Review – Persona 3 Portable (Xbox One)

Games age and show their cracks like any other form of art and entertainment. As much as we wax nostalgic about our childhoods, everyone has something they can look back on and realize it wasn’t as good as they thought it was. Or, in my case, that it was EXCEEDINGLY problematic. I love the movie Short Circuit, but getting a white dude to play an Indian doctor, complete with a heavy accent, would get multiple people fired and banned from filmmaking if that were attempted today. Bad choices were made, and we have to learn and grow from them.

The Persona franchise has been around for quite a while, and ports are basically the name of the game when it comes to appreciating them on modern hardware. Last year saw the long-awaited and teased release of Persona 5 Royal, which, understandably, was less-than-optimal on the Nintendo Switch. The hardware couldn’t take the brunt of what was coming, but great coding and porting gave forth a fantastic version that, while a bit lower on the framerate, still inspired some excellent reactions. More recently, Atlus has finally brought over Persona 4 and 3, each with its own flavor (and also widely available accessibility thanks to Gamepass). Persona 4 Golden was recently taken to task as a game that still holds up wonderfully with gameplay mechanics and a banging soundtrack, even if the graphics haven’t aged gracefully. Persona 4 is also one of those titles that has been ported to hell and back and, I would argue, was even more sought after than Persona 5 in terms of accessibility.

Ah, reluctant interactions with a cat girl. Truly a hallmark of the Persona series!

Which leads us here to Persona 3 Portable. This was my entry into the series, as I played it years ago on the PSP, and it remains one of my favorites, conceptually, because of how it shook out. The earlier Persona titles were darker and more grim, with the original being just a shade different from being a straight Shin Megami Tensei title. Persona 3 was the first game that introduced what makes the series pop, namely the Social Link. Whereas previous entries were little more than different approaches to the main series entries, Persona 3 gave players choices about both what they did in the daytime (classes, friendships) as well as nighttime (demon slaying, friendships). Persona 3 takes things a little more gently, allowing social elements to affect your demon synergies and not, say, who will be your girlfriend and help you defeat baddies later on.

Yukari never fully warms up to you the way future characters might, but she’s got a lot going on in her head.

So what is Persona 3 Portable? Well, from a plot standpoint, it’s complete madness, but so is every Shin Megami Tensei. You’re a new kid who moved into the city of Iwatodai, only you arrive after midnight and the streets are full of coffins. Turns out normal people turn into coffins during The Dark Hour, but, for some reason, you’re still awake and not-coffiny, which means Shadows (hungry monsters) can see you. But ALSO you happen to have amazing powers inside you, and all you have to do is put a gun-like object (called an Evoker) to your head and pull the trigger to make a Persona pop out and beat things up for you.

Then it turns out you’re even MORE special because Igor from the Velvet Room (another weird area) says you’re the only one who can have more than one Persona in your head. So now you’re working with a group of high schoolers, lead by the class president, overseen by a scientist who definitely isn’t suspicious, and you’ll grind your way through Tartarus, a demon portal, to figure out why Shadows keep appearing. Oh, and you only have a year to accomplish this. And a dog eventually joins your party, because why the hell not?

What do you mean, multiple groups are deeply upset with the game? Why?

There is a ton, and I mean a TON, about Persona 3 Portable to love. First and foremost, it’s a long, engaging JRPG that doesn’t take nearly as long as future entries. As much as I love that fact that Persona 5 Royal easily gets into triple digits for play time, it can be really daunting to try and take on that much game at once. With Persona 3, players have a much more limited scope in what they can do every day. Sure, you still need to balance clubs, studying, visiting the arcade, keeping up a friendship with Kenji (and his constant complaining about everything) and still fight off eldritch evil as it bubbles up from the unknown, but it’s less demanding than other visual novel adjacent games.

This is the eighth time I’ve broken a clock this week, it doesn’t feel right anymore.

Another great aspect is that the balance is really there in terms of “forward movement.” That is to say, the game wants you to run down the clock to December 31st regardless, and it’ll try and pace things out to keep it from being overwhelming. It took only two trips for me to hit the theoretical ceiling of Tartarus (initially), so then I can actually focus on doing the other “Persona” aspects to keep the game moving. It was only a couple of days of fighting, but then weeks of trying to visit the library, keep up with student council activities, and timing when to watch TV in order to get the best swag from the home shopping network.

As much as there is to do, you never feel like you’re drowning in multitasking. It’s more true to real life: if you don’t get a chance to do something, you move on and do other things. You don’t spend the rest of your existence lamenting not joining the Art Club in time, you just go blow 20 bucks at the arcade and call it a win. Persona 3 Portable does a magnificent job of not making players feel punished for avoiding a certain route.

