What if I told you that there’s an extra hour hidden between every day? When the clock hits midnight, time stops, electronics cease to function, and most people transmogrify into eerie coffins. If you could experience this Dark Hour, what would you do? Would you covet this experience only you seem to have, or would you seek to put an end to it, no matter the cost? Is it better to live in ignorance than die knowing the truth? You will be given one year. Go forth, and do not falter, with your heart as your guide.
Persona 3 is a very special game to us. It is where the series found its stride, yes, but it’s also a game that deeply resonated with me on all levels. Its exploration of death remains incredibly powerful even after 18 years. It also began the trend of enhanced rereleases with Persona 3 FES in 2008. FES added more quests, costumes, and an epilogue entitled The Answer – a somewhat divisive story now-a-days. Later, Atlus developed yet another enhanced rerelease for the PlayStation Portable in the form of Persona 3 Portable. Portable ditched The Answer, but included the extra quests, costumes, and a brand new female protagonist which added an entirely new set of Social Links. However, given the hardware, it also reworked the 3D exploration into a point and click style, so players were left with a dilemma: which is the definitive version of Persona 3? Well that conversation is about to get a lot more complicated with Persona 3 Reload, a full remake of the game using Unreal Engine. Is Reload finally the best way to experience Persona 3? Let’s enter the Dark Hour and find out.
First things first, Persona 3 Reload is visually stunning. The character models are detailed and expressive, to say nothing of their 2D portraits, environments are bright and colorful or dark and moody, and the lighting is absolutely gorgeous. Atlus’ philosophy from Persona 5 of “What if graphic design, but all the time?” arguably reaches its full potential here. Everything has a stylish flourish to it, from opening the menu, looking at the map, choosing dialogue options, or even just the command menu in battles appearing on screen. After dozens of hours we’re still finding small details that help to bring the whole experience together. For example, dialogue is lip synched with the character portraits which is incredibly impressive on a technical level.
On the surface, this is the Persona 3 you know and love turned up to 11. This extends to the gameplay too, with battles, social links, and even exploration feeling more convenient, faster, and more dynamic. The tried and true Modern Persona formula of socializing by day, dungeon by night is as strong as ever. It’s all given a mechanical polish not seen in the other Modern Personas that helps the game that started it all to the top. Modern Persona is essentially split into two separate chunks that interact with each other. These are the turn-based battles and dungeon crawling you expect in an RPG, but the other half of the game is something of a life or social sim. The bonds you forge in the real world will grant you power to prepare for tough battles, so you need to manage your school and dungeon time wisely to increase your social stats and max out those Social Links.
The protagonist in Reload has three social stats which start at level one and can reach a maximum of six: Academics, Charm, and Courage. Reaching a certain level in each stat will open up new Social Links and activities, for example your Academics needs to be Genius level before you can begin Mitsuru’s Social Link. You raise these stats by answering questions correctly in class, going to karaoke, drinking tea, or eating at restaurants. You only get two time periods per day, so time management is key. It’s incredibly satisfying to balance these stats as best you can, leveling up Academics the day before exams and then placing at the top of your class never gets old. It’s refreshing that there are now many more ways to raise these stats. From the part-time jobs, to the more frequent opportunities to spend your evening hours.The original had a few options and those are all still here, but