If you were to press me on the matter, I'd cite Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 as my favorite in the franchise. However, I have given up trying to plead the case for the game. That's because I have a personal theory that everyone's favorite Persona game is whichever game you first sat down with and played all the way through. The foremost game in the series you invested 100+ hours into is most likely to be your pick as the high-water mark for the series. It's Pokemon or Mario Kart Rules but for a non-Nintendo property. Thanks to the Endurance Run, many of you think the best pick is Persona 4, and for millions today, the answer is Persona 5, which is turning seven the year of this blog's publishing date. What is a more worthwhile exercise is thinking about which game broke the dam in terms of the series becoming the ubiquitous role-playing game hallmark we now know and Atlus becoming a company with a global cache of credibility. It's a humbling thought exercise if you ask me, especially when you consider Atlus has been able to accomplish all they have in recent memory as a wholly-owned subsidiary and having started as an RPG mill that spawned during the 1980s Japanese asset price bubble. And how many companies besides it, Enix, Nippon Ichi, and Falcom, have remained this steadfast in honoring their roots and staying within their lane? Atlus is an aberration, which is why people seek out their experiences.
However, this blog isn't about me waxing poetically about Atlus and its history. No, I want to discuss why Persona 3 remains my "pick" despite its stark flaws and review what those quibbles might be. I played Persona 3 in high school and finished it the year Jeff Gerstmann was fired from GameSpot. I know this because I was stuck on a boss when my parents revealed they had made reservations for me to attend my now-deceased grandmother's birthday at a local Black Angus. While remembering where I've put my keys remains arduous, this memory has always stuck with me. That aside, despite being slightly late to the party, even then, it caught me at the right time and place. I was getting ready to transition to college and was dealing with bouts of depression and anxiety stemming from my life undergoing a massive metamorphosis. Something about Persona 3's bleak world and outlook and how outside forces are always out to get you resonated with me more than I can adequately put into words. Much like the dungeon of Tartarus, it was me against the world, and no one else understood what I was going through or thinking, and the best remedy was to continue to have little adventures that staved off reality biting at my heels. Likewise, while the game's monotony is a common complaint for many, the high school of Persona 3 feeling like a blur defined by irrelevancy felt deeply connected to my own experiences. And Persona 3 perfectly captured that sense of moving toward what I perceived as an unavoidable calamity while dealing with a growing sense of alienation and disillusionment.
Persona 3 was and is a special video game to me. Nonetheless, it was until recently a game I had only completed from beginning to end once. There are three primary reasons for this. First, Tartarus sucks complete and total ass, and how it limits what you can do to progress the game's story wasn't fun at the time, and it is doubly less fun today. Second, Persona 3 has a mid-game difficulty spike that comes out of nowhere if you are not ready. It will crush your spirit and motivation to continue if you don't fully understand how to maximize the characters efficiently and get the most out of the fusing mechanic. That boss battle against Jin and Takaya may be one of the most BURTAL gear checks in franchise history. It also doesn't help the game's story is the slowest burn of the last three numbered Persona titles and does not get its shit together until its sixtieth hour. Then, finally, Ken Amada. I don't care if that last phrase is a sentence fragment because that's all I need to say. He sucks, and anyone who complains about Yosuke in Persona 4 or Yusuke in Persona 5 for being "annoying" or a little "extra" has never had to listen to one of Ken Amada's MANY insufferable sob stories about why he's a poor sad boy that wants to kill someone important in your party. And, GOD DAMN, is his story arc with the male protagonist, the absolute drizzly worst shit imaginable.
