A train station can say a lot about a city, and Persona 3‘s Port Island Station is no different. Within minutes of this Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) kicking off, developer Atlus captures that little spark of adventure in a way that’s more unsettling than even the loudest of roving stag do’s.
After moving to Tatsumi Port Island for a new school, your nameless character – you can pick a male or female protagonist – gets a gothic introduction to their new digs. As the clock strikes midnight, the moon takes on a sickly green pallor, and the streets of Tatsumi Port Island become littered with standing coffins.
Welcome to the Dark Hour, the gothic mystery at the heart of Persona 3: by day, you go through the motions as an upstanding student, staying on top of classes, getting to know your schoolmates, and working on your social skills. By night, you’re a member of the Specialised Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES) – a small group of students who covertly spend their midnights saving the town from monstrous Shadows.
Your induction to SEES is grim: these teen vigilantes fight Shadows by using their Personas, innate abilities that are summoned by a user putting a gun to their own head and pulling the trigger. It’s dark stuff – especially when your protagonist’s Persona first emerges to tear gory chunks from a Shadow with its hands and teeth – but it sets the tone for what’s to come. Though Persona 3 looks like its descendants Persona 4 and 5, it’s remarkably different in more ways than its more adult atmosphere.
The biggest difference which will throw many newcomers is that Persona 3 Portable‘s daytime activities are carried out in a visual novel format. Though your midnight escapades remain 3D dungeon crawls with encounters and turn-based combat, everything else is a point-and-click adventure. At first, this is jarring – especially if you’re coming off the back of Persona 5 finally making it to more consoles than just PlayStation – but once the shock of not being able to explore Tatsumi Port Island in the flesh wears off, you’ll find much of the same charm waiting, albeit in a different format. Ironically, you can get to this point faster by taking the foot off the pedal and taking things slower – spending an in-game Sunday wandering around and ducking into stores can turn up all sorts of gems.
For example, getting to know the kindly old couple who run the port’s cosy bookstore will turn up a tragic yet touching tale; while watching a spirit who doesn’t understand the concept of fountains make an “opening bid” for a wish by emptying 1million yen into its waters is highly amusing. You’re incentivised to chase down these bonds because they improve your ability to create stronger Personas, but that takes a backseat to the social draw of simply wanting to grab ramen with a schoolmate because…it’s fun.
However, Persona 3‘s more traditional JRPG facets feel like an earlier and poorer prototype to the series we now know. At midnight, you have the option to delve into Tartarus – a twisting maze of blood-splattered halls and roaming Shadows. Your goal is to find the staircase on each floor and climb upward, facing off against the occasional boss and implacable barrier if you’ve explored as much as you should at that point in the game.
However, Tartarus is randomly generated, meaning that finding the next floor can be a dull affair. Corridors will sprawl for minutes only to arrive at dead ends, and there are too few Shadow variants on each floor to make combat feel interesting. While you unlock new Personas by receiving their card from bested enemies and fusing them together in the series’ mainstay Velvet Room, this is very slow going because Persona 3 drip-feeds the cards very slowly in its opening hours. Though it’s neat to revisit 3 from a fan perspective and see where the Persona series really started to take shape, the reality is that developer Atlus has iterated away from certain elements for a reason.
That being said, it’s only really Persona 3‘s dungeon-crawling (okay, and god-awful English dub) that takes an outright step back. For other areas of the game, how much it clicks will come down to personal taste. While 3’s darker plot sank its hooks in fast, the game’s soundtrack – a blend of hip-hop and poppier jingles that play as you explore – somewhat missed the mark for me, as any tracks I did enjoy still suffered from being stuck on very short, repetitive loops. Plus, can you really top ‘Signs of Love‘?
In other areas, Persona has changed very little. Combat remains a turn-based brawl that sees you and your hand-picked party mercilessly batter their opponents with a mix of Personas and real weapons. Longer encounters involve using attacks from Personas to sniff out an enemy’s weakness – be it fire, lightning or being stabbed in the head – and then taking full advantage of their vulnerabilities, though when you start raking in the level-ups, most of Tartarus’ weaker encounters can be solved by using the rush feature to beat a Shadow to death at double speed.
How much you get from Persona 3 will depend on your experience with the series. Oddly, it’s players with the most experience who may find 3‘s point-and-click elements and dated dungeon-crawling to be the most jarring. On the other hand, many of 3‘s weaker areas aren’t as noticeable without that experience, meaning a fresh-faced newcomer will enjoy a full blast of Persona‘s slice-of-life-meets-actual-slicing charm. Whichever side of the fence you fall on, Persona 3 is a wonderfully gothic game to fritter away the last months of winter with.
Though it’s the black sheep of the modern Persona series, Persona 3 Portable still bears the glimmer of gold that Atlus struck in 2009. Though its visual novel format and grating dungeon-crawling won’t land with every player, Persona 3‘s unsettling plot and colourful friendships will leave you eager for another trip to the Velvet Room.
- Tatsumi Port Island runs thick with interesting storylines and characters to dig up
- A dark, intriguing plot
- The Dark Hour is a fantastic premise that brings a creepy atmosphere to the game
- Not everyone will click with 3’s less interactive visual novel approach
- Frustrating dungeons
- A poor English dub