Persona 3 Portable

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PSP, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: SEGA
Developer: Atlus
Release Date: Jan. 19, 2023


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PC Review - 'Persona 3 Portable'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Jan. 17, 2023 @ 9:00 a.m. PST

In Persona 3 you lead a group of high school students with a dangerous extra curricular activity: exploring the mysterious tower Tartarus and fighting the sinister Shadows during the Dark Hour, a frozen span of time imperceptible to all but a select few.

Persona 3 follows the story of a young man or woman (player's choice) who transfers to the fictional Japanese city of Iwatodai. No sooner than they arrive and move into their school dorm than things get weird. Every night at midnight, the world enters an "extra hour" called the Dark Hour. During this time, most people turn into coffins and sleep, unaware of what is happening. Strange creatures called Shadows appear, seemingly born from a giant tower called Tartarus. The only force that can stand against them are the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES), a group of young people with the potential to awaken a Persona from deep within themselves. Unsurprisingly, your dorm ends up being the home of the SEES, and your character awakens to their potential almost immediately after arriving. Together, the SEES sets out to battle Shadows and locate the source of the Dark Hour and its hold on mankind.

Persona 3 Portable is the first (and thus far only) game in the franchise to let you choose your protagonist's gender. However, the difference between male and female routes is more than skin-deep. There are a ton of writing differences, both in your character's dialogue choices and how people respond to you. For example, Yukari is more open and friendly, while you get the full brunt of Junpei's sexism early on. Your dialogue choices tend to be more friendly and peppy, so despite technically playing a voiceless protagonist, it doesn't feel like a skin swap. Perhaps most significantly, many of the social links are changed. Most significantly, you are now able to make social links with all of the playable characters, which the male protagonist can't. In addition, the new social links feel better written, which contrast more sharply with the older ones you can still access. This leads to the strange problem of the "canonical" male choice being the worst of the two; it's not even a close competition. It might be worth exploring the original to see what has changed, but if you're only going to play Persona 3 Portable once, you want to do it as the female lead.

In terms of writing, Persona 3 also feels like a different beast. It's darker and more melancholy than the other games in the franchise. Your SEES party members are less like friends and more like co-workers, but of course, that changes over time. Instead of a giant nonstop forward plot, it's more meandering and focused on the day-to-day moments of life until almost the end, when it kicks into overdrive. It is thematically one of the most consistent Persona games, but Portable undercuts a few of those themes with optional ways to eke out happy endings where originally there was tragedy. The tone alone makes it an interesting companion piece to the other two Persona titles that are now available on the PC.

That said, Persona 3 Portable is mostly an improvement, but it does have a couple of drawbacks. Due to the limitations of the PSP, the 3D visuals outside of its dungeons are replaced by visual novel-style dialogue scenes and a cursor over a static picture of a map. This isn't a huge loss, as Persona 3 was a far simpler game than its follow-ups, and it was just a few steps away from a visual novel. However, it does have a very significant impact on certain scenes, particularly those that had animated cut scenes in the original. The scenes were usually some of the most dynamic, but they're reduced to still images, and it can be difficult to follow exactly what is going on from dialogue clues. It doesn't ruin the game by any means, but it's one of the few things that keep Persona 3 Portable from being the definitive version of the game. Even the 3D graphics aren't that impressive, but the PC version does its best to gussy up everything. While it ports over some of its features, it is also missing The Answer content from Persona 3 FES, which is a post-game story focused on the robot party member, Aigis. This isn't a huge loss, since the bulk of The Answer content involved dungeon-crawling with fewer options and more grinding. There are some particularly interesting moments that are entirely lost, but there are references in other content, like the Persona fighting games.

The core gameplay of Persona 3 is the now-familiar loop of doing everyday social activities to power up for dungeon-crawling later. As Persona 3 originated most of these elements, they are at their most basic here, but Portable fleshes it out with some additional new features that let you spend free time to gain non-Social Link power-ups, such as improved stats for a Persona. Social Links don't grant character-specific benefits but give you a flat bonus to the stats of a Persona when fusing. Still, that is significant enough that maxing out as many S-Links as you can is critical to success. You don't have a strict  time limit the way you did in Persona 4 and 5. Instead, every full moon, you must face a powerful boss creature, so you want to gain as much experience as you can before that. The primary way to do that is to use one of your nighttime slots on visiting a dungeon, so you can train and power up.

Probably the make-or-break for Persona fans who are coming to Persona 3 for the first time is how the dungeons are handled. Instead of individualized dungeons, the only dungeon is the gigantic, towering Tartarus that's comprised of randomly generated rooms. If you've played Persona 5, it's exactly the same as Mementos, but it goes up instead of down, and it's simpler. In theory, the challenge is getting as far as you can in a single go. In the original release of the game, you were at risk of getting tired and needing to leave. Portable changed this to limiting exploration to your HP and SP that you must spend money to recover, à la Persona 4. Unfortunately, this means that as long as you can keep relatively well funded, which isn't very difficult, you're basically going to be running through dozens of nearly identical rooms in a row. If you need a second night, you're wasting precious Social Link time. The game tries to encourage repeated trips by having characters get "lost" in Tartarus, but this means it's best to save your trip until just before the full moon.

I genuinely didn't mind the experience, but it's hard to say that it's as engaging as Persona 4's Television Worlds, let alone the fully fleshed-out dungeons in Persona 5. It's effectively a light Mystery Dungeon with Persona battle mechanics. The game offers some randomization, such as negative stats or special floors, but they're few and far between. Players can return to the highest floor they explored at any time, so you can return to the lobby to heal up and save any chance you get; there's no real sense of rationing your resources too much. It can get costly in the late game, but by then, you're swimming in tons of money with little to spend it on besides summoning persona from your compendium. If you find the idea of Mementos-style gameplay to be a deal breaker, then P3 may not work for you.

The combat system is pretty much a light version of what you'd see in later Persona titles. Hitting an enemy's elemental weakness not only does more damage but also knocks them down. Once knocked down, you can either hit them again to dizzy them (stuns them for a round) or try to knock down other enemies. Knocking down all enemies lets you do a powerful All-Out Attack. Each character has a distinct element and weapon type, with weapon types being divided into Pierce, Strike and Slash. The protagonist can change their Persona at will but only has access to a Slash weapon. Buffs and debuffs are incredibly important, and combat can be extremely lethal, so going into battles with the right team is the key to victory.

It sounds simple because it is. Persona 3 Portable throws in a few gimmicks from later games, such as allies being able to do a follow-up attack on a weakness hit or being able to sacrifice themselves in place of the protagonist, but that's about it. The biggest gimmick in the original version is that your entire party was AI-controlled, and a big part of the challenge was properly ordering your allies around and selecting a team to address the challenges you face. Portable added the ability to directly control your party à la Persona 4, and there's no real good reason not to. However, since the game was designed around the AI not being optimal at all times, this means the gameplay becomes too simple at times. The game offers some cool boss fights, including a whole series of optional fights that are new to the Portable version. There's still plenty of bite for those who like to challenge themselves.

It might sound like I'm being negative about Persona 3, but I'm not. It's a lot of fun, and it has a lot of interesting strengths. It has the misfortune of being the first game in a franchise where the sequels improved on a ton of features and were released before it on the PC. If you've never played it, it's well worth a shot. It's still a great game, but it has aged more than its sequels. Despite that, it still does some things superbly well. The addition of an entire second playable story path and a bunch of new social links also makes it a worthwhile experience for those who played the original release but not the portable version.

Score: 8.0/10

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