Persona 3 is perhaps the most important entry in the Shin Megami Tensei spin-off franchise. By establishing several series mainstays, including the popular Social Links system, Persona 3 laid the foundation upon which the next two mainline entries would be built. Unfortunately, by today’s standards, that 18-year-old title is unapproachable in many ways. Persona 3 Reload remedies that, bringing forward the outstanding cast, story, and turn-based battles in a faithful remake with the modern amenities of Persona 5 Royal. While it is a massive success, some persistent outdated elements from the original prevent Reload from reaching the heights of other modern games in the series.
In a premise familiar to Persona fans, you control a transfer student arriving at his new high school. However, when night falls, it’s far from an ordinary schoolkid’s existence as you enter an anomaly known as the Dark Hour. Here, everyone is confined to coffins except for powerful humans who can wield magical entities known as Personas. Using these, the cast must hunt down Shadows around the city, primarily in a procedurally generated tower known as Tartarus.
I love exploiting the combat system’s many quirks en route to victory. Landing a critical hit with one character before shifting to another to hit an elemental weakness, then polishing the foes off with a powerful All-Out Attack, is ceaselessly thrilling. Being able to directly control all characters in your party is a no-brainer by today’s standards and a huge quality-of-life improvement over the original base game. In fact, nearly all the innovations from Persona 5 are present, and the addition of the Theurgy system diversified my combat strategies in fun ways.
Theurgies are powerful, cinematic ultimate abilities that charge over the course of battle. Since each character’s meter charges (and each ability provides different effects), I often went out of my way to perform the character-specific actions – whether that be healing, summoning Personas, or attacking with physical abilities – during battles with lesser enemies. Entering a tough battle with a full party of charged meters always gave me a boost of confidence, even if they were far from instant-win buttons.
The battles are as exciting as the series has ever seen, but one key improvement from Persona 5 didn’t make it into this remake: handcrafted dungeons. Even with this version’s addition of Monad Doors that house powerful minibosses and special rewards, the randomly generated floors of Tartarus serving as the game’s main dungeon feel outdated. After hours of dungeon-crawling, the experience can become monotonous when you’re climbing through hundreds of generic floors full of the same monsters. Thankfully, the boss battles and sequences leading up to them are as compelling as ever, delivering the best combat in the game and often revealing my favorite character moments in the story.
Speaking of characters, the excellent cast of Persona 3 is allowed to shine brighter than ever through additional voice acting and more social scenes. I loved balancing the social elements of a typical high school experience with the extraordinary circumstances presented to my protagonist. However, I am disappointed that the female protagonist option included in Persona 3 Portable is neither present nor the added epilogue from FES. In a modern remake arriving decades later, it’s unfortunate to have content missing from older re-releases.
Due to modernized and expanded Social Links, I truly felt I got to know many of the supporting characters better. I became emotionally invested in stories involving a motivated track athlete pushing through an injury to inspire a younger family member, an elderly couple coping with the loss of their son, and a young girl struggling amidst her parents’ divorce.
Forming bonds with these characters grants boosts for certain Persona fusions, but I primarily pursued the Links to further unravel the narrative threads. Later, you can also form closer bonds with your party members, but even before that, you can awaken new abilities within your team by cooking, gardening, or watching movies with them at the dorm. Though stilted, repetitive animations sometimes took me out of the moment, Persona 3 Reload’s emotional beats hit hard as the themes of death and loss resonate throughout this long story.
Even after nearly 100 hours, I was sad to part ways with my team, feeling as though I had formed bonds with them that transcend any kind of in-game Social Link metric. Even with some outdated and repetitive elements inherited through the 18-year-old structure of the original, Persona 3 Reload is one of the best entries in one of the most acclaimed modern role-playing franchises in video games.