In its potent mix of dungeon crawling and daily life management, Persona 3 established the formula that Atlus' series is now so well known for. Originally a PS2 title from 2006, the role-playing game was re-released not once, but twice. Its first reincarnation was Persona 3 FES in 2007 — an expanded version with gameplay adjustments and new scenarios. Then, two years later, we got Persona 3 Portable — a noticeably reworked edition for the PSP.
Between FES and Portable, there isn't a definitive version of Persona 3. Both re-releases come with their own unique features, and fans have never quite been able to agree on which one is best. But it's Portable that Atlus has decided to revive on PS4 — pretty much a straight port of the PSP version, with a resolution boost and a couple of small additions (such as a quick save function, and adjustable difficulty settings).
Back in 2009, Portable's main selling point was its brand new inclusion of a female protagonist. When you start a new game, you can choose whether to follow the original route with the blue-haired, headphone-wearing male lead, or you can opt for the red-eyed newcomer. While the overarching plot remains largely the same across both paths, certain scenarios are changed slightly, and you're presented with different romance options.
However, in order to cram Persona 3 onto the PSP — complete with a second route — Atlus was forced to cut a lot of corners. Animated cutscenes were reduced to (now blurry) stills, while 3D character models (outside of combat) and explorable environments (outside of dungeons) were completely removed. Instead, Portable is presented in a visual novel style, with the whole story being told through 2D character portraits and text boxes, alongside static point-and-click maps.
If you happen to be jumping to this port from Persona 5, where character dialogue is pasted across immaculately directed scenes, you're in for a bit of a shock. There's no doubt that Portable's lack of animated character models in particular damages its ability to tell a truly gripping tale. There's only so much that drawn portraits and text descriptions of ongoing events can do.
You can understand why some fans still swear by Persona 3 FES, then, which suffers from none of the drawbacks associated with Portable. But Atlus has made its choice, and to be fair, Portable is still a fantastic game. The foreboding atmosphere that defines Persona 3 remains intact despite the presentational differences, and its streamlined structure does perhaps alleviate some of the title's more tedious elements.
As mentioned, Persona 3 is split between two core components: dungeon crawling, and social simulation. As a member of S.E.E.S. — the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad — you investigate the phenomenon known as the 'Dark Hour' while also trying to live a normal high school life as a new transfer student.
The Dark Hour is a hidden period of time that most people simply can't comprehend. Naturally, your character and his or her friends are able to exist within it, and it's here that you'll find Tartarus — a massive phantom tower that just so happens to appear in place of your school when the Dark Hour occurs. And, since you're able to wield a persona — a manifestation of your inner self — you can stand up to the monstrous shadows that inhabit Tartarus. It's all very convenient, but the game does a great job of gradually unravelling the causes and conspiracies behind the Dark Hour.
Gameplay-wise, Tartarus is a procedurally generated dungeon made up of hundreds of floors. Shadows become more dangerous as you climb, but portions of the tower are gated off until the main story hits specific beats. Persona 3 runs on a day-to-day calendar system, so you're always moving towards the next plot point — but this also means that your time is limited, and so it must be spent efficiently.
That sounds a little more threatening than it actually is, though. In reality, you've got more than enough time to do what needs to be done, and it's extremely difficult to muck things up beyond repair. In typical Persona fashion, the real difficulty comes from deciding what to do with your free time. Do you hang out with friends and develop your social links, consequently empowering the personas that you create, so that you're more powerful in battle? Or do you commit to clearing a few more floors in Tartarus, even though such an excursion will likely leave you exhausted for the next few days, limiting your availability?
This is where Persona 3 gets its hooks into you. There's always something that needs doing, and that something is almost always rewarding. While its successors built and expanded upon this now beloved gameplay loop, it's still an incredibly hard game to put down as the days pass by, and you see your social links, character levels, and persona compendium grow. The sense of progression is, as always, a major draw.
Exploring Tartarus can be a bit tedious, however. The act of grinding through this massive dungeon is addictive at first, but 40 hours later, you'll be wondering how much of it is left. The tower has randomised elements, like treasure chests and modifiers that can keep things interesting, but it won't be too long until you've seen them all — and then it's just a case of going through the motions.
The game's turn-based combat runs into a similar issue. Initially, battles are like intriguing little puzzles in which you try to discern the enemy's weak points and exploit them to maximum effect. But the system never really evolves beyond its premise, and if anything, later fights can just devolve into attrition as you chip away at the hefty health bars of powerful foes that no longer have set weaknesses.
But don't get us wrong — combat is still a highlight at its peak. Putting together a team of personas that can handle any situation — alongside your trusty party members — is a consistently engaging pursuit. Again, here in 2023, the battle mechanics can feel quite basic — and we suppose they are, compared to what Persona 5 brings to the table — but the joy of nailing weaknesses and forming a well-oiled shadow-slaying machine is alive and well in Persona 3.
Given that, at its core, Persona 3 Portable is a game from over 16 years ago, its rough edges are understandable — and for the most part, forgivable. Indeed, much of its aged design can be overlooked because of its simply superb tone. The game's got a brooding, horror-tinged atmosphere compared to what you'll find in Persona 4 or 5, with the Dark Hour at the heart of its ominous vibes. It's precisely the right amount of creepy.
Last but certainly not least, we need to give a special mention to the soundtrack, which is still phenomenal. Persona's music is crucial to the series, and Persona 3's grimy beats are a thing of beauty.
With its watered down presentation, Persona 3 Portable almost feels like an abridged version of the PS2 classic, but it's still well worth playing. A foreboding, ominous atmosphere sells the experience, while the gameplay loop remains as addictive as ever. If you're fairly new to Persona, or perhaps you started with Persona 5, you'll have to persist through some slightly dated design, but don't let that put you off. Persona 3 still stands as a brilliantly broody JRPG.