or twice a week. I can't say I was ever hugely aware of the load times during the fifty-something hours I spent on the PS2 game, but everything seems to move just that little bit quicker in P3P; certainly my completion time for the male protagonist was noticeably shorter.
It all adds up to what's just about the definitive version of one of the finest role-players of the last five years. If Persona 3's central story doesn't quite live up to the intriguing murder-mystery of its successor - and the loss of the animated story sequences exacerbates this issue - then its side-stories are easily a match. Until Persona 4 Portable arrives, then, this may well be the finest RPG you can get on PSP, and a game that'll keep completists going until well into the winter months.
9 / 10
Persona 3 Portable is available now in North America and from importers. It is region-free. There are no announced plans for a European release.