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Persona 3 Portable Review: The Wildest Card of All (PS4)

Persona 3 is now available on modern (and non-Sony) consoles for the very first time! This monumental RPG was the first Persona game to establish the template on which the series is now based. If you started the series with 5 (which based on its incredible sales figures is very likely), is it worth going back to play the game that started it all?

Persona 3 Portable Cover Image

Ah, Persona 3. The game that walked so Persona 4 could run, much like Persona 4 was the game that ran so Persona 5 could take off with the force of a supersonic jet. Persona 3 was a radical departure from what came before, a bold new vision for an RPG that really hasn’t been matched except by its own sequels. 

With Persona 5 being one of the most obscenely popular RPGs of recent memory, there’s no doubt a ravenous desire from many of the series’ new fans to go back to the game that started it all, and there’s no doubt a lot of pressure on it to live up to their wild expectations. There’s one massive flaw that hinders it from doing so, but there’s a lot to explain before we get there.

Persona 3 Portable costs $19.99 and is available now for Nintendo Switch, Steam,PlayStation 4,Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S

Persona 3 Portable - Official Launch Trailer

Story: A Matter of Death and Death

Persona 3 puts you in the role of a teenage boy (named Makoto Yuki canonically), moving to a new location to make new friends, improve yourself, and save the world from darkness. Your stomping ground this time around is Tatsumi Port Island. A bustling, lively metropolis, a place that is a shining beacon toward the future. But in this city, nothing is as it seems.

Every night, a terrifying phenomenon known as the Dark Hour occurs, where horrific beings known as Shadows roam the earth, and the local high school transforms into a gargantuan tower known as Tartarus, filled with nothing but an army of Shadows. Possessing the mysterious power of Persona, you get roped into the local high school’s Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (or SEES for short), and are tasked with investigating the Dark Hour and whatever lies at the top of Tartarus.

Persona 3’s central narrative, while still very well done, is something of a slow burn and definitely feels a little strange in comparison to what would come in the future. The main threat for most of the game, the Arcana Shadows, are just mindless monsters rather than the colorful eccentric villains the later games have. In addition, many story concepts that would become staples of the series, like shadow selves and mental world dungeons, are entirely absent. Furthermore, when the game’s final threat reveals itself, it becomes exceptionally bleak and depressing, one of the most depressing finales I’ve seen in a long time.

Against monsters like these, failure is not an option.

Against monsters like these, failure is not an option.

Boy or Girl?

Easily the biggest draw to Persona 3 Portable that makes it stand out is that, while the “canon” story follows Makoto’s path, Persona 3 Portable gives you the ability to ignore canon and play as a girl (named Kotone Shiomi canonically) instead. Unlike in most games, where the male and female protagonists provide a largely identical narrative experience, Persona 3 offers a wildly different experience depending on which protagonist you choose. While the game’s core narrative does remain the same between Makoto and Kotone, they both have wildly different interactions with their party members and friends, and thus, Makoto and Kotone have two distinct sets of Social Links, the special bonds with their friends from which they create their Personas.

Kotone’s unique Social Links are very well executed and easily justify two separate playthroughs. Kotone has several brand new Social Links and many of the ones that both she and Makoto share have been radically altered.

You are nothing without your friends.

You are nothing without your friends.

Take, for instance, the story of Fuuka Yamagishi. She’s the first in a long lineage of Persona characters that are comically inept when it comes to cooking, but unlike Persona 4, which ran the joke into the ground, Fuuka’s incompetence with cooking plays into her character arc. In Makoto’s incarnation of Fuuka’s Social Link, you discover that Fuuka doesn’t necessarily dislike cooking, but she’s forcing herself to learn how out of a desire to feel useful. Makoto helps her feel worthy regardless of her hobbies, with Fuuka eventually coming to love Makoto (whether the player wants her to or not).

Kotone’s version of Fuuka’s Social Link is much lighter and instead deals with helping Fuuka legitimately improve her cooking skills. You get a much more wholesome and different take on Fuuka’s character. Kotone is one of the best examples of adding content to a re-release I’ve seen. Her route is so good that if you’re doubling back from 5, I’d honestly recommend playing as her first. There are some oddities with how the game handles Makoto’s social links (the male party members have none for some baffling reason), but Kotone’s are structured how they’re supposed to be from 4 onwards. 

With cooking skills like hers, she doesn't need a weapon.

With cooking skills like hers, she doesn’t need a weapon.

Gameplay: Spend Your Time Wisely

Persona 3 definitely turned some heads when it debuted. The series had, up until that point, skewed much closer to its parent Shin Megami Tensei series, and Persona 1 and 2, aside from their contemporary real-world settings and heavy use of philosophy, were more traditional JRPGs.

Persona 3 was the first game to establish the template of splitting the game between real-world character interaction and RPG dungeon crawling that 4 and 5 would follow, and even on their first try with this system, they absolutely nailed it. Tatsumi Port Island is an interesting setting, the characters are likable and memorable, and the lore is fascinating. Even years after I first played the PSP version of Persona 3 Portable, I still remember so much of its cast and their struggles. 

Also debuting in this game is the new incarnation of the Velvet Room, where the lovely Elizabeth (or Theodore, who is new to Portable) assist you in crafting the right Personas for the right situations. They also offer sidequests for you to do, many of which have vague instructions and can only be done at extremely specific times. Furthermore, there’s no reminder system for them. I get what these were intended to do, but these could absolutely have been implemented in a better way.

I don't want to be the same as brain squid.

I don’t want to be the same as brain squid.

