It's now been more than 10 years after I played this for the first time when it just came out in europe and my opinion on Persona 3 has barely changed. The japanese school-life sim aspect was truely novel at the time, and it was only that novelty that allowed me to look past the game's glaring pacing issues. Ironically Atlus remedied these somewhat in the original release of Persona 4 a couple years later, only to backtrack and make them even worse in the most recent Persona 5. I honestly don't know what the developers at Atlus are thinking here.
Compared to the later games Persona 3 and the updated Persona 3 FES lack the quick-jump menu that allows you to move from one location to another on the fly. While this means extra time is wasted walking around places, I think it's more important that the game barely wastes the player's time with unavoidable filler content. Nothing like the smartphone chats of P5 or its terribly dungeon cutscenes. The story is kept very concise with little development until the end of the game, but considering the social link system already slows the gameplay down to a crawl this is ultimately fine. In comparison Persona 5 with its stronger focus on development during the early game, while at the same time employing the social link system as is, made for the worst pacing in any RPG I have played to date. Another strong point of P3 in hindsight is that the game barely has any tutorials. You're expected to have checked out the manual before playing and it shows. No annoying text boxes popping up every few minutes here ruining the first 30 hours of playtime.
As for the dungeon crawling segment Persona 3 makes no mistakes. Somehow people praise the ones from P5 a lot, and I'll never understand them for that. The mechanics employed by P3 actually allow the player a lot more freedom in how they play inside of a dungeon. They can always attempt a mad rush to the next floor, sacrificing exprience points, items and money in favor for their time. Enemies can be avoided in most situations by carefuly sneaking around them. Ironically this works a lot better than it does in P5 which is conscious about its stealth gameplay, yet forces the player to fight every enemy because leaving them alive creates too much risk to be detected. The dungeons in P5 feel as much of a chore as grinding social links does, while in Persona 3 I feel the dungeon crawling is the real meat of the game where my every decision matters.
Unlike later games (including the PSP port of itself) Persona 3 FES still doesn't allow the player to have full control over their party members' actions in combat. I'll never hear the end of it with people complaining here, but personally I'll always appreciate how this aspect intensifies the feeling of immersion into the game world even further. Not to mention I have barely had any problems with the partner AI in P3 since figuring out the importance of the various tactical commands. All in all I've only died once in my recent playthrough, and that wasn't due to odd AI behavior. In the end you just need to know what you're doing and the game plays perfectly fine.
It's true the Persona fusion system is super archaic compared to more recent entries in both Persona and classic Shin Megami Tensei, but I'm split on this aspect. On the one hand there's a lot of quality of life improvements when it comes to navigating the fusion menus that I really appreciate, on the other hand I feel the modern systems are a tad too restrictive when it comes to skill inheritance. It may be a lot of tedious work but I'll always appreciate how much freedom Persona 3 hands the player when it comes to skillset customization.
But despite the overall awful pacing Persona 3 FES remains to be one of my biggest RPG favorites. The characters are just that great, and to a degree so are the theme and storytelling. You can tell the developers originally had a strong interest in the human mind (the series title is a term also used in psychology) as each member of the main cast develops through important events as parts of the main story. The cast of Persona 5 almost feels like a bunch of caricatures in comparison, and there is a clear lack of integration. A clear distinction is that the events in Persona 3's story only unfold in union with its cast and because of it, the characters are very intergral to the plot. In Persona 5 they tried really hard to get a sense of companionship but beyond that it never feels like the characters themselves are all that important. In a way virtually any party of Phantom Thieves can make Persona 5 work, while Persona 3 only works specifically with the characters it presents.
In conclusion once the novelty of the mechanics has worn off Persona 3 is a mindnumbing repetion of the same routine for hours on end, with little happening in beween to keep the player engaged. That is unless they are really interested in the developments of the various social links. And don't mind the occasional school lecture slowing gameplay down even further.
But while having a high cost on time this is only half the game. The dungeon crawling coupled with the fusion system is real fun for players who enjoy building characters, and the story and characters are top-notch. Unlike most game there is a real message here that may cause the player to stop and think about their actions outside the game.
Now this is me rambling, but my ideal Persona game has the strong writing and characters of Persona 3 & 4 coupled with a less time consuming, much less repetitive, much more engaging modern life sim. Or maybe just scratch the simulation aspect because Persona 2 was also fantastic ignoring the comparatively bad dungeons.
Because Persona 5 failed to deliver that expect me to keep complaining about it for years to come.
Persona 3 by itself was and is still so awesome in its strong points it alone makes me care for the series that much to say this.