By Brian Wells
Last year, my colleague Joe argued that Persona 4 was better than 5. And while he may be right, he overlooked the greatest game in the series: Persona 3.
The Persona series developed a cult following since its initial release. But the dungeon crawler has seen more mainstream success in recent years, especially as titles have become available on more systems.
In 2020, gamers saw the release of Persona 5: Royal on PlayStation 4, as well as the release of Persona 4 Golden — formerly a PS Vita exclusive — on the PC. In early 2021, Atlus released Persona 5 Strikers, a hack-and-slash sequel to P5. Last year, the franchise hit over 13 million sales.
Persona 3 is actually the fourth game in the series, and was released on PS2 in Japan in July 2006 and August 2007 in North America. The game follows a group of high school students — as they all do — as they grapple with death in a world basically created by it. The students form a special group to investigate the Dark Hour, a mysterious time period between each day that few people know even exists.
Anyone who doesn’t have the awareness or potential to be aware of the Dark Hour are turned into coffins.
As soon as our protagonist (let’s just call him MC) arrives in Tatsumi Port Island he meets Pharos, a mysterious young boy who asks the protagonist to sign a contract stating he accepts full responsibility for his actions. MC is brought into the special group when his awareness of the Dark Hour is revealed. But it’s also discovered that Shadows, which are monsters that appear during the Dark Hour, are causing people to develop Apathy Syndrome, a condition that basically turns them into a vegetable.
So here’s where the game really stands apart from Persona 4 and 5.
Considering the game follows a group of Japanese high-schoolers, it’s exceptionally dark, especially compared to the game’s successors. You aren’t going for a nice little jaunt in the Shadow realm with your pals by entering a TV like you do in Persona 4 — you basically wait for the world to die for a period of time each day.
Plus, not to get too deep into spoilers, but there are several real deaths in the game — meaning your characters die for good.
In my opinion, the Social Link characters in Persona 3 also have the best development. You’ve got characters who have lost parents to the Shadows, characters who resent their alcoholic parents, students who have been the victim of bullies… I could really go on. But what you aren’t going to find are the teen idols and obnoxious class clowns you see in Persona 4 and 5.
For instance, both of the new installations have an idol or a model as a playable or dateable character. In Persona 3, the Lovers social link is an average girl, mourning the death of her father, and it makes her feel more relatable.
Let’s also take a look at each game’s special characters, we’ll call them.
In Persona 4, players have the option to have Teddy join their party. Teddy is a giant bear mascot who can turn into a total teen heartthrob, whose skills are lacking and his voice is annoying. In P5 you get Morgana, or Mona, who is even more annoying and is a cat that can turn into a car, because that makes sense.
Players of Persona 3 get Aigis, an android who recently escaped the factory where she was kept, even after being deactivated years ago. Her skills are badass, she can take a beating in a fight, and she’s loyal as can be to MC from the moment she appears in the game. Did I mention she has a gun for a hand? Badass.
Unlike Persona 4 and 5, you can’t find a job in Persona 3 or FES. They added several options for part-time jobs in P3 Portable, but in the console-based games, options for things to do outside of grinding or maxing out your social link can feel a bit sparse.
Where Persona 3 does lack is the combat. Until P3 Portable, you couldn’t directly command your characters. You could assign a battle style to them, but at the end of the day you had to hope the AI was smart enough to use the skills you needed.
As far as the dungeon crawling experience, it’s fairly similar across all three titles. To rival Person 5’s Mementos, Persona 3 has Tartarus, a strange place that shows up during the Dark Hour. The scenery doesn’t change a whole lot, and just like Mementos, it can start to feel like a total grind by the end of the game, especially considering that there are 264 floors in the dungeon.
Maybe I’m biased because I like dark games. Maybe I’m biased because I like games with good writing, and a deep story. Maybe I’m biased because I like games that don’t have annoying characters.
Persona 3 hasn’t gotten the star treatment and dance spinoffs of the series’ later titles no, but in my semi-professional opinion, it reigns supreme over the newer games.