Persona 3 Reload Review

The Darker, More Focused Brother in the Persona Franchise! 

Persona 5 is the greatest JRPG ever made. I, and like I suspect many others, only discovered this when Persona 5 made its way to the PS4. Persona 5 Royal added even more icing onto the already delicious cake, but what of the previous games in the franchise?

Many fans claimed Persona 4 Golden or Persona 3 to be the best Persona games. Well, thankfully, albeit after some awful marketing (I’ll get onto this in a minute), fans can now experience Persona 3 dressed up and looking resplendent with modern-day, up-to-date visuals and tweaked gameplay in Persona 3 Reload

I’m still annoyed with Atlus/SEGA that barely a year after releasing the Persona 3 & 4 HD remasters for the Switch as a bundle (release date of the 19th January 2023), we then started getting trailers for Persona 3 Reload! Upsetting the very fans by wasting their money is not exactly a good way to endear yourself. However, here we are a year later, and the Persona 3 Reload remake is upon us, and I begrudgingly have to admit, it is astonishingly good! 

You play as yet another exchange student arriving at a new school (a common theme for Persona games) who is thrown into the deep end by arriving at his new halls of residence while they are surrounded by a dark green glow and coffins scattered around the world. It soon becomes clear that the dorm you are now part of is the base of operations of a group of school kids who have special abilities to fight off the monsters of the world emanating from a strange palace called Tartarus. 

You have now become a new member of the S.E.E.S., aka: the Specialized Extracurricular Extermination Squad. This new world of monsters only appears at the Dark Hour, which is the hidden hour between two days at the stroke of midnight. It’s during this time you can access Tartarus and its many floors to uncover the epic story of an approximately 70-hour campaign. 

Having played through Persona 5 and Persona 5 Royal, playing Persona 3 immediately felt comfortable and familiar but also completely different as well. Once through the prologue of the game, the familiarity of student life, social links, finding a job, taking tests, and just getting to know your environment around the local town of Iwatodai and all its pleasures was an absolute joy. Iwatodai and the surrounding area aren’t as expansive as the many locations of Persona 5, but there are still enough locations in which to get a little lost and slightly overwhelmed at the start. 

Visuals have always played a major role in the attraction to Persona games as each entry is highly stylized and exciting to view. Transition screens have bold, simple colours and graphics, but the artwork just carries them with interest. Instead of the red and black of Persona 5, we now have blue and black, which looks exactly the same: the same text font, font bubbles, menus, and most importantly, logos and stills during persona usage, all-out attacks, and battle summaries. 

The world in which you explore around town is, again, visually exciting, as would befit a modern-day remake. The vibrant colors contrast with some excellent lighting. This adds an extra layer of clarity in walking around the locations of the world to spot things. This is even more important as, unlike many other games, items or things to interact with aren’t highlighted with flashing icons. For example, you can donate money at a shrine, but you only get an icon to show you can interact with it when you have walked up to the box within touching distance. It’s easy to miss these interactions if you don’t explore as it’s a throwback to a time when games didn’t hold your hand all the way! 

As interesting as the world you explore is, the dungeon of Tartarus was and still is bland and a bit uninspiring. Don’t get me wrong, they have tried to spruce up the dungeon visuals with more clarity, fidelity, and interest, it’s just…well, it’s still a very dull and repetitive place to wander through. Each floor can and does look the same for many levels at a time. They do change as the game progresses but not much. 

I wasn’t expecting a complete dungeon overhaul, and in a way, that would have ruined what the game is all about anyway, it’s just the age and the original roots of the game from 2006 are clear to see in the game design of Tartarus. 

That being said, the flashy, exciting combat visuals more than make up for the tedium of the dungeon. Stylized actions, especially when launching a Persona attack that will target an enemy’s weakness (they have a little banner of the Persona user’s eyes pop up), are always exciting to watch. I never got bored of watching the short cinematic wind-up, even though I’ve seen them from each character hundreds of times now. 

The visual flair of each spell on the intended target was also interesting as each attempted to replicate what a spell might entail. For example, when launching an ice spell, the screen highlighted little blocks of forming ice smashing into an opponent, leaving them looking cold if you managed to freeze them. The artwork everywhere in the game is so unique, so beautifully stylized that it just feels cool to play. Many other games try to replicate the look of a Persona game, but only a Persona game gets it this right. 

Gameplay is split into two distinct areas, that being dungeon crawling or not. Outside of the dungeon, the game is, once again, like a student life simulator that rains many different activities onto the player. For example, and just to name a few things at your disposal, once the school day is done, you can meet up with friends to increase your social links with them, work a job to earn money and stats, go shopping, study, play arcade games, find somewhere to eat, the list goes on. As you progress through the game, more locations and activities are opened up to you. 

This drip-feeding of new things as the game progresses is a wonderful testament to how the game keeps you playing for hours on end. It always felt like something new of interest arrived just when you thought you had seen it all. 

At the end of the day, as long as you do something, it will ultimately raise the base stats of one of your character’s features, but I would highly recommend finding an online strategy to follow. This is because it can feel like you are just aimlessly wandering around and not making the most of your time if you don’t follow some kind of plan. All of your social interactions and other actions will help with the stats that will help you more or less when you take on Tartarus. 

The dungeon of Tartarus, even on normal difficulty, is tricky. Again, like your free time, it’s best to follow an online plan on how to navigate Tartarus. The building has over 250 levels or more to go through, but thankfully, the game and the building block off levels until certain dates before you can continue. 

You are tasked to get to these barriers in the game by a certain date. This will then trigger a boss fight that will then open up the next set of levels. Knowing how far you need to climb each foray into the dungeon is very key. For example, and mild spoiler, the first blockage is around levels 21 to 22. 

