Persona 3 Reload Review: Thrice More, With Feeling

Written by Lance

February 8, 2024

If I may, allow me to digress for a bit:

So I was walking around Makuhari Messe back in September 2023 for the Tokyo Game Show. As I waited for friends from the PlayStation Trophy Hunter Philippines community to arrive (shoutout to Martin, as well as JP of Retro Haven), I passed by the main Atlus booth and stage, just in time for a special dance performance featuring Persona 3 Reload’s OST. To say the least, the whole thing was absolutely hype and resulted in me getting last-song syndrome for “It’s Going Down Now” for months on end. Not only did I enjoy the performance overall, but I came out of it feeling more excited for the game’s eventual February 2024 release.

But as the convention ended for that day and I walked back to the train station, a realization dawned on me:

“For many of this generation of gamers, this may very well be their first time to experience the Persona that started it all.”

What started as a spinoff of Atlus’ Megami Tensei series, the Persona series is a success story unlike many in the realm of gaming. And I remember a time when Persona 3 initially came out, as it was a tour de force in creativity, presentation, and storytelling at a time when the RPG scene needed a shot in the arm, a relatively stark contrast to its predecessors. Its overtly stylish presentation and cool aesthetic, while dealing with dark yet topical matters, made Persona 3 resonate with many gamers around the world, to the point that all subsequent Persona titles would take some inspiration from what they brought to the table.

In a generation where Persona 5 would have already taken the world by storm, now is the perfect time to reintroduce the game that started it all, in a reimagined form befitting of its legacy. And trust me when I say that this is not just a mere fresh coat of paint.

 

 

 

Content (5/5)

 

Persona 5 Reload brings the classic story of the protagonist (canonically named Makoto Yuki) and his companions in the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (or S.E.E.S) in the battle against Shadows and solving the mystery of Tartarus and the Dark Hour to today’s generation of consoles and PC, all calibrated to be up to par to modern gaming standards. Persona 5 would be the closest point of comparison using that metric.

For those who have played the game in the past, whether it was the original Persona 3 or Persona 3 Portable, then you will be happy to know that not much has changed in regards to its hours-long story and its strong cast. The characters that longtime fans have learned to love throughout the years remained as endearing as ever. From the strong-willed Yukari to the physical specimen that is Akihiko, the S.E.E.S members have retained that certain charm that made these characters memorable in the first place.

 

 

Themes of inevitability and mortality, while being able to touch upon sensitive topics, continue to resonate and remain relevant after all these years, which only solidified its reputation as the darkest and most somber of the Persona titles. For those who are coming in blind for the first time, this is a game that many can appreciate and hopefully realize why this remains a genre-enhancing experience even in the year 2024. On the other hand, for veterans who are reliving the experience once again in modern hardware, this reimagining is sure to bring some sense of happy nostalgia after all these years, despite its sensitive yet integral themes.

The activities you can do as the main protagonist remain as expansive as ever, from interacting with your social links or taking on side jobs. However, there were clear liberties from the developers in making some adjustments to both mix things up and bring in some much-needed quality-of-life changes. These include changing up answers in school quizzes, more options on the activities you can do after school (such as in-dorm activities), and being able to interact with fellow S.E.E.S members in their linked episodes (a function newly introduced in Reload). With these changes, social stats progression also experienced the appropriate modifications, which encourages even the most experienced players to reconsider their approach to activities during the calendar year.

 

As an experiment, being that I’m also a hunter of the PlayStation trophies variety, I played this game while using the 100% completion guide from Persona 3 Portable as a point of comparison between this and Reload. While there are some similarities in what you can do and receive in the process, it is certainly not a one-to-one recreation of the game on both visual and mechanical levels, which will force even the most experienced of players to reconsider their strategies in character development.

All of these sum up a very strong point about Reload: this game is familiar, yet unfamiliar in the best of ways. Just when you thought you had all the answers, Reload provides you with a surprise you may not have seen coming, and keeps you on your toes as a result. These remixes do quite a lot in living up to the game’s status as a true remake rather than a mere remaster, a testament to the care given by these hardworking individuals.

