Review – Persona 3 Reload

Full Life

Overview

Developer P-Studio
Publisher Atlus (Sega)
Genre JRPG
Platforms PC, Xbox One/Series X|S, PS4/PS5 (reviewed)
Release Date February 2nd, 2024

After its initial release in 2006, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 set a new standard for the Persona series. Its unique style, gameplay, and music became incredibly iconic. Since then, there have been several releases of the game including Persona 3 FES, Persona 3 Portable, and now Persona 3 Reload. Reload attempts to breathe new life into the almost 20 year old game, integrating the stylistic feats that pushed Persona 5 Royal to mainstream audiences while still being respectful to the original story. 

When I played Persona 5 Royal a couple of years ago, I was immediately hooked onto the Persona series. Persona 5 Royal and Persona 4 Golden were slam-dunks for me, so when I grabbed Persona 3 Portable last year, I loved it! I even wrote about my experience playing the female route in last year’s Gaming Experiences of the Year article (which you can read here!). That being said, I was looking forward to seeing what a “Royal-style” version of Persona 3 would look like. Would this be the ideal way to experience Persona 3, or would it fall flat in its attempt to reach Royal’s greatness? Let’s talk about it!

Content

Violence and Disturbing Content – Summoning Personas evokes suicidal imagery. Weapons such as swords, bows, and axes are used in combat. Most violence is directed at Shadows, which are the main enemies found in the game. Fake and real guns are used throughout the story and fired at other humans. Bullet wounds and blood are shown. Concepts such as bullying, fear, death, murder, suicide, and sacrifice are explored. A content warning is featured upon starting the game. 

Language – Strong language, including d***, s***, b****, and f***. 

Sexual Content – Some Shadows and Personas have exposed breasts, torsos, or feature sexual imagery. Players must visit a “love hotel” at some point in the game, and the protagonist fights the temptation to “give into desires”. A character is seen in nothing but a towel, though nothing is shown. There is a beach scene where several characters wear swimsuits. Players can pursue a romantic relationship with other characters (even more than one at the same time, though characters might discover your cheating). Some optional outfits are quite revealing. The characters relax in a hot spring at some point, but everything is either hidden by opaque water or towels. The males in the group are accused of peeping on the female members at the hot spring.    

Drug/Alcohol Use – Medicine can be purchased from the pharmacy and used for various effects in battle. There is a local dance club where players can serve alcohol to other patrons, but cannot drink any themselves. Players can talk to a man there who is often drunk or drinking, and is always shown with a cigar in hand. He admits to the protagonist that he drinks to get drunk because he likes how it feels. Another character can admit to drinking often or being drunk, presumedly to cope with her job. 

Spiritual Content – The Major Arcana is significant in all Persona games, and Persona 3 Reload is no exception. Players can choose cards in the Arcana to gain buffs after some battles. Multiple characters, Personas, and bosses in the game are associated with the Major Arcana. Personas often reference or are based on spiritual or mythological figures from various cultures (including Messiah and Lucifer). Players can visit a shrine and pray at it. The phases of the moon play a significant role in the story. Players can visit a fortune teller to have their fortune read. 

Review

Story & Characters

The game starts as the protagonist moves to a new city. As we walk to the dorm, the clock strikes midnight, but something is off… the moon’s light has turned green and there are coffin-like structures all around the city. What could be going on?

In Persona 3 Reload, you investigate this phenomenon called the Dark Hour with the “Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad”, or S.E.E.S. for short. You soon discover that you have the ability to summon a Persona, a powerful representation of the self. Personas can effectively fight Shadows, which are the main enemies you will encounter throughout the game. As the story progresses, you and your team will learn more about this mysterious Dark Hour, and routinely investigate the tower that rises during it, called Tartarus. 

The beginning of Persona 3 Reload stands apart from Persona 4 and 5 in that it is a relatively slow start. In Persona 4 and 5, you quickly become close with your teammates due to dire circumstances occurring from the get-go and the discovery of the “other world” (inside the TV and Metaverse, respectively). In Reload, the team is already aware of the Dark Hour and Personas when you join. People are suffering from a condition called Apathy Syndrome, but nothing immediately urgent is happening (such as a teacher threatening to expel you, like in Persona 5). Combine this lack of urgency with the fact that your first social links (a mechanic that quantifies the strength of a relationship) will be with random classmates or strangers around town, and players may be left looking for a hook and a reason to care. 