I might love Persona 3, as I will review in the next section, but you will never hear me claim it is a perfect crystal without a detectible blemish. Persona 3 is a messy affair that has not necessarily improved with its recent re-releases. The "problematic" scenes and social links are still present without editing or rewriting. While the portable version of the game is the reference point for this blog, and that version sands off some of the gameplay rough edges of the original, there are several consequences with Atlus using it. The franchise has moved away from the rigid Wizardry-inspired dungeon-crawling conventions Persona 3 still saw to pay homage to, and that alone will make it a tough sell for those whose first Persona was 5. However, with the game now available on Game Pass, there's no excuse not to give it a shot if previous titles from Atlus have resonated with you. To understand how far the series has evolved as well as how little it has, playing Persona 3 is necessary. And as I discussed last year, though many misinterpreted my words at the time, Persona 3 marked the beginning of the end of the era when Atlus was "inside baseball" among genre enthusiasts, and their games reflected that. When I said the Persona series would never take as audacious a creative risk as the original ending for Persona 3, I meant it then, and I stand by that. With the series, at least now, always needing to consider multimedia and spin-off opportunities, the likelihood of a Persona game ever endeavoring to seek to tell a self-contained story or one that closes the books on its characters is simply unimaginable.
There Sure Is No Video Game World Quite Like Persona 3's
I noted earlier that there is something "special" about Persona 3's unflinchingly pessimistic world and outlook. I cannot emphasize enough how every part of the game communicates that point. With the characters existing in an isolated gated school, there's an overwhelming sterility with the world you initially inhabit. From the rigid school schedule your protagonist follows to the drones of NPCs that all feel like automatons, Persona 3 laid the groundwork for the series' sense of style that has since become a badge of honor. However, if you try to replay Personas 1 and 2, you'll notice that while they certainly have intense atmospheres, they don't ooze the grandeur of modern entries in the series. The strong sense of mood and tone Persona 4 and 5 exhibit in their opening chapters is something they owe enormous gratitude toward Persona 3. Persona games are also often associated with colors, and the blue and green filter of Persona 3 still pops out even if its graphical fidelity is starting to show its age. Though, the recent ports of P3P all having stable framerates and smooth animations more than makes up for that.
The story of Persona 3 starts bleak, and it rarely lets up. The protagonist's family is dead following a tragic accident, and almost every character in their party is in some way broken. There's always something about the build-up towards the first "Dark Hour" that still stands as one of the better starts in the series. That moment when you see most of the game's NPCs personified as coffins for the first time is stark and another major differentiator between it and its successors. While every game builds upon this sense of "Us vs. the World," Persona 3 expands upon that by scaffolding its mechanics with the general sense of loneliness and isolation that permeates Gekkoukan High School and the city of Tatsumi Port Island. Only you and a handful of allies are allowed the privilege of knowing what's truly at foot in the world of Persona 3, which makes what few additional relationships you pursue all the more special. While Persona 5 certainly pops with vibrant colors and Persona 4 benefits from a better marriage of music and visuals, Persona 3 is a tour de force wherein every part of it is committed toward a singular message and theme of death being right around the corner. The first true arcana you interact with is the Death Arcana, and there's an almost zombie-like monotony with life in the high school itself. Speaking of the Death Arcana in Persona 3, there's also something homey and quaint about a Persona game laying its cards out right from the rip and not messing around with red herrings about what your journey will involve or entail.
When you think about how the Persona franchise is one of the most easily recognizable in all of RPG fandom, it's weird going back to Persona 3. There's an edgy element to it that seems both punk-like and anti-consumerist, with its dark themes delving into depression, suicidal ideation, and addiction. Atlus had no expectations of mainstream popularity with this title, so they did not pull their punches. There's no denying that the game can sometimes be overwhelming, with some of its melodrama being "too much," hence why I mentioned Ken Amada as a major demerit. Yet, it's still hard to imagine a world where Atlus takes the same risk they did with Persona 3 in both the themes tackled in a Persona game and what thematic targets it is allowed to bring to the forefront. When Persona 3 first came out, if you had told me this series would lead to Atlus becoming a household name presented alongside Nihon Falcom, Bandai Namco, or even Square-Enix, I would have called you a crazy person. And yet, here we are. The series is still allowed to be introspective and edgy, but it has to be more PG-13, and it's never allowed to pull the rug from underneath you the exact way Persona 3 did. These games must now consider multimedia, expansion pack, and spin-off opportunities. There's nothing wrong with that, and I'm not trying to belittle the games from Atlus that have succeeded Persona 3. Nonetheless, while you play the game, it's self-evident Atlus never had that in mind when they made Persona 3, at least not at first, and that part of it is refreshing.
