Please keep in mind that this review covers The Journey, the main storyline of Persona 3 FES. This covers the original game's plot as well as the PSP release, Persona 3 Portable. This review does not include the expanded storyline, The Answer, which is exclusive to FES.
After my first experience with Persona 5, I immediately fell in love with the game. It became one of the greatest JRPGs I ever played. As a result, I grew curious with the series' history and heard wonderful things about its predecessors: Persona 3 FES and Persona 4 Golden. Wanting to play them in a set order, I started with P3 FES and downloaded it to my PS3. 110 hours later, becoming the longest game I have ever played, I have finally cleared The Journey.
With the release of Persona 5 Royal due within the next month, now would be the perfect time to go over Atlus' first noteworthy re-release of one of their Persona titles. FES was the first time Atlus re-released an expanded version of the Persona series. With the number of changes that Royal will receive from the original Persona 5, it pays to know what awaits players who grab the re-released title. If you're interested in knowing the changes from Persona 3 to FES, you can view them all here.
The narrative in Persona 3 expands over 100 hours. You'll learn about the Arcana, demons, mythological beings, and more. Your characters will all grow and learn to depend on you. Many of them will face loss but grow stronger from it. Persona 3 tells an unabashedly dark and tragic story. It isn't afraid to kill a character you might grow attached to.
Outside of the main narrative, you'll manage social links. You'll spend parts of your day strengthening a character trait or bridging gaps by spending time with other people. The well-written dialogue meshes together with wonderful characterization, choices, and even presents interesting historical, mathematical, and scientific facts!
Keep in mind that Persona 3 runs on a calendar system. This means you'll need to spend your time wisely. Worse comes to worse, you'll just have to cram in a ton of grinding to prepare for the boss. It's never too late, but will become inconvenient for the player.
Battling features traditional turn-based JRPG battling. However, you can only control your protagonist. Characters, like Akihiko and Yukari, can heal. Meanwhile, other characters will stay fighting. You can adjust their A.I. settings. However, this will not always bring out the guaranteed result. Sometimes your party member won't use a group healing spell or won't spend time buffing your party while debuffing the enemy. Other times, you'll have to babysit Mitsuru from attempting to charm an enemy that cannot be charmed.
Fortunately, you'll get to swap out party members as you see fit. Or you can just opt to use them never. Unfortunately, this also means they won't get secondary EXP gains. They simply won't level up at all.
Fortunately, you can use many Personas. At the end of each battle, you can pick the card you want in a mini-game. When you're not getting the EXP wand, you're likely picking up money or a new Persona. Each one comes with its own attacks and elemental spells. You'll later enter the Velvet Room and fuse these Personas for even more power.
Keep in mind that sometimes you can opt not to fuse, then choose fusion again and their attacks may end up different. Moreover, you can unlock even more Persona by clearing social links. The elements they give you will help dictate if you need a certain elemental party member or not. For instance, if you have someone with Bufu (Ice) skills, you might not need Mitsuru in your party. With that said, it just showcases that the A.I. isn't perfect and you'll have to manage it at times in order to keep your head on your shoulders.
Also, you'll fight a boss at the end of each month. However, you'll seldom fight enemies en route to the boss. Plus you won't be able to save. In other words, if you die, you will have to start the day over again and skip a ton of dialogue. Honestly, there's no shame in using a guide to decipher boss weaknesses. This becomes especially true considering your ability to view their stats and weaknesses won't help you unlike with most common enemies.
One particular facet I love about Persona 3 is its whole aesthetic. While the in-game models still look decent for a PS2 title, the character artwork that accompanies dialogue stands out well. Also, more than just admiring the detail to visual and animations, I'm really a fan of how the game uses the Arcana.
Each demon has its own design and the Arcana shows the Tarot Card related to that demon. The Arcana all connects to each boss fight, social link, and Persona you use. You don't have to learn them in order to progress, but you may learn something interesting from their background. Plus, some demons have designs you can only find in a series like this.
Despite being 110 hours long, Persona 3 may very well have one of the best soundtracks I have ever heard. I love all the map music, high-energy battle themes, the vocal songs, and the sad themes that suit the mood. The voice acting is done by some professionals you may have heard of in anime such as Naruto, FullMetal Alchemist, Bleach, or perhaps other video games. I won't say it's perfect all of the time. I didn't find Chidori's performance to give much emotion and found Pharos' voice to be even creepier than it was likely intended to be. But that might be more of a casting issue than poor voice acting. At worst, it's slightly unfitting, but never becomes outright bad. If anything, Persona 3's dubbing sits well ahead of many games of its era.
Compared to Persona 5, I am completely shocked at how well this game held up. Keep in mind that Persona 3 was originally released in Japan in 2006. To have the pacing and fluidity of battle, the depth of storytelling, the use of multiple genres to create all kinds of music, and the sheer amount of activities you can do places it well ahead of its time.
In contrast, Persona 3 FES only falls short largely due to quality of life improvements showcased by its successors. You can't control party members, save on boss days, or skip cutscenes. Plus the game can be unforgiving at times, ending much of your progress through Tartarus or a boss stage.
Final Verdict: Recommended
I find Persona 5 to be a better game overall. But that also comes from the series developing over a decade of evolution, which allowed the aesthetics, battle systems, and activities to evolve and flourish over time. When it comes to narrative and polish, Persona 3 may very well be second to none in its generation all while it still remains a top game in its genre. If I would have played this back in the day, it would have easily become my favorite PS2 game.
*All images courtesy of Atlus USA