After 90 hours spread out over five months, I finally finished Persona 3 Portable yesterday. It’s the fifth Shin Megami Tensei game I’ve completed (along with Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga I and II, and Strange Journey), and also, I think, the strangest.
I bought the original Persona 3 for the PS2 back when it came out, but didn’t get along with it because I hate RPGs in which characters in my party are AI-controlled. I’ve almost never played a game in which an AI-controlled partner is a net benefit—if the AI is not as skilled as a human, then the player gets frustrated at its stupid mistakes, and if it’s as good or better than a human, I ask myself why I’m playing the game anyway, when the AI could handle it and leave me free to do something else. P3’s friendly AI was notorious for being on the dimmer side (image is perhaps not safe for work), but since the PSP version rectified that by letting the player control all the characters, as well as letting me play while lying in bed or riding on a train, I decided to give it a try.
The combination of dungeon crawler and high-school dating sim is nutty, but it works, and much of the high school stuff is well written–the characters are easy to get attached to, and even though some of them are morally ambiguous or flat out unlikeable, you want their lives to turn out okay. In the dungeon-crawling half of the game, the fusion of demons in order to create new ones is addictive and fun, as it always is in Shin Megami Tensei games. The integration of the two halves of the game (making social connections in the school results in statistical bonuses in the dungeons, and items found in the dungeons can be given as gifts in the school) is one of those oddball, genius ideas that keep me coming back to SMT games, even though after I finish each one I generally say I’m never going to play one again.
This is because SMT games always seem to me to be about ten hours longer than they need to, and it’s always the last ten hours that could stand to be dispensed with. The final bosses (and P3P’s boss is no exception) tend to be extremely difficult—not because it’s particularly hard to outwit them, but because there’s such a statistical jump between the boss just before the last and the final boss itself that I usually have to spend a few hours wandering around the most dangerous parts of a dungeon, grinding experience by repeatedly fighting the same battles against the same enemies. The end of an SMT game always feels more like work than play to me. But that’s part of the series’ tradition.
It’s not much of a spoiler—and indeed, it would have been nice to know this going in, since I would have gotten to bed on time last night—that the final boss of Persona 3 can take 60-90 minutes to beat. But the strategy for beating the final boss is easy, and relies entirely on common sense and sufficient preparation—an array of buff and debuff spells, a few more spells to ward off status effects and ailments, and a couple of the most valuable healing items can pretty much guarantee a win. The only reason the final boss is hard is because it has what must be tens of thousands of hit points, and so you end up grinding away at it, round after round after round. It’s like a final exam that poses the same question two hundred times when once would be enough.
But are 10 grindy hours enough to take the shine off 80 hours of pleasure? No—except for Nocturne, this is my favorite SMT game, and all of the SMT games are among my favorite turn-based RPGs. I can see myself going through it again with the female protagonist, even if I end up fighting dungeon battles while talking on the phone with someone. And I’ve got Persona 4 sitting on my shelf in its wrapper (as well as Devil Survivor for the DS), so SMT is probably going to get more attention from me sometime soon, one way or another.