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Persona 3 Reload

Review | The Perfect Revival of a Cult Classic

As someone who spent substantially longer tracking down a copy of Persona 3 on the PlayStation 2 than the time to fully complete it, it is warming to see the game finally available and readily accessible on store shelves in its remade Persona 3 Reload form. Initially released in mid-2006 following three previous and vastly different titles more closely aligned with the ‘Megami Tensei’ style of the day, Persona 3 was the originator of the ‘Modern-Day Persona’ format – from the heavy school life orientation, social link elements, the incrementally unlocking dungeon crawling segments, the messages it focuses on for its characters (and in turn, players), and its kick-ass approach to music and soundtrack. The experience was refined in later titles, with Persona 3 feeling like a testing ground with some significant pros and substantial cons (For example, at one time, they had all other party members controlled by the game’s shoddy AI), but it was well deserving of its cult game status, and one I always recommended players try to track down.

When they first announced Persona 3 Reload, closely following the new-gen console port of Persona 3 Portable, I was curious about the route they would go down with this release. Following their learnings with Persona 5, would they reinvent the P3 experience from the ground up? Or would they do a more faithful version of the original release, given Persona 3 Portable is a step back from Persona 3 in many ways? ATLUS and P-Studio opted to go with the latter option, remaining faithful to the original release, using the features of the enhanced re-release Persona 3 FES as a baseline – including new events, social link changes and mode options, although the surprising omission of The Answer arc -, and provided their own enhancements which further developers the members of S.E.E.S, introduces mechanics and improvements into gameplay, and resolves some potential monotony during the latter chapters. But at the end of the day, many of the same events happen, and your journey throughout the tower of Tartarus as S.E.E.S. is more or less the same.

Persona 3 Reload 1

Of the three ‘Modern Day’ Persona games, Persona 3 is by far the darkest, touching upon many of the more intense themes up to bullying, suicide and death. 10 years ago, an incident happened at Tatsumi Port Island, which caused the formation of a 25th Hour, a ‘hidden hour’, the Dark Hour. When the clock strikes midnight, most humans remain in their coffins, unaware of the time passing. But for a select few, those with the potential, they can navigate this mysterious, macabre hour, and fight against the denizens of this hour – Shadows – using their ability known as Personas. You start the game as a transfer student to Gekkoukan High School, and after signing a mysterious contract and coming face-to-face with these shadows, awaken your ability to summon not only a Persona but Personas. Joined by your classmates Yukari Takeba and Junpei Iori, upperclassman Mitsuru Kirijo and Akihiko Sanada, and a growing number of allies – you explore the tower of Tartarus, unlock the mysteries of the past and present, and uncover dark secrets about the events.

While it is shocking how dark the narrative of Persona 3 is when put up against the more laid-back, eccentric group of high-school detectives you follow in Persona 4 which was released only a couple of years later, it still holds up to this day. First released at a time when most RPGs favoured fantasy environments and those representing modern-day were still finding their footing – from start to finish it is a rich story that keeps viewers in suspense, isn’t afraid to explore darker issues, and as the end credits run will leave you satisfied that narratively, the game has not been a waste of time in the slightest. Unlike Persona 4 Golden and Persona 5 Royal which typically introduced a new story-important character to keep players enticed to play through the whole game again, Persona 3 Reload does none of that, with the original story carrying its weight.

However, the narrative is not a direct 1:1 in Persona 3 Reload and incorporates new elements that enrich the experience, especially once you get into the crux of events. New cutscenes are strewn throughout, especially involving the new antagonistic force that helps provide more insight into their backstory. Additionally, with the idea of all party members having social links not being implemented until P4, a range of nighttime interactions between the protagonist and member of S.E.E.S. were implemented, in addition to ‘Link Episodes’ between the male party members. Frankly, the events between the male party members (who didn’t receive their own social links) are amazingly well-written. I would have welcomed many more of these for all members of S.E.E.S. and hopefully reflect a standard that ATLUS and P-Studio implement into a future Persona 6, should they not opt to go on a completely different approach to the game structure. Social links, on the other hand, are carried across from the original game with only a few small adjustments. They are okay, but the difference in quality between these and the Link Episodes is evident.

