I did not set out to buy Persona 3: Portable originally. I only had Persona 4: Golden on my list, as I remembered having played P3 in the past. Both were originally released on the PS2, which was right when I was starting to get enough money to buy my own games (even better, this was the height of used games, and I had a boatload of SNES games that I never played, granting me enough credit to literally get a PS2 and Final Fantasy X for free). I actually bought Persona 4 first, having found it shortly after its release. As a big fan of turn based RPGS (it was almost all I played back then), I was definitely excited.
I found P3: FES later, and this is definitely one of those series where the cracks and improvements show if you play them in reverse order. I found myself not liking the characters, story or setup as much in the prequel as the sequel, and that definitely colored my decision on whether or not to get the new rerelease on Switch. The fact that I’ve recently played and loved Persona 5 certainly also contributed to things. But P3 here was on sale for something like $14, and I knew it to be a meaty turn-based JRPG, and I’ve been in a mood for those lately (I have three Final Fantasy games played and ready for reviewing already!).
P3 tells the story of a new young person who moves into a mysterious set of dorms. There he meets a mixed handful of students who work with SEES; oh, I’m sorry, the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (not at all stretching for an acronym there). It’s revealed that there’s an additional hour between midnight and one, and during that hour shadows come out. These represent the dark parts of humanity, and they attack people while they sleep, causing issues, particularly something known as “apathy syndrome,” which pretty much does what it says.
Fortunately, some people have awakened to internal powers known as “persona” which allows them to fight back. Our main character finds him or herself caught out during the Midnight Hour, and awakens to their persona in a moderately violent manner (common with these games). They join SEES and thus the game really takes off from there.
Persona games are renown for going hard and mature with their plots. P3 attempts to emulate this, including such fun stuff as the “evokers” pictured above, which for some reason look like guns and require your characters to shoot themselves in the head every time they’re used. Well, just the human characters, the dog and robot don’t have to do that for some reason.
The story delves into mental health off and on, often focusing on people who know that their lives are limited. This is done brilliantly through a few characters, including one who forms one of the best romances I’ve ever seen in video games with another playable character. Often romances feel a bit shallow and/or sudden, seemingly forced on developers or perhaps left purposefully open to allow the player to choose their own preferred love interest (an unfortunate side effect of the dating in the later Persona 3 games). This romance happens between two other characters though, and it’s written beautifully. We watch it unfold from meet-cute to drastic decisions that really reflect growth in both characters.
The game actually excels in that regard. It legitimately feels like most of the characters go through hard won arcs, working on their personal flaws and fears throughout the course of the game. Some characters, particularly those that join you earlier in the game, are better written than others, but they still all come off as realistic portrayals of teenagers right on that cusp of adulthood. There’s a reason so many stories focus on that transitional time period, and Persona 3 does a great job encapsulating that (this is a common thing for these games though).
Unfortunately the overall plot isn’t quite as good. There’s a few too many attempts at being edgy, and it often feels like they brought in a thirteen year old to ask for advice. This includes the invokers, but also scenes like this:
It comes off as outright childish at times, which doesn’t gel with the excellent character work. Toning things down just a little, mostly in making the decision not to go for the extreme option every time it presents itself, would have helped considerably.
The moment to moment gameplay is… mixed. This is where the “portable” part starts to come into play. See, instead of getting the PS2 version or some newer remastered edition (like P4: Golden), this is a port of the game as it was ported down to one of the portable Sony handhelds. So we have these weird bits, like how there’s only moving your character around in the dungeon instead of the overhead map. Or how we get stills of what looks like active cutscenes like above. It just feels a little janky and uneven.
The social aspect of the game doesn’t really suffer all that much from this, admittedly. Much of that part of Persona 3 plays like a visual novel, with you reading large portions of text and making decisions based on what you think the characters you interact with would want to here (or how you’ve decided your protagonist is going to react). You’re given a set amount of days and a set amount of time within those days. Your goal is grow closer to various characters and level up social stats.
