Video Gamer is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Prices subject to change. Learn more
Remaking a beloved JRPG with thoughtful additions and deliberate omissions is always a leap of faith. Persona 3’s multiple entry points and dedicated fanbase make this all the more challenging. I don’t envy developer Atlus’ burden. Right from the original in 2006, followed by Persona 3 FES a year later, and Persona 3 Portable for the PSP in 2009, each iteration brought its spin on the franchise.
FES got The Answer, a post-game DLC that unwraps the original ending for some and undoes it for others. Portable gained an upbeat female protagonist, complete with new story content and Social Links with male teammates. Can Persona 3 Reload’s retelling win over fans and newcomers with its Persona 5 influences and reworked systems? While I’m only about three-fourths into its somber tale, the answer is largely yes. P3R is an exercise in caution, one worthy of praise. New choices discard old frustrations at the risk of weakening its core theme.
Its theme, you ask? It can be summed up by ‘memento mori,’ meaning ‘remember you must die.’ The color drained from my mom’s face as she watched the cast point guns at their heads to summon Personas, manifestations of their will. True, they held harmless Evoker pistols, but the intent of confronting your comforts to take action is made clear.
Its bleak undertones sharply contrast with newer Persona titles, especially Persona 5. Persona 4 Golden might have dispersed an eerie fog ‘in search of the truth’ but Persona 3 dug deeper to death itself. Fortunately, Persona 3 Reload’s visuals are guided by the flagposts of the original, with gorgeous environments and character models that don’t shy away from the grotesque.
Much of Persona 3 Reload’s conflicts take place in the Dark Hour, a secret hour that starts at midnight, unknown to many of its setting’s inhabitants. Persona-wielders can explore this unrecorded hour and face shadows, human emotions given shape and form. Regular humans show up as coffins glowing in a pale red hue.
As a member of S.E.E.S (Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad), you’re tasked with defeating shadows, both in the vertical labyrinth of Tartarus and in the full moon encounters that seem to be infecting the populace with dementia-like Apathy Syndrome. As is tradition, the protagonist is gifted with the ability to store multiple Personas for both shadow combat and chill hangouts.
Most of P3R’s detailed environments offer subtle hints of powerful emotions. One standoff at a suspicious hotel featured rooms with coffins inclined on each other, a subtle touch I definitely wouldn’t have paid heed to as a kid. Themes of rebirth and despair plague most of the characters you will encounter, even non-playable ones that offer Social Links that build with interactions. You don’t always get to pick the circumstances of your death. Persona 3 Reload asks you to choose how you live instead.
Splitting your time between building bonds and your social stats (Courage, Charm, and Academics) is a Persona-standard endeavor that asks you to cherish every moment. From dozing off in class to trying the latest Wilduck Burger or working part-time at Chagall Café, the possibilities can spook you with indecision. While each choice in itself might not define you, the mere act of displaying free will is Persona 3’s weapon against a life left incomplete. It takes a while for your friends and their arcs to kick off though, making for some pacing issues in P3R’s starting hours.
Persona 3 Reload is an opportunity that Atlus takes advantage of to flesh out its array of memorable heroes. Its solid writing is paired with excellent voice acting, giving well-loved characters a revival worthy of their names. Be it the intelligent dog Koromaru or the constant bickering between Junpei and Yukari, there’s a lot you’ll look back on fondly once you beat the game. While seniors Akihido and Mitsuru are more laid back, younger members like Fuuka and Ken fill important roles as well, each brimming with personality. Aigis is a standout, a robot who ends up teaching you about what it means to live.
Each of them deals with loss in their way and it’s a delight to see S.E.E.S become a broth of exotic flavors. Characters outside the dorm like the nervous treasurer Chihiro, adorably brave Maiko, and spirited Yuko from the sports club flesh out the world of P3R. There are plenty more to discover, some hidden behind the Social Links that you unlock first. While leveling up their Social Ranks doesn’t give you bonuses outside of fusing Personas (unlike Persona 5), their tales of acceptance are rewards in themselves.
