Baby, baby, baby, it’s time to return to Tartarus and the Dark Hour once again in our Persona 3 Portable Remaster review!
Persona is a series with a fascinating history. Despite debuting over 25 years ago for the original PlayStation with Revelations: Persona, many JRPG fans are only recently discovering this beloved Shin Megami Tensei spin-off. While the recent surge in popularity can definitely be attributed to the success of Persona 5, one particular release from the mid-2000s finally put the series on the radar of fans across the globe: Persona 3.
Persona 3 was an immediate hit thanks to its memorable cast of characters.
Released for the PlayStation 2 in 2006 and subsequent years in the West, Persona 3 received widespread critical acclaim, sweeping RPG awards and surpassing even Final Fantasy. The game would shortly after receive an updated and enhanced release with Persona 3: FES, building upon existing content and an entirely new prologue story. And back for one last semester, a handheld port, Persona 3 Portable released between 2009 – 2011, offering the ability to choose between a male and female protagonist with a streamlined experience designed specifically for the PlayStation Portable.
Persona 3, now with gender diversity.
So, if you’ve not experienced any of these three JRPG masterpieces, Atlus has heard your prayers and remastered Persona 3 Portable for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch. But is it too late to explore the Dark Hour, or has your time to delve into Tartarus finally come? Find out in our Persona 3 Portable Remaster review.
Persona 3 Portable Remaster Review – Story
The clock strikes midnight and time seemingly stops – the Japanese city of Iwatodai becomes shrouded in a hue of green darkness, coffins littering the streets. Persona 3 Portable’s protagonist, a high-schooler who has transferred to a new school, steps foot into the Iwatodai Dormitory, only to be greeted by a mysterious young boy. Without introducing himself, the boy presents the protagonist with a contract, requesting a signature with no further explanation. Signing the contract, the player unknowingly commits their next year at Gekkoukan High to a dread-filled journey.
School looks different, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.
Each night in Iwatodai, an extra hour exists at midnight that only those with the power of Persona are able to access: The Dark Hour. During The Dark Hour, Iwatodai’s residents are unknowingly “transmogrified” into coffins, protected from the Shadows that roam the city. But for those that are still conscious, looming above Gekkoukan Highschool awaits Tartarus, a twisted tower with hundreds of floors that extends into the sky. Could the answer to The Dark Hour await at the top of Tartarus?
Anyone who can enter the Dark Hour gives off main character energy.
This is the purpose of “SEES“, the Specialised Extracurricular Execution Squad, a group of elite students chosen specifically to investigate The Dark Hour. Gathered at Iwatodai Dorm, these students aren’t only the classmates of the protagonist, but combatants that will fight alongside one another as they seek the answers awaiting within Tartarus. Juggling the challenges of school, the mysteries of The Dark Hour, and the disease of Apathy Syndrome spreading across Iwatodai, the students of SEES must rely on their friendship and bonds to make it through the year alive.
Meet your fellow classmates, dorm mates, and battle mates!
Without giving too much away, the story of Persona 3 may seem shallow or edgy on the surface, but this is an undeniably morbid tale that’s both compelling and thought-provoking. Themes of death and mortality are a consistent theme throughout the year at Gekkoukan High, emphasising the fragility of life and the importance of connecting with others. Numerous plot twists will keep newcomers guessing, while returning players will be treated to a variety of touching sub-plots within the game’s Social Links. Even for its age, the story of Persona 3 holds up as the very best of the series.
Persona 3 Portable Remaster Review – Gameplay
If you’re a player coming from Persona 5, which is probably the case for many newcomers trying out the Persona 3 Portable remaster, you’ll immediately notice many similarities to the core gameplay. Over the course of the year, the game progresses day-by-day throughout each school semester and is evenly divided into four satisfying portions: School Life, Social Links, Dungeon-Crawling in Tartarus, and Persona fusion. Let’s find out exactly how each of these complement one another!
Yep, that’s basically the whole game in a nutshell.
