Awesome anime cover. It's also worth noting that the game includes a free soundtrack CD. Admittedly, most of the soundtrack is maddeningly repetitive, but it gradually wears you down to the point that you find yourself humming the tunes as you go about your day.
While Square-Enix may hold Japan's best recognized role-playing franchises, Atlus' Persona series, the most popular chapter of their Shin Megami Tensei multiverse, is the best example of the J-RPG genre, combining typical turn-based battling and world-saving with high-school dating and social drama. It's a recipe ripe for parody, but the two go together kind of like gin and tonic; a taste not everybody will appreciate, but those who do will keep on drinking till the wee hours of the morning. "So it's a game for alcoholics?" you ask, with a wry smile dripping down your face. "No smartass!" I exclaim, pounding my fist on the table. "It's a game about relationships! Whether or not relationships lead to drinking is up to you. Wino."
Persona is the most character driven series I've ever played. Not all of the characters tremendously deep, but conversing with characters and developing meaningful connections with them is the bread and butter of the series. Each potential character-relationship represents one of twelve tarot-card themed Arcana. Each of these arcana represents a division of supernatural entities called "Persona" that your characters can summon to magic and kick-ass in battle. In order to unlock more of these supernatural entities, you need to become closer to the people who represent that arcana. This little set up is referred to as the social link system, and it transforms socializing into an essential aspect of developing your character, which is really quite poetic when you think about it.
Unlike the one-shot character quests that are typical to Bioware RPGs (IE; Mass Effect 2's Loyalty Missions), you establish relationships with other characters in Persona over a period of months. Both titles gradually occur over the course of an academic school year, and each character you can hang out with has their own weekly schedule. Budgeting your time to try and fit everyone in is a huge part of the game. Word to the wise? On your first play-through, don't try to max out every social link, even if you have a guide. There are just too damn many things to keep track of, and it can turn the gameplay into a chore. Completionists need not fear, both games have New Game+ systems that will let you carry over your social link progress from prior attempts, (Though to get one special persona in P3, you really do have to max everything and everybody on your first time through. Much luck).The number of embedded narratives packed into this game are staggering, and while a few characters are obnoxious (Kenji and Bebe from P3, Ai from P4) most of them are quite likable and some are very endearing (if you feel nothing for P4's Nanako you have no soul).
The thing that I would love to see other games emulate is the gradual sense of progress in forming character relationships. I'm not saying that every game should follow Persona's daily routine model (which is not without it's faults), but the emphasis on communicating with characters' and tactfully solving their problems with something other than gunfire, magic and martial arts is incredibly refreshing. So yes, more of that please.
This is the recently released third version of Persona 3 and it is definitely the one you want to pick up; provided you have a PSP. It features two distinctive campaigns depending on which gender you pick as well as the expansion of the original game. The only thing sacrificed are moving character sprites as you walk around school and the mall.
At the same time, it would awesome to see Persona take a page from Mass Effect 2's book where dialogue interaction is concerned. Most conversations essentially boil down to you picking among three or four dialog options in hopes of making the person you're talking to like you better. I think it would be awesome to have a few social links where you debate, argue, or even mock people instead of acting nice all the goddamn time. I don't want to see a Paragon/Renegade dialectic, but I do want a few more 'colorful' dialog and interaction options. There are several cases where the game gives you the option to be a complete ass, but you find yourself playing nice to advance the link, which really feels like a missed opportunity for fun and diversity.
This brings me to my biggest complaint about Persona, which is that while the games are supposedly about developing your individual character, the narrative skews towards repression and conformity at every turn. They are about being successful and popular in high school. P4 even defines a Persona as "The mask used to overcome life's hardships." All the while, I can't help but wonder, "why wear a mask at all?" Yes, there are certain times in life where you need to put on a pretty face and say the nice thing instead of the true thing. Most of us get our fill of that in real-life. One of the great joys of playing videogames is that they let you break free from all the rules and complications of real life. There has to be some middle ground between overcoming every obstacle with superior firepower and being a model student. The shonen trope of "fighting to protect my nakama" comes on really strong and runs very thick in both P3 and P4.
Another aspect of Perona's social link system that could use some work is having relationships affect the course of the story in more profound ways. Right now, both games have been arranged so you can be everybody's best friend if you play your cards right. I think it would be cool if being a friend to some people meant getting shit-listed by others, as that's how things tend to work out in real life. It may not please perfectionists, but it would greatly increase the game's replay value.
Speaking of value, it's a tough call as to which game is the better experience. Persona 3 Portable is the third version of Persona 3 Atlus has released, and each iteration has added hours of play time to an already considerable quest. In terms of tone, P3 is the more serious narrative. The characters are chiefly concerned with discovering the secrets behind mysterious monsters called Shadows that emerge during 'the dark hour', a hidden hour of the day that appears at midnight when most of the worlds inhabitants turn into coffins. Persona 4 is set in the same universe, though the narratives don't noticeably overlap. Persona 4's main story , has the main characters wandering into strange worlds through the television to solve a string of bizarre murders in the rural town of Inaba and it features a giant stuffed mascot character. So.. its a little harder to swallow in terms of seriousness. That said, I found the characters to be generally much more interesting and likable than P3's cast. Honestly, both titles are worth playing, but if you're having trouble deciding, go with P3P. It's always possible Atlus will make a portable version of P4.
All in all, Persona is weird little series (like the vast majority of titles from the Shin Megami Tensei brand), but it is extremely engrossing and it has a lot of charm. If you're a fan of Japanese videogames (particularly RPGs and Dating Sims), I can't recommend it highly enough.