When Persona 3 was released in 2006, it was a one-of-a-kind JRPG (Japanese role-playing game) that threw a mundane high school life simulator and a dungeon crawler into the blender, and produced an exquisite mixture that resonated with audiences. With its success, an extended version, Persona 3 FES, was released a year later, followed by Persona 3 Portable for the Playstation Portable in 2009, before it was subsequently ported over to other platforms in 2023. If you consider those iterations as remasters, then the latest, Persona 3 Reload, is the remake, built from scratch while keeping the same storyline.
Persona 3 Reload follows the protagonist as he starts his second year in Gekkoukan High School as a transfer student in the town of Iwatodai, years after the death of his parents in an accident. With the ability to summon an inner spirit, or Persona, he stays in the dorm with a couple of students from the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES), studying by day and fighting monsters known as Shadows at night.
A peculiar phenomenon called the Dark Hour occurs at the stroke of midnight in the town, when Shadows roam the streets. Most of the people are transmogrified into coffins and oblivious to whatever that happens outside. Any unfortunate souls that remain as humans are attacked by the Shadows. When the Dark Hour is over, they will still be alive but with their minds lost, along with their souls.
During the Dark Hour, Gekkoukan High School is transformed into a colossal dungeon known as the Tartarus. The SEES believe that the Tartarus is related to the Dark Hour, and the key to stopping the Dark Hour could be found somewhere at the top of that dungeon and the objective of the SEES is to explore the Tartarus to search for this key.
The first few exploration trips in the Tartarus might seem a tad monotonous as the team fights some Shadows, opens some chests and searches for stairs to go up level after level that look the same. However as the story progression unlocks higher levels of the Tartarus, the levels look more bizarre and get more labyrinthine.
At times the team will arrive at a level where a mini-boss, the Gatekeeper, has to be defeated before they can proceed. If the team is too under-powered to face the Gatekeeper, they can return another day. The Tartarus might change every night, but a teleportation terminal can be used to return to previously explored levels, and the Gatekeeper will still be there blocking the team’s way.
One major update in the Tartarus in Persona 3 Reload is the revamped Monad Depths – optional areas in the Tartarus that house powerful Shadows and defeating them earns awesome treasures. In the original Persona 3, the Monad Depths was only accessible after the protagonist reached level 254; and in Persona 3 FES, a powerful Shadow called the Reaper had to be defeated first. Fans who have played the previous games will be thrilled to now find the door to the Monad Depths appearing right before their eyes in their early exploration of the Tartarus, with no prerequisite needed whatsoever. To sweeten the pot, defeating the Shadows in Monad Depths also reveals the map of current level and the one above!
In Persona 3 Reload, the only stats that matter are charm, courage and academics. Stats levels are required to unlock some locations (for example adequate courage level is required to unlock the access to the club Escapade), new relationships and dialogue choices. Fortunately the dorm’s night curfew is lifted early in the game, allowing the protagonist to quickly increase his stats by picking up a part-time job or patronizing the various shops in the Paulownia Mall and restaurants at Iwatodai Station Strip Mall at night.
In the words of Igor, the Velvet Room Master, strong Social Links create strong Personas. Thus it is imperative that the protagonist picks up any opportunity to meet people from all walks of life in town. After school, the protagonist could join a club, like track and field, to open up access to new relationships and Social Links. While the protagonist can join as many clubs as he wishes, he can only attend one club activity after school, so this would be a real challenge to the players’ time management skill.
The turn-based battle system in Persona 3 Reload is easy to understand and execute. Each Shadow has weaknesses towards certain affinities and attacking these weaknesses will knock it down. After a Shadow is knocked down, the attacker will be granted one more attack, known as “1 More”. The attacker can also create a chain attack called “Shift” by transferring this additional attack chance to another team member. When all the Shadows are knocked down, the team can initiate the devastating All-Out Attack where everyone rushes in to beat up the Shadows.
Theurgy is a new battle skill that makes fighting even more exciting in Persona 3 Reload. Every team member has a unique Theurgy skill that can be activated once their respective Theurgy gauge has reached its limit, and each team member has to perform different actions to fill the gauge. Theurgy skills are not only powerful, they can also be activated without any usage of HP or SP, making them especially crucial in taking down bosses.
The battles in Persona 3 Reload are definitely more enjoyable than Persona 3 FES now that the player has full control. Previously, players could only issue commands to the protagonist, while the other team members were AI-controlled with various tactics. That made battles less predictable and more prone to defeat. Now, team members can still be AI-controlled, with the same tactical options of acting freely, prioritizing attacking, prioritizing healing themselves, or conserving SP, but players can also choose to issue direct commands to team members.
After a Shadow is defeated in the Tartarus, there is a chance for Shuffle Time to occur if “1 More” were activated and higher chance if All-Out Attack were activated. During Shuffle Time, the player can choose one of the few random cards awarded to them. The Wand cards increase experience; Cup cards activate battle support effects; Sword cards are skill cards that can be used to teach Personas new skill; Coin cards are monetary rewards; and the Persona cards award new Personas. While there is a limit to the number of Personas the protagonist can hold, existing Personas can be discarded to make way for new ones.
Besides leveling up a Persona in battles, an even stronger Persona can be created by fusing two or more Personas. The Persona fusion mechanism in Persona 3 Reload is a huge improvement compared to the original. Previously, every Persona had an inheritance type that determined the skills they were unable to inherit. For example, Personas of fire inheritance type cannot learn ice skills from their parents. Now, Personas can inherit any skills directly from their parent Personas, and the skills set for the resulting Persona are much more predictable, making it easier for players to fuse a Persona with exactly the skills they desire.
Outside the Tartarus, locations around the town look appealing. Players could see themselves taking a break at the luxurious water fountain after shopping in the various shops at Paulownia Mall; or walking up the spiral metal staircase to their favorite gyudon shop at the rather run-down Iwatodai Station Strip Mall; or saying a prayer under the red torii gates at the Naganaki Shrine. The most ornate location has to be the bustling Gekkoukan High School. There are students chatting outside their classrooms, someone rushing down a corridor, or someone chatting on the mobile phone at a corner. Players can almost hear all the noisy chatter even when their headphones are actually playing the soundtrack “Want To Be Close”.
Persona 3 Reload has retained most of the original Persona 3 soundtracks but the newly added songs are just as astonishing. From the new opening song ‘Full Moon Full Life’ to the battle theme ‘It’s Going Down Now’, performers Azumi Takahashi and Lotus Juiice are definitely captivating the fans’ hearts with their powerful vocals and rap respectively.
The average completion time for both Persona 3 FES and Persona 3 Portable is about 70 hours, and players can expect no less from Persona 3 Reload. There are also adequate side quests to keep the protagonist busy, like the laundry list of requests from Igor’s assistant Elizabeth and a bulletin board of missing people to be rescued from the Tartarus. Some of these side quests are worth the players’ time as they will be rewarded with exceptional equipment and garbs.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
With its flashy manga-style graphics and anime cutscenes of slice of life moments, Persona 3 Reload has unquestionably breathed new life into this 18-year-old game and makes it more invigorating and up to date. The new battle system is fun and the challenging boss fights compel players to strategise their moves instead of aiming for the enemies’ weaknesses blindly. With all the Quality of Life improvements over the original game, Persona 3 Reload also serves as a good entry point for players who are new to the franchise.
Gameplay - 9/10
Story - 9/10
Presentation - 9.5/10
Value - 9/10