Years ago before I really got active on Twitch there was a streamer whose VODs I enjoyed watching on YouTube. At the time they were my favorite content creator and I would watch basically anything they put out on video. This led me to learning about some new series I’d never seen before, including a little RPG you might have heard of called Persona 5. I watched the entire playthrough of Persona 5 this streamer had posted and came out of the experience as someone who wanted to play a Persona game. My chance would come in 2020 when Persona 5 Royal came out, and this ultimately began what has become a backwards journey through the Persona series.
Last Thursday when Persona 3 Portable hit consoles, I downloaded the game on my PS5 and played the game for about six hours. This was enough time to reach the in-game date of May 2nd. My character has awakened to his Persona, explored a few levels of the strange tower known as Tartarus, and begun to form social links as he joins clubs and gets to know his classmates at school. This is the context for my first impressions of the game, the first Persona title I have entered with no foreknowledge of what to expect.
The premise of Persona 3 surrounds a phenomenon called the Dark Hour. Where your characters were rebellious thieves in Persona 5 and amateur murder investigators in Persona 4, P3P finds your character getting mixed up with a school club dedicated to investigating the secret 25th hour that happens every day at midnight. After learning about his (or her, as you can choose the gender of the protagonist in this game) potential as a Persona wielder, your character joins the club and begins to help them explore the center of the strange activities that take place during the Dark Hour, a tower called Tartarus. Naturally, all of this takes place while your character is also trying to adjust to life at a new school, where your social connections translate directly to additional power in the world of shadows and Personas. It’s a fun premise – one thing I appreciate about the Persona series is that while some key set pieces are the same across games, it always experiments with new ways to tell the story that help the narrative to stay fresh even as it plays in a familiar space.
Going backwards through the series has meant going backwards in terms of mechanical design as well as the technical quality of the games. Persona as a series is essentially a pumped up visual novel with RPG battles but Persona 3 in particular really makes that clear with the real world scenes. Rather than walking around in 3D you are presented with static images which you investigate with a cursor. Clicking on characters speaks with them, clicking on an object interacts with it, and clicking on transition points like doors or stairs take you to the next location. You also have a fast travel submenu that allows you to quickly hop between locations so you can look around for social links or zoom between shops. It’s an efficient system and the static backgrounds and chibi models are supported by the always-excellent character portraits, all pumped up in higher definition for the console release.
Much of the core experience is the same in terms of what you’re doing in the game. During free time after school you can talk to friends, find hobbies to increase your social stats, or work. In the evenings is when you can prepare to go to explore Tartarus or go and build some stat points or make some money in town instead. Persona 3 has fewer social stats than the other games, limited only to Academics, Charm, and Courage. Answering trivia correctly during class helps build charm while listening during class instead of falling asleep boosts academics – I assume falling asleep helps courage but I haven’t tried it yet. Many of the town’s jobs help two stats but can only be done on certain dates and times, so the schedule management aspect prevalent across the series is still relevant here.
Social links exist much as they do in Persona 4, primarily pumping up your ability to fuse personas and not doing much else in terms of mechanical benefit. A big difference in P3P when playing as the male protagonist is that your friendships are primarily with characters who aren’t in your battle party. For example, Junpei is your teammate from the magician arcana but your confidant for the magician is actually a classmate named Kenji. I chose the male protagonist because the game recommends that path for first-timers but this is one aspect of the female protagonist I would have preferred. Not being able to build that meaningful connection with teammates is a bummer, especially when the alternative option is a much less interesting personality. Kenji the MILF-chaser can go back to living in obscurity like he deserves.
The battle mechanics are largely similar to Persona 4 as well. Your character can switch between personas you collect in order to change abilities to suit the situation while party members have unique personas with specific specializations. Hitting enemies with a weakness knocks them down, and knocking down all enemies allows you to make an all-out attack for big damage against everything. One thing that’s unique about Persona 3 compared to 4 or 5 is that your basic attacks have affinities such as pierce or slash that can also hit a weak point. It helps basic physical attacks to feel somewhat more viable in this game, and broadly I have found myself using them way more often than I did in the other Persona titles.
One of the more noticeable differences compared to Persona 4 is the way that post battle rewards work. In Persona 4 you are presented with a series of cards to select and can pick your reward, with some cards enabling more card picks and the game offering a bigger reward for collecting all the cards after a battle. In Persona 3, you can only get one card, and which card you get requires you to pay attention during a shuffling minigame so you actually pick the thing you want. The minigames are generally easy enough that it’s still pretty simple to get the exact card you want, but occasionally I’ve timed a press wrong and ended up with an unneeded HP recovery instead of a Persona or a weapon.
Tartarus exploration is similar to Mementos in P5 or to the various dungeons in P4. Most floors have a random shape with a staircase up that you have to discover to make forward progress. As you explore the floor, there’s a chance of discovering some treasure or finding a shadow to fight. Since all of the metaverse exploration is tied to a single location, your time-based goals for Tartarus are determined by specific floors having barriers you cannot cross until set points in the game. With every five or so floors featuring a tough enemy encounter, it seems like progress in this Persona will be measured primarily by combat challenges.
Most of the changes or mechanical downgrades compared to the later Persona games don’t bother me too much, but there is one big one that I find time consuming and frustrating: Persona management. Persona cards are determined randomly after winning a battle and not every fight ends with the opportunity to get Persona cards. And the Velvet Room doesn’t sell back Personas you have had before, which means that if you want to add a Persona back to your team you have to at best grind for it and at worst grind for all the Personas that you need to make it from scratch. Having to hunt much weaker monsters and pray they drop a Pixie card so you can fuse a replacement Nekomata for the one you just used in a different fusion is not a fun way to spend time in-game.
One thing I have to mention: the music. Music is a major component of any Persona game, playing an essential role in establishing the mood and keeping you pumped when you hear the battle theme for the 100th time. Persona 3’s music has a bit more of a rap and hip hop flavor compared to the more traditional bubblegum J-pop in P4G or the smooth jazz of P5R. It’s quite catchy and has some fun implementation in the setting. Your character always has headphones and his starting accessory is a portable music player; in other words, the music we hear as the player is actually being listened to by our character as they go about their day. It’s a fun touch! I also like how the music adapts to certain circumstances; for example, at the mall the music changes in volume and tempo when you go into a store vs how it sounds when you are outside looking around. As is tradition for Persona, P3P is a treat for the ears.
Overall I’ve been enjoying Persona 3, just as I expected. While it is a clear mechanical downgrade from Persona 4, the step back isn’t so drastic as to be game breaking. This is made up for by the catchy soundtrack and compelling scenario, which work together to make the world of Persona a compelling one to spend your time in. I’m looking forward to exploring more of the game and really getting to know its many characters, as the cast is such an important piece of what makes the Persona games great. I’ll keep you updated on my progress as I continue to make my way through Persona 3 Portable.