Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Retrospective JRPG Countdown: #10- Persona 3 Portable

The first time I played Persona 3 (Portable, mind you) we were not fast friends. My sister and I were visiting our aunt for the weekend, and the three of us had gone out to dinner with a post-food trip to the mall planned. While the two women ran off to I don't even know where (a craft store? clothes..shop?) I spied what I think was a Babbage's (whaaat!?) or at least a similar store that had been installed in the hollowed, decaying remains of what had once been a Babbage's. Harkening back to my youth when I had often visited such stores in search of things like imported Pokemon toys, I decided that I absolutely had to step inside and have a look around.

It was about what I expected. The standard supply of game-store games lined the walls, with advertisements here and there for all the hot major releases. I must have had some extra cash lining my pockets, because I was definitely in the mood to buy a game...an affliction I often come across when presented with any multimedia store while on a trip. I had my PSP with me back at my aunt's house, so that was the logical way to go...I wouldn't get much immediate use out of a PS3 game, would I? I scanned through the PSP shelves (which were naturally somewhat sparse, because PSP games aren't real) and eventually my wandering eyes came to rest on the beautiful art of the Persona 3 Portable box. 

 Not the boxart, but still cool looking.

My friend and most trusted RPG advisor Daniel had constantly badgered me over the years to get into the Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) series, forever proclaiming their wonders from on high, but I had never really given any of the games serious consideration...much less an actual chance. Having been weaned on the Playstation Final Fantasy games, and groomed on SNES classics like Chrono Trigger, the Mana series, and *swoon* Tales of Phantasia, I found the lack of graphical flair and any discernible art style to be off-putting in most SMT games. Plus, I once watched a high school friend play SMT: Nocturne some years earlier and thought it looked like the most soul-crushingly boring game I had ever seen. That's not even mentioning that the Protagonist (the Demi-fiend?) is just stupid looking. The hell are with those shoes?

                                                               Seriously, what a goon.

Anyway, I had recently been told how great Persona 3 was, and between that, the beautiful box art, and the stellar opening theme, I decided to give the game a purchase and subsequent try.

It really is a cool song.

That night I returned to my Aunt's and popped the game into my PSP, eager to experience and explore a new world of JRPG wonder. Instead I found myself navigating what felt like endless menus and engaging in non-stop simulation game conversations before I was finally allowed to hit Tartarus, the main (and only) dungeon of the game. Long story short I think I made it to the second block of Tartarus before one way or another dying, getting frustrated, and deciding I didn't quite enjoy the game at all.

It would take me years before I was finally willing to give the game another chance. Just this past January I found myself desiring to play through a PSP RPG yet again, and having just completed the PSP port of Final Fantasy IV I had run out of options until my copy of FF1 arrived in the mail. Thinking back to that catchy opening song from Persona 3, I thought it wouldn't hurt to kill a few hours and start a new save file.

I'm so glad I did. For all of its flaws and undesirable quirks, Persona 3 Portable was a wonderful game to play and defeat, and has almost single-handedly revived my interest in the entire JRPG subgenre. It's highly unlikely I would even be working on this series of blogs had I not become so engrossed in this game and its little universe.

Very little.

P3(P) isn't for everyone. The parent SMT series isn't, either. But if it was I don't know that it would feel half as special as it ends up being. The game more or less thrusts you into the starring role of your own personal "Ordinary High School Student" anime where you get to relive all the best parts of teenage education while beating the piss out of some variety of monster and saving the world in your spare time. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. That's what Persona 3 (and 4, as far as I've seen) are doing, and it does it very well.

This simulation of sorts winds up fully immersing the player into the game in a way few other games I've played seem able to do. At first, managing the Protagonist's schedule and free time can feel foreign and a little bit daunting. It did for me, anyway. On my first playthrough I felt overwhelmed by all the locations to go, people to talk to, and things to level up. There are social stats (Academics, Courage, and Intelligence), Social Links, Personas, actual characters....I guess that's all. But my first playthrough I had almost no clue what any of this stuff was for. I didn't know what to do or when to do it. This ended with me going to the Wild Duck Burger every day after school in a mad attempt to level my Courage for some reason.

On my second attempt at the game I took things easy, paid attention to what was being told to me, and went back to my RPG roots of exploring and experimenting. Before long I was joining clubs and making friends everywhere I went. And it was fun! When half of the game consists of interacting with almost ordinary characters in this familiar, real-world environment, it gives the game a massive opportunity to flesh out these relationships in a way most other JRPGs don't.

