Persona 3 Reload Review | A Rebirth of Joy

A new trip to the dreamless dorm.
Persona 3 Reload key art
Image via ATLUS

I was initially dazed by the “dark and mature” vibes that the original Persona 3 emanated, especially after being introduced to the series through Persona 4. Instead of a lighthearted story with a few somber themes here and there, I was now facing a constant sense of anxiety while characters put a weapon to their heads to use their powers. But beneath the gloomy layers and depressing topics, there was a game that completely shook me. Fast forward a few years and you’ll find me screaming at the reveal of Persona 3 Reload.

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Reload brought me the same joy I felt back when experiencing the game for the first time. With an almost flawless presentation and a much-needed updated combat system, it aims to be a definitive experience that welcomes new fans eager to visit Tartarus for the first time and veterans ready to burn their dread once more.

A Journey Reloaded Into Action

Persona 3 Reload is not defined as a remake of the original PS2 game but of its enhanced release, Persona 3 FES. FES included the base game under the name “The Journey,” adding many features we see here. There was also a 30-hour playable epilogue named “The Answer,” which is unfortunately nowhere to be found in Reload. Despite that, everything you need to experience the main story is here.

You take on the role of a transferred student living in a dorm, but things get freaky pretty quickly. When the dorm is attacked by mysterious creatures known as Shadows, you awake the power of your Persona, a physical manifestation of your psyche. With this power, you join the Special Extracurricular Execution Squad (or SEES for short), trying to eliminate these creatures.

Shadows are only active during the Dark Hour, an extra hour that only those with potential can experience. During this time, your school also turns into the ominous Tartarus, a never-ending tower related to the Shadows. Uncovering its mysteries and eradicating the Dark Hour is your main goal.

Persona 3 Reload Trailer Moonlight

But despite your bleak adventures during nighttime, you’re still a regular student during the day, and there’s a whole school year ahead of you. You have tests to worry about, club activities to attend, and friends to hang out with. Persona 3 was the first in the series to double down into the daily-sim, turn-based RPG gameplay loop and this weird formula has proven time and time again how effective it is.

The reason for that lies in an amazingly powerful cast, and Reload does an incredible job of delivering its best iteration yet. Characters feel more palpable than ever, and it’s hard not to be moved to tears during the game’s emotional moments. Voice acting is now present in basically every single story and side story moment, making a huge difference in social activities.

The new models are on point, while the character sprites strike a good balance between the original feel and the updated version. Older fans will immediately feel at home with some of the portraits. No derpy Fuuka face, though. You had one job, ATLUS.

Persona 3 Reload Review Portraits
Screenshot by Prima Games

But seriously, the game looks absolutely gorgeous. Areas like the school and the Escapade Club feel more vivid than they ever did in previous versions, and the Iwatodai Dorm now feels as huge as it actually is. It probably hits harder if you’ve only played the Portable version before (which had no 3D models), but the jump from the PS2 is also too huge to ignore.

Admittedly, the eerie feeling from the original is missing due to the brighter colors. One might argue that it undermines Persona 3 Reload’s overall themes, but I personally feel like the final score is still positive. This game is more than memento mori, after all.

Those unnatural, mysterious vibes are there when needed, especially when venturing inside the main dungeon. Shrouded in mist, a tower awaits. Tartarus, the game’s sole dungeon, has been reimagined to turn each of its six blocks into their own thing. Each floor is randomized when you first enter it, but blocks have unique layouts that make them stand out. If you played Persona 5, think Mementos but bigger.

Exploring Tartarus can still be exhausting, especially in the second half of the game when floors get bigger. Still, small features like interactions between the cast, rare encounters, and many quality-of-life changes made the experience way more enjoyable than it was in previous iterartions. That’s where the main gameplay happens, after all.

Bringing Out the Mass Destruction

Combat in Reload has been vastly improved compared to the original. The turn-based combat still works the same. Each character has their own Persona with abilities and weaknesses, while the main protagonist can wield various Personas simultaneously. You can end the battle with a stylish All-Out Attack by hitting all opponents’ weaknesses, so adapt your party and Persona stock to any situation. Your Personas can be fused to bring out new ones, and there’s no “definitive” Persona as they all fit different roles.

The Shift mechanic has made things even better, a new take on the Baton Pass from Persona 5. After scoring a critical hit or hitting a weakness, you can Shift your extra turn to another character to keep the momentum going. This helps immensely with saving resources and hitting more weaknesses, making combat way more dynamic.

Persona 3 Reload Review Theurgy
Screenshot by Prima Games

We also have Theurgy, a new super attack that ranges from dealing tons of damage to boosting your party to the maximum with incredibly detailed animated cutscenes. The protagonist has multiple Theurgies that are all based on the Fusion Spells from the original game. Armageddon is back, baby! Despite the additions, combat is still simple to grasp, and as long as you focus on striking weaknesses, you should have no trouble exploring.

