Persona fans are truly blessed to have Atlus bestowing so many old school titles upon them via modern console re-releases. We’ve gotten Persona 5 Royal, Persona 4 Golden, and now Persona 3 Portable readily available for audiences across all platforms to experience! One can dream that even the original Persona 1 or Persona 2 entries might get a remaster or hopefully a remake down the line. Vanilla Persona 3 released as Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 back in 2006 on the PlayStation 2, with an extended version titled Persona 3 FES in 2007. This particular modern re-release, Persona 3 Portable, is actually a reworked albeit abridged version of the PS2 title ported over to the PlayStation Portable in 2009. Confusing, I know.
If you’re familiar with this series of games you already know that Persona titles usually have a definitive edition come a few years after the original release, as is the case with Royal and Golden. Fun fact: Persona 3 is actually the first Persona title to feature an enhanced edition. So what’s going on with Persona 3 FES and Persona 3 Portable? Unfortunately there is no true definitive version of Persona 3, as both iterations of the game extend on different parts of the original. FES, derived from the word festival, adds a plethora of content to the base game with the inclusion of an additional chapter titled The Answer.
Portable, on the other hand, saw some major changes due to Atlus having to shrink the game down to fit onto the UMD discs for the PSP. Because of this, the game could be perceived to have received a downgrade of sorts. It replaces many 3D models with 2D illustrations and plays out more akin to a visual novel than a traditional JRPG. Exploration is done via point and click on static environmental assets. However, the main added content was the option to play as a female protagonist and the ability to control all party members in combat. It seems like a missed opportunity that this 2023 re-release of Portable does not include any content from FES as Atlus could have finally made a truly definitive version of Persona 3.
If you’re coming from Persona 4 or 5, you’ll notice Persona 3 takes a much darker and more depressing tone in its narrative presentation. Gameplay is still divided into slice-of-life social interactions and dungeon crawling. You attend school during the day and develop your social links while you investigate the Dark Hour every night as part of the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad, or SEES. The Dark Hour is an anomaly that occurs at midnight, but only select individuals are able to experience it, so consider yourself lucky, I guess? A massive tower, known as Tartarus, replaces your school during this hidden period of time, and it is up to you and your squad to wield the power of Personas to get rid of this cursed hour for good. The game does an excellent job with pacing as you slowly uncover the secrets and history behind the Dark Hour.
You’ll feel right at home if you previously played Persona 4 and 5, as Persona 3 is the first entry to introduce social links. The game uses a day to day calendar system, so your time is technically limited with what activities you choose to do. Should you spend the day hanging out with your friends to build up relationships and make better Persona fusions or should you enter the Tartarus to clear a few more dungeons? The satisfying gameplay loop and freedom of choice is what makes playing Persona 3 Portable so addicting. Keep in mind that the male and female protagonists feature various different social links and romance options. Combat follows in suit with typical turn based fashion, with your Personas doing most of the heavy lifting. The series’ signature “One More” attack mechanic of exploiting enemy weaknesses returns but the battle system doesn’t really evolve beyond that.
Poor dungeon and level design is something that older Persona titles suffer from, and Portable is no different. Tartarus is comprised of many floors that are procedurally generated that become progressively more challenging as you climb. Exploration isn’t exactly exciting when every floor looks the same, especially after grinding dungeon floors for dozens of hours. Sure you've got your treasure chests and dungeon modifiers but none of these make exploration any less lackluster. The shadows you meet in these dungeons also cannot be negotiated and recruited, so the obtaining of new Personas comes via other means. Persona 3 and 4 utilize something called Shuffle Time that allows you receive Personas among other rewards from a selection of cards. This mechanic appears randomly after battle encounters, which is where grinding dungeon encounters come in.
Persona 3 Portable is an old game and it definitely shows its age when viewed through the modern lens of gaming. But you have to understand that this is simply a re-release and not a brand new title. To have such a relic of a title hold up in this day and age is a feat of its own. The one aspect that I can always count on in Persona games to pass the test of time is its immaculate soundtrack. If you know me, then you would know how much music means to me and what an important role it plays in a video game. Even though Persona 3 takes a generally darker tone compared to its successors, the grimier beats definitely fit the tone of the narrative. They’re not all dark though and even feature some catchy standout tracks such as A Way of Life and Time.
Like the re-release of Persona 4 Golden, there is no native PlayStation 5 version of the game. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the PlayStation 4 version of the game, as it runs flawlessly at a stable frame rate and loads very quickly. That said, if you have access to an Xbox Series console or Nintendo Switch, it’s probably better to enjoy Persona 3 Portable on those platforms instead. Xbox Series consoles run the game up to 120 frames per second whereas the Switch benefits from the portability factor.
Persona 3 Portable is a nice reminder to see how far great JRPGs have come, but just because this game was released so long ago doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed today. Despite not containing any of the added content added in FES, Portable still brings a plethora of upgrades compared to the vanilla version with the additional character to play as. Yes there are many shortcomings as well such as removed cutscenes but all in all this remains a standout adventure worth embarking on.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.