The increasing popularity of the Persona series in the West has been a wonderful if slow-burning thing to behold, ramping up over the last decade to the point where Persona 5 was a Very Big Video Game Release.
So it’s easy finding people to talk to about Persona 5 , and to watch videos about it, and read articles about it. Same goes for Persona 4, which has now been ported enough times (I first played it on Vita!) that it’s in much the same space. Basically, when people talk about modern Persona games, they’re usually talking about those two games.
Persona 3, a little less so, so in honour of our Backlog Month I want to talk about it tonight, and see if I can get it added to your list of games you Really Should Play.
Sure, it came out in 2006 on the PS2, but this is a Persona game. We’re not here for the cutting-edge visuals (though we are definitely here for the art style). We’re here for the friendships, the conversations, the haunted school island, the wandering around like a bum teenager at the end of class. It’s a game, just like Personas 4 & 5, about time.
Being the first “modern” Persona game, though—it broke from its predecessors and laid down the basic template the series has followed ever since—does mean Persona 3 has its rough edges. Its single enormous dungeon, for example, is hell, and for those who have only experienced Persona 5's exquisitely dovetailed social links and subplots, you might find Persona 3 a bit creakier and more sparse when it comes to after-school activities. It’s also lacking some of the vibrancy and exuberance of the more recent games when it comes to its cast.
Not that this last point is a bad thing! There’s a lot to love about this more earnest tale, which has a nice tight focus to it, and it also has a dog, which is awesome.
Now that we’ve established how much I love Persona 3, I will now tell you that when it comes to deciding which version of the game to play, I love Persona 3's handheld port even more. Persona 3 Portable was first released in 2009 on the PSP, and I think it’s a modern marvel of game (re)design, because it takes the heart of the Persona experience and recrafts it for a portable platform in a way that Persona 4 Golden couldn’t come close to matching.
Because the PSP couldn’t handle the fully 3D overworld of Persona 3, or fit its lavish animated cutscenes into its limited storage space, both of those pillars of the Persona 3 experience on PS2 are gone. While the loss of the anime-style sequences was a bummer, and 3D gameplay was preserved for the dungeon and combat, what Atlus did to replace the 3D exploration areas was a stroke of genius. Instead of stripping back the 3D sections with low-res textures and simpler models, they threw it out and replaced it entirely with a static, isometric version of Persona 3's world.
This was, and remains, the superior way to play Persona. The series’ overworlds may have started to look busier in recent entries, but they’re still incredibly sparse in terms of what you can actually interact with, and trudging around them looking for a conversation or story sequence can be a drag. Persona 3 Portable’s system is a faster, cleaner way to spend your downtime, and has the added benefit of looking amazing. I held out hope for years that Persona 4 got a mobile port that looked like this, and a small part of me is wishing for the same thing from Persona 5.
And we haven’t even got to the best part about it! No, the best part of Persona 3 Portable was that in addition to the perspective change and some other bits of administrative tidying (like new difficulty options), the handheld port added a whole second protagonist, meaning that if you’d played through the main game already, well surprise, you could play it all over again and get a completely different experience.
With the original protagonist a boy, Portable’s addition of a girl meant your romance options were completely inverted, and it added new social links and dialogue options as well. Imagine being able to play through Personas 4 & 5 like this! Romancing Yusuke would be worth the price of admission alone.
If Persona 3 is in your backlog, or even just on a list of “games I really need to try out someday” and you haven’t got around to it, please try to fix that ASAP. Even in 2021, it’s more than worth the hoops you need to jump through to play it, because while official copies are now very expensive, I’m sure you’re a smart person who can find other ways to play it.