Persona 3 Reload Review – Firing On All Cylinders

Mass Reconstruction

While often overshadowed by its beloved sequels, Persona 3’s impact on modern RPGs is still tangible today. It laid the groundwork for a formula that elegantly blurs the line between gameplay and narrative, entangling seemingly disparate gameplay systems and elements into an elaborate web of enticing feedback loops that keep you coming back for just one more in-game day.

Despite this, to say that Persona 3 is hard to approach for fans of the modern games would be an understatement. Between numerous versions and countless content differences, there is no definitive way to play Persona 3 – until now, that is.

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Persona 3 Reload aims to deliver the quintessential way to experience this all-important title. Rebuilt from the ground up with new assets, gameplay elements, expanded dialogue, and a presentation that even Persona 5 would be envious of. While it hasn’t fully escaped some of its archaic trappings, and some new elements don’t feel as carefully thought out as others, Reload is undoubtedly the best way to play this seminal RPG.

Persona 3 Reload stays incredibly faithful to the source material. After transferring into Gekkoukan High, our protagonist finds himself pulled into a mysterious 25th hour in the day known as the Dark Hour. Coffins fill the streets in place of people who can’t freely roam the Dark Hour, the night sky is tinged an eerie green, and Gekkoukan High is transformed into a colossal monument to death known as Tartarus. After being attacked by monstrous beings known as Shadows, the protagonist awakens to the power of their Persona, and the ability to fight back against the Dark Hour by extension.

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After being recruited into the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad – otherwise known as SEES – it falls to you and the other members of SEES to explore Tartarus, destroy Shadows, and uncover the grim truth behind the Dark Hour. It’s a simple premise bolstered by its cast of loveable characters and exploration of death, what it means to exist, and the human condition. Persona games have always dealt with heavy subject matter, and 3 can feel particularly weighty at points – but much of it is to its benefit.

Persona 3 Reload has a tangible atmosphere at times, particularly towards the end of the game. It comes through in every aspect of its design from its utterly sublime soundtrack, its contemplative and sombre user interface, and varied Social Links. Reload encompasses a wide gamut of emotional output across its 50-hour runtime.

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In true Persona fashion, much of this comes through the game’s many optional Social Links, but that isn’t to say Persona 3 Reload’s main narrative is a snooze. The mystery at the heart of this story is an intriguing one, complete with twists and turns that keeps things fresh as you slowly uncover the truth. It’s all brought together by the way it entwines each member of SEES in a seamless manner, something that Reload really set out to improve in a lot of aspects.

While a lot of the early SEES members haven’t seen many changes in Reload thanks to their deft handling in prior versions of Persona 3, some of the later characters like Ken Amada, Shinjiro Aragaki, and resident best boy Koromaru have been vastly expanded in their backgrounds and motivations for joining SEES. I won’t get into it too much here, but the added character depth implored me to include these characters more often in my party setup, and deepened my appreciation for them to a point that previous iterations of Persona 3 were unable to.

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A large part of this is thanks to excellent voice work across the board from a new slew of actors in Reload. Each one brings the same energy as their original iterations with their own twist, paying respect to the original voice actors while making it their own. A special shoutout should go to Aleks Le for his part as the protagonist, Pharos, and Ryoji, whose performance feels dynamic for each of his roles, shifting in subtlety and tone of delivery where needed to help each of these characters land. The original cast of Persona 3 also appear in minor roles peppered throughout the story, which is a nice nod for longtime fans.

It all comes together really nicely in the way that each character’s plight is inextricably linked to the themes Persona 3 Reload embraces so wholly. From Yukari’s determination to uncover the truth behind her father’s death to Aigis trying to work out what her purpose is in life outside of being an anti-Shadow weapon. Everyone’s arc feels purposeful here despite the size of the main cast, and while they aren’t all made equal, each has something unique to offer.

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If there’s one part of this that I had to knock, it’s that the game still suffers from pacing issues at different points in the narrative. There’s often long stretches of time with little to no story progression, and the ability to knock out a block of Tartarus in a single night with smart use of resources can make for long stretches of dungeon crawling if you want to optimize how you spend your time. The worst offender is undoubtedly the month of December, where the whole game slams on the brakes right after some big story revelations.

The core gameplay loop of deciding how to spend your time during the day and dungeon crawling at night is here in full force. It’s the kind of “just one more day” decision making that keeps you locked in for hours on end. Picking and choosing who you want to spend time with, which stats you want to increase and how you can most effectively use your time when exploring Tartarus is forever engaging.

