Now decades old, the Persona franchise is one of the most recognizable JRPGs around the globe. It took time to reach that point, though; with each entry in the series, it attained more and more acclaim within the gaming world’s consciousness. Persona 5 has become almost synonymous with sales, quickly becoming the Megami Tensei franchise’s most successful title and being at least partially responsible for the attention given to Shin Megami Tensei V, the latest installment of Persona’s mother series which has always been a bit more niche outside of Japan.
Before Persona 5 stole the hearts of the entire gaming community, and before even Persona 4 became an essential PS2 experience in the console’s twilight days (and the primary reason many purchased a Vita), Persona 3 brought the series to new critical and mechanical heights, forging the calendar-based flow and life simulation elements the series is known for. At one point, it was something of an in-joke that the Persona series began at 3. Revelations: Persona, the series’ maiden voyage and the first Megami Tensei game to receive a localization, failed to make a splash in the west because of heavy edits made to the script, cut content, abundance of text, and crunchy gameplay. The Persona 2 duology failed to launch because Innocent Sin’s “controversial” storyline led to hand-wringing over how it would be received in America. Its sequel, Eternal Punishment, was released with some similar alterations to Revelations, making it a rather neutered and incomplete experience.
Funny enough, these days even Persona 3 has fallen into (relative) obscurity when compared to its successors, mostly due to lack of availability—the last opportunity to purchase the game was back on the PlayStation 3, where it can still be downloaded. Occasionally, fans of the series whose first experience was with Persona 5 have some difficulty with Persona 3 even if they do manage to get their hands on a copy. In its original incarnation—as well as its enhanced remake, FES—the party members are solely controlled by AI, requiring an extra level of strategy with giving them commands that you can bypass in Persona 4 and 5. As someone who started out with 3, I’ve always liked the inclusion of keeping your party members as AI units and have continued to do it since; there’s something freeing about not having to micromanage your entire party, many of which are only able to fulfill a couple roles in any given battle anyway.
Other than that, 3’s gameplay—somewhat of a bridge between the series’ dungeon-crawling origins and the efficient, elegant rock-paper-scissors simulator it is now—can be alienating for players looking for an immediately streamlined experience. 3’s story takes a while to build up steam, and the gameplay itself can be punishing and grindy where later entries allow you to stroll through at an even pace.
All these factors serve to contextualize why Atlus decided they would rerelease Persona 3 Portable over FES this year. Released for the PSP about a year after 4, Portable includes a lot of the features and tweaks from 4. Portable allows full control over your party as is the norm now, and removes the ability for you to reverse all but one of your Social Links. A “Defend” command was added, and party members can jump in to save you from a killing blow depending on their affinity for you. It’s balanced to be an overall less frustrating experience with a little less friction both in combat and in the game’s life simulation segments. Of course, Portable’s most notable changes revolve around its new female protagonist, the game’s major selling point as an essential part of the Persona 3 experience.
Many might balk at the idea of purchasing and playing what is, at its core, the same game three times, but FES and Portable have enough differences to make it difficult to recommend one over the other. Portable looks great and has a lot of added bells and whistles, but also lacks the free-roaming exploration of the original (instead replacing it with point-and-click area maps, which, while superficial, does cheapen the game’s setting to a degree) and anime cutscenes, replacing these moments with in-engine visual novel segments. Portable also does not adapt FES’s additional scenario, “The Answer.” All this would be enough for me to whole-heartedly discourage people from playing Portable over FES if the opportunity to play as the female protagonist wasn’t a different and, at times, better experience than playing as its male protagonist.
It’s no secret that Persona occupies a typically male perspective, so much so that it verges into the misogynistic and homophobic at times. When gamifying the experience of dating, you run into some hurdles that come across as insensitive or off-putting. There are numerous dating sims out there that handle this with care and ease; Persona occasionally makes you feel like you’re playing a pick-up artist, with the games decreasingly punishing you for dating multiple girls at the same time. Infamously, Katsura Hashino, the director for Persona 3 through 5, said he’s “never successfully forged a friendship with a girl.” More recently, Hashino stated that adding female protagonists hasn’t been a priority for the team because the workload associated with it isn’t worth the expense, and stated that Persona 4 would not have worked without a male protagonist.
Portable stands as a testament that a female protagonist makes perfect sense within the series, and even offers a unique perspective that playing as a male wouldn’t. This lies in contrast with many games that allow you to pick the gender of your protagonist; where many would rely on the same script with little variance for pronouns and mild reactions from other characters, playing as Portable’s female protagonist allows for a new way to view the story. There are many times throughout the original 3 where the groups are split by gender, usually in moments of downtime—at the beach, hot springs, things like that. While playing as the female protagonist, you’ll spend time with the female cast instead. There are a few scenes like this peppered through the game which allows you to get to know and understand the female characters in much deeper, more tender ways, removed from the idea of romantic conquest.
The female protagonist also has several Social Links unique to her route, including the ability to romance the game’s male cast (more on that later). One of the most interesting new Social Links in the game is Saori Hasegawa, a fellow student who works either in the library or the nurse’s office. During your time with Saori, she’s asked out by a boy who is dating another girl—unaware of this, she says yes, and his girlfriend finds and confronts her before spreading rumors about Saori being promiscuous. Later, she’s suspended from school after a reporter pays her to take her picture on the street, printing a sensationalized and false article about teens who party and have sex underage. Saori’s Social Link has surprisingly nuanced things to say about the ways in which both men and women manufacture consent to bully, demean, and shame other women.
Unfortunately, Portable isn’t without its own endemic issues; most notably, the game allows you to pursue and date Ken, a fellow party member who is 10 years old. When playing as the male protagonist, you can’t forge a Social Link with any of the male party members—the female protagonist can create one with all of them, and most provide a unique opportunity to understand these characters in more sensitive ways than before. Junpei’s stands out, being the only one of the male party members you actually can’t date; the platonic bent of his storyline is refreshing within context. Shinjiro’s adds a lot of depth and grace to one of the game’s best characters, who gets little screentime in comparison to the rest. Ken’s, however, is a grim reminder of how the writers view friendships between men and women—inherently romantic in some way, otherwise what reason would there be to have a relationship?
The ability to make female friendships, to see the girls in the game as well-rounded people, is vital if the series wants to be taken seriously by a wide audience not poisoned by otaku tendencies. It’s a shame that it takes having a female protagonist to understand these characters outside of the looming possibility that you might date them. Sadly, as the series has progressed, the writing has become more and more player-centric, with 5 having very few scenes featuring party members that don’t involve the protagonist himself. If Persona wants to fix its misogyny issue, it first has to address its obsession with catering to those who so desperately want stories in games to revolve around them. To view women as people you must first let go of your own self-centered ego.
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire