Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 Portable is a turn-based role-playing game with dungeon crawling. Persona is a character-focused spin-off of the mainline SMT games.
You play as a high school student who is part of an elite group that fights Shadows during the Dark Hour: a supernatural phenomenon that occurs at midnight. During the day, you simulate the life of a student by going to class and hanging out with friends.
Pro Well-written dark and mature story about finding hope in impossible situations
The story here deals with a lot of death, darkness, and suffering, but there's always a light at the end of the tunnel if you're willing to look for it. You start off as a regular high school student who transfers to a new school in the city, assigned to live in a dorm with a group of other students. There's a supernatural phenomenon that happens at midnight known as the Dark Hour where Shadows turn up on the streets and cause all kinds of trouble in the city. You and the group of students in the dorm are among the few who are lucid during the Dark Hour, so it's up to you to stop the Shadows every night at midnight and the full moon.
Things can get quite dark with the way the plot explores human sin and how our own vices can corrupt us. Some of the symbolism of what the Shadows represent can be pretty grim. But the main protagonist always has his group of friends to fall back on -- a theme that shines through the hopelessness and despair without getting heavy-handed or cheesy. It's a full, well-written story from start to finish that stays with you for a long time.
Pro You get to collect and control many types of demons and angels as your Personas to fight in battle
Your Personas are demons and angels that you summon to use their spells and special abilities in battle. Fusing different Personas together lets you create stronger ones with better abilities. You can switch your Personas in and out of battle as needed to exploit enemy weaknesses you come across. And there are hundreds of different types of demons and angels with their own fitting designs and relevant mythological lore, ranging from familiar names like Shiva, Lilith, Valkyrie, Phoenix, Raphael, and many many more.
Pro Challenging yet rewarding turn-based combat
The battles in Persona 3 are tough, yet once you get the hang of the system, it's quite engaging. You fight with your Personas and your party members, who have their set Personas of their own, aiming to pinpoint your enemy's elemental weaknesses and exploit them. Once you find the weakness, you and your team are rewarded with an extra turn; if you keep landing the right attacks, then the game lets you chain a finite number of turns one after another. If you don't look up a guide, then finding weaknesses is a matter of trial and error.
But this also applies to your enemies -- if they exploit your weaknesses, then they get extra turns instead. The bosses are pretty hard since they hit for a ton of damage, so you absolutely need to take advantage of gaining extra turns. And as you get farther along in the game, you get access to buffs to your party's attack, defense, evasion, and more, as well as debuffs to debilitate your foes. As you get better with the combat and earn some tough victories, the sense of satisfaction you get helps you to keep pushing forward.
Pro Building friendships with characters through Social Links gives you an edge in battle
There are all sorts of characters to get to know and befriend through the Social Link system. You can make friends with your classmates, your party members, and a few other characters in the community of the city you live in. Spending time with them gives you a contained, and often touching story where you get to know them more and help them solve a personal struggle. After reaching the end of their Social Link, you're able to fuse special and powerful Personas that can help you tackle some of the game's hardest challenges. It's a neat system that gives you a gameplay incentive for building relationships.
Pro Persona 3 Portable has a few bonuses, like playing as a female main character
The most notable addition in this version is getting to choose the female protagonist or the regular Persona 3 male protagonist. There's also a big plus in getting to control all of your party members during battle, a key mechanic that the original Persona 3 sorely lacks.
Playing as the FeMC, as she's known in the Persona community, opens up Social Links for all of your party members. This is great since you could only have Social Links with your female party members as the male protagonist, and you were limited to romances with them instead of platonic friendships. Some of FeMC's Social Links are much better than the male protagonist's options, making them worth checking out.
Pro Cool and modern sense of style with the visuals and soundtrack
Everything in Persona 3 is stylistically on-point. The recurring cool blue or warm pink in the eye-catching menus and UI, text boxes, and even the protagonist's features gives the game a distinct aesthetic. The character designs are also really cool, with slender forms and a modern yet laid-back sense of fashion. And the trip-hop/hip-hop soundtrack blends classical, rock, pop, and synthwave sounds together in such a unique way that no other game really comes close to. Despite all the different ideas, it all comes together as a cool and cohesive look.
Pro Memorable final boss that fits the game thematically
Without spoiling anything, Persona 3's last boss is one to remember. It's a grueling fight with an incredible accompanying music track. The challenge surrounding the boss fits right with the theme's of tackling impossible situations when all hope seems lost. It's a standout fight among JRPGs, period.
Con The main dungeon, Tartarus, is an insanely repetitive grind
Tartarus is an impossibly high tower that only shows up during the Dark Hour, filled with Shadows and strong bosses. Outside of story sequences during the full moon, Tartarus is the only place you get to go for dungeon crawling. The randomly-generated rooms mostly look the same from floor to floor, save for some color swaps after you beat a boss and unlock the next section of the tower.
All you do is look for the next set of stairs up in between fighting against Shadows over and over and over again for the entire game. It's really, really repetitive, and unless you adore this kind of grinding, you will have to push yourself through this somehow to continue on with the story.
Con The combat is hard -- especially boss battles
Persona 3 is a challenging game with tough difficulty spikes during boss fights. Once you get a hang of the elemental weaknesses and earning extra turns, there's still the issue with bosses overwhelming you with tons of damage and/or boosted defenses. Grinding for levels is an option, but you want to always prioritize fusing better Personas with stronger and more useful abilities such as buffs and debuffs. As long as you do that, you should be fine.
Con Persona 3 Portable is pared down compared to Persona 3 FES
While Persona 3 Portable does offer some nice bonuses and a change of pace with the female protagonist, there are also a number of drawbacks. The game plays more like a visual novel than anything, taking away your 3D space to explore environments. It doesn't come with The Answer, either, which is the expansion in Persona 3 FES that adds more battle content with a lengthy story. This is still a good choice for those looking to play Persona 3, but if you want the full experience, you should pick up the FES version as well.
Con Long stretches of in-game days with no story progression
For a large chunk of the story, you're stuck waiting until the next full moon. This is when the most powerful Shadows show up in the form of a boss fight, letting you progress the story. But there are times when you have absolutely no other cutscenes during an entire moon cycle. Your party members just tell you to wait and hang in there until the next segment. All you can do is go to school or the mall or maybe hang out with any available Social Links, and it feels pretty monotonous when you're stuck waiting like this.