For these reasons, I understand why new players may not enjoy the first 10-15 hours of the game. I actually took a hiatus from Persona 3 Portable after around 15 hours for similar reasons. However, I highly encourage pushing through to experience all that this story has to offer. The unfolding mystery of the Dark Hour is alluring, and the story excellently tackles the mature and all-too-personal concept of death. Almost everyone in the game has been affected by death in some way, such as the death of a loved one or relationship. This is where the realistic theme really shines… death truly affects everyone. “Memento Mori” is the driving force that pushes the narrative. But through exploring death, players equally explore life. I will not spoil the story of this game, but I will say that the themes and lessons learned in my experience playing Persona 3 Portable still stick with me. Playing the game, I felt hope, despair, but ultimately, peace. I was pleasantly reminded of these feelings as I experienced the story again in Persona 3 Reload.  

As for the characters, the party members in Persona 3 Reload are fully fleshed out and directly influence the story. While the team members in Persona 4 and 5 each have their moment to shine before quietly sliding into the background, the members of SEES feel like they are developing throughout the entire game. This not only makes the characters more realistic, but it also gives them ample room for depth and growth. Even the non-SEES characters have interesting development as long as you are willing to push through their social links. Though it can be rough in the beginning for several characters… I’m looking at you, Kenji. 

Gameplay

Persona 3 Reload is a JRPG that operates on a turn-based combat system. As you explore Tarturus and progress the story, you will encounter various Shadows and engage in combat with them. The most efficient way to defeat your enemy is to discover its weaknesses so you can Down them and trigger a 1 More. A 1 More provides another opportunity to act, so chaining together attacks can quickly Down all enemies and open the opportunity for an All-Out Attack, which is incredibly satisfying! However, if enemies exploit your weakness, they will get a 1 More as well. This unique system means that you will oftentimes need to treat strong enemies and bosses like a puzzle to solve, rather than a wall to break down with brute force. 

Like in every other Persona game, you are only as strong as your Personas. The Velvet Room is always available for you to register, summon, and fuse Personas. Not only does collecting and fusing yield stronger Personas, but Elizabeth may also give you additional rewards for your efforts. Your work connecting with people outside of Tartarus affects your Personas as well! The higher your social link with a character, the stronger the Personas of their affiliated Arcana will be. 

Outside of Tartarus, the game operates like a life sim. You follow a calendar system and go to school each day, having the opportunity to use your time after school for various things like hanging out with friends or working a job. You can also spend time improving your social stats (Courage, Academics, and Charm), which will unlock more opportunities for you. The story progresses as the days go by, with major events often coinciding with the full moon, so it is important to spend your time wisely. Connecting with friends is a great way to spend time not only because of how it will affect your Personas, but also because the characterization and growth of the social links perfectly align and expand on the game’s themes. Just be sure to stop by the police station and pharmacy every once in a while so you can fully equip your team with the best gear! 

Reload Changes & Critique

There are a number of new additions to Reload that set it apart from previous Persona 3 releases. Some of the more obvious changes include updated graphics, re-recorded and new music, and new voice actors, but there are more subtle changes as well. For example, there are more activities for the players to experience during freetime. There is a shared computer that can be used to improve skills or unlock mechanics, such as the option to get takeout from a local restaurant. Gardening is an added mechanic as well, and works similarly to how it works in Persona 4 and Persona 5. The food you grow allows more options for healing or temporary buffs in battle. 

One of my favorite new options is spending time with the other members of SEES. This is different from social links, and helps fill the hole left from the original Persona 3 having no social links for several SEES members. You can participate in a variety of activities with your roommates, including (but not limited to) cooking, gardening, or watching a movie. During test weeks, there may also be study sessions that you can partake in. All of these events come with fully-voiced dialogue and something positive to take away (helpful items, social stat buffs, etc.). Sometimes, hanging out with a team member enough will even unlock new abilities in battle! This perfectly compliments the “relationships make me stronger” theme that permeates throughout the Persona series.  

Combat sees its fair share of changes as well. Teammates are player-controlled by default, which may be new for Persona 3 veterans. Tactics is an option in the game, but I personally never used it since player-controlled units is my preferred gameplay style (another reason I chose to play Portable over FES). Shifting is another new mechanic that is introduced early in the game. This allows the player to give another character the opportunity to act upon a 1 More. This is very similar to Baton Pass in Persona 5 Royal, just without the added stat buffs. Theurgy is a new stand-in for Showtime or Team Attacks (from Persona 5 Royal and Persona 4 Golden, respectively) as well, complete with gorgeous attack animations. Though unlike its predecessors, Theurgy is not triggered at random, and is a unique attack that every SEES member has. The Theurgy bar increases slowly as a battle progresses and can be released once full. However, the progress bar can increase faster if the player meets certain criteria. For example, Yukari’s bar will increase faster when she heals someone. This adds an interesting extra layer of strategy in battle, since you’ll likely depend on your Theurgy attacks to get through tough battles. Old abilities from Persona 3 games have been converted to Theurgy attacks as well. Fusion Spells from previous Persona 3 games are the protagonist’s Theurgy and Aigis’s Orgia ability has become her Theurgy. The assist button is also back from Persona 5, which immediately targets the enemy with a move it is weak to, if available. Finally, the navigator can scan for the enemy’s weaknesses or provide certain buffs, but at an SP cost. 

