Persona has turned into one of the most widely celebrated JRPG franchises of all time, and for good reason. Its eclectic blend of tight turn-based gameplay, dungeon-crawling, and social simulation can’t be found elsewhere. The series as we know it now owes much of its current identity to Persona 3, released 16 years ago. Today, we rewind the clock with its most recent iteration, Persona 3 Portable.
Your Limited Time
At the heart of Persona 3 Portable lies its themes of individuality and making the most of one’s life. This is expressed plainly throughout the story, but it’s also felt in the game’s calendar and time system, which has since become a Persona staple. By day, you’ll take on the role of a typical high school student as you go to class, take tests, and bond with your friends after school. By night, you play as a member of a covert organization slowly solving a supernatural mystery that threatens the whole world. Indeed, it’s a strong contrast, but it’s thanks to this that the gameplay loop always feels fresh.
Most actions you take will use up a chunk of your day, meaning that you always have to consider the ‘when’ and ‘how’ of what you decide to do. You may want to hang out with your classmate to strengthen your bond with them, but it also might be imperative to study for that quiz you’ve got coming up. Additionally, you might not even have access to your friends because they’ll be busy with their own happenings at random times. While this may sound as inconvenient as real life, it’s exactly that kind of thing that makes Persona 3’s social aspects so brilliant. It reinforces the idea that everyone you meet is a living being with their own agency, even when outside of the player’s view.
It’s very unlikely that a new player will get to see absolutely everything the game has to offer because of the time system put in place. It’s an inviting game to replay because of that, and the different choices in protagonists introduced in Portable helps to strengthen that.
Apathy and Life
Persona 3’s story works as a tribute to life and all of its mundane brilliance. Individual and society-wide hardships easily cause people to ignore all the good that can happen in the moment-to-moment. This is best reflected in the main cast. Life hasn’t been easy for anyone at the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad, or S.E.E.S for short. Having gone through their individual shares of trauma, their stories have become complicated and nuanced. This is despite the fact that what they need is often a lot simpler.
Widespread apathy and negative emotions manifest in the real world as monsters called Shadows, and a monstrous tower called Tartarus serves as a nesting ground for them. The only way to keep humankind safe is by unraveling the mystery of why these have appeared. Characters will join your cause, alliances will form, and there will be twists aplenty. It’s a grim game that is unflinching in displaying life’s worst aspects, even through the ones you’re supposed to be rooting for. It’s exactly that dedication to fully exploring its own theme that it still winds up being such an uplifting and motivational journey. The good in life is worth trudging through all the bad, despite how easy it can be to believe the opposite.
I’d love to talk about specific developments and plot twists, but this is something best experienced by the player. Like its successors, Persona 3’s story is so great partly because of what the player themselves takes away from it. It remains one of the most emotionally exhausting, yet entirely fulfilling stories that I’ve had the pleasure of playing through.
Masters of Tartarus
Tartarus is where you’ll be spending the bulk of your time outside of the social sim gameplay. Here, you’ll take part in conventional dungeon-crawling and turn-based combat. The dungeon-crawling aspect is, frankly, the boring bit. Tartarus is comprised of randomly generated floors, so the navigational aspect of it is usually quite uninvolved. You’ll find an enemy here, a chest there, and the stairs to the next floor over there. But there’s no rhyme or reason to any of it, so steadily making your way up through it isn’t as satisfying as it ought to be.
Thankfully, the turn-based combat makes up for this. Like other aspects of the game, this is the basis for Persona combat as we know it nowadays. By using various offensive or passive skills, the player can exploit enemy weaknesses to knock them down. Knocking an enemy down grants you one more turn, allowing you to maintain momentum for your team. You can choose to either knock down every other enemy on the field to have your team gang up on them, or go for something else like a buff or heal.
Which Personas you have equipped will also be important, as that will affect your own elemental strengths and weaknesses. For example, having a Persona with a focus on Light skills equipped may leave you vulnerable to enemies with Dark skills carrying instant death effects. While you can switch out Personas mid-battle, this means that doing so becomes riskier and riskier as encounters throughout the game become more difficult and varied.
At the end of battle, you’ll go through Shuffle Time. You’ll play a brief game of cards wherein the card you pick will determine your reward. These rewards can vary from health restoration, to a new Persona, to higher EXP yields. It can be useful if you need to grind up for specific resources.
Social Link, Go!
Yet another series staple is first introduced here in Persona 3: Social Links. Throughout your time spent on Tatsumi Port Island, you’ll have a chance to bond and communicate with its many different inhabitants. From your fellow partners in combat, to your everyday classmates, to even your pet dog. As stated previously, their availability can vary depending on the day and whatever amount of progress you’ve made in the main storyline. Once you do start chatting them up, you’ll play part in seeing their personal stories unfold. Depending on your selected protagonist, you may even be able to woo them into romance.
Each Social Link established will be tied to a specific Arcana that hints at their story’s theming in some way. The higher the Social Link, the more bonus EXP is gained upon fusing a Persona of that Arcana. You’ll additionally unlock more Personas upon completion of each Social Link. By giving the right responses during their storylines, you’ll earn points that will allow you to access their next rank. Most of the time, you only need to be nice to them to earn their affection. Other times, you may need to use some lateral thinking on what response is really the best for them.
While I would say there are more hits than misses, not every character’s story is made equally. Some won’t wow you and there are a handful I’d call outright bad. The best Social Links are the ones that enrich the main narrative or explore the game’s main themes through a different lens. Standouts include the stories of Akinari Yukami, Yukari Takeba, and President Tanaka.
The primary issue with Social Links is the way the points system works. You’ll gain more points and be able to more quickly rank up by carrying a Persona that corresponds to that story’s Arcana. However, you can only carry a limited number of Personas at a given time. Unless you want to compromise your strategies in combat, you’ll inevitably waste more time than normal trying to rank up certain Social Links.
This specific iteration of Persona 3 Portable suffers from a bevy of problems that constantly kills the mood. Unlike its console iteration, Portable plays out like a visual novel. Rather than manually walking through a set of 3D-modeled locations, you’ll interact with things via a static menu and cursor. While some may be fine with this artistic change, it’s one I feel has major consequences on the vibe and atmosphere of the original game. There’s much more abstraction in this iteration of Tatsumi Port Island’s characters and locations, which plays against one of the game’s main messages.
As a result of this change, many of the most dramatic and emotional moments throughout the story are presented far differently. Rather than anime cutscenes or 3D-modeled cutscenes like the original, Persona 3 Portable relies mostly on text and CGs instead. An ambitious change by itself and one I was onboard with at first. However, the problems begin to crop up when most of the writing used for this format is dry and ineffectual. Character and action descriptions feel terse and mostly unemotional, regardless of the weight or importance of what’s happening.
Not helping things are the CGs, which are mostly just stills taken from the anime cutscenes of the console version. They look out of place compared to the rest of the game’s artwork and do little to convey the emotional nuance of the scenes they’re for. These stills also use the same poorly done AI upscaling used across the entire game, ruining an already crude-looking looking title.
This isn’t even getting into things that were never fixed from the PSP version of Portable, such as incorrect coloring on some enemies and areas, and noticeably compressed voice acting. Mood is one of the most important elements of Persona 3 and is what brings its many contrasting features together into a cohesive whole. When this part suffers so much, the whole game is worse off for it.
There are a few upsides, the game is a full 1080p and has a higher framerate now, so the constant menuing you’ll be doing feels smoother.
The few improvements made to Persona 3 Portable cannot begin to make up for how half-hearted this remastering effort feels otherwise. Shoddily redone audiovisual aspects compromise its atmosphere and painstakingly crafted emotional beats. Things that should have been improved simply weren’t. I implore you to play Persona 3 if you haven’t already, it’s one of the most fulfilling and characterful JRPGs ever made. However, don’t make this disappointing version your first experience.
WAIT FOR SALE ON PERSONA 3 PORTABLE
If you would like to see more JRPG games, you may be interested in our review of Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist & The Mysterious Dream.
Many thanks go to Sega/Atlus for a PC review code for this title.
Support High-Quality And Detailed Coverage
Want to support the cost of us bringing you these articles or just buy us a coffee for a job well done? Click the Ko-fi button below. You can even find some digital goodies in our shop~!
A hobbyist who took up the pen to write about their favorite pastime: games. While a lover of many genres, Isaiah Parker specializes in Platformers, RPGs, and competitive multiplayer titles. The easiest way into his heart is to have great core gameplay mechanics. Self-proclaimed world’s biggest Sonic fan. Follow him @ZinogreVolt