With the development team opting to keep the game in alignment with the original release, it means that across all the in-game months in Persona 3 Reload, you have over 250 floors of Tartarus to climb. These randomly generated floors, refreshing each ‘Dark Hour’, serve as the main bulk of the gameplay – as you fight against shadows in turn-based combat, collect treasure, and enjoy some of the new Reload exclusive features. Unlike later games where you are given a deadline to complete these floors, they only incrementally unlock with the passing of each full moon, meaning you are free to tackle the tower at your leisure. However, with no scaling level for the mandatory bosses, it works out that most players will want to visit Tartarus once or twice a month to scale the tower. The randomly generated dungeon floors can be a grind, and even with a new aesthetic style that gives each block its own distinct layout patterns and design language, it can become a drag. 

I doubt there is much they could have done to not make these sections feel grindy at points. However, there are a few optimisations in Persona 3 Reload that make the experience feel like less of a grind. For example, they have increased the number of events that take place, slowly roll out existing and new features for the dungeons, provided a new collectable/consumable known as ‘Twilight Fragments’ to unlock special chests and restore HP/SP, and the ability to ‘Dash’ throughout the dungeons – which is perfect for tackling floors you may want to speed through. Additionally, the ‘Monad Depths’, previously the end-game depths of Tartarus has been repurposed, providing optional, challenging boss battles throughout the floors, providing special weapon crafting material in return. Shuffle Time has also been simplified, with no element of chance, allowing you to choose the rewards you want to receive post-battle, including new ‘Major Arcana’ cards that give some substantial boons upon being collected. Is it enough to feel like you aren’t going through hundreds of similar floors? Maybe or maybe not, depending on the person. However, the improvements to the battle system may sway you towards the former.

At its core, the turn-based battle system from Persona 3 and Persona 3 FES returns. Players and Shadows take turns attacking one another using abilities across three types of physical damage (Slash, Strike, Pierce), seven types of magic (Fire, Ice, Electricity, Wind, Light, Dark and Almighty) and a range of other skills including healing, buffs and debuffs. The goal is to exploit your enemy’s weaknesses while working to mitigate the enemy from taking advantage of yours. If you have played any Persona game in the past, you will likely be very familiar with what to expect, as it’s a core foundation that Persona 3 pioneered back in the day. However, a few new concepts have been introduced to Persona 3 Reload that zhuzh things up and encourages players to utilise their party members in alternate ways. 

The most substantial new battle system mechanic is known as Theurgy. These are special attacks unique to each character, obtainable through acts aligning with each party member’s personality and skillset. For example, Yukari’s gauge will fill quickly by healing allies, while Mitsuru’s will fill quicker by afflicting enemies with detrimental statuses. This is where some of the game-breaking mechanics of the previous releases, such as Aigis’ ‘Orgia Mode’ and the protagonist’s ‘Fusion Spells’ now live, and makes for both a more balanced combat experience, but also one that rewards the risk of playing a little bit differently with something that can turn the tide of battle. 

Another addition carried over from Persona 5 is the expansion of the Light and Dark element magic branches. Giving Ken and Koromaru in particular more versatility on the battlefield, skills like Kouha and Eiha are now available – not confining them to just low-chance instakill skills, but instead two equally viable skill branches to explore. Given they still retain their alignment with Zio and Agi respectively (to a lesser degree), they are finally more viable candidates for your party. Furthermore, some superfluous elements such as party members getting tired mid-dungeon have been removed. This is all in addition to some other features from Persona 5 carrying across, including being able to switch upon dealing a super effective hit (think, Paton Pass), and giving Fuuka a lot more versatility on the battlefield through her ‘Oracle’ theurgy, and SP-consuming abilities in and out of battle.