I was glad to see Shuffle Time return to this game, and I was even happier learning that I would not need to go cross-eyed keeping track of the cards! Cards are presented face up right from the get-go. They even include a description so you know exactly what you are offered. I loved the added mechanics of the Persona cards as well. If you see a card of a Persona you already have, you can select that card to give that Persona in your possession an EXP boost. Finally, Arcana Burst takes Shuffle Time to the next level. As you progress throughout the game, you will gain cards of the major arcana. These cards are then added to the Shuffle Time deck. Selecting these cards as they occur in Shuffle Time not only gives you powerful boons (such as the Magician card providing a rare item), but if you collect them all, an Arcana Burst will initiate, buffing all future cards. This greatly encourages and rewards grinding in Tartarus. 

Many of the changes made in Persona 3 Reload are intended to increase player options and avoid monotony. Most of the time, they work effectively. I did find myself having more fun grinding thanks to the new Tartarus floor designs, Shifting, Shuffle Time, and party banter. I also appreciated the increase in freetime options. It struck a balance for me between Persona 3 Portable (where I rotated between three activities) and Persona 5 Royal (where I was paralyzed with choice overload and still had not tried some activities by the end of the game). The new UI and the quality of life improvements (heavily inspired from Persona 5 Royal) can make the game feel buttery smooth at times. However, it is difficult to say if all of the changes were an absolute improvement. While the changes add a lot to the game, sometimes it feels… pointless. 

For example, you can take requests from Elizabeth throughout the game, and she will provide a reward upon completion. In Portable, I could only take three requests at a time. Some of these requests could only be completed on certain days and required me to talk to a specific NPC in order to obtain an item. I didn’t always know who to talk to for the item, or where to find them. I had to discern for myself what to do (if I need a protein shake, I probably could get one from Akihiko, and he’ll probably be found at the dorm). In Reload, you can take as many requests as you’d like at one time. For item requests, the map will have a marker on the location of the individual. Once you talk to them, they will immediately give you the required item. Then, you can return to Elizabeth and finish the quest. Sure, this made the entire fetch quest easier, but I couldn’t help but question what the point of it all was. It felt too streamlined, too simple… it made me think, “did I really deserve that reward?”. This theme reaches into other aspects of the game. I no longer needed to make a note on who I could see on which days, because the game told me. I didn’t need to remember the weaknesses of enemies because I could mash the Assist button. Treasure hands often don’t attempt to run away upon their first turn anymore, which decreased the urgency for me to find a way to kill them quickly (not to mention how much easier it is to chase them down in Reload as well, since they don’t disappear). I didn’t feel the need to prioritize studying before a test because I knew I’d be able to join a study session or two to boost my Academics. Bumping up the game’s difficulty or refusing to use Theurgy attacks may satisfy players looking for a challenge in combat, but I would argue that these fundamental changes tread the line between accessibility and oversimplification. With the game’s theme of “Memento Mori” and making the most of your life while you still have it, I’d like to feel like I am the one making the meaningful and difficult choices to live my life, rather than have the game drag me from one optimized life decision to the next.

Conclusion
Overall, Persona 3 Reload is a fantastic game for series newcomers and fans alike. The original story and characters are adapted well, the new gameplay and combat features make the game all the more engaging, and it is easy to be entranced by the gorgeous animations and music. However, to longtime Persona 3 fans, Reload may feel like it is missing the grit and gloom of the original. Additionally, it is missing features present in past iterations, namely the female route (and The Answer, though it will be available as paid DLC later this year). This may not be the “definitive edition” that direhard Persona 3 fans have been hoping for, and some may still dream about what could have been… but Persona 3 Reload truly stands on its own, rivaling the likes of Persona 5 Royal and Persona 4 Golden, which isn’t to be said lightly. 

The Bottom Line

 

Life is what you make of it, and so is this game. So live it to the fullest!

 

9

Shelley Waltar

Leave a Comment