Not only that, but all future entries must plan with the general audience in mind, which, AGAIN, is okay. However, as I discussed in my blog about the ending of Persona 3 under the backdrop of Persona 5 Royale, there will NEVER be a Persona game with an ending as gut-wrenching and consummate as Persona 3's. And that ending is still one of my all-time favorite things Atlus has ever done. The reaction to my linked blog was mainly in response to the title, with most not reading the contents therein. Still, I stand by my overall feeling that there's something about Persona 3 killing your character, with you not being able to do a thing to stop it, that feels iconic. It still stands as one of the rare occasions, the other being Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, where modern Atlus fully commits to the grim themes they bill themselves as being the best at conveying in the medium. Also, this time around, I ended up playing the game using the female protagonist, and I, until now, criminally underrated the new social interactions this route adds to the story. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 Portable also gives you some variability with whom your protagonist spends their final moments, which adds SO MUCH to the game's emotional potency.
There's No Denying How Less Crappy It Is To Play Persona 3 Nowadays, But It's STILL Rough
"Marin Karin." I am happy for you if those words do not bring chills down your spine. For those of you whose recollection of Persona 3 started with Portable, you survived the horrors of not being able to control your party members directly. The rest of us, even with FES, had to slog through the final stages of Tartarus and battle Nyx while praying that the companion scripts would cooperate with the most basic tasks. If you thought the Nyx battle was hard in Persona 3 Portable, imagine needing to deal with it while Yukari refuses to cast healing spells and Mitsuru is obsessed with buffs and debuffs for fifteen GODDAMN TURNS! I would not wish that sort of nightmare on even my worst enemies. With Game Pass, Steam, and Nintendo netting Persona 3 Portable, players also have more difficulty options, a far more intuitive "1 More" attack mechanic, cool co-op attacks, no need to worry about losing a turn when recovering from knock-down, and Fusion Spells activating from items rather than a fiddly menu system. The quality-of-life changes to Tartarus, the game's only dungeon, are nothing to sneeze at either. My memory of the original game was more substantial than my scant hours with Persona 3 Portable. So, this time, my mind was blown when I first accessed the main stairway from the lobby and saw I could immediately go to my highest achieved level on Tartarus. Oh, what I would have done for that feature when I first played Persona 3!
The other and far more critical reform Portable made from the original had to do with Social Links. You can only reverse or break a Social Link in Portable through poor dialogue choices. In the original game, not only could you ruin relationships that way, but also if you failed to hang out with characters for too long. There was no more frustrating feeling than being on the last leg of a Social Link, only to ruin it because you pushed your luck too hard by miscounting your leeway by a day or two. If that happened, you engaged in an INCREDIBLY "fun" routine of needing to run around the world buying gifts and then spending two to three days making up for lost time. If you were like me, then you ended up going to GameFAQs and looking up recommended flowcharts and calendars on how to avoid reversing Social Links as if you were planning out your monthly medicine schedule like a senior citizen. It sucked, and it's genuinely good a new generation of Persona fans doesn't need to worry about that. However, the Game Pass version still has the ability to reverse Social Links. As such, be mindful that the penalties for playing around with your dialogue options, even the slightest bit, are downright insane.
The topic of reverse Social Links leads us to a recurring sentiment expressed on social media and in recent re-reviews of Persona 3 in light of its subsequent re-release. Under the shadow of Persona 5, much of its mechanics, systems, and structure are being hammered as "anti-player game design." Even as a fan of the game, it's hard to disagree. I have seen no less than three friends on Twitter who were MASSIVE fans of Persona 5 go through the "Five Stages of Grief" regarding Tartarus and needing to come to terms with it being "it." It's still a shock to imagine a Persona game only ostensibly having a single dungeon. Still, when you consider a bunch of Wizardry nerds created Atlus, the context of their past slightly dulls the pain. Regardless, even with all of the quality-of-life additions with the portable release, Tartarus sucks. One of the few mercies the original release gave you, where arriving back to the main lobby would automatically restore your party's health and MP, requires you to pay a fee in Persona 3 Portable. The time component and moon phase mechanic associated with Tartarus is still too overbearing. Similarly, the tiredness mechanic remains one of the dumbest things Atlus has ever added to what is essentially a dungeon-crawler RPG series. Limiting the player's ability to explore their combat surroundings to the extent Persona 3 does is counter-intuitive to the gameplay ambitions of this series and the genre in general.
