Xbox One, PS4, PC, PS5, Xbox Series X|S
February 2, 2024
When it was first released back on the PS2 in 2006, Persona 3 was a greatly influential JRPG codifying the formula upon which its more well-known successors have expanded. With Persona 3 Reload, Atlus has gone back to this seminal installment and attempted to bring it into the modern era via a massive graphical overhaul and integrating gameplay features introduced in later entries, despite leaving out much of the new content introduced in its PSP port. The result is a somewhat odd combination that is definitely a satisfying and content-rich JRPG, but still, one which feels a bit dated despite attempts at modernisation.
Persona 3 Reload starts you off as a teenage boy starting the new school year at Gekkoukan High School on Tatsumi Port Island. Not long after your arrival, it becomes readily apparent that this is not going to be any normal year, as you are one of the rare individuals who is aware of the Dark Hour, a mysterious period at midnight where Shadows, monstrous creatures borne of humanity’s subconscious, roam. You also gain the ability to summon supernatural entities known as Personas to fight the Shadows and explore a massive dungeon called Tartarus that erupts from your school during the Dark Hour.
When you aren’t fighting Shadows and unlocking new Personas, you are going to school each day, levelling up your social stats and forming Social Links with your classmates and associates which also unlocks new combat options. It’s hard not to become immersed in the world as you take up part-time jobs for a bit of extra cash and hang out with your classmates at the cinema or the weird alcoholic monk in the nightclub. Some effort has been made to make completing all the Social Links in one playthrough a bit less daunting, with mobile phone text messages notifying you when certain NPCs are available to interact with and when special limited-time events are occurring
As with subsequent Persona games, Persona 3 Reload is a slow burn. The game takes well over an hour to take its training wheels off and let the player explore at their leisure. Fortunately, new characters are added to your Shadow-hunting posse of Persona-summoning teenagers known as the Special Extracurricular Execution Squad, or SEES, regularly to inject a bit more energy into the plot when its loop of “grind until the next major boss shows up” grows a bit stale.
Despite a new English voice cast, the plot and general structure of Persona 3 Reload is mostly faithful to the original, for better and for worse. Some (but not all) of the base game’s outdated humour has been updated, with one particularly transphobic scene in the original getting a much-needed rewrite. Unlike Persona 3 Portable, the female playable character option is unavailable this time around, along with all of the exclusive Social Links and story content that was in that version of the game.
It’s a real shame, as due to Persona 3 Reload being stuck with the same Social Link options as the base game from 2006, you cannot form Social Links with your male party members (although no longer being obligated to romance your female Social Links to complete them is a good inclusion), leaving the male party members feeling a bit out of focus. While new optional Link Episode scenes have been introduced with your male party members to give them a bit more of a spotlight that they lacked in the base game, it isn’t a fitting substitute for erasing much of the Persona 3 content that is already present in other versions of the game.
Where Persona 3 Reload really shakes things up is its combat. Despite the game’s fidelity to the 2006 original, you can now directly control all of your party members in combat, just like in the PSP port. Much has been overhauled to give the game a similar pace and energy to Persona 5, such as the inclusion of Shifts (which allow you to switch to a different party member on your character’s turn when you land a critical hit or exploit an enemy weakness) and cool unique victory screens when you finish a battle with an All-Out Attack. Special Theurgy attacks have also been added, which are supermoves that charge up over time; they were a neat inclusion adding a lot of visual flair into the combat and providing useful options for damage-dealing against foes with a lot of elemental resistances.
The main aspect holding Persona 3 Reload back is the same core issue that has made the game difficult to return to since Persona 4 and 5 came out, which is Tartarus, its main dungeon and the location of most of the combat. Unlike its successors, which have a variety of distinctly themed locations with their own special puzzles and unique boss fights, Persona 3 has only one big mega-dungeon that steadily expands throughout the game. Despite some efforts to make Tartarus a more interesting place to explore… it just isn’t very engaging.
“…Tartarus just feels like the same dungeon no matter what level you’re on, with slight visual overhauls every couple of levels to keep it feeling somewhat fresh.”
Each floor in Tartarus is procedurally generated, with a very limited variety of floor layouts of which the player will become intimately familiar across Tartarus’ 200+ floors. Floors may have optional objectives, such as rare treasure, stronger enemies, or special mini-dungeons with mini-bosses and rare equipment, but it doesn’t remove the fact that Tartarus is quite a dull place to explore. Unlike Persona 5’s Palaces, where each one had unique challenges, objectives and layouts making each one exciting to unlock, Tartarus just feels like the same dungeon no matter what level you’re on, with slight visual overhauls every couple of levels to keep it feeling somewhat fresh.
With the player having to frequently return there to grind before the next major boss fight, unlock new Personas and rescue lost civilians who become trapped there, the fact that Tartarus is really monotonous is hard to move past. The game as a whole is at least somewhat easier than its base version as a result of many of the new gameplay features alleviating some of the combat system’s more frustrating elements, such as a mechanic to auto-level up your reserve party members if they fall too far behind. As a result, at least I didn’t feel the pressure to grind too heavily on the default difficulty option.
Even when the loop of dungeon crawling and Social Link-advancing started to grow somewhat stale, Persona 3 Reload was consistently nice to look at. Tonnes of visual flair has been injected into navigating the game’s menus alone, with simple elements like navigating the equipment screen in the pause menu feeling fun to watch. I found the story to feel a lot more dramatic this time around with its fully animated character models, having only experienced the base game in the more limited Persona 3 Portable version, which did away with most of that due to technical limitations. While it doesn’t quite measure up to Persona 5’s level of style (in particular, Persona 3 Reload could have done with including 5’s cool animations when transitioning between areas), it is still exactly the kind of visual shot in the arm that a remake like this should bring when updating a PS2 game to the modern era.
- The revamped combat is more feature-rich and fast-paced than ever
- New optional scenes give ignored side characters much-needed focus
- Visual overhauls make cutscenes and even menu navigation a treat
- Lack of content added in subsequent Persona 3 ports (such as the female protagonist) is disappointing
- Despite attempts to revamp it, Tartarus remains a dull and samey dungeon to have to constantly return to
Persona 3 Reload feels simultaneously like it has been adequately modernised and yet also remains stuck in the past. While the updated combat and visuals make the game a lot more approachable for fans whose first game in the series was Persona 5, the monotonous procedurally generated dungeon that takes up half the game is hard to look past. Furthermore, for players who are existing fans of Persona 3, it is a definite shame that so much of the new content introduced in other versions of the game isn’t present here. Despite those shortcomings, Persona 3 Reload remains an excellent (if not necessarily definitive) version of a groundbreaking JRPG that is still a joy to play in 2024, and Persona and general JRPG fans are sure to have a great time.