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Persona 3’s Social Links also remain largely untouched in Reload, apart from the new wrinkle of all of the major ones being fully voiced, and the Aigis Social Link is also present despite its absence in the original game. While some Social Links are undoubtedly better than others, each feels worth experiencing in their totalities. There’s some real highlights here, like Akinari Kamiki who’s coming to terms with the fact that he doesn’t have much time to live due to a genetic disease. Or Maiko Oohashi who finds solace from her argumentative parents in the time she spends playing with you at the local playground.

Even if you’ve seen all that these Social Links have to offer in past iterations, being entirely voiced in Reload adds a lot of emotional depth to each level of each Social Link. It becomes all too easy to find yourself emotionally attached to these characters all over again, and brings a level of freshness to it all that makes it feel brand-new.

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There are also new events to partake in with party members separate to their Social Links, where you can cook, garden, or watch movies to improve your stats and gain consumables to use in battle. Hanging out with party members like this also unlocks Characteristics, which are powerful passive abilities that bolster their kits. Things like reducing the SP cost of recovery skills for Yukari or increasing Junpei’s critical hit rate and damage which are always helpful.

You can otherwise choose to spend your time working for a bit of extra cash, eating in at restaurants for stat boosts, or simply studying. There’s also a communal dorm computer you can use to access websites to boost your stats and gain new skills across various facets of the game, from improving your attacks in combat to growing your yield when harvesting the vegetables you grow from gardening.

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When you aren’t spending time with friends or improving your own skill sets, you’ll be exploring Tartarus. A monolithic, 200+ floor omen to death at the center of the Dark Hour’s existence. If you aren’t familiar with Tartarus, it’s essentially a mega dungeon split into blocks, with procedurally generated floors and boss encounters peppered throughout. It’s perhaps the most infamous part of Persona 3 due to its mundanity, and is where Reload gets the most liberal with its changes.

It’s still a collection of procedurally generated floors that you’ll ascend as you explore it, but there are countless new inclusions and quality of life changes that make it much more digestible. For starters you can now dash as you move through Tartarus, which sounds like a small thing, but does a lot to cut down on time spent moving through each floor. You’ll also gain access to an ambush attack similar to the one found in Persona 5, letting you get the jump on enemies to gain the upper hand at the start of battle.

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Tartarus is also home to Monad Doors and Monad Passages, which offer extra challenging Shadow encounters in exchange for rare rewards. These offer some real difficult battles – especially the Passages – some of which err on the side of true challenge encounters that function more as a puzzle and encourage creative thinking to get past them. The rewards are always worthwhile, which leaves them as a welcome opportunity to test your battle skills and knowledge.

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There’s also the Twilight Fragment system, where you can spend Twilight Fragments you find in Tartarus on opening locked chests, or to recover your HP and SP. Greedy Shadows also inhabit Tartarus, which are essentially large-sized rare Shadows that drop a bucket load of experience, cash, and items if you manage to hunt them down. There’s even an experience catch-up mechanic which can help to keep your under-levelled party members up to snuff for battle when you need them most. It all comes together to make Tartarus a more varied experience overall, while also baking in more decision making for you to consider as you explore.

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Outside of Tartarus, there’s the monthly Full Moon Operation to engage with where the gang takes on a major boss Shadow during that month’s full moon. These are challenging and visually refreshing encounters that often include unique mechanics that require you engage with combat a bit more cerebrally when you otherwise would. There are very few changes to these encounters in Reload, but offer a welcome break from Tartarus nonetheless.

Speaking of battle, the basis of hitting weaknesses to knock down enemies and gain extra turns is still the name of the game here. You’ll make use of physical and elemental attacks to exploit enemy affinities to gain the upper hand, but there’s some notable improvements to combat that bring it up to modern standards. The new Shift mechanic functions the same as Persona 5’s Baton Pass, letting you tag in another party member upon knocking an enemy down to further exploit weaknesses in the hopes of unleashing an all-out attack.

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There’s also the all-new Theurgy skills, which are powerful abilities that need to be charged up before they can be used. Each party member has their own unique Theurgy skills, and the conditions for charging them depends on the party member. Where Yukari fills up her theurgy gauge by healing, the protagonist fills his up by swapping between different Persona in battle.

While these attacks are flashy, and there’s some strategy to using them at the right time when you first unlock them, they can quickly trivialise certain encounters once you understand how to efficiently charge your Theurgy Gauges. All of them ignore resistances, some inflict ailments, provide full healing for your entire party, or even have a decent chance at knocking down enemies. They’re fun to look at and add a new layer of strategy to combat, but feel a little too powerful overall.