Yet, I want to return to the topic of new Persona fans giving Persona 3 a shot and then them burning out immediately. I do not blame ANYONE saying Persona 3 Portable's slower pace, and more basic combat makes it difficult for them to feel like they should continue playing it. Persona 3 has, and always will be, a slow burn, which might sound odd to those of you ready to chime in that all Persona games err toward the ninety-hour mark and possibly North of that. The difference with Persona 3 is that it is slower than either of its successors by a considerable margin. While the game no longer requires you to worry about spacing your Social Link interactions, those character interactions STILL progress at a snail's pace. The main plot doesn't kick into gear until its mid-point, and I'd even argue things honestly don't get "interesting" until the lead-up to the Jin and Takaya battle. Honestly, the game's best character work and storytelling don't happen until September, nearly sixty hours deep into it. Everything before that relies heavily on the game's atmosphere and the optional Social Links you opted into, which might be enough for some but not so much for those expecting a "whole package" of multiple narrative threads converging with every hour you play it, like in Persona 5. Finally, mechanically, there's no denying that it feels incredibly "basic" compared to where Atlus is as a role-playing game developer today. As I said, it wears its Wizardry influences more visibly than modern Atlus titles. I think that's why I feel there's a timelessness to it, considering it's modern enough to have some of Atlus' rougher dungeon-crawling roots sanded off but not so close to the present that it doesn't thoroughly kick your teeth in from time to time. Nonetheless, there's no denying that it will come across as "sluggish" for many pining for the flashy fluidity of Persona 5's combat.
Persona 3 Is Still Narratively Messy And HIGHLY Problematic (i.e., I Forgot About All Of The Unsettling Social Links)!
Right from the rip, be aware that the transphobic scene is still in the game and untouched! I am AMAZED, especially after Atlus rightfully edited out the gay panic scene in Persona 5, Operation Babe Hunt was not changed or edited even the slightest bit. That scene was a massive black mark on the game when it first came out, and it sticks out like a sore thumb today. Now, there's no way for me to say this without sounding like a scumbag, but it wouldn't be a Persona game without Atlus either fucking up the depiction of an LGBTQIA character or jumping waist-deep into a problematic storyline with TERRIBLE implications. And boy, howdy, Persona 3 has BOTH! Every Persona game, and most Atlus games, have this flaw, and it seems intrinsic to the overall awkwardness of Atlus attempting to depict teenage intimacy and relationship-building for games made by adults targeted at adults. Full disclosure, I am a full-time public education teacher, and I want to say Kawakami's story arc in Persona 5 made me genuinely sick to my stomach. This statement is not a lie. I almost quit the game entirely because of it. When you add in the trans-panic shit in Catherine: Full Body with them not being conscious that there are aspects of Persona 3 that might need editing, I think we can agree Atlus is terrible at depicting certain parts of the human experience with the care and respect they deserve.
And let's be honest; some story moments and aspects of this game have aged like milk! However, to the game's credit, the parts that "work," really do work. I, and most that enjoy the titles by Atlus, can accept the premise of Persona 3 for what it is, as absurd as it might sound on paper. There's a secret organization of child soldiers that need to harm themselves to fight evil monsters and ghosts that only exist while the rest of the world lives for an hour as soulless zombies. It's a dumb and ridiculous premise, but there's something both counter-culture and punk about it that somehow has walked its way back to being relevant. The characters of Persona 3 are a close-knit group that knows the odds are stacked against them. Likewise, what few breaks from your ascents up Tartarus you get need to count, and the game's character work, IN GENERAL, is well-done and respects your time. So, who gives a shit if this game has an android dog and you need to buy weapons from a police station? Anyone who starts citing "plot holes" in any Persona game like they are their own JRPG version of Cinema Sins is a clown. What I don't think works well is how much more trope-reliant the story is compared to future entries and how by the numbers Persona 3 is until shit gets wild. But until that happens, you have a handful of problematic or clumsily handled Social Links to deal with!
