Let’s get right into it. In an industry where remakes and remasters are far from rare, Persona 3 Reload is an absolute masterclass on the idea. As the progenitor of the modern Persona game, Persona 3 was a diamond in the rough at a time when JRPGs struggled with their identity. It seems only fitting that 17 years after the initial US release, and during another similar identity struggle, Persona 3 Reload shows up with a brand new bag.
Persona 3 was a pretty revolutionary game for its time. While not the prettiest game for the time, Persona 3 was a fantastic JRPG that featured some relatively unforgiving combat, a super-long main dungeon, and a lot of micromanagement of your character’s bonds. While the original game’s final act left a lot of unanswered questions, the subsequent releases of the game on the PlayStation Portable and the secret fighting-game sequel helped flesh that out. Persona 3 is one of the rare cases where I've played the same game more than once.
This brings me to Persona 3 Reload. This is the original Persona 3 with highly improved graphics, gameplay, and mechanics. Persona 3 Reload is almost an entirely new game; outside of the story beats themselves, Persona 3 Reload is probably how you remember the original Persona 3 because, man, did Persona 5 perfect the formula!
That’s the thing with Persona 3 Reload; I remember playing through the original game in 2007 and then the PSP version a few years later. The second playthrough was painful because while Persona 3 is a fantastic game, I don’t do repetition well. I was cautious about taking this review because I felt like I’d get burned out over this technically third playthrough. The funny thing is, I can’t put it down. I have invested about 40 hours into my Persona 3 Reload playthrough and just hit the game’s halfway mark. I could add another 40 hours into this review and I'd still feel the same way!
How Persona 3 got its groove back.
A lot of people’s first Persona game was Persona 5. I can’t blame them. That has to be one of the best JRPG games ever made. When I heard that Persona 3 was going to pick up a lot of Persona 5’s mechanics, I couldn’t wait. The original game didn’t have super-engaging combat, and Tartarus, the location of most combat, dragged on forever. The game also used a weird art style best described as “everyone looked like Roblox characters” by my oldest son.
So what is different this time around? Persona 3 Reload to start has a superior graphical presentation to Persona 5. I said, “Oh damn,” the first time I began to explore the school. I referenced this earlier, but do you know how many old games look better in your memory? Persona 3 Reload looks better. With full-sized anime-style 3D models, redrawn character portraits, and locations, it’s a pretty game now.
Of course, a fresh coat of paint can only take a remake so far. That’s where other improvements come into play. For example, Persona 3 Reload now has a new “switch” mechanic and a theurgy mechanic in combat. “Switch” works much like the Baton Pass feature in Persona 5. When you hit an enemy with its weakness, it will become staggered and award your team an additional turn. Instead of making the same character take another turn, you can give that turn to another team member, allowing you to set up an “All Out Attack.” Theurgy, on the other hand, is a mechanic that has your characters unlock a special attack by making use of their in-game talents. For example, your main character fills his gauge by using Persona abilities. These improvements make combat so much more fun but also purposeful.
Everything old is new again.
Another major takeaway from my time with Persona 3 Reload was how much they improved the game's social elements. Managing your bonds is even easier than in the later games, with the ability to check your progress and advancement from the main map. On top of that, any opportunities are always highlighted, so you don’t have to remember to do some of the more menial tasks.
One of my favorite new features is the ability to rewind time to an earlier key point, eliminating the need to manage multiple saves. If you accidentally navigate a social link incorrectly or forget to hit up the weapon and armor shop on a sale day, you can return your game and play from there.
Reload also takes some additional queues from Persona 5 and adds additional things to do around the island and dorm. You can hang out with your teammates outside traditional social links to help them add skills to their theurgy attacks. Outside of that, there isn’t a fatigue system in the same sense as the original game, meaning you can grind much more in Tartarus if you’d like. I didn’t have a single night outside of the first few days, where I just had to go to bed because there wasn’t anything else to do.
It does seem like when Persona 3 Reload was in development, the team took a look at everything that has made Persona successful to this point and found a way to incorporate it into the game. Even existing things, like Elizabeth’s requests, have become more entertaining due to some changes in her requests. These requests also give you a peak behind the curtain of things your teammates and social links get into when you aren't around.
However, the biggest and most significant change overall has to be that every single piece of dialog in every social link is voiced. Not only do you get this, but the character models match their animated counterparts during every scene. It’s not an absolute text dump whenever you have to advance these links. I can’t overstate how amazing it is to hear infamous lines now spoken out with award-winning voice actors.
I'm aware that there have been changes to the soundtrack. That said, I also feel that the updated soundtrack is pretty great. I don't remember liking a Persona OST until I played Persona 5, but Persona 3 Reload's soundtrack is an absolute bop. There are some tweaks, but the songs and sound effects sound so good that my ears are happy overall.
Definitive, but not perfect.
While this is the ideal version to play Persona 3, Reload is still a remake of a title with some deep flaws. A core issue for Persona 3 Reload is that it follows all the story beats from the original Persona 3. That means that there are some significant pacing issues overall. There are moments where nothing is happening and you are just going through the motions, and other moments where you can barely keep up.
I came in knowing the core significant bits but was still rusty with over a decade since my last playthrough. I forgot how much the story drags and specific points and how much of a breakneck pace it goes at others. I forgot how empty your protagonist feels. Unlike Persona 4 and 5, your character isn’t someone with any agency outside of you controlling them. Because of this, there are moments within the story where you more or less feel like a passenger on the ride. I'd like to have seen a bit more personality, but I also know that this couldn't have been done without really adjusting the story considerably.
It's also important to keep in mind that this is a remake of a 17-year-old game. Because of this, some moments feel incredibly old and dated. It feels super weird to be encouraging a little girl to run away from home or fuel a delusional teenager's belief that he's dating and in love with a teacher. Also, I don't remember Junpei being that annoying, but oh man, he's so irritating for most of the story.
Done and dusted.
I'm aware that Persona 3 Reload does miss some elements from the Persona 3 FES and Portable versions, but I'd also argue that Reload stands on its own alongside those versions. There are so many new elements in this version of the game that aren't in the others.
Overall, there isn't all that much that stops me from wholeheartedly recommending Persona 3 Reload. It's visually and mechanically the absolute best version of a legendary title. Sure, the story has some solid pacing issues, and sometimes the game feels dated, but the overall experience is top-notch.
Persona 3 Reload is, as I said, the absolute textbook idea of what a remake should be. I'm super happy that this generation gets to experience this game and look forward to eventually seeing the same approach to Persona 4 and the Persona 1 and 2 duology. Now I must dive into Persona 4 Arena Ultimax after finishing Reload to take in the whole story!