Friday, May 16, 2014

Your Better Half: Persona 3 Portable

I mentioned Shin Megami Tensei in a couple of other posts, but I've never really sat down and played one of the games in the series. I mean one of the real games, not spin-offs like Raidou Kuzunoha vs. Whatever Creepy Thing He's Fighting or Persona 4 Arena or that silly platformer on the Virtual Boy. Recently, I decided that it was about time that changed, and picked up a copy of Persona 3 Portable, offered for five dollars along with a handful of other Atlus games in a recent PSN sale.

That was a wise investment.

Gosh, that'd be swell! You think we could go
steady? Maybe we could hang out at the
malt shop and get an egg creme...
(Image courtesy of
To be honest, I wasn't convinced of that at first. After an introductory sequence with teenagers sticking guns to their heads (and I'll talk about this later in the post, because it warrants further discussion), I was treated to a visual novel about some high school student's dull adventures on and off campus. You sit through lectures by self-absorbed teachers, listen to idle gossip from other students ("Ooh, senpai is so dreamy!" Oh, shut up...), and hang out at the mall. It's not exactly a white-knuckle thrill ride.

However, a funny thing happens a couple of hours after the game begins. You discover that there's a mysterious time just after midnight (no, not Fourth Meal), when dangerous shadows roam the city and most of the populace sleeps peacefully in coffins. You're one of the "lucky" ones who remains awake during the Dark Hour, which means it's your job to hunt down the creatures of the night with the aid of a ghostly partner called a Persona.

The combat system from the expanded
Playstation 2 version, Persona 3: FES.
(Image from
When the clock strikes twelve, the game leaves its high school baggage behind and becomes a Rogue-like, in the grand tradition of Gateway to Apshai, Fatal Labyrinth, and countless other dungeon crawlers. You and two similarly gifted friend climb the massive tower Tartarus, slaying shadows, discovering handy items inside suitcases, and ultimately finding the stairs leading to the next floor.

Enemies roam the tower, which you can either avoid or challenge in turn-based battles. You can sometimes take out your inky adversaries with ordinary attacks, but when swords and arrows can't do the job, you'll need a helping hand from your Persona. Just stick a gun to your temple and pull the trigger (really, I will cover this later) and an avenging spirit swoops down to make short work of your enemies. If you score a critical hit, you may even be able to team up with your friends for a cartoonish three-way smackdown, complete with dust clouds and enough onomatopoeia for a season of the old Batman television show.

As you'd expect, beating enemies earns your three ghost-busting teens experience points, which strengthen their abilities. However, you may also earn a tarot card which makes your Persona stronger, or an entirely new Persona which you can fuse with other spirits for a powerful hybrid. It's an involved process, and you'll likely be throwing together Personae in the Velvet Room for hours until you've discovered all one hundred and forty of them.

I... just don't see the need for this.
(Image courtesy of
Okay, I said I was going to come back to this at least two times already, so here goes. Persona 3 Portable is packed with imagery of teenagers pressing a gun to their foreheads and pulling the trigger, complete with neon polygons spraying out of the exit wound. This is, to borrow a phrase from about a million junior activists on Tumblr, gross. The developers tried to justify this by claiming the simulated suicides force the player to recognize the gravity of calling out their Personas. However, I suspect the game's young heroes would barely flinch after not-really blowing their brains out for the hundredth time, leading me to ask (again) if the oft-repeated imagery was really necessary. After all, Jotaro Kujo and his friends summoned their Stands just fine without fellating a firearm first. 

Even with that unwelcome touch and graphics that are starting to show the PSP's age, Persona 3 Portable is a great way to while away the dark hours of your own day. At five dollars, it's hard to resist, even if you're not especially eager to relive the high school drama of your teen years.

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