Persona 3 Portable's new port is a win for preservation, but also highlights how great a full-blown remake could be

On rare occasions, a game will be released that pivots the course of an entire franchise going forward, placing a stake in the ground that splits the series into “games before x” and “games after.” For Atlus’ now-legendary Persona franchise, that game was 2006’s Persona 3 on the PlayStation 2. Many mechanics now considered series staples, such as the Social Link system and calendar progression, have their origins here, in Persona 3. 

Since then, the titles bearing the name “Persona” have become some of the most beloved and anticipated in the genre of Japanese role-playing games the world over. Basically, this is a damn important game.

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There are three variations of Persona 3, the first being the previously-mentioned original 2006 release, the second being 2007’S FES version which saw a brand new (and divisive) additional playable epilogue, and lastly, in 2009, Persona 3 Portable, which this new HD port is based on. Released on the PSP, P3P omits the epilogue story from FES and, in its place, allows players to choose whether to play through the game as either a male or female protagonist, with slight differences depending on who you choose.

Concessions had to be made in order to bring Persona 3 onto Sony’s handheld, which considerably altered how the game was played. Back in 2009, this was an incredibly impressive feat, even with the sacrifices made. Gone were the open 3D-modeled areas that you could walk around and explore, instead replaced with adventure game-style static images and points of interest you can select. 

Character models also saw a reduction in complexity and detail where they were still used, like in combat encounters in Persona 3’s massive randomly generated dungeon, Tartarus. Still, at the time it was a spectacle that Atlus was able to put such a large and extensive console RPG experience onto a handheld. We’re many years removed from that, however - and in 2023 having that same experience blown up to 4k on a TV is much less so. 

Each version of Persona 3 has its defenders and detractors, which I imagine put Atlus in a bit of a bind when trying to decide which version to port over to modern machines. Both FES and Portable contain extensive additions not found in the other, meaning that there is no “definitive” edition of the game, this latest port included. We’ve been spoiled recently by re-releases of PSP games, such as Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion and Tactics Ogre Reborn, and I wish Atlus had done some similar work to improve P3P. Improving the quality of the character models, even if they just swapped in the models used in the PS2 versions, would have at least been welcome and a step up. Even the static backgrounds that are used occasionally appear blurry, perhaps due to the use of AI upscaling of old assets.

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The overall story and flow of combat remain this package's strongest point. For the most part, the characters are still just as memorable, and the experience of playing through Persona 3 Portable is a pleasant one, particularly if you have played it previously. 

New players who may be approaching this game after playing Persona 5 or even Persona 4 may find themselves a little turned off by the generic shadow monsters, the rather convoluted method of recruiting new Persona, or other small ways in which this game shows its age. Even with all that said, there’s still much here that is worthwhile to experience besides simply to see where so many of the mainstays of the subsequent games got their start from.

If there is one overarching thing that I took away from my time with Persona 3 Portable HD, it would be just how badly it speaks to how much Persona 3 would benefit from a full ground-up remake. This is a game of monumental importance, especially given the critical darlings it led to - but the form on offer here doesn’t really do that justice. 

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I’d be remiss not to mention that there are also a number of moments and decisions in Persona 3 Portable that were questionable and arguably in fairly poor taste back when it was released and only come off worse still in 2023. If you think of the elements of Persona 4 and 5 that those games were broadly criticized for in the West, more or less every one of them is present in Persona 3 also - and in many cases, is arguably worse.

The nature of ‘evokers’, the firearms used to summon Persona by having the high-schooler protagonists shoot themselves in the head, gives one more pause for thought in 2023 than back in 2006, particularly in the United States. There is also the romantic side plot that occurs between the female protagonist and a pre-teen child, which will always be something that probably shouldn’t have been included in the first place. A relationship, mind you, that is only available in Persona 3 Portable, and thus, this remake. Fans made many mods for the PSP version to remove this romance from the game - and I imagine similar mods will be up on Steam in no time. These are just two aspects that could (and should) be considered if Persona 3 ever gets a full-blown remake.

I view Persona 3 Portable much in the same way that I look at Super Mario 64. Yeah, I think it’s that monumental. It is a pivotal moment for a game series that helped reshape its genre going forward, but the games that came after are largely improved and have better overall experiences. It’s important to preserve these important games and allow them to be played by new audiences of players that potentially weren’t even born when the games were originally released, and that includes Persona 3. 

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I am glad that we at least got some version of Persona 3 on modern systems, as (most) of the story content holds up, and it is intriguing to revisit, even if it isn’t the most ideal of situations. But playing it makes me desire a truly definitive edition with all content and perhaps some modern tweaks - or better yet, a remake.

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