Tartarus Troubles

Something infinitely less memorable is the RPG dungeon-crawling side of the equation. Tartarus can be a massive slog to get through. Imagine Mementos from Persona 5, the randomly generated train world you went to in between all of the cool and interesting mental world dungeons. Tartarus is basically that, but there are no mental world dungeons.

Tartarus is the whole game. That is it. Tartarus is over 250 floors tall, with not nearly enough visual variety to justify its gargantuan size. There’s little character to Tartarus outside of its bizarre architecture. Even Mementos had more character, as all its various minibosses had names and backstories. Meanwhile, the minibosses in Tartarus are just more mindless monsters for you to kill.

The actual combat is still tense and exciting. It’s classic turn-based, monster-collecting goodness. The developers have learned a lot from 4 and 3’s other iterations, to craft the series’ most refined combat system up until that point. This is unmistakably the best incarnation of Persona 3 from a pure gameplay perspective. Everything is quick, snappy, and precise, as it should be because there are a lot of fights to be had. As is usually the case with Persona, expect an obscenely long game even by JRPG standards. My first playthrough long ago took me just shy of 70 hours.

Better get climbing...

Better get climbing…

Graphics and Audio: A FES-tival of Lights and Sounds

Persona 3 has had a very long and unnecessarily complex release history. It’s hard to give a full overview of the game’s presentation without understanding its multiple versions.

A Brief History of Persona 3 Releases

2006 marked the release of the original Persona 3 for the PlayStation 2, which had a proper 3D overworld and fully animated cutscenes. The following year, the game would receive an updated re-release, Persona 3 FES, that would include balance changes, various minor additions to the main game, and “The Answer”, a bonus story campaign. In 2009, one year after the release of Persona 4, Persona 3 would make its debut on the Playstation Portable, called Persona 3 Portable. 

Persona 3 Portable added Kotone’s route, a ton of balance changes, and manual party member control to make the gameplay more closely match Persona 4. But it also gutted the game in equal measure to compensate for the PSP’s technical limitations.

Like with these simplified 3D models for instance.

Like with these simplified 3D models for instance.

Persona 3 Portable for modern consoles is, outside of an increased display resolution and some minor quality-of-life tweaks, a one-to-one port of the PSP original. A modern port being identical to the original isn’t inherently a bad thing. But in the case of Persona 3 Portable, it means that the compromises needed to get the game running on the PSP originally are faithfully preserved, compromises that make their effects known the instant you start the game.

Portable Peril

Receiving the brunt of the changes is the game’s story, or how it’s told to be more precise. “The Answer” is missing entirely, and the rest of the game’s story is conveyed in a visual novel style instead of the more traditional 3D models and animated cutscenes of FES. The visual novel style isn’t necessarily bad on its own. But with the context of FES existing, the visual novel style is a definite downgrade from how that game told its story.

The visual novel style extends to navigating Tatsumi Port Island as well. You navigate the city with a cursor and menu navigation instead of FES giving you a proper 3D overworld. Again, Portable isn’t necessarily bad, but it feels like a better option was available and the team chose not to take it.

The story definitely is less impactful in Portable's visual novel style.

The story definitely is less impactful in Portable’s visual novel style.

The game in general doesn’t look great on a giant TV. One example of this is the game’s UI elements. It makes sense that the original version of Portable would have large UI elements to accommodate the PSP’s tiny screen. It makes significantly less sense when that giant HUD is intact even though the game is now played on much larger screens. They’ve also made heavy use of AI upscaling to compensate for the original low-resolution art assets, to less than stellar results. Playing the Switch version in handheld mode might alleviate some of these issues, but it’s still not a great-looking game.

One area of the presentation Portable didn’t screw up is the game’s soundtrack. All of Persona 3’s original music is here and accounted for, and Kotone even has a dozen or so brand-new songs exclusive to her route. Persona 3’s score was amazing as is, and Portable’s additions to it fit right in. The game’s songs are endlessly catchy and memorable. The music even fits into each protagonist’s character. Kotone’s music tends to be cheery and upbeat because she’s naturally a cheery and upbeat girl.

The pattern on the floor is a prime example of the AI upscaling going wonky.

The pattern on the floor is a prime example of the AI upscaling going wonky.

The debate Rages On

Portable was and still is not a definitive release of Persona 3. The fans will debate over whether it or FES is superior until the heat death of the universe. I understand why Atlus chose Portable to re-release, it is unquestionably a more comfortable play experience than FES. But one could easily make an argument that FES should have gotten a re-release instead. I can see some people getting upset at Portable’s neutered presentation, but if FES got re-released instead, its unrefined mechanics might also upset those same people. My response to this quandary is to ask Atlus why they’re still forcing people to make this choice.

Persona 3 Portable was reviewed on PlayStation 4.

My take is that neither Portable nor FES should have gotten a re-release. Instead, Atlus should have, using FES as a base, made one final, definitive, ultimate version of Persona 3 combining FES's presentation with Portable's balance changes and Kotone's route. It would have been more work, but everyone would be happy. But they didn't do that, and that's a massive disappointment. Persona 3 Portable is forced to carry forward onto modern platforms a compromised design made for a console that's nearly two decades old instead of blossoming into the masterpiece it has the potential to be.
  • Kotone's route is masterfully done
  • A great soundtrack, particularly Kotone's new music
  • Very refined combat
  • Memorable characters and a great story
  • Not being a fusion of FES and Portable is disappointing
  • Tartarus is a massive slog
  • Game looks strange on a big screen.

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