Persona 3 Portable (Switch) Review
Persona 3 exists in a bit of a weird space where there’s no single “best” version of the game. I’ll explain why later on, but suffice to say that no matter which version you play, and how you play it, there’s going to be a bit of a compromise involved. Still, it’s very possibly the best story in the series, and worth playing for that alone.
Persona 3 has the player-named protagonist, either a boy or a girl in Portable (the only Persona game to date to offer this choice), transferring to a fancy school after ten years away from the city they grew up in. In this city, for some reason, there’s a secret bonus hour at midnight, where almost everybody turns into a coffin except a select few.
Our protagonist joins a group of non-coffin people called SEES and vows to discover the secret behind the Dark Hour, which is also turning people into essentially brainless zombies who don’t really care about much at all, even life.
There’s a mysterious tower called Tartarus that only appears during the Dark Hour, and during full moons there are big boss shadows to defeat in that tower, lest the whole world succumbs to this brainless zombie curse. Also, there’s a robot girl who joins the party and nobody really thinks much of it.
If it sounds a bit weird, that’s because it is! Persona 3 is probably the most out-there of the series, but what it lacks in normality it makes up for in its excellent theming and storytelling prowess.
See, while other Persona games have focused on themes of standing up to corruption or facing your inner self, Persona 3 grapples heavily with the themes of life and death. It’s not afraid to get heavy, asking deep, existential questions that will probably keep you up at night a little bit, but are also deeply satisfying to work through.
I can’t spoil everything about what makes Persona 3 Portable great, as doing so would take away from the impact of some very late-game story moments, but rest assured that every moment, from start to finish, builds to something absolutely incredible and almost unheard of in gaming.
Much like Persona 4 and 5, your time in Persona 3 is also split between social aspects and dungeon-crawling. The social aspects are some of the most complex and opaque in the series, making them quite frustrating to get through at times. It’s far too easy to mess up and have no option to course correct until it’s far too late. That’s fine though, the story still plays out, it just might not play out in the way you want it to when you miss out on some things.
As far as the combat and dungeon crawling goes, it’s… fine? I guess? Of the three 3D games (3, 4, and 5) it’s probably the weakest, but the difficulty options available in this version of the game make it much more tolerable, and it’s not bad by any means. The dungeons are a little bit boring, but the boss fights are excellent, so it’s a bit of give and take on that front.
Now, as I mentioned, Persona 3 exists in a bit of a weird space. There are essentially three versions of the game: the original, P3:FES, and P3P, which is what the Switch version of the game is based on. None of these versions are perfect, and each of them has pretty serious compromises.
The original Persona 3 is so unbalanced and annoying to play that it may as well be unplayable, so thankfully that one’s easy to count out. Persona 3: FES is a lot more fully-featured and a lot of fun to play, and even comes with an extra post-game story that is frankly excellent. But it’s missing the option of the female protagonist, and a few other quality of life additions that Portable brought to the table.
Portable made some understandable but quite frustrating design choices. Due to the limited storage space on the PSP’s UMD format, Atlus had to cut some pretty core features. Instead of exploring the school on foot, players instead are presented with what is essentially a menu, using a cursor to interact with rooms rather than walking over to characters and chatting or checking out items.
It’s fine, honestly, but it will feel a little bit out of place when compared to Persona 4 and 5, both of which are also available on Switch. It does make the game a little bit snappier and quicker to play, so that’s a nice, if largely unintended side benefit when the game is as long as it is. Still, it would’ve been nice to have it all — all the extra content in FES with all the quality of life improvements in P3P. Maybe someday.
Persona 3 Portable is probably the best game in the Persona series, even if it feels a little dated at times. A fantastic story told with restraint and great care, tackling some heavy themes and doing an incredible job. It’s compromised, sure, but it’s wonderful nonetheless.
+ Fantastic theming and storytelling
+ Quality of life additions are nice
+ Dungeons are short and manageable
- Compromised, like all versions of P3
- Social aspects are opaque and frustrating
- Combat is nothing special