Usually, all of your interactions with party members are limited to the direct events of the game's story and the battles being fought. This is all well and good, and plenty of spectacular casts have been built on less, but getting to see these characters in their everyday lives added a whole new layer of affection for me. These little hand-drawn portraits weren't just my comrades in arms (or the tools through which I murdered countless Shadows), they were my friends. I lived with them, went to school with them, ate countless meals with them, saw movies with them. We even ended up getting a fucking DOG! And those were just the dorm mates/party members! You make dozens more friends in and out of school, and help each of them work through some challenging hurdle in their lives; whether its your Track teammate with his busted knee or your goofy girl-crazy classmate who has his heart broken by a teacher. Social Links were quite possibly my favorite thing about the game, even if I failed to max them all out. For shame, I know.

 Yeah, my friends and I all own guns that we occasionally point at our heads.

Sadly, not everything about the characters was perfect for me (but is it ever?) A lot of character traits in your party members feel lifted directly from a book on anime tropes, and the extent to which the Protagonist is an all-perfect chosen one Messiah started to grate on me here and there. Sure, it's cool that I have a special power, and I know I'm making him be a nice, cool, funny guy...but does every single female I meet have to throw themselves at me before the game is over? Even the ones I've barely been nice to?

Likewise, the immersion into this everyday school life kind of hurt the overall story for me. When 29 days of the month are nothing but "Go to school, hang out with your friends, and fight monsters at night" it makes that remaining one day with real storyline (THE FULL MOOOOON) require a bit more than "A big monster attacks" to feel meaningful. It wasn't until after I defeated all of the full moon Shadows that the story started to pick up...which is about 6 or 7 months of school and Tartarus exploring, at least.

Then again, once things did kick into serious business high gear everything had a very cool air about it. Scaling Tartarus while racing against time to save the world really helped add a bit of weight to the randomized dungeon crawling, and the final month of the game is really just awesome all-around. It's hard to accurately explain how hype I was when January 31st rolled around. And that ending. So perfectly bittersweet.

Plus, it hurts a story when every scene of moving character models is replaced by portraits and dialogue boxes. I really want to go back and play the PS2 version just to see all the action for a change.

Speaking of the dungeon crawling, let's talk about the battle system and all that jazz, since it's technically what should matter most. To be frank, I think all of the gameplay systems surrounding battle and personas and equipment are both deceptively complex and shockingly simple at the same time. A big emphasis is put on fusing Personas to create new, stronger Personas, but I could probably count on my fingers and toes the number of times I went into any super serious Fusion Sessions. Most of the time I would just pop in to see if I could make any new combinations with what I had available, then leave. I think this is mostly because of how battles themselves work, especially since you can directly control the whole party in P3P (unlike the original P3).

Winning a battle, EVERY battle, for me came down to finding an opponent's weakness and spamming the living hell out of it until All-Out-Attacks finished things. If there was no discernible weakness it became super buff and debuff hour, and that was about it. For almost 70 hours. In ways this approach to combat is both amazing and terrible. Having to actually study the opponent, find what attacks work best, and then being appropriately awarded for doing so is wonderful. It makes combat feel a bit more cerebral and rewarding than just pressing attack until the beast rolls over dead. At the same time, though, things become a bit of a chore when you've engaged your 68th Shadow group with the same composition. Fire off a Mazio, trigger an AoA, collect your XP and gold, move on and do it again. There were times I almost wished the game had an option to let me skip normal battles while still collecting the XP, since there was no discernible way I could lose if I made the right move calls. And no, the "Rush" button didn't count.

While the idea of defeat is fresh in my mind, there were only maybe four times I actually lost in the whole game, and all of them were incredibly "cheap", usually the results of instant kill spells that somehow hit or sudden damage bursts I had no way of mitigating. Oh yeah, and I killed the last boss with an Armageddon item I didn't even remember I had until that turn. 9999 damage in a game where I scarcely broke 1000? Holy shit.

In the end though, P3P had a fun combat engine, and the skill system didn't require more thought and planning than it should have. Still, I can't imagine how annoying it must be to play when you have no real control over your allies. Yikes.

Persona 3 Portable is a flawed game. Heavily flawed. I don't know that I can stress that enough. But at the same time there's so much to love about it. In a strange way I think that makes it so much like the friendships it practically begs you to make...both in game and in your real life. Even with all the headaches or boring afternoons it might give you, it can still know how to show you a really good time. And I think that's a pretty cool parallel to draw, so we'll just end this there.

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