Oh right, my name was Pants Maurice. As in Maurice the Pants man. I didn’t think this through well.

I keep dropping the word Portable in the title, and I do think that’s important to highlight and underline in terms of what Atlus decided to do. Persona 3 and Persona 3 FES both exist, with the latter being a complete, comprehensive version of the game, complete with epilogue and feeling of completion. Portable does add in the female character choice and all the caveats that come from that (different story elements, different music, Junpei being a different kind of fool), but it also neuters the explorative moments in favor of simplicity.

The graphics don’t really change between versions, and I wonder if it was possible to take the interface of the FES version and bake in the female choice. Maybe it wasn’t, and I’m being foolish and optimistic, but there’s a dynamic shift with how you select things from the original (walking around JRPG style) and the Portable version (hot button choices amongst static backgrounds). It feels sleeper, less energetic, and that’s a shame in a game that’s truly a slow burn.

Shadows still look creepy as hell, though.

And it is. You start out Persona 5 Royal and it’s over-the-top within seconds, and Persona 4 Golden takes almost five whole minutes before it becomes overtly “anime.” Persona 3, Portable or otherwise, takes its time, presenting itself as very serious and dire while actively mixing in goofy moments and absurdist expectations while maintaining a straight face. If we gave personalities to games, Persona 5 would be Jim Carrey, Persona 4 would be Jonah Hill and Persona 3 would be Leslie Neilsen. Each has the potential to go into the wacky, but Leslie Neilsen would never acknowledge it, playing straight against a backdrop of discordant madness. As things continue to devolve, you can never fully tell if Persona 3 is in on the joke or not.

What…what did you think was going to happen during this dungeon raid, Junpei?

The thing is, though, is that time moves forward, not backwards: so many aspects of history are a flat circle, but video game development is always upwards and outwards, with the rare misstep that is sometimes intentional. Games build on what came before, and more people have had a chance to see and play Persona 4 Golden or Persona 5 Royal, which stand alone in their respective places as expansive and spectacular titles. With the last “official” version being released for the PSP, Persona 3 Portable offers a pretty solid experience that simultaneously lauds and condemns its age.

The portrait graphics are gorgeous, but the dungeon and character avatars feel very simplistic and almost mobile-game level. The stripped down exploration makes everything just a frantic pan-and-click with no real purpose in engaging with NPCs who don’t have exclamation marks over their heads. Voicework is excellent, but sparse in comparison to later titles. And the soundtrack…well, I have zero complaints about the soundtrack. It’s got more of a J-Pop funk feel to it than others, reminding me of the original The World Ends With You in terms of music, though less catchy overall.

To be fair, I asked her if she wanted to see my Evoker.

As a huge fan of Shin Megami Tensei in general, Persona 3 Portable cannot be ignored, and should not be. It spawned the series as we know it, and the updated version, though not as magnificent as it could be, is still leagues better than the original Playstation 2 version, and it has the additional character and bonus content that helps this title dominate a large block of your time.

Is it as elaborate and consuming as the newer entries? Of course not. But it’s still fantastic. It’s like choosing your third favorite flavor of ice cream. You prefer the other two, but damn if this isn’t amazing. Plus, I will always be amazed that someone decided that a child putting a gun to their head was the primary demon summoning mechanic. It’s got heart, it’s got style, and it’s got at least forty hours to offer without even bothering to replay as the other sex. For players to have this on GamePass or on any other console at the price of twenty bucks, this is a goddamn steal.

Graphics: 7.0

While scaled up and smoothed out for modern consoles and displays, only the visual novel aspects look as great as they should. Dungeon crawling and combat feel too shiny and overprocessed.

Gameplay: 7.0

Orienteering in the dungeons can be dizzying, and the social elements are severely simplified compared to later games. But combat is still fun-as-hell, and not needing to spend hours on a single day is a relief for those of us with little free time.

Sound: 10

Meguro Shoji is a treasure of a human being and can’t help but create a soundscape that is sonically astonishing in terms of crafting a world apart from wherever you might be. Buy the music, and enjoy it in your everyday life.

Fun Factor: 9.0

In spite of minor disappointments, I was all in on this game from the drop. It transported me back almost fifteen years and I was hooked. I played it on my Xbox, I played it on the Gamepass Cloud, I grabbed it on the Switch. It just kept me coming back.

Final Verdict: 8

Persona 3 Portable is available now on PS4, PS5, PSP, PS Vita, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, PC and Switch.

Reviewed on Xbox One.