Before we get into specifics, it’s important to mention that the exploration for Persona 3 Portable has been heavily pared back compared to its predecessors. Where players were originally given free reign to stroll physically stroll around campus and roam the back alleys of Iwatodai, Portable instead opts for a simplified point & click navigation system, whereby the player can click on surroundings and choose their locations based on a menu. While this is streamlined for a handheld and makes navigation quick and easy, it feels like the least immersive version of the game and players used to the style of FES may be disappointed.
For some players, the menu style of exploring may seem a little boring.
This is the central pillar of Persona 3 Portable, and the basis for most gameplay across the Persona series. As you take on the role of a Japanese highschool student, you’ll spend much of the game doing exactly what you loathed in your teen years: attending school. Though this time it’s actually surprisingly enjoyable! Being a student at Gekkoukan High requires you to attend classes, join cultural and sporting clubs, and interact build relationships with students across the campus.
Many students across the campus, like Bebe the French exchange student, could use a good friend.
After school, you’ll be given a few hours to waste away the afternoon before needing to return to Iwatodai dorm. Some players may choose to stay and study in the school library, boosting their intelligence stats. Sadistic students might frequent the local cinema, watching marathons of horror films to increase their courage. And those dashing and debonair students wanting to swoon the opposite set might work a part-time job at the local cafe, serving “pheromone coffee”. Each of these stats will unlock additional interactions, skills, and stories as you make your way towards becoming the top student at school.
You can even spend your afternoons with Elizabeth, the Velvet Room… dog?
Once back at Iwatodai Dorm in the evening, you’ll be given the chance to interact with your fellow classmates and SEES members. Each night they’ll be casually chilling around the dorm, eager to engage in conversation or awaiting a journey into Tartarus that evening. Every night is an opportunity to get to know everyone and gain insight into their lives and personalities. You’ll meet the happy-go-lucky and class clown Junpei, the passionate yet reserved Yukari, the powerful and head-strong Akihiko, and the respectable and accountable Mitsuru.
You’ll have plenty of time to
spend with friends play games online.
As you progress through the story, more members will join SEES, including a couple who aren’t even human!
It just wouldn’t be a Persona without the power of bonds and friendship, and if you’ve played Persona 5 you’ll be familiar with the similar “Confidant” system that appears throughout the game. Social Links throughout Persona 3 are directly based off the Major Arcana from the Tarot decks. Beginning with The Fool (0) and ending with Judgement (XX), the Arcana represent one’s journey through birth, life, and death. This is mirrored through 20 different characters throughout the game, each of which are assigned a Major Arcana.
You only made a friend if the tarot says you did.
Social Links are often triggered through conversation, building relationships with characters from across Iwatodai, or fulfilling certain requirements like enhancing your Charm or Intelligence. Each Social Link provides its own sub-story centred around a colourful character, often providing deeper insight into their motivations and their true selves. These stories are heart-warming, heart-breaking, and occasionally even heart-wrenching. Some will deeply move you, while others will move you to tears.
The Old Couple social link is honestly so heart-warming. I just want to give them a hug!
Further progressing the Social Link will require you to interact with each character on a regular basis, choosing appropriate responses to their questions and remarks, and deepen your friendship. Certain social links may also extend beyond friendship *wink wink*. Making friends in-game is strangely satisfying, and Persona 3 includes many of the series’ most memorable social links including the Online Game, Dying Young Man, and the Old Couple. I won’t spoil them, find out for yourself!
You got it right, Aigis. That’s the true power of friendship! (you emotionless husk of a robot)
But let’s be honest, you’re not enhancing your social links purely for the purpose of friendship. Nope, you’re more selfish than that. The real purpose behind social links is the ability to power up your Persona. Every Persona you summon is connected to a particular social link, which when strengthened will provide that persona with additional experience upon being summoned. Fully maxing a social link with reward the player with the most powerful Persona of that particular arcana, which come in handy when fending off the powerful Shadows that await you within Tartarus…
Tartarus & The Dark Hour
While it’s easy to get caught up in the joyous school life and satisfaction of happily making friends, sheer dread awaits you in the towering endless colossus of Tartarus. This skyscraper-sized abomination appears only during The Dark Hour, morphing and twisting Gekkoukan High into a centralised dungeon over 200 floors high. Each night, the player is given the opportunity to recruit their fellow SEES members and explore further into Tartarus to uncover the mysteries behind The Dark Hour.