On the topic of trophies/achievements, since there are a good number of people who are to the trophy-hunting culture, I’m happy to report that the string of easy Platinum trophy hunting under the Persona umbrella continues, with most of the trophies being relatively easier to achieve. Much like with Persona 5 Royal, as long as you have a proper plan to maximize your social links while being able to do miscellaneous activities in the process, you should not have a problem getting that sweet, sweet Platinum, and certainly way easier to achieve than the likes of Persona 4 Golden.

 

Overall, content-wise, there are just so many things to do for both newcomers and veterans of the series alike. Despite the story being around 18 years old by this point, the allure of going back to 2009 in Tatsumi Port Island has remained ever strong. For me, it feels like going back to the halcyon days of the late 2000s and being able to experience this game for the first time. If there was one minor critique from this, it’s the fact that it does not have a female MC option like in Persona 3 Portable, but considering that Reload is more of a remake of the original Persona 3, I would personally understand it as an allowance for the developers to focus on one story path.

 

 

 

 

Production (5/5)

 

When I said that Persona 5 is the closest point of comparison when it came to Persona 3 Reload being up to date to modern standards, that includes its production as a whole. In the same vein where Atlus’ Catherine became a proof of concept to the style of Persona 5, the latter became the inspiration to which Persona 3 went all in on the significant overhaul of its visual aesthetics. From the locales, the world map, and even Tartarus, to the menu, title screen, and the combat, everything has been truly remade to bring a more vibrant art style reminiscent of Persona 5. I had high expectations of Reload being more exciting and alive for modern consoles partly as a result of its visual updates, and I was certainly not disappointed at its final product. The new anime and 3D cutscenes were also a wonderful touch.

 

 

Having played the game on the PS5, the frames are smooth and crisp at 60FPS. Further, the fast loading times have been shone, especially when starting the game from the PS5 menu through the “Resume Activity” function. I did not find any issues or problems throughout my experience in the game, with no problematic slowdowns or bugs of note. You can tell that the developers put everything they had to produce the most seamless version of the game possible. In an industry that’s embraced the norm of patches to fix day-one issues, diligence is something to behold.

But for all the talk of graphical and mechanical improvements across the board, the one thing that gives me a tremendous dose of serotonin is its OST, which has been a hallmark of the Persona franchise since 3. While Lotus Juice has returned for the remake, composer Atsushi Kitajoh makes his mainline entry return following his composing duties for Persona 5 to rearrange its OST to the modern day, originally handled by the legendary Shoji Meguro. Likewise, Azumi Takahashi makes her lead vocal debut for Reload, taking over for original lead Yumi Kawamura. Listening to rearranged versions of classics like “Mass Destruction” and “When The Moon’s Reaching Out Stars” to Reload originals such as the game’s OP, “Full Moon Full Life”, an absolute banger of a battle theme, “It’s Going Down Now”, brings much joy to the gameplay experience. It subtly complements the fresh vibe of the game, mixing both healthy nostalgia through the original songs as well as renewed energy through the new songs introduced. Honestly, when it comes to Persona, they just cannot miss it.

 

Mechanics (5/5)

 

Persona has always been a tale of two games, one of a daily life simulator (as detailed earlier), and the other as a dungeon-crawling RPG. And on the combat side of things, the core mechanics remain cerebral and tactical as ever, especially if you’ve already gone through Persona 4 and 5.

 

 

Veterans should already know how it goes: you engage the enemy by understanding their weaknesses while minding your vulnerabilities, use those weaknesses against the enemy, and lead your way to the series signature “All Out Attack” which deals significant damage on your enemies. Along the way, you should be mindful of your own remaining HP and SP as you navigate Tartarus progress as much as you can.

But with Reload comes a slew of new mechanics that are much welcome compared to the original version. Besides carrying over the ability to directly control other allies from Persona 3 Portable, the new Shifting mechanic serves as its version of Persona 5’s Baton Pass system, wherein hitting an enemy’s weakness or hitting a critical strike allows the ability to pass its turn to another ally if the player so chooses. As a result, your ally can be used to hit another enemy’s weakness or double down on the damage to a downed opponent. This introduces a new layer of strategy that was not available in the previous iterations, making for some interesting decision-making scenarios especially when fighting against a horde of enemies.