Tartarus can only be entered during the night. Exploring the tower was a daunting experience, but it’s now blooming with restorative items. The Fatigue system is also gone for good, as it ultimately brought nothing to the table other than unnecessary restrictions to a game already filled to the brim with time management decisions. Party members have been rebalanced to make them more useful in the long run, and there’s also a mechanic to help backup members catch up in levels. No one gets left behind.

Entering a new block is full of intrigue and new. You have new enemies to fight and weaknesses to discover. But once you figure these out, it all boils down to the same old formula: strike their weaknesses, Shift between characters and finish it with a bang. You can even use the Scan ability to skip some steps. But Reload knows how to execute its gameplay loop well even when the game gets grindy, so you won’t feel as tired.

You can’t get enough of the catchy battle themes, either. It’s Going Down Now hits differently. It somehow evokes the same feeling as the original tracks. Rather than feeling like a new track, it’s like it was always there. And for non-ambush fights, a new version of Mass Destruction is here, complete with Lotus Juice dropping the hottest lines ever known to man. And they’re definitely the songs for battle. Listening to them without battle menu sounds in the background is almost unnatural.

While Persona 3 was infamous for its difficulty, a huge portion of that was due to having uncontrollable party members. Persona 3 Portable added direct commands, which made it way too easy at times. But Reload avoided this trap by rebalancing fights according to your new tools. It’s kill or be killed, and I’m all here for that, at least in the harder difficulties, of course. Merciless is a real challenge this time due to the absence of Technical damage (which made it somewhat easier than Hard in P5R).

Persona 3 Reload Review Battle
Screenshot by Prima Games

Enemy AI can and will catch you by surprise sometimes. During a certain battle, a minion used Ice Break on my party, nullifying their resistance to the element. The boss then immediately killed my full-life Mitsuru (who naturally has Ice resistance) with a powerful Ice skill, and I had no way to revive her at the time. I had no choice but to laugh.

On the flip side, other bosses are simply scripted in certain loops. All you have to do for those is figure out their rotation and deal with it from there.

Main story bosses have also been vastly improved, especially a certain group you face during the second portion of the game. Once a joke of a fight, they now present a real threat if you’re unprepared. Ultimately, the game still gets easier in the later portions, so expect most of the difficulty to be centered during your first dozen hours.

Yes, the first dozens. Persona games usually take a lot of time, and it isn’t different here, especially with all of the new side content. Fortunately, the game runs smoothly, and you rarely feel the time pass whether you’re grinding your life away in Tartarus or leading a regular, not-so-boring student life.

A Wonderful New Way of Life

While you can freely explore Tartarus at night, the social aspect is also important. The Persona series has that strange magic that makes you feel like you didn’t hate your high school years as much as you did. You’ll be longing for them before you notice because school’s awesome! Did you answer a question wrong during class? Just reload your save and try again! Also, you’re insanely popular and can somehow juggle being at multiple clubs at once.

You’re free to choose how to spend your days. You can visit the game corner to play some arcade games, eat at new restaurants, or hang out with your friends around the town to enhance your bonds (Social Links) with them. Doing so helps you in battle as your newly-fused Personas get bonus Experience as a reward for not being a shut-in during your teenage years.

Persona 3 Reload Review Social Links
Screenshot by Prima Games

Social Links take a portion of your day and focus on characters that represent the 22 Major Arcana (a very prominent theme in the series), which range from your classmates, other SEES members, a shady monk you’ve met in a night club, or even people you’ve met online. These are optional side stories, but they add a huge chunk of playtime and can be engaging if you dedicate yourself to them.

The protagonist shoehorns himself into helping these individuals in their struggles and grows as a result. Not all Links are born the same, however. Some clearly had much less thought put into them than others, and it shows. The difference in writing between the Magician and the Sun storylines is nuts. Not to throw any shade at the writers since they did a great job, but not updating some stories felt like a huge missed opportunity. But they probably wanted to stick as close to the original as possible, and I can respect that.

Truth be told, they actually made some changes to some storylines, particularly to the girls. Once you reach a certain Rank, you would originally be forced into a relationship with any female Social Link. This is now fully optional, so you’re not forced to cheat on your actual girlfriend if you only want a stronger Persona from another Arcana. If you cheat, that’s all on you now. These are usually better than the male Links but also fall flat occasionally.

But you must be a better version of yourself before interacting with others. The three main Social Stats can be increased by engaging in different activities around town, and are required to start certain Social Links or to complete some requests. They also slightly influence story events, such as your grades in exams or being able to pick some dialogue options.

Finding the perfect balance between studying and improving relationships doesn’t sound as enticing, but you’ll love every second. It feels oddly satisfying to see your Academics going up after studying nonstop, usually a few days before exams. Maybe it’s because it hits too close at home. Fortunately, they added extra methods to increase these stats faster, so you won’t need to follow a tight schedule anymore.

