What happens to a game when it is remade? Does it become obsolete or does it keep some merit? That is a question that Persona 3 in particular had to face a couple of times. One year after its original launch on the PlayStation 2, Persona 3 FES released to expand on its foundations. In 2009, Persona 3 Portable was released on the PlayStation Portable, which was later made more accessible through a port to modern platforms, like the Switch. However, its time as the definitive way to play this classic is coming to an end next February. Persona 3 Reload seems to improve upon the base game in every way.
However, this isn’t to say that Persona 3 Portable is worthless, as there are still many reasons to play this version over the shiny new remake. For starters, P3P’s exclusive content, namely the female main character, will seemingly not be available. Also, Reload will cost a full 70 dollars, so Portable’s measly 20 may be enticing for gamers on a budget. Lastly, the remake won’t be available on the Switch. As such, Persona 3 Portable won’t become a worthless game. But is it worth a try to begin with? Take a deep breath and get ready to find out.
Unbeknownst to most of humanity, there exists an extra hour between one day and the next: the Dark Hour. At this time, Shadows roam the city and normal humans transform into coffins. Only Persona users and those with the potential to become one can stay human during the Dark Hour. When you, the protagonist, move into a new dorm, you find out that your dorm mates are Persona users. They are members of SEES: an organization made to fight the Shadows and end the Dark Hour. After awakening to your own Persona, you join this group and set out to scale the mysterious tower of Tartarus to protect the city and the world.
Persona 3 tells an incredibly thematically rich story about life and death, offering the player many intriguing questions and lessons. The game’s strong theming and ambiance are undoubtedly the story’s highlight. However, the story isn’t perfect. The characters were a hit or miss for me: some were amazing, and others didn’t get the development they deserved. Among the latter group is the main human antagonist group: Strega. Aside from Chidori, they barely got any focus. It doesn’t help that their boss fights are pathetically easy. Lastly, there are plenty of empty moments during the early parts of the game. You’ll often just wait around until the next full moon, with little story to tie you over. But when the story does get going, it sets up an amazing finale.
When Persona 3 introduced social elements to this RPG series, there was no going back. Being a high school student by day and a monster-slaying hero by night became the series’ key feature. While the balance between these halves wasn’t perfect from the get-go, this duality still engages players while showing room to grow in the future.
During the afternoons, you’ll be improving your social stats and hanging out with Social Links, and by night you can enter the tower of Tartarus. Every month you unlock a new block to explore, and you’ll be training against Shadows in turn-based combat. You don’t have a deadline, but every full moon you have a boss, and if you can clear the current Tartarus block, you’ll be ready for the fight.
Persona 3 made the series’ staple combat system to the way we know and love it. The objective in every battle is to use your Personas and hit the Shadow’s weakness to earn 1 more turn. This version of Persona 3 made tons of changes to the original combat system, most notably the ability to directly control your party members’ actions. While the Tactics system was a big part of P3’s identity, I doubt that having the ability to choose is a big issue for many. As the game was designed with the original system in mind, Persona 3 Portable with party command is not a difficult game.
It is, however, a grindy game. I found myself having to go back and redo a couple of floors because my levels were too low. Unfortunately, backup party members don’t earn EXP, so you don’t have much team flexibility unless you want to grind. This could be particularly annoying as you are locked out of using certain party members during certain Full Moon operations.
Another series tradition started by P3 is the protagonist’s wild card ability: the ability to hold multiple Personas. New ones are obtained during the Shuffle Time minigame, which occurs after some battles. You can get extra rewards like extra EXP, money, Personas, or weapons by picking the right card after they were shuffled. But if you want better Personas, you need to fuse them in the Velvet Room. You combine 2 or more to get a new one which can inherit skills from the originals. One disadvantage of this system is that you cannot manually select which moves you want to inherit, it’s all random. If you want your new Persona to have a specific set of moves, you need to reselect the fusion again and again until you have what you want, which can be tedious.