This version does let you play as a male or a female, and you may tell by the images, I technically played a little as both. I only played the male for a few hours before switching over. There’s unfortunately few non-hetero romance options available to either character, which is mostly a product of the time, though there are a few more if you elect the female character (hence part of the reason for my switching). In a nice twist, there are outright different social links for each, which encourages replay value, assuming you care about such things (and if you don’t, then you’re probably not that interested in Persona games).
This aspect does feel a bit pared down from the latter sequels, but the streamlined nature is in some ways enjoyable in and of itself. It lets you just enjoy the interactions and focus on characters that you’re interested in instead of shooting for particular abilities. Thanks to the decision to play the female character, I had all kinds of fun interactions, including building a support with the party’s dog member, a gruff male character who plays a central role to the plot, an interesting transfer student working for the library, and a volleyball star who’s struggling to realize her own growth. These were genuinely engaging, and I found myself interested in several of the personal stories, cheering at the smaller victories.
Unfortunately the dungeon crawling part of this game is notoriously awful.
Welcome to Tartarus, the aptly named randomly generated tower that you’ll be exploring for the entire game. You read that right. All your characters will do is climb this tower, which consists of the same setup of floors repeated over 250 times. There’s no new events that happen, nothing here that really breaks the utter monotony besides a few boss fights. It’s just going through the same repetitive areas again and again.
They do give you special events every month, which actually progress the plot. But these are often incredibly small areas, including one that is literally a train that you just move from back to front of. They feel undercooked, as does most of this section of the game. It’s what I dreaded when coming back to the game, and why I never finished the old PS2 version.
What will almost definitely keep me away, however, is the true final boss of the game.
I’m not a huge fan of the last dungeons of RPGs. They have this tendency to be lengthy slogs through uninteresting dungeon designs that are either constant trials or far too easy. Generally by that point in the game your characters have unlocked most of their best abilities and most powerful attacks, making the game a matter of selecting whatever is going to annihilate, taking most of the fun out of things. If there is a final boss, it’s either one that’s entirely too hard for the game its in, or it’s one that’s an utter cakewalk.
Persona 3 decided it wanted the worst of both worlds. Its boss has THIRTEEN phases. Like nearly every other boss or floor guardian in the game, it’s a terrible HP sponge, capable of soaking up all kinds of hits. Oh, and they decided that for that final fight, and just that final fight, that they’re going to change the game’s mechanics. No longer does a critical hit knock the enemy down and allow your party to go all out on the enemy. Instead it just… does more damage.
BOY, IT SURE WOULD SUCK IF YOU BUILT YOUR ENTIRE PARTY AROUND A MECHANIC THAT HAD BEEN WORKING THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRETY OF YOUR 40+ HOUR PLAY-THROUGH OF THE GAME, HUH??!!!???
If I hadn’t dumped that much time into the game, and if I hadn’t a vested interest in all these characters and to a lesser degree, the plot they find themselves in, I would have quit then and there and watched the ending on YouTube. It’s just such a complete slog, changing an important aspect of the combat at the final hour. It doesn’t help that it can be completely random if you lose the fight: the game ends only if your main character dies. But that also means that if just the main character falls, then it’s game over, a mechanic that never made sense.
Better hope that the boss doesn’t somehow double-crit your main character an hour or two into the fight; THAT WOULD SURE SUCK, WOULDN’T IT?
Endings are important, particularly for longer games like this. It’s what leaves the lasting impression on the player, and it can make or break a game. In my case, it pretty well broke what was a pretty enjoyable time for me. It made all the little flaws I’d been putting up with all the more glaring, particularly the slow, grinding nature of the combat and the awkward, stiff controls. It amplified what I didn’t like instead of celebrating what I did.
And it’s ultimately what’s likely to keep me from ever replaying Persona 3: Portable.
8 without the final boss, but since it’s there:
7 for some great characters in a story that tries too hard to be edgy; plagued by janky porting and one of the worst final areas and bosses I’ve ever experienced in a video game