Persona 3 Reload Review Dorm
Screenshot by Prima Games

New dorm activities are also available to all SEES members. This will help enhance their Theurgy attacks and let you see more of their character. Your teammates now feel more like your friends than a bunch of strangers who happen to live under the same roof as you. Tending to plants over that roof does wonders for a friendship.

A Reason to Keep Living

Persona 3 is known for its powerful underlying themes and how they’re represented through each cast member, and Reload did it justice by adding even more special interactions between them. Various new events were added to expand more on the male SEES members. They never had Social Links in the original game (not until the female protagonist route in Portable, at least), so despite having enough screen time for their development, it always felt like something was missing.

To remedy that, you can now hang out with Junpei, Akihiko, Ken, and Shinjiro to get to know them better. Oh, and don’t forget Koromaru (yes, you can pet the dog in Persona 3 Reload). This helps newcomers be more invested in those characters earlier while also being a full plate for veterans just craving more interactions for their favorites.

Several new scenes were added in key story points, alongside some background for side characters, so they don’t feel as shallow as before. Some scenes play out slightly differently, too. Longtime fans will notice how the movie adaptations inspired some changes. None will change the main story beats or anything, and only improve on what’s already there.

So don’t expect a new semester like in Persona 4 Golden or Persona 5 Royal. Persona 3 has a slightly different take on its narrative. Change it too much and it wouldn’t work out the same way. If you played any version of the game before, you know exactly what you’re getting into here.

Persona 3 is a story about death. Characters have suffered or will suffer important losses during the game, which cannot be avoided. The word “death” itself plays a bigger role as you see the world turning its back on characters. The game has numerous literal representations of death from its very first hour. But that’s not all here.

Persona 3 Reload File Size Featured
Image via ATLUS

The edgy-looking themes initially caught my attention, but the emotional rollercoaster that came after kept me intrigued. Reload brought a reinterpretation of this powerful message I first experienced years ago, and it couldn’t have done it better. Happy moments are even more joyful. Sad moments hit even harder. There’s always a meaning to a journey.

Changing of Seasons, Changing of Eras

Persona 3 Reload brings a beloved game to modern standards while keeping what made it special in the first place. In the remake-heavy era we’re living in, it’s rare to see a title that misses the mark. But managing to keep the same vibes while also feeling like a whole new game is not something we see every day.

Each member feels more alive than ever, which makes their struggles (and final resolutions) more impactful. Be it by learning more about Junpei’s past and the reasons for his hero syndrome or diving into Shinjiro’s traumas that led to his tendency to push others away, it’s easy to get absorbed into this narrative. Even if you can’t relate directly to the situation, you might develop some attachment to the cast without noticing.

And the amazing voice acting is one of the reasons for that. This has always been a point of praise in the series, and it isn’t any different here. Reload features a whole new cast, and you can see (or hear) how they gave their hearts to this. Fully-voiced Social Links are amazing, and the main cast sounds almost identical to the original with their twists and mannerisms added to the characters.

If I were to address the elephant in the room, Akihiko’s voice is probably the biggest change for veterans to get used to. You can be skeptical at first, but Alejandro Saab did an outstanding job here, and I will die on this hill. Let the man cook. Wait for his take on that scene. You know which one. You won’t regret it. Liam O’Brian will always be incredible in the role, but that’s no excuse not to embrace the new casting.

Persona 3 Reload Shuffle Time Featured
Image via ATLUS

Reload brings everything together to make for a great P3 experience, but despite the praise it deserves, it isn’t exactly a “definitive” version. There are still a few things missing here and there. The already powerful story was made into something bigger, but we know there’s still a bit more out there.

It sucks that there’s no The Answer. It sucks even harder not having the FeMC route. While the latter is playable on modern platforms, there’s currently no official way to experience the former. And even so, her route plays largely differently, so it would be amazing to see it in a full 3D glorious action. But no DLCs have been announced, so this might be a long-distant dream for now.

Considering all that, this is by far the best entry point for the series. You can spend hundreds of hours going up and down in Tartarus thanks to New Game+, which also adds a few more surprises to a run. Older versions are still worth revisiting if you can take on their clunkiness, but the updated gameplay might be too comfy to abandon. Reload has become my favorite entry in the series, making me even more hyped for what’s to come.

10
Persona 3 Reload
Reload feels like a new game without deviating from the original. Almost every aspect has been improved, and it might be the new best point of entry for the series.
Pros
  • A superb story with a powerful message that sticks
  • Enhances the original story even further
  • Huge combat update with numerous quality-of-life changes
  • Has some of the best visuals the series has ever seen
Cons
  • Lacks some content requested by fans
  • Pace is still very slow in the first half
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review. Reviewed on PC.
Author
Patrick Souza
Unfortunately stuck on Hoyoverse hell. Whenever he gets the chance to escape, he enjoys playing some good 'n old RPGs and other story-driven games. Loves tackling hard challenges in games, but his cats are still the hardest bosses he could ask for.
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