We’re accustomed to ports like Persona 4 Golden for the Vita and full-fledged versions of Persona 5 Royal running on the Switch now, but that isn’t how things used to be with Persona 3 Portable. Atlus needed to make accommodations to get it running on the PlayStation Portable. That meant stripping down the day-to-day exploration and school life portions, turning activities outside of dungeon-crawling into what is essentially a visual novel. This meant cutting the FES additional elements from the PS2, but meant a whole other “side” of the story with a female protagonist that changed some elements. Now, it’s basically a piece of gaming history that shows the sorts of concessions that needed to be made, while highlighting how an entry in the Persona series can work even while making certain cuts. At the same time, it’s essentially a distillation of what is really needed to make a Persona game, and this remastered version is still a delight to play.
Regardless of which protagonist you pick, Persona 3 Portable begins with a transfer student returning to their former home town of Tatsumi Port Island. After finding themselves encountering mysterious occurrences, they learn that there is actually a 25th hour of every day. People capable of using Personas can experience it, encountering Shadows and being able to visit a mysterious labyrinth called Tartarus that shows up at what is normally their high school. The protagonist is inducted into a group of fellow students with similar abilities known as SEES and tasked with dealing with the shadows, exploring the dungeon, and dealing with these unexplained mysteries while still maintaining a fairly ordinary school life.
The general progression of Persona 3 Portable isn’t all that different from the original game. During the day, it plays like a visual novel with simulation elements. You’ll attend classes on school days, get to interact with social link folks to build relationships that will help when fusing Personas, be able to shop or work part-time, and get to build up your stats. Unfortunately, the Switch version of Persona 3 Portable doesn’t offer touchscreen support in handheld mode. However, it’s easy to navigate areas, see people you can talk to, and pick out important spots. Things work fairly well, and points of interest tend to be fairly obvious. I find it tended to make my day-to-day more efficient. Especially as I like to min/max in Persona games to try and build up relationships and stats as swiftly as possible. The presentation makes it easy to get through your schedule, then get back to dungeon-crawling and the major plot points. It does mean we lose some niceties, like cutscenes or an opportunity to wander around, but it still captures the spirit of the experience.
During the evening, you could study in your room or head to Paulownia Mall to do some shopping or visit the cafe, club, or arcade, but it’s also the only time you can head to Tartarus. If your allies are in good condition and not tired from past trips, you can head into this ever-changing dungeon to tackle Shadows, find items that could complete requests from Elizabeth/Theodore, collect more Personas, and make your way ever deeper into the dungeon. This is a traditional, 3D affair as in Persona 3 and FES, letting you explore labyrinthine mazes in search of the stairs to the next floor. Shadows are visible there, with people able to strike them to gain the advantage in a turn-based battle. Allies and foes alike all have weaknesses, which can be exploited to knock someone down or even trigger an all-out attack if all foes are incapacitated. As you search for the stairs to proceed or a fast travel point to escape, you might encounter rewards, a floor might have a special status, or you might even see The Reaper. After beating a major boss at each full moon, another block of floors will unlock. (So initially floors two through sixteen will be open.) Fast travel points let you quickly jump to certain floors once you’ve reached them. It can get to be quite meaty, especially if you grind for experience or search for extra Personas and items.
While it did omit the FES and Tatsumi Port Island to explore, Persona 3 Portable was also notable for its quality of life features. It added Beginner and Maniac difficulties, as well as let you actually control the actions of your party members in battle. Your allies only get “tired” in Tartarus after leaving Tartarus, allowing you to spend more time grinding and exploring. Skill cards make customizing Personas easier. Not to mention it is much easier to make money if you don’t feel like dungeon-crawling, as you can spend some days working at places like Be Blue V or Chagall Cafe. They’re niceties that don’t necessarily break the balance or make the game easier, but take cues from other entries to make the overall experience more enjoyable.
As for Persona 3 Portable on the Switch, it honestly felt like returning to the game on the PSP again. It runs well and smoothly on the system. The character models look great when in Tartarus or dealing with Shadows. The static character portraits and backgrounds when going to places like the school, malls, or dorm are fine. The audio quality is fantastic on the system, which is great because the soundtrack is incredible. When playing it on my Switch OLED, it was like, “Okay, this is how it feels on a bigger, better screen with a good sound system.” It’s crisp, clear, and I appreciate the opportunity to return.
Also, I can’t help but appreciate the female protagonist’s storyline. The butterfly effect is still fun to witness, given she gets different social links and people approach her in a different way in her storyline. Given how personal a Persona game can feel, what with people building up characters their way with stats and choosing who to connect with. Minako (the female protagonist) feels different from Makoto (the male one), which is appreciated.
With Persona 3 Portable, we get an experimental way of handling an entry in the Persona series. It is one that can be more inclusive in some ways, while also pulling back to offer a more minimalistic approach. It might not be as robust as Persona 3 FES, but it is an important part of the series’ history and its new ports are appreciated. Especially since Persona 3 Portable runs so well on the Switch. In some ways, it isn’t the most comprehensive version of Persona 3, but it is a fantastic take on the story.
Persona 3 Portable will come to the Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and PC on January 19, 2023. It is also available on the PSP.