A hallmark of the Persona franchise, the Velvet Room makes a return, allowing players to merge two or more Personas they obtain while crawling through Tartarus and fuse them into a (hopefully) more powerful and versatile entity – with the fusion bringing across skills from the source Persona, potentially giving them more versatility in combat or being able to mitigate or completely remove existing weaknesses. The system hasn’t changed all that much, the main changes being a completely revamped user interface which aligns nicely with the rest of Persona 3 Reload’s UI, and amendments to Persona skills to factor in the new additions. Elizabeth’s request system also returns, but with significantly less stressful requirements to find items (a complete full moon period instead of just one specific day), and new challenges. It doesn’t receive anywhere near as many updates as the rest of the game, but this is indicative of how robust a system it was to start with.

Outside of Tartarus, the school life system reigns supreme. Except for time skips around exams, you play the game day by day, making the best use of your time to raise extra money through jobs, levelling up your core social stats, and the aforementioned ‘Social Links’ – where forging bonds with your friends through visual novel style interactions will raise your level towards a major or minor arcana, causing a boost in bonus EXP when fusing personas of that type. There is a trophy for maxing out all social links in one playthrough, which is never an easy task, but at least unlike Persona 5, there are no tangible gameplay benefits for completing one social link over the other and are welcome to go with your favourites during each playthrough. For those going for the max social link gauntlet, you can look forward to some of the more stressful moments, where every day lost to a story event can feel like you are one step further from attaining your goal. However, expect guides to come out at some point tailored for accomplishing this in Persona 3 Reload.

In terms of social stats, the original three returns – Academics, Charm and Courage – will all three required to be maxxed to complete an all-social links run. This is because some links won’t form without the protagonist having the right values in these three. Originally, this is where a lot of the monotony came from, having to spend most nights studying or at restaurants to slowly grind those stats. In addition to feeling like the requirements have been loosened substantially, these stats can now be grown most nights by doing activities with friends – from watching movies to just hanging out with them, with social events complementing them.

Persona 3 and Persona 3 FES were suitably designed games from the PlayStation 2 era, but they never really pushed the boundaries of what that console was capable of. In completely remaking Persona 3 Reload from the ground up, the development team were meticulous in bringing it to a standard comparable or in some ways surpassing that of the more recently released Persona 5 Royal – complemented by it being the first base game not developed with the PlayStation 2 or PlayStation 3 in mind. The end product? A game that, despite not having multiple graphical settings, manages to push 4K with ray-tracing at a consistent 60fps on PlayStation 5 hardware, and looks mighty fine. Is it perfect aesthetically? No. There are a few graphical oddities here and there, and I would argue that staying too aligned with the original environmental designs in favour of something completely new still makes the world design inferior and minimalistic compared to other Persona games. There is also the uncanny case of Club Escapade, which opted to have static unanimated character models not seen anywhere else in the game. However, the improved character models, battle animations and general design are an immense enhancement from the original Persona 3 releases, and one that the game frankly deserved after all these years. The revamped user interface was also very much welcome, and while not as heavy-hitting as the one for Persona 5, is a perfect fusion of the uniqueness of P5 with the original design of P3.

The Persona series and music go hand-in-hand, with Persona 3 notable for its fusion of hip-hop, rock and electronic music creating an urban and contemporary feel. Most of the songs from the original release return in Persona 3 Reload, although with higher-quality audio and, in the case of songs with lyrics, complete re-records with returning vocalist Lotus Juice and, new vocalist Azumi Takahashi who takes over the role from long-time artist Yumi Kawamura. The re-recorded ‘Reload’ versions of songs, as usual, feature the same underlying tunes but have altered lyrics, making for a fresh listen to for newcomers and veterans alike. Takahashi is a competent artist, and here’s hoping we see her stick around for future Persona 3-related projects. The new songs, on the other hand, are incredible – from the newly introduced battle theme ‘It’s Going Down Now‘ which is on rotation with the iconic Mass Destruction to the new opening theme song Full Moon Full Life, these songs play to the strengths of Takahashi and Lotus Juice as a duo, and show how great they complement each other in music.