Tartarus is the only real dungeon in the game, and unfortunately, it is a boring one. Every month, a new area will be available to explore, and a total of 6 blocks will be available. Each has a unique visual and audial appearance, though the song in each block feels more like a remix of the first track. The gameplay also has little variation. Each floor, save for the boss arenas, is randomly generated, and the only change between blocks is often differently shaped ramps in some rooms.
You technically don’t need to clear every section of Tartarus as it becomes available. All you need to do is be ready for every Full Moon boss, and have completed Tartarus by the end. If you have beaten all available Tartarus floors, it indicates you are ready for the next full moon. This is made clear by the fact that the Tartarus bosses are harder than the story bosses. The former category is prone to use dirty tactics you’ll need to circumvent with your own, like the infamous Sleeping Table. The Full Moon bosses do have fun gimmicks for the most part, but the only challenge comes from how some are just damage sponges. The Strega boss fights don’t even have that going for them, they’re pathetically easy.
Divide and Conquer
One unique feature in this game is the ability to split your party up to more easily scan and loot a floor, but I’ve found it to be more trouble than it is worth. If a party member finds the stairs while someone else is still in combat, you cannot progress unless you leave them behind. I also found them quite unreliable when they had to fight on their own. Even if you’re grouped up this system can be a hassle. When you’re running through a floor, it is possible that someone lags behind, making it so they’re not close enough to engage in battles with you. It is really annoying to enter a battle and find that one party member is suddenly absent.
Social Links are the major series innovation introduced in P3, and as you might expect, they didn’t fully perfect it in their first iteration. The general concept is great though: hanging out with people and getting to know them increases your bond, granting you extra EXP while fusing. In general, I’ve found the roster of friends to hang out with a mixed bag. There are certainly some amazing Links, like the Sun or the Emperor, but also some letdowns. No, I do not want to encourage a classmate to date a teacher, nor do I want to pardon someone who scammed multiple people.
As mentioned earlier, in this game you can play as either a male or female protagonist. This has a massive influence on the roster of Social Links, and this leaves the female main character as the better choice in my opinion. Namely, her route fixed 2 big issues with the male’s roster of social links. The first issue is the lack of Social Links for the male members of SEES. While I wouldn’t say they had bad arcs in the story, a Social Link would have done so much for their development. Because for some reason, the male protagonist only wants to hang out with his female dormmates.
This leaves us with the second issue: forced romance. When getting to a certain rank with some female characters, you are locked into a relationship. And if you reach rank 10 with her, you are automatically a couple, without the ability to stay platonic. If you want to complete as many Links as possible, you’ll find yourself with multiple girlfriends. You don’t get any punishment for going on the harem route (aside from one small scene in September), but it still felt quite uncomfortable to me.
Two of the girls I romanced were Yukari and Yuko, and for both, I felt like their Links were too forced on their romance rather than themselves. Luckily, the female protagonist is allowed to hang out with the SEES guys, and she is actually able to put someone in the friend zone. Unless you want to self-insert as a harem king, I would recommend playing as the female protagonist.
This is an area in which Persona should shine, but this version is still limited by the original console. Because of the PSP’s limitations, there are no 3D models in the overworld, instead opting to go for a visual-novel format for cutscenes. It’s not a bad way to experience the story, but it does hinder the immersion somewhat. There are no animated cutscenes (save for the opening) in this game either, so we’re missing out on some animated SEES goodness. Additionally, the backgrounds in the human world were upscaled using AI for the port, meaning that they’re not really lookers.
Even when limited by the hardware, Persona will always excel in its music. From environmental tracks to exciting battle themes, Persona 3 features many amazing and iconic tunes to enjoy the changing seasons or the mass destruction.
Persona 3 Portable is a flawed way to experience an amazing game. Some outdated mechanics and the original platform limit the potential this great story offers. Forced romance, a boring dungeon, lacking visual presentation, etc. hold the game back. This would still be the definite and most accessible version of this classic if it wasn’t for Persona 5 Reload. This remake is looking better and better with every announcement, making Persona 3 Portable hard to justify in comparison. Personally, I’d recommend waiting for the remake next winter. But if your Nintendo Switch is your only console, or you are short on cash, Persona 3 Portable is still an enjoyable experience.
Persona 3 Portable gets a 7/10.