RNG meets Rock, Paper, Scissors
For the month of May this year, I played through Persona 3 Portable. I've previously played a portion of it, and played all of Persona 4 Golden so I went in thinking I'd really enjoy the experience. I had pretty high expectations going in, so I'm not surprised that I'm disappointed, but overall it was a good game. Just not quite what I wanted from it.
As the protagonist you are an orphan who has just moved to a new school. You're temporarily placed in a specific dorm where you meet your first few team mates. All of your team mates help to tell a story that covers some pretty dark themes such as suicide and general apathy. To go along with these dark themes, the interface is extremely dark, and the game doesn't do much to try and help the player deal with these themes.
In Persona games, one of the big mechanics are the social links (S.Links). These are basically a level from 0 to 10 that affects how much bonus experience a persona gains during fusion. You gain these levels by interacting with specific characters. It's sort of a cool system, and where you get a lot of the information about each of the different characters. My biggest issue with it is there's a correct answer to each of the questions. It's not really meant for you to answer and build your character, just to get the correct answer to gain the levels faster. It's more about knowing the character you're talking with, not about knowing your own character.
Visiting with different characters is one of the many ways that causes time to pass. Some of these S.Links are joining with clubs such as the track team or the music club. After time has passed you end up back in the dorm, where often your character is berated for spending time away from the dorm, which is super frustrating. Just because we're saving the world doesn't mean we can't also have friends. The other frustrating part about this is when it lines up with a day that one of your team mates is going out at night. One night I had a character asking where I had been, then seconds later said he was going out for the night.
The dungeon portion of the game is one large tower, the Tarterus. Your task is to climb to the top, floor by floor. You have to explore procedurally generated floors to find the stairs and move on. Each floor also has randomly placed chests. Once you find the stairs you have to decide if it's worth it to go find the rest of the chests or just move on, as you'll have to make your way back to the stairs to move on.
The tower itself is broken down into shorter sections and once you reach the end of the section for that time period, you're blocked until that set of time is over. Most likely because of the fact that you can easily reach the top of a section in a single day, there's an annoying mechanic where random people can wander into the Tarterus. You have until the next section opens up in order to save them, which gives you a bonus amount of money or item. The biggest problem, is that even though the game makes it seem like you have to save these people before the time is up, there's no penalty for not saving them. Instead it becomes a question of how badly do you want that bonus?
After completing a section of the Tarterus, the next section is a lot more difficult than the previous. Instead of having a ramp up for the difficulty where you could easily farm your way up to the next section, it was more like a ginormous step. The experience payout in the game is abysmally low throughout the entire thing unless you get a specific card during the shuffle time mini game after each battle.
The UI during combat could also greatly be improved. Instead of your normal list of options there's a circle showing each thing you can do. While it's a nice change of pace, the direction is confusing. Using right and left work exactly the direction I think they would, but up and down go the opposite way. And pretty much the first time I picked up the game after even just a few hours of not gaming I had forgotten that. The health bars for enemies is also a little weird. It seems to be a different health amount based on the angle that you're looking at an enemy from, and the angle you look at the enemy from is controlled by which characters turn it is, since your characters surround the enemies.
The combat is also a little weird. There's no real reason to use physical attacks on almost any of the regular enemies. Unless that enemy is specifically weak to physical attacks, a magical attack is going to do more damage. But then you get to the bosses and mini bosses and that's not the case. Most of them you can't use magical attacks at all as they'll heal them, reflect back at you, or just not do any damage. Because of these systems you have to learn the rock, paper, scissors of each enemy, and then remember it until you get your scanning persona's level high enough that you can look it up after scanning. Until then you also run into the fact that each variation of an enemy can be strong or weak to completely different elements.
Sometimes after a battle, a mini game called shuffle time occurs. In this mini game 3-7 cards appear that can each do different things. You can get some extra health or experience, or even new personas. Until you've played around with it a little bit though you won't know what the different cards do. The biggest issue is you can't always count on the card to do exactly what you think it will. Sometimes the wand card (an experience boost) will actually just give your currently equipped persona a boost to one of it's stats. The cards can also occasionally be cursed which will bring the death character closer to you.
Death appears normally when you've spent too long on a single floor of the Tarterus, but other random events, such as the shuffle time, can bring him closer to you as well. Death is an encounter that until the very end of the game you have no chance of winning against.
Another way that you can gather bonus items and money is through quests. Some of them you have a specific time limit and others you have until the end of the game to complete. And while some of these quests can be a pain, they can also be very worth it and give some of the best equipment in the game.
As much as there are many different parts of the game that could have been done better, I overall enjoyed it. The game leaves room for improvement and the Persona team at Atlus have recognized that that exists and improved upon many of the different systems in the next game. They also have a wonderful sound track that makes it difficult to be truly mad about any of the flawed systems and makes me want a Persona 3 rhythm game in a similar fashion to Persona 4 Dancing All Night.
For the month of June I'll be playing Zero Time Dilemma. This is the third game in the Zero Escape Trilogy, a series of games that cover some pretty deep theories and has a visual novel meets escape the room game play style.