One of the more controversial things about Persona 3 Reload’s English dub was not that they were re-recording all lines, which is understandable after so many years, but that except for Tara Platt as Elizabeth, they had recast each of the voice actors with a new VA (Including Mitsuru who Platt also voiced). While I am curious as to the reason why this was decided upon originally, whether business or wanting to give new voice actors a chance to voice in major roles (not that we will likely ever know), they assembled a strong cast of voice actors who did their respective characters justice – from Aleks Le as the Protagonist to Allegra Clark as Mitsuru, Heather Gonzalez as Yukari, Zeno Robinson as Junpei Iori, Alejandro Saab as Akihiko, Suzie Yeung as Fuuka Yamagishi, Dawn M. Bennett as Aigis, Justine Lee as Ken Amada and Justice Slocum as Shinjiro Aragaki. Is that the list of the main cast? Yes, and they did each of their characters well! 

What I appreciated was that except for the original English voice of Junpei, they brought in every member of the “Persona Q / Persona 4 Arena” cast of Persona 3 to voice secondary characters. It felt like they were handing over the torch to the new cast but still acknowledged as voice actors in the Persona universe. What’s just as good? Fully voiced social links! While I would argue that the series only got the narrative structure of Social Links right starting with Persona 4, it didn’t help that these scenes were all unvoiced, with not even random one-liners to set the mood. All but the Hermit arcana social link (for obvious reasons) are fully voiced, with some equally excellent English voice actors brought in for these. While I usually don’t enjoy the Devil Arcana social link (Tanaka) for example, having Patrick Seitz voice the character outside of the one-liners in the Persona dancing spin-off games… perfection!

There were some notable omissions that should be approached when reviewing the game – the decision to omit The Answer arc introduced in FES, a heavy-hitting chapter taking place a few months after the events of the main game and is considered canonical, and the Female Main Character (FeMC) first introduced in Persona 3 Portable and despite being considered non-canonical was featured in Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth as coming from an alternate reality. For the former, there have been discussions about it potentially being released as future DLC, which I think would be a wise decision as it is narratively relevant and worth exploring for newcomers before jumping into future games. However, I would love to see them explore something beyond ‘The Answer’ arc in a separate spin-off game. With the number of spin-off games Persona 4 and 5 have received over the years, I am curious to see if or where they will take S.E.E.S. in new directions. 

As for FeMC, I’m conflicted. The introduction of this character helped, even with minor changes, make Persona 3 Portable into a modern Persona game despite the PSP’s limitations, implementing improvements, some of which have carried across into P3R, and more interesting and engaging social links, which sadly did not. It is a worthwhile experience, and if you can, picking up Persona 3 Portable on modern-day consoles and playing her route is something I highly recommend. But it is a very different experience that would arguably see the canonical protagonist receive the short end of the stick in the narrative department – so I can appreciate why they opted to only go with the single protagonist. They should consider bringing her in as DLC in the future (or another spin-off game), but I would not hold my breath on this one as it is only something I would see them doing if Persona 3 Reload was recreated from the foundations up.

With Persona 3 founding the rulebook of what a ‘Modern Day’ Persona experience entails, it is nice to see the game brought up to the standards it helped pioneer and present an addictive experience that I loved playing from start to finish. With much to offer both newcomers and veterans, this faithful yet enhanced remake respects the original while offering many meaningful improvements, making both the journey through Tartarus and the lives of S.E.E.S.’s members more engaging and richer than ever. Here’s hoping we see more spawn from Persona 3 in the coming years!

Final Score for Persona 3 Reload

9

This review was conducted on a PlayStation 5 copy of the game. A digital review code was provided by Australian distributor Five Star Games for the purpose of this review.

Persona 3 Reload is now available on the PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox Game Pass [as of writing], and PC.

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