As Tartarus is such a huge and imposing dungeon, it is, again, a good idea to have some sort of strategy in how to approach it and by what dates you will need to have done this. In my playthrough, I found most advice saying that you should try to complete a Tartarus run, i.e.: go from one blockage to the next, in one go. This will then give you the maximum amount of time out of the dungeon to increase those social links and discover new friends who unlock new types of Personas to use in battle.  

As the game progressed (on normal difficulty), this became harder and harder to do. For example, I did manage to get through the first 22 levels and their mini-bosses in one go, but reaching the next blockage took me two. The game does help you out if you are struggling by remembering the highest level you had reached and letting you go back there after you have recovered to carry on. 

What I found thrilling about this dungeon though was that, although the dungeon itself is very bland, the enemies and the types you face are certainly not. Even as an experienced Persona player, I was being pushed to the limit in my runs. To initiate a fight, you can run up to the back of enemies and, in a real-time moment, hit them with your sword. This then gives your team the advantage in battle. However, if an enemy surprises you, they start the battle dishing out the pain. 

If you are not careful, getting jumped or mistiming your sword swing can and will affect your entire run. Getting behind the loop in battle makes it hard to catch back up, i.e., instead of dishing out attacks, you can spend more time and resources keeping the team alive than actually attacking. Even worse, if the main character is killed, then it’s game over and back to the last save, and all your progress is lost. If one of your team goes down, they can be revived. 

I felt the battles were finely balanced on normal difficulty, and because of this, I had some thrilling last-gasp mini-boss and major boss fight victories! One such fight came down to each team member having less than 10 HP and only one recovery item to use. Crucially, the boss I was fighting also had a small amount of health left. I had that awful but wonderful moment to make a tense decision: If I heal, will it heal enough to survive hits from this boss, or do I have to try and finish him now? I went for it. 

SP is the gauge from where you can use Persona spells. For example, launching a basic ice attack (called Bufu) costs 4 SP. You can also upgrade all your weapons, armor, and accessories via the back door of the Police Station for better gear too. 

For me, my dungeon crawling runs mainly came down to SP, not HP management. A run would end not because I ran out of health but because I had exhausted my team’s SP and SP-replenishing items. You rely on your Persona spells heavily, and finding the enemy’s weakness to be efficient with your SP is hugely beneficial to progression. 

There is, of course, the Velvet Room, but there are also new gameplay tweaks. The Velvet Room is a place where you can unlock, create, and summon new Personas, but it is also a place where you can be tasked with quests from Elizabeth. These tasks would range from all sorts of things to do, buy, or find, in and out of the dungeon, but were worth taking the time to complete as the rewards always felt worth the trouble. For example, one task might be to defeat 100 Shadows. When completed, just go back to the front door of the Velvet Room, talk to Elizabeth, and she will reward you with items or money. 

Another new tweak is Twilight Fragments. These fragments are scattered around the world but are a currency needed to open the best treasure chests in the game. You can fritter away these fragments, but using a whopping seven of them at a clock mid-Tartarus run allows you to replenish your whole party’s HP and SP. Even if you think you have enough fragments, you never quite do. 

Lastly, and not forgetting, there is, of course, the Persona 3 audio, especially the awesome in-game soundtracks. The updated voice acting was especially superb! The range of emotions and energy from each character is so appealing. The in-game battle effects during combat are immense and powerful, but it is the catchy soundtracks that thump you along. They also soothe you through the contemplative moments as well and just continually add another layer of immersion and quality that oozes through the entire game. 

As the game progresses, more and more of the game’s story is unraveled, but so are all the stories of the people you are creating social links with. Here is where this game and this franchise sets itself apart as each character’s story arc is something I found hard not to get enthralled with. There are stories of love, loss, and tragedy, as well as the main arc of the game itself. You become invested in the game on many different levels, and it’s here that you realize why you keep thinking about the game long after you have finished playing. 

Because this game was made in Japan in 2006, the world and its views on issues have changed since then. Subsequently, there are a few storylines that, in the lens of the current day, feel awkward. The main one for me would be the student you have to befriend who is desperately trying to date a female teacher! 

Additionally, the way a character awakens their Persona is by using an evoker. This is a handheld gun that the character has to use to shoot themselves in the head to initiate the Persona awakening. Seeing how passionate some people can get about games and franchises, I felt uncomfortable about this messaging the game sends out. 

However, aside from this, the story of the game is a powerful one, especially for those who have gone through similar issues and themes that the game’s characters explore. It certainly has a darker story than Persona 5, but it is still a game and a story that will capture your heart. 

Persona games are such polished, high-quality products. There is very little to find fault with in any of the games in the franchise, and this is just another example of that. You won’t need to have played any earlier Persona games beforehand as this is a separate, standalone experience for both new and old players. It’s amazing how they have managed to make a game look and feel exactly like Persona 5 but then also look and feel completely different all at the same time. I never felt like I was repeating much that I had done before, apart from the grind of going through Tartarus, but the payoff of the stories and fun gameplay more than made up for that. 

 

Summary

Persona 3 Reload is the ultimate and best way to experience this incredible game with up-to-date visuals and gameplay tweaks to make it even more user-friendly and relevant. The whole experience is enthralling from start to finish. It’s hard to say if this is better or worse than other Persona games due to how the story will feel for different players, but while we wait for Persona 6 to arrive, this is a hugely enjoyable time sink that felt fresh and exciting to play in the meantime.

Developer: P Studio

Publisher: Atlus/SEGA

Platforms: PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One X/S, PC

Release Date: 2nd February 2024

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