The success of Persona 5 created millions of new Persona fans, captivated by the stories of teenagers harnessing their inner powers to battle injustice and save life as they know it. Persona 3 Portable’s re-release on Steam, PlayStation 4, Xbox platforms, and Nintendo Switch means many of those newcomers can get a history lesson — warts and all — on the franchise’s roots, and enjoy strengthening their bonds with a different group of teenagers who have been thrust into danger.
And it really will be a blast from the past, because Persona 3’s port largely optimizes the 2009 PlayStation Portable release, itself an improvement on the PlayStation 2 original, released in 2007 in America. There aren’t vast leaps forward from the PSP version here; it’s simply the same game available to a much wider (and activated) audience. It’s also especially important considering the obsolescence of stores on Sony’s older platforms.
Persona 3 Portable’s option to choose a female protagonist is a welcome change after two silent men. Her dialog is more fun, and the option to date men is refreshing, though same-sex pairings are still sadly off the table in this port. Although the game warns me at the start that the female protagonist is supposed to be played the second time around, I dive in anyway.
Persona 3 Portable tells the darkest story in the modern Persona franchise. Yes, Persona 4 follows a murder mystery, but there is plenty of levity and humor. Persona 3, however, assails me with death at every turn. Every student has a terribly tragic past – many are orphans, or have rocky relationships with their parents, if they are alive. And most of the social links I spend my afternoons and evenings developing involve tragic figures struggling through depression.
The game’s supernatural event, The Dark Hour that follows midnight, turns all non-participating humans into glowing coffins while Persona users run amok. This is made all the more macabre by how the party members summon their Persona powers: by putting a fake gun to their head and pulling the trigger. While these guns, the Evokers, aren’t real or loaded, they symbolize the required sacrifice for wielding a Persona in this universe. For many, it may come across in poor taste.
Speaking of, here’s a content warning for folks considering playing for the first time: I saw a party member pretend to shoot themselves in the head every single time I activated their Persona in battle.
Persona 3’s turn-based combat portion largely takes place in an infinite-dungeon tower called Tartarus, which only appears during the Dark Hour. Scaling Tartarus’ myriad floors is critical in gaining experience before larger boss battles, which happen once a month at the full moon. This means spending hours grinding through randomly generated floors that rarely vary in their color schemes, sneaking up on shadow enemies, and targeting their weaknesses, over and over again.
The combat and its menus strongly resemble Persona 4 Golden, but without the variety of different dungeons. Persona 5 elevated the dungeon experience by giving its palaces unique gameplay conceits, so the regression for players, like myself, who are playing the series in reverse chronological order will be very stark. While it’s possible I overprepared for each boss fight by running through each new section of floors more than once, it felt necessary, at the time, to ensure that my characters were strong enough. The grind sometimes feels comfortable in its rhythms, but it also sometimes requires a podcast to alleviate the monotony.
Tartarus and boss fights are the only instances when I’m allowed to freely move my character. In the daytime overworld map section, I’m limited to a fixed overhead view and a cursor. This feels a bit out-of-body, and while I’m not wasting time locomoting around the labyrinth of Gekkoukan High, it also means the social elements are fleeting – small palate-cleansers before I take another plunge into Tartarus. Later Persona games added a lot more activities and diversions to the slice-of-life, calendar-based side of things. By comparison, Persona 3 Portable is pared down. I had little to do at night for the first few months besides study, work in a cafe, or chat with one social link who I quickly maxed out. I worried I might have been missing something crucial.
I appreciate some simplicity. There are three, not five, social stats to manage: academics, courage, and charm. That streamlines some of my activity choices, and I don’t have to stress about raising my kindness. But some social links are gated behind the highest stat level. I haven’t completed the game, but I don’t think I’ll ever become genius enough to hang out with intimidatingly icy Mitsuru, our team founder who is also student council president and rides a motorcycle, no less. (Mitsuru is cool, but maybe not 100 hours of new game plus cool.)
It also takes much longer to reach the meat of Persona 3’s story, compared to later entries, and there are long stretches of time between significant story beats. The game starts at the beginning of the school year in April. In July, I finally encountered my main enemies; they benefit from the Dark Hour and will do anything to thwart my attempts to end it. The plot really kicks off in September, though, after I’ve met the full cast and have a swarm of characters I can drag along dungeon crawling. By October and November, more than 60 hours in, I finally understand the stakes. I think this story is one every new Persona convert should experience, but it’s a big ask without the variety (both in slice-of-life activities and dungeons) of the newer games. While this port is a lovely up-rezzed version of an aging classic, I’m surprised there wasn’t much added beyond the ability to quick-save in Tartarus or other places and return to the title screen.
Still, after getting fully sucked into Persona 5 in 2017, I had fully intended on playing Persona 3 after so many people had told me it was their favorite entry. While the systems don’t hold up when stacked against the newer titles, I found its bleaker tone more endearing and lovable. It takes work to get to the end, but the complicated, messy, weird story is worth it.
Persona 3 Portable will be re-released on Jan. 19 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and via Game Pass. The game was reviewed on Steam using a pre-release download code provided by Atlus. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.]