When considering the intense milkings of Persona 4 and Persona 5, Persona 3 has always been left in a somewhat awkward spot. Unlike the nonexistent Persona 1 and Persona 2 entries, Persona 3 representation would occur via the Arena and Dancing spinoffs. However, no native modern port of any Persona 3 iteration would ever release until now. Thankfully, fans, new and old, can now finally experience Persona 3 on all current platforms, except there are caveats that require necessary elucidation to emphasize the divisiveness of this launch.
There are three versions of Persona 3: the original PlayStation 2 release, FES, which enhanced the base game and added a playable epilogue titled The Answer, and the PSP launch, Persona 3 Portable. The iteration we have received is the lattermost, which has its pros and cons. Regarding the former, the general improvements are the option to directly control party members (previous releases had party members solely AI-controlled), a selectable female protagonist who alters numerous facets, and many refinements, including challenging post-game-esque content.
When only considering the gameplay aspects of Portable, it seems like the undeniable definitive version of the title. Unfortunately, its cons can be perceived as pretty severe. But we’ll dive into those later. For now, let’s begin this review proper. Persona 3 Portable follows the nameable protagonist as they transfer to Tatsumi Port Island and attend Gekkoukan High School. The opening moments of their arrival clearly illustrate that something is amiss, with countless coffins and an eerily viridescent sky as far as the eye can see.
This phenomenon, the Dark Hour, transforms the world into this nightmarish state, and it occurs during a hidden passage of time at midnight, only observable by select individuals. After a particularly ghastly awakening, the protagonist discovers that they, and their dormmates, are distinct aberrations of potential, Persona users. With this ability to utilize physical manifestations of one’s inner self, the school club of S.E.E.S. seeks to traverse the tower their school becomes during the Dark Hour, Tartarus, and ultimately banish this veiled hour for good.
Persona 3 is the first entry to use the systems that would become the norm for the series, such as Social Links. As a result, those familiar with Persona 4 and Persona 5 will feel pretty at home here. Spending days heightening social stats, bonding with specific characters, and fusing Personas comprise most non-combat activities. However, story-wise, the pacing picks up far more in the second third, necessitating expected patience from players.
As unpopular of an opinion as this may be, the Persona 3 cast is probably my favorite of the modern-era games because their depicted growth and lives aren’t closely dependent on the protagonist’s interactions. Of course, it’s solely a subjective take, but at the very least, fans of the newer games will witness a considerably disparate writing approach.
Although, it’s worth noting that the protagonists’ routes are unique in significant ways, like their Social Links and battle themes differing. These alterations were the crux of the original Portable release, as they allowed veterans and newcomers to experience the title.
Fans can replay the game as the girl for fresh perspectives, while new players could choose either protagonist. Granted, the writing quality of the male protagonist’s Social Links is lacking in some areas, likely due to the initial executions. In contrast, I find the female protagonist’s unique Social Links generally stronger, with more endearing and entertaining dynamics.
Outside of the slice-of-life tasks, Portable primarily has players ascend Tartarus in between each arrival of each Full Moon. It’s self-explanatory, and the combat system is simple to grasp with elemental affinities, buffs, debuffs, and the series’ familiar ‘1 More’ mechanic, all coalescing during encounters.
The main character is the only member able to use multiple Personas, with new ones earned via card shuffles from battle conclusions or fusions. Further, the locale where the latter is performed, the Velvet Room, has an attendant who comprises the Quest system. Many valuable rewards and an abundance of currency are obtained by completing these tasks, so they’re usually worthwhile.
One of the classic yet understandable gripes regarding Persona 3’s gameplay is that Tartarus isn’t an exciting area to explore. Aside from physical design alterations across each Block, traversing every floor feels identical, leading to potential monotony, especially in scenarios where players reside in Tartarus for multiple hours. And admittedly, while I do prefer the dungeon implementations of Persona 4 and Persona 5, the continual and gradual climbing of Tartarus grants a merged sense of character and gameplay growth that makes it worthwhile.
This shouldn’t be a surprise given this series’ history, but the soundtrack is superb with catchy omnipresent battle themes that never grow dull and standout town tracks. As for performance, the title runs perfectly fine, both docked and undocked, so there’s no need for concern on any of those fronts.
Moving on, the initial PSP platform choice did cause a few significant compromises that affect these current ports, two of which being that the animated cutscenes from the PlayStation 2 releases were removed, and the walkable town exploration was replaced by an overhead, cursor-driven view. While these exclusions may seem trivial at first thought or glance, they mar the distinct identity and presentation Persona 3 once had.
Several replaced character and narrative-driven animated scenes suffer from massively diminished impact, with static images alone doing less than favorable jobs. Further, the cursor perspective utilized throughout the daily life of Tatsumi Port Island makes players detached and less affixed to the setting, creating a hampered emotional connection. The epilogue from Persona 3 FES, The Answer, was also excluded from this version. Despite the mixed reception that story had, it did not detract from the quality of the original narrative, so it’s a bit of a saddening net loss.
Essentially, this collective port of Persona 3 Portable is mostly a straight-up carry-over with no new content, save for players now able to alter difficulty options in the middle of the game at their leisure, akin to how Persona 4 Golden implemented such features. Quick saving has also been added for greater convenience. Additionally, French, Italian, German, Spanish, and Simplified Chinese subtitles are present, so this is by far the most accessible launch of the title.
Still, oddly enough, some quality-of-life additions I expected are not present, like manual skill selection transference during Persona fusion. While not a game-ruiner since it only consumes time on the player’s end, Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster incorporated this option via a patch, so it’s surprising not to see it here from the get-go. Likewise, the Persona Compendium still being introduced later than it should be is also quite unfortunate.
Persona 3 Portable is an entry I have difficulty recommending to prospective new players. For fans experienced with any iteration of Persona 3, this port is worth picking up simply because it is not stuck on older hardware. However, those unfamiliar with the title should carefully consider the pros and cons of this release before purchasing since this is not a definitive version.
The mitigated presentation and tone of Portable don’t paint an accurate picture of its identity. But it’s nice to see it around, and the gameplay here is the best of any of the releases. Persona 3 is my favorite franchise entry, yet its lack of a definitive version has always been frustrating, with this release now causing those emotions to resurge. Hopefully, it will receive that treatment one day. Yet, for now, it’s at least possible to officially play it on newer platforms.
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