In this new generation of video games, you can’t help but feel that the Japanese role-playing game has been left behind. While many Western-based RPGs like The Witcher and the Mass Effect series have tried to evolve the role-playing genre, JRPG apologists keep maintaining that the tried and true gameplay more than makes up for the genre’s lack of evolution. However, for every Triple-A Western RPG that gets released, that argument becomes less and less credible. So, while most JRPGs are still recycling the same game mechanics that have been used since the beginning of the original PlayStation era, it was good to see the Persona series (a spinoff of the Shin Megami Tensei video-game series) try to push the JRPG by infusing fresh new ideas into an established genre.
Back in 2007, Atlas had originally released Persona 3 on the PlayStation 2. The game was a breath of fresh air to the whole RPG genre, incorporating a unique setting with traditional JRPG tropes like turn-based battles and dungeon-crawling. Three years later, Atlus brings Persona 3 Portable to the Sony PSP, this time adding a few new tweaks to the overall game. The question of whether these tweaks make the overall experiance better depends on the player’s preference.
Yet even in this “newer” version of Persona 3 you still play the part of a transfer student who lives in a fictional modern-day Japanese city. By day you are a regular high school student who attends classes, joins clubs, goes on dates, and so on. At night, however, you become part of SEES, an organization that fights mystical beasts known as Shadows. While the premise seems a bit absurd, there’s a lot of charm to the presentation. Also, with it taking place in present-day Japan, the game presents a very unique and original setting, which, surprisingly, not many video games have explored. Yet the setting and story are not the only things that have transferred over to the PSP.
The initial release of Persona 3 had the ingenious idea of connecting player leveling (a staple in any JRPG) with the various relationships that you created within the story. What came to fruition was a game that was half dungeon-crawler and half social sim. The marriage of storytelling and gameplay is something the modern installments of the Persona series have been known for and it’s no different here. What’s different however are the changes that Atlas has made to the PSP installment which many fans will welcome but others will deplore.
One of the changes that Atlas has made to the PSP version is the ability to choose the gender of the main protagonist. In the earlier versions of Persona 3, the player was forced to play as a male protagonist, thus making your experience with the game very male-centric (only dating girls, doing predominantly male activities, etc.). However, in Persona 3 Portable, if you decide to choose to play as a female protagonist, many of your experiences, as well as your relationships, will change within the story. While on the surface this might seem like nothing more than a cosmetic change, it really does change the player’s experience. Even though the people you meet as a male protagonist are essentially the same, the relationships you have with them change due to the fact that you are a girl. (An example: a male character might tell your male protagonist something he would never tell a female, like asking if they think a certain girl is hot or dateable.) And while everyone will appreciate Atlas taking the time to add the “choose a gender” feature to this portable iteration, some shortcuts were made to make a portable version of Persona 3 possible.
The game’s absence of animated cutscenes and the fully 3D-modeled sprites were some of the concessions that were made to Persona 3 on the PSP. The earlier two versions of the game (that were on the PlayStation 2) had the player run around in the streets of a modern Japanese town and soak in the sights and culture. In the PSP version, much of those in-game assets have now become static images which are represented by various icons on a map. While this does streamline the game quite a bit, it really does take away from the game’s overall ambiance. Yet this is a small concession to be able to play an excellent JRPG portably.
In the end, Persona 3 Portable is a lot like the PlayStation 2 versions of the game, with a few minor tweaks. While some of these choices will be controversial to some long time fans, having one of the great JRPGs of this generation in the palm of your hands is really something to be excited about.