So, you've reached the part of this blog where we need to talk about Ken Amada and the female protagonist's ability to date him. However, there are a few things I want to discuss before we get to that bombshell. First, with the male protagonist's route, I still hate how he goes on long rants and broods about wanting to kill or get revenge on Shinjiro, and everyone in your party does nothing about it even though he is visibly scheming to do something after telling everyone his origin story. One of the best parts about the female protagonist is that it allows you to avoid Shinjiro's death, and his death may be one of the most hamfisted and contrived moments in the entire game. That said, getting to know Ken Amada better with the female protagonist means you can also opt into a relationship with him. Yes, this relationship is optional, but it still remains one of the most questionable things Atlus has ever done. It's important to note that during the events of Persona 3, Ken Amada is ten years old, which would mean your character's actions possibly constitute statutory rape, if you read into the cutaway end scene enough, or, at the very least, amount to grooming. It is BY FAR one of the worst things Atlus has ever included in any video game under their label, and I say that having killed Jesus Christ and Hitler in some of their older titles. Watching a ten-year-old hem and haw about being attracted to the first strong female role model in their life since the death of their mother never felt good when Atlus first put it into Persona 3 Portable, and it's way worse today! It says a lot that one of the most popular mods for the PC version of the game outright removes the romance sub-plot with Ken Amada and caps him out at the end of his Social Link, but that's not an option for those using consoles.
Now, if you try to dodge Persona 3's most problematic Social Link by defaulting to the male protagonist, just be aware you're opting into a significantly worse experience, which the game does not warn you about even the slightest bit! For example, if you pick the male character, you have to deal with Kenji Tomochika, and at this point, I'm curious if someone at Atlus has an unhealthy obsession with teens dating their teachers. I already mentioned how the default version of Operation Babe Hunt remains unedited and is as sickening as it was when the game first came out. As a test, I wanted to see if the male route's Magician Arcana Social Link also went unedited, and I can confirm that's indeed the case. With the male protagonist, Kenji's Social Link still has you listen to him talk about his delusions of wanting to date and even marry one of his teachers. You are not allowed to intervene or else risk reversing his relationship and need to watch him go through the entire process of laying out this creepy parasocial life goal after high school. The kicker with Kenji is that his story arc concludes with him moving on from the problematic one-sided relationship as if nothing happened after crying about it once. The game treats the entire situation as a character-building moment wherein Kenji is never held accountable for his side of the situation and does not need counseling or therapy. I am not an expert on child and teen psychology, but Atlus' notions of how to resolve toxic or misplaced relationships are ten years out of date. They insist that getting past these traumas is something you do once and then move on for the rest of your life without any issues as long as you have one good friend.
Finally, we just discuss the male protagonist getting into a relationship with their homeroom teacher using an MMORPG! Yeah, that sure is something that happens in this video game. This Social Link starts with a fascinating premise of you identifying someone in an online world with their real-world counterpart and then quickly recognizing that their use of this online platform errs on addiction. If all that happened with Isako Toriumi were you needing to help her come to terms with her video game addiction as you increasingly wear out your own protagonist's endurance after pulling multiple all-nighters with her, that would have been fine. Nonetheless, YET AGAIN, Atlus thinks it knows how to handle teen-adult romance and has her confess her love to a player that she does not know is a minor. However, in the epilogue of this story arc, wherein Toriumi finds out that the person she's been confiding to and developing feelings for is one of her students, you get subjected to one of the weirdest and most chaotic scenes in the entire game. In a single scene, you watch Toriumi weep and moan about the possible end of her career as well as hear her say she's considering suicide, and the game promptly follows that with her thanking the protagonist for turning her life around after she's had a good sob. Upon which, she then asks him on a date! And then, suddenly, the scene ends with her storming out while saying, "Oh, to hell with this!" It's by far the weirdest and messiest thing in the entire game, and I still don't know how to feel about it other than I wished Atlus went back to the well and clarified their intentions with this entire story arc.
