Persona 3 Portable

Persona 3 Portable is a game for young sociopaths in training. Persona 3 Portable is off-putting to all but a very select audience of Japanophiles. Persona 3 Portable is an utterly refreshing title that everyone should investigate, especially those who are instantly turned off by the letters J, R, P, and G.

To understand why Persona 3 Portable is a very different proposition from the average role-playing efforts of the east, you need only look to its setting and story.

The locale is Iwatodai, a seemingly ordinary Japanese town. Your character is a student attending the local high school and staying in one of its dorms.

From here the story evolves into one revolving around The Dark Hour, a 25th hour in the day, unobservable by regular human beings since they find themselves encased within time-stopping coffins for this period.

Our hero is recruited by SEES, a unit of similarly aged warriors with the power to resist The Dark Hour's grasp and defeat its inhabitants - the warped and twisted Shadows.

Bringing forth the eponymous Personas (a physical manifestation of the soul) by firing a pistol shaped Evoker at their heads, these students' powers are only as strong as their spirit, feeding off the relationships they make within the 24 hours of everyday high school life.

Studying hard, joining clubs, making friends, and just hanging out is every bit as important as battling evil within the Tartarus tower, a randomly generated labyrinth of evil, with its centre at the very education establishment you attend.

The human touch

This type of story is simply not told in western video games, and it sure as hell beats the effeminate-boy-child-on-never-ending-quest-to-save-his-girlfriend rubbish that adorns a massive segment of other JRPGs.

Dialogue is intelligently written, naturalistic, and evocative, with great insight into the day-to-day dramas of teen life - namely gossip, girlfriends, gaming, and graduating.

Our heroes are believable and likeable - after all, it's much easier to empathise with the absurdly fantastical situation Junpei, Yukari, Mitsuru, and others find themselves in, when they could tangibly exist in real life.

When Persona 3 Portable isn't being a life sim-lite, it's being a dungeon crawler. You have to ascend the aforementioned Tartarus tower to progress, its shape and layout morphing with each run of an area.

Random battles are done away with to encourage exploration and enemy encounters – which play out in around 30 seconds – can be avoided or actively sought out, dependent on your party's situation.

Landing the initial strike to gain advantage and consequently distress enemies is sometimes down to good fortune, as movement in these areas has a mechanical feel and the camera, assigned to the shoulder buttons, is fiddly to get to grips with.

It's a minor issue for sure, but no less irritating when a Shadow manages to get one over you because of it. Happily, the turn-based system of combat manages to sidestep this due to its 'I strike, you strike' nature.

Remember remember

You choose from physical attacks with standard blades and bows or Persona abilities, the game's equivalent of a magic system.

You can enable full party control, but AI is intelligent and largely makes the right decisions for any given situation, leaving you free to consider elemental strengths and weaknesses to effectively handle opponents, requesting analysis of fresh foes from the SEES leader Mitsuru.

Committing this information to memory is an ideal way to play. Landing a critical or super effective blow knocks the Shadows down and allows access to a bonus move, which can be chained together to really sock it to them by unleashing a group attack.

Every so often, you'll run into stronger opposition from bosses, and understanding the method of keeping an offence going for as long as possible (and avoiding becoming victim to one) is the only route to victory at higher levels.

While the polygon count is a little low on models and environments, and while the animation is a bit stiff, the visual direction more than makes up for it. Bold enemy design makes battles a treat to participate in, and menus are uncluttered and dynamic.

Character profiles draw from anime influences that are more Paranoia Agent than Naruto, as does the voice acting and modern J-Hop / J-Rock score. In short, Persona 3 Portable has style backing up substance.

Culture vulture

Many players will see the presentational aspects or genre tag and walk away, which is criminal but wholly understandable. I'm moderately well versed in Japanese culture but I still had to remind myself why characters were referring to me as 'Senpai', for example.

This is as much a touching, funny, and at times moving dissection of teen life in Japan as it is a JRPG, and it gives no quarter to players unwilling to keep up with the cultural morays of its setting.

In addition, it is an analysis of growing unease amongst Japanese society's youth, of disenfranchisement with the political and social systems in which they reside.

The life sim elements left me feeling sociopathic at times, making life choices based on cold calculations as to which decision would leave me in good stead with certain characters, so that I might improve my Social Link and reap the hierarchy-based EXP rewards.

The teens in Persona 3 Portable have issues to deal with, and they're doing so whilst conforming to the ingrained notion of 'being the best you can be', mirrored in-game by The Lost, characters that have developed Apathy Syndrome from coming into contact with The Shadows.

The startling realisation that you are gaming life to avoid this just as much as you are gaming the systems of combat during battle is a profound one. The slowly developed narrative and natural setting only serve to slam this point home harder.

Triumph of the spirit

Persona 3 Portable comes highly recommended. Taken at face value, it's a novel amalgam of life-management and dungeon raider, with an eye catching aesthetic. Dig a little deeper and it's a complex message on the state of Japan's high schoolers.

There's loads to see and do, a decent number of strategy systems to master, and it contains one of the most convincing casts in modern JRPGs.

A few technical issues and those cultural barriers to entry keep it from attaining true excellence, but if any of what I've described interests you in the slightest, please don't let that put you off.

Persona 3 Portable

Unique, bizarre and totally great, Persona 3 Portable is an Otaku's dream and the strongest antidote to run-of-the-mill JRPGs going.
Peter Willington
Peter Willington
Die hard Suda 51 fan and professed Cherry Coke addict, freelancer Peter Willington was initially set for a career in showbiz, training for half a decade to walk the boards. Realising that there's no money in acting, he decided instead to make his fortune in writing about video games. Peter never learns from his mistakes.