 

 

But the biggest change introduced in Reload is the new “Theurgy” system, which acts as the game’s “super move” mechanic. By charging the Theurgy bar, either through regular combat moves or by doing specific moves per character to charge faster, you can make use of a flashy unique single-target or AOE special move that can turn the tide of any battle without the use of HP or SP. On paper, it sounds similar to Persona 5 Royal’s “Showtime Attack” system, but I would argue that the Theurgy system is relatively easier to use as it is dependent on a per-character basis in terms of activation conditions. That said, it does encourage players to make use of strategies they probably would not normally do if they want to access the move. For example, one character’s condition for a faster Theurgy charge is to debuff or inflict a status ailment on an enemy, while the other requires that specific character to heal allies. I find this to be a fun new mechanic that helps offer suggestions on how to make use of a character while offering players a new trump card that makes it easier for them to approach the game’s more challenging content.

The push to include these new mechanics helped make Persona 3 Reload’s combat feel more up-to-date and relevant as compared to the original version, with the slew of new additions and updates making the combat feel more exciting. Admittedly, after the evolution of the combat mechanics of Persona 5, there is no going back at this point. If you think about it, for a game that introduced series staples such as the social links and the combat we know today, the way Persona 5 helped modernize Reload’s mechanics felt like everything came full circle, and we are all the better for it.

As an aside, I do want to highlight the new Great Clock mechanic, wherein the use of the Great Clock (when located) can easily level up an under-leveled character to the current level of the protagonist, which is a game changer in the RPG scene, especially in a game that has a good number of characters to look after in the first place. This is a quality of life change I hope other games can take inspiration from in the future.

 

 

Features (5/5)

 

There’s not much to say left when it comes to the game’s features, as the standard functions and options are there (including the ability to change to Japanese voiceovers if you so prefer). But some things do need to be mentioned.

 

 

One is the use of network functionality that, much like with previous games, allows you to see what other players did during the day. This can be a handy option to have when you want an idea of what you want to do, whether to go for a social link, perform a side job, or anything else that might be helpful to the protagonist’s growth.

Another feature I want to highlight, one that I would argue is the biggest thing for Reload, is having a multitude of difficulty options, including the new Peaceful difficulty, which makes playing through the game a breeze if you prefer to focus more on the story. That said, you can adjust the difficulty accordingly except for Merciless, which is the hardest difficulty possible and the truest of tests if you want to challenge yourself. How you want to play the game is entirely up to you.

 

 

Conclusion

 

 

Throughout this review, I’ve cited Persona 5 as a significant inspiration for Persona 3 Reload’s approach to modernizing a JRPG classic. While Persona 5 has been a strong influence for its modernization, Persona 3’s identity has not only been maintained but also shined brighter for the better thanks to these current generation updates. Make no mistake, Persona 3 Reload is every bit of the original Persona 3 as advertised, but turned up to eleven.

There is an old saying that, to paraphrase, to understand the present and steer towards a better future, you need to look back and learn from the past. Persona 3 walked so that Persona 4 and 5, as well as its multitudes of spin-offs (including the recent Persona 5 Tactica), can run. In a roundabout way, Persona 5 ran so that Persona 3 Reload can spread its wings to a wider audience, with a story that deserves to be experienced by the current gaming audience.

I am confident in saying that from now on, Persona 3 Reload is the absolute and definitive way to experience the JRPG classic that helped influence the industry. There are just so many quality changes made for Reload, to the point that there’s just no going back to the previous versions after playing the game for the first time.

 

When it comes to turn-based RPG, right now, this is the clear RPG of the year. If this wasn’t a spoiler already, Persona 3 Reload earns the coveted 5/5 score from us.

Persona 3 Reload is available on the PlayStation and Xbox consoles as well as on Steam (PC). We’d like to thank Sega for providing a review copy of the game.

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