I Don't Know If Persona 3 Portable Was The Right Version For A Re-Release
I suspect this section of this blog will get me in the most amount of "trouble," but let me try to lay out my case before everyone clamors for my beheading. First, some rumors say Atlus went with Persona 3 Portable instead of the original game or FES because the source code for the latter two has either been lost or deleted. While that may sound crazy to some, it's not entirely out of the ordinary in Japanese video game development, especially not with Japanese role-playing game developers. The most notorious example, by far, has to be Squaresoft/Square-Enix, which has a well-known and well-documented habit of deleting the source code to its games months after they go "gold." The funniest example has to be when Squaresoft contracted Edios to make the PC ports for Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII. Because Square had already destroyed its source code, Edios was forced to make the PC ports by reverse engineering debug copies of both. Again, I'm relying on rumors and speculation on this point, but there is one thing I want to make utterly clear, even if this rumor is just that. I would rather have some version of Persona 3 available on modern platforms than none. For all of the shortcomings I will review in a bit, I still had a pretty damn good time with Persona 3 Portable and view it as a game worth seeing to the very end.
Ultimately, my issue with Atlus using Persona 3 Portable is that the newer releases are a shot-for-shot port. I know there are many Persona 3 Portable fans out there that will defend the game as their favorite permutation of Persona 3, but it is ill-suited in many regards for home media consumption. For one thing, Atlus' corner-cutting to make the original game fit onto a UMD feels especially conspicuous on modern computer monitors or 4K televisions. While some creative decisions, like cutting out The Answer or limiting the main character to swords, are understandable, others are not. I'd go so far as to say Atlus should pretend The Answer never happened for the rest of time. However, two massive compromises Atlus made so you could initially play Persona 3 while on the go really smart this time around. Those would be the removal of the anime cutscenes in favor of rudimentary visual novel portraits for all major sequences and set pieces and removing fully explorable 3D environments. The first of those, the cutscenes, might seem like a nitpick. The visual novel portraits are expressive enough and get the job done for the most part. Still, the absence of those anime cutscenes means Persona 3's gravitas and more dramatic moments lack the technical punch and superb production values we commonly associate with the franchise. Furthermore, considering Persona 4 Golden and Persona 5 aren't lacking their cinematics, Persona 3 feels like the odd man out in some regards.
That blow to immersion is compounded by losing the ability to walk around and explore environments as you do in any other Persona game. Boiling down the standard exploratory efforts associated with the typical Persona side quest to using a cursor to click on icons leads to some of the more fun and wacky side quests losing their significance in filling in the blanks to the game's mythos. Instead, it makes the modern re-release of Persona 3 all the weirder considering it has these technical shortcomings, while Persona 4 Golden and Persona 5 don't. Side quests feel sterile and incredibly by the numbers. I know people love the female protagonist, but none of the extra stuff from FES is in this version, and that sucks. Some people prefer the Desert of Doors to the Abyss of Time, but I'm not one of them. Sure, I will take the more in-depth difficulty options and being able to warp to the top of my last level on Tartarus to these issues. Nevertheless, there was a missed opportunity to provide a truly "authentic" Persona 3 experience with its modern re-release, which I think Atlus squandered.
Finally, it's not like the gameplay flaws and quibbles with Persona 3 have not been known quantities for over a decade. Therefore, leaving them intact for new generations to butt up against is simply cruel. I mentioned how the Ken Amada mod immediately shot to the top of the charts when the PC version of Persona 3 Portable was released. Yet, it's worth reviewing the mod that consistently ranks #1 for the game. The Manual Skill Inheritance mod addresses one of the most reviled parts of Persona 3, fused Personas inheriting randomly selected abilities you cannot manually edit. This annoyance is one Atlus had the wherewithal to remove from Persona 4 with the release of Golden, and it is a groan-inducing roadblock to deal with now. However, maybe it is good that some of the crustier aspects of Persona 3 are still there for some people to experience for the first time. With the number of people self-professing to be "fans" of the works of Atlus at an all-time high, it might be a fun exercise for many people to see how far the Persona team has come in the past twenty years. If you ask me, we are all good as long as the series never attempts to do first-person dungeon crawling again! So, give Persona 3 Portable a shot and enjoy it in all its messy but beautiful glory.