Hee-ho! It’s everyone’s favourite Persona, Jack Frost!
Tartarus is where the vast majority of the game’s combat takes place, and is divided into multiple “Blocks” each with a certain number of randomly-generated floors. Heading into Tartarus will require you and your party to fend off the tower’s Shadows, utilising your Persona in turn-based combat. It’s a very similar style to any other Persona game, with the player controlling a party of 4 characters, attacking and performing skills to exploit enemy weakness, and deftly swapping between Persona to enhance your own type advantage.
Throughout the year, players will face off against 12 powerful shadows, each of which resemble a major Arcana. These often await the player at the end of a block of Tartarus and can only be accessed on the night of a full moon. Using your time wisely is essential, as the week leading up to a full moon can be critical. Explore Tartarus too often and your party will become exhausted and sick, weakening them for the battle ahead. But head into Tartarus too infrequently and you’ll find yourself underpowered and unable to take down the next powerful Shadow. Balancing your time and resources throughout the year is critical.
Once you’ve played Persona 3, you’ll be able to hear this picture.
The final, and possibly most important aspect of Persona 3, is Persona fusion. This gameplay element has been a staple of both Shin Megami Tensei and Persona series, incorporating the summoning and fusing of malevolent demons, mythical beasts, and holy gods to aid you in combat. Basically think of it a bit like Pokemon, but with aimed towards a more mature audience and given a strangely religious twist.
Wait, Satan is a good guy this time?
You’ll start off with a basic Persona, Orpheus, and through defeating Shadows will be given the opportunity to recruit the cards of additional Persona into your library. Once you’ve accrued a deck of Persona cards, step foot into the Velvet Room where Igor and Elizabeth will gladly assist you in fusing them together. This starts out simple by adding one Persona to another, and by the end-game becomes a complex mathematical equation of Persona whereby you’ll need to add certain Arcana to another, eventually combining six different Persona at once for some devilishly demonic fusions.
Fusion doesn’t always go according to plan…
It’s the Persona fusion system that really sets this series apart from its other JRPG competitors. There’s something inexplicably satisfying about taking a variety of angels and demons, smushing them together, with the end result being a literal god that you can command at will. It’s a system that has been further polished throughout the series, but the core gameplay was already perfected during Persona 3.
Persona 3 Portable Remaster Review – Visuals
Sadly, I’m not able to praise absolutely everything about the Persona 3 Portable remaster. There are certainly areas of the game that feel deteriorating, poorly-aged, or should have been buried long ago like a decomposing corpse. I’m of course talking about the visuals of Persona 3 Portable, a game that was designed entirely with the PlayStation Portable in mind. We’re talking a console that’s now almost 20(!) years old.
Aah yes, the COMPstation Portable, from my favourite game company, Phony.
Now the PSP had a resolution of 480 x 272 and a screen size of just over 4 inches, which was more than adequate given the technical constraints of the era. Flash forward to 2023 and we’re regularly treated to resolutions upwards of 4K and gargantuan screens stretching over 100 inches in size. Naturally it’s going to be a challenge getting a PSP game to adapt to these newer technological norms. And unfortunately, Persona 3 Portable does not.
P3P reminds players that “remaster” doesn’t always equal beautiful visuals.
When playing in docked mode, the aged graphics become immediately noticeable, with low-poly character models that seem almost comical at times. The static backgrounds of Iwatodai, Gekkoukan, and the Dorm have all been upscaled using AI to accommodate higher resolutions. These adapt nicely to consistent areas like flooring and walls, but look closely at the game’s signage and other background items like doors and furniture and you’ll be able to notice unsightly smudging and blurriness.
AI upscaling turns backgrounds into oil paintings that look like they were made by a highschool student.
Despite the lack of visual finesse of the Persona 3 Portable remaster, it is exactly that: Portable. The game feels as if it was perfectly designed for handheld mode on the Nintendo Switch. Framerate is smooth and consistent, loading times are instantaneous, and the game actually looks at its best on the smaller screen of the Nintendo Switch. If I could recommend any way to play the Persona 3 Portable remaster, it would be in handheld mode on Switch.