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Despite all of these improvements and changes to combat, you’ll still being doing a ton of it as you explore Tartarus, which is part of the reason the mega dungeon became such a drag in other iterations of Persona 3. Thankfully, combat has a new level of style and flash to it similar to what you’d see in Persona 5, which helps combat feel fresh, fluid, and responsive all throughout Reload’s runtime.

Gorgeous new UI elements ebb and flow on the screen as unleash Persona across the battlefield in an element haze. Character cut-ins are flashier then ever, shattering in the background as you knock down enemies. Attack animations are needlessly pretty, shifting to another party member has a kinetic energy to it that can only be described as infectious, and all-out attacks culminate in wildly expressive and unique character graphics that hammer home personalities and combat styles. It’s the same kind of next-level presentation that Persona 5 was praised for, but it feels even more elevated in Persona 3 Reload.

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Shuffle Time is also slightly changed in Reload, feeling more embedded within your overall progress through Tartarus and the broader narrative. You still pick between a slew of rewards after battle, but you can grow the levels of these rewards by collecting Major Arcana cards in Shuffle Time whenever you visit Tartarus. As you clear Full Moon Operations, you’ll gain more Major Arcana cards, which means it takes more time to get a full deck to boost the level further. It adds another layer to the decision making of Shuffle Time and puts more control in the hands of the player when it comes to levelling up Shuffle Time cards and their rewards.

Shuffle Time is also where you gain new Persona to use in battle, and in Persona Fusion. Fusion is also mostly the same, but includes some nice quality of life features from Persona 5, such as search fusion where you can filter fusions by viewing results as opposed to flicking through each Persona in your stock. Multi-Persona Fusion is also condensed down into Special Fusion, which cuts out some of the in-game waiting for Fusions with four or even five Persona.

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The area where Reload is most obviously improved is in its visuals. Everything here has been completely remade from the ground up with truly stunning results. From the numerous locales of Tatsumi Port Island and the harrowing halls of Tartarus, to the expressive character portraits, Persona 3 feels more well realized than ever within Reload. Tartarus in particular has seen quite the face lift, with each block not only emphasizing their unique visual designs, but also varying in architecture and floor layouts. All of this coupled with the aforementioned overhaul of the user interface, and brand new animated and CG cutscenes leave Persona 3 Reload feeling like a true modernization of Persona 3 that retains all of the charm and atmosphere of the original.

The soundtrack is another absolute win in a series that never misses when it comes to music. Atsushi Kitajoh has done a stellar job of composing new original pieces for Reload, while also rearranging iconic tracks from Shoji Meguro’s original score. Mass Destruction in particular feels more rooted in its jazz motifs, with an incredible second verse that cements this remix as something that stands along the original instead of replacing it. Other classics like Iwatodai Dorm and When The Moon’s Reaching Out Stars have also been rearranged for Reload with similar changes, keeping things thematically cohesive at all times.

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While Mass Destruction makes a glorious return, I’ll be the first to admit that Reload’s new original battle theme, It’s Going Down Now, is a new favourite battle theme in the series for me personally. It’s infectiously energetic and perfectly suited to the turn-based battles and melancholic theming of Persona 3. Similar to Persona 5 Royal’s Take Over, there’s nothing quite like ambushing an enemy, swiftly knocking them down, and initiating an all-out attack as the chorus swells into an incredible crescendo.

Coming hot off the heels of finishing Persona 3 Portable, I didn’t expect Persona 3 Reload to enrapture me as much as it did. It’s clear that this isn’t just a project ATLUS needed to do, but something that they wanted to do. Every aspect of it feels carefully considered to create a modernised version of Persona 3 that doesn’t betray its core theming and messages. A must-play for any Persona fan, new or old, and absolutely worth checking out for series first-timers.

Conclusion
Persona 3 Reload is a confident remake of a truly seminal RPG that cements itself as the definitive way to play Persona 3. It's clear that careful thought and deliberation has gone into every aspect of Reload to respect the legacy of Persona 3 while preserving its timeless charm and atmosphere. An absolute must play for any fan of the franchise, and a great point to jump in for those looking to take the plunge into Persona.
Positives
Faithful retelling with fitting narrative additions
Social Links are further bolstered by voiced dialogue
Satisfying combat with thoughtful modernisations
Tartarus is vastly improved over the original
Gorgeous presentation and another impeccable soundtrack
Negatives
Some uneven pacing at points, especially in December
Theurgy Skills feel a bit too powerful
9