One of Persona 3 Reload’s biggest additions is that you can finally hang out with all your friends. The franchise staple Social Link feature of getting to know your friends’ aspirations was reserved for female friends in the original, turning into a romance without a platonic option. You can now hang out with Junpei and Akihiko in social link segments, complete with voice-acted dialogue.
While they don’t progress your Arcana like the others, your choices still shape these moments and your friends can even gain stat boosts. P3R also expands nighttime activities from the original, with more story content and Social Link encounters. Walking Koromaru, alone or with a friend, is always a treat. And unlike later entries, your team members have their schedules, meaning that you’ll have to pencil in Tartarus treks accordingly unless you want a suboptimal team.
The ordeal of Tartarus remains a tedious grind. Tartarus is a haphazard skyscraper your team must scale during the Dark Hour without an elevator for plot reasons. You can use the elevator to go back, though. P3R’s retooling of the Tower of Demise retains the sense of dread of the original while adding little treats like breakable items and bonus Monad stages. Its Great Clock mechanic thankfully lets you level up party members who aren’t your top picks in combat.
Koromaru’s barks between Junpei’s crude gags and other party banter keep the silence of Tartarus from consuming you. It’s a nice touch in a game where forged bonds empower players to step away from comfort. New sections are unlocked at specific points in the story, making for a diversion between P3R’s slice-of-life segments.
The singular nature of Tartarus’ barren stages pales in comparison to Persona 5’s expertly crafted Palaces and Atlus tries to fix this with its story-focused mini dungeons during each full moon. Despite that, P3R has some of the most inventive bosses in the franchise, a tall bar it then beats when monthly shadow boss encounters fuel the plot. But that doesn’t make these stints any less tiring as a player. Fatigue may be a great mechanic from the original that ties into the core theme but its removal in P3R is one I understand. Performing tasks outside Tartarus just to get back in fighting form would leave less space for P3R’s new story content to truly shine.
While climbing a tower whose floors exceed three digits is a herculean undertaking, P3R’s refined turn-based combat does its best to minimize busywork. The Shift system lets your teammates pummel enemies on your turn once you exploit an enemy weakness, much like Persona 5’s Baton Pass. All-Out Attacks are back in full force as well.
Theurgy is unique to Persona 3 Reload, offering a meter that fills based on how you approach battles. Heal people as Yukari, land critical hits as Junpei, or inflict status effects as Mitsuru to fill their bars for powerful attacks that ignore resistances. Planning your team composition also lets you take advantage of unique passive skills possessed by each S.E.E.S member. While the UI’s fresh coat of paint and slick animations inject some Persona 5 energy into P3R, the original’s 7-chamber revolver menu remains timeless.
Music is another aspect that Persona 3 Reload is faithful to as it respins familiar tunes with modern sensibilities. Its combat themes remain unnerving while also being absolute bangers. While some elements might make you think Atlus is attempting to cash in on Persona 5’s success, there’s a surprising amount of restraint here as P3R opts to elevate the original vision instead.
Tartarus and the refined Social Links are a testament to that, with the latter’s unpredictable nature in P3R towering over the easier ones in Persona 5. Since I went in unaware, in-game months passed before I found some of the trickier friends you could make. Each of their worries and hopes tied to loss felt cohesive as they tasked you to ponder the true nature of an ending.
While I did enjoy Persona 3 Reload outside the monotony of Tartarus, a small caveat is that we weren’t able to clear the game before the embargo lifted. Take the score below with that in mind and we’ll come back later if our opinion changes. Persona titles are known for their gut-wrenching finales. I expect no less from P3R, especially since its themes of death and rebirth have already begun seeping into the main narrative.
Since every Persona title switches to a new setting with its characters and lore, Persona 3 Reload is a great entry point thanks to its refinements. While omitting the female protagonist and The Answer DLC does sour its first impression, Persona 3 Reload is a triumph of a remake that bridges the generations-wide gap between the original and successive entries. It’s not a like-for-like remake but it also doesn’t redo things that aren’t broken. I’m glad that some of Persona 3’s 18-year baggage remains. P3R’s poignant tale of acceptance is bolstered by smart combat refinements, deeper friendships, and a soundtrack you already love.
Reviewed on PC. Code provided by the publisher.