Persona 3 Portable Remaster Review – Audio
Where the music of Persona 5 is jazzy and stylish, and the music of Persona 4 is upbeat and pop-inspired, Shoji Meguro’s soundtrack for Persona 3 takes a gritty, hip-hop spin on the typical JRPG sound. If you’ve ever played Persona 3, you’ll be immediately familiar with popular tracks like Mass Destruction and Burn my Dread, featuring Japanese rapper, Lotus Juice. In complete contrast, many of the ambient and environmental tracks within Persona 3 are quite depressing, like a slow dirge signalling the theme of death that occurs throughout the game. Here’s a few songs to highlight some of the variety of music within Persona 3 Portable:
It’s the fan-favourite battle track: Mass Destruction. Baby baby baby baby baby!
Funky vibes when exploring Iwatodai at night with “When The Moon’s Reaching Out Stars”.
Just hearing “Living With Determination” is enough to make a teenage boy cry.
Players are given the option to swap between both Japanese and English audio tracks, both of which are of exceptionally high quality. I’d previously played Persona 3 FES in English, so decided to play the Persona 3 Portable remaster in Japanese – after trying both, you really can’t go wrong either way. Voice acting is engaging, never tedious, and adds to many of the game’s tense and emotive moments. My only criticism is that there isn’t more of it, as I’d estimate only a quarter of the game’s dialogue features voice acting.
Unfortunately, the audio quality is lacking in certain areas, particularly if paying close attention to the game’s sound effects. As this was originally a PSP game, the overall quality of sound effects likely needed to be constrained within smaller file sizes. This is glaringly obvious that these haven’t been improved, as most sounds during battle are accompanied by crunchy compression that sounds seriously jarring against the game’s charming and polished soundtrack.
What’s new in Persona 3 Portable?
Throughout the review, we’ve touched on a few additions to Persona 3 Portable that weren’t available in previous renditions of Persona 3, including:
- Option to choose between male and female protagonist
- Changes to story and new social links if playing as female lead
- Only version of Persona 3 where you can fully control the party
- Additional actions and features throughout Iwatodai
- Various enhancements to battle and Tartarus exploration
How it feels to read the comments on the Persona Reddit.
Naturally, many players have expressed their disappointment at the remaster of Portable over FES, as the game misses out on FES’ exclusive 20-hour post-game prologue, The Answer. While there is no “definitive” version of the game, with each entry featuring exclusive content, Persona 3 Portable still features many welcome changes that drastically improve gameplay. So playing the Persona 3 Portable remaster is still an excellent choice for those who have never previously experienced this beloved entry in the Persona series.
Persona 3 is the kind of game that comes along maybe once in a decade. This title revolutionised Persona and developed the core gameplay of the series as we now know it. For the longest of time, Persona 3 has been inaccessible for millions, with many new fans of the series lacking any means to play it. The Persona 3 Portable remaster has changed this completely and brings one of the finest games of all-time finally to a console near you.
While missing certain gameplay elements of its PS2 predecessors, the P3P remaster is still an essential game that should be on your JRPG bucket list before you shuffle off this mortal coil. Like the themes throughout its superb narrative, this really is a game worth dying for.
So, why should you play it?
- You’ve never played Persona 3 and love JRPGs
- Looking for a game with a bleak but compelling story
- Charming and memorable cast of characters
- Addictive and polished gameplay loop
- You enjoy narratives that explore hard-hitting topics
- Some of the best Shoji Meguro music ever made
But why shouldn’t you play it?
- Find the visual novel style off-putting? You may prefer playing P3: FES
- Already played Persona 3 to death
- Stickler for beautiful visuals? You may find P3P hard to look at
A review code for Persona 3 Portable on Nintendo Switch was kindly provided by Five Star Games for the purpose of our review. If you enjoyed our Persona 3 Portable Remaster review, be sure to also read our Persona 4 Golden Remaster review and join the discussion on our Facebook page to talk all about Persona!