The Persona series seems to have gained a lot more mainstream attention in recent years, so it’s nice to see Persona 3 and 4 become available to those who enjoyed Persona 5 on recent systems as well. We checked out the new PlayStation 4 port of Persona 3 Portable, which originally launched for Sony’s PSP and is not a whole lot less ‘portable’ – unless you’re playing the Switch or Steam Deck version.
For us, Persona 4 Golden is what kicked off the series. It was (and still is) the most critically acclaimed game for the PlayStation Vita, which quickly led to a fascination with the game that came before and ultimately Persona 5. And while they share mechanics, they all feel like self-contained stories with unique cast members – Persona 3 offering a mix of high school drama and supernatural dangers.
The gameplay premise is Persona 3 Portable hangs a sort of doomsday clock over your head that gives you a year of in-game time to figure out what’s happening and prevent an apocalyptic ending, adding an air of mystery around the narrative. It’s not radically different from Persona 4 and 5 though, as you can already see the social dynamics and mechanics of those days here – despite the mystery these characters are still students who interact with one another, fall in love and want to perform at school. The other side of the story plays out at night, when you explore the Tartarus labyrinth in order to find out what evil plagues the city.
And while it might strike people as odd that they kept “Portable” in the game title for this Persona 3 release, it’s worth pointing out that the PSP version of Persona 3 was different from the release that came out for the PlayStation 2. And while I never played that version, I remember the changes – scaling the game back to the PSP meant losing some the animated cutscenes, a shift back to 2D environments that make the daytime sections feel more like a visual novel and a few changes in content (including the addition of a female protagonist).
While 2D generally ages better than 3D (especially 3D from the PS1/PS2 era), it’s a bit of a divisive choice, and part of us wishes they had gone in the direction of a remake that would take the best bits from both versions. On the PS5, some of the visuals feel quite dated and restricted in their lack of animations to help the storytelling along. This is still the brilliant and atmospheric Persona 3, but it doesn’t feel like the “definitive” version of the game.
It’s a testament to how good this game was on the PSP that many of the elements of Persona 3 Portable still hold up. Sure, you can fault some of the technical elements, but the atmosphere of dread, the art style and the wonderfully written characters are all among the best that the series has to offer.
Less impressive is the dungeon crawling you’ll do in Tartarus, which feels like it didn’t age as well as the narrative side of things did. Part of that is that the plots and casts of these games feel timeless, whereas the dungeon portions were heavily refined in later Persona games. Feeling a bit rougher around the edges, dungeon crawling can turn into a bit of a grind this time around. The mechanics of collecting and combining personas/demons along the way works better by comparison, though it’s hard to ignore the fact that this was streamlined later on – especially in Persona 5. With Persona 3 Portable, I found myself reaching for an online guide at times, just to make matters a bit easier on myself.
These don’t necessarily feel like flaws though – more like signs of its age. What’s more important is that Persona 3 Portable has aged well, and if you enjoyed the later releases in the series you owe it to yourself to get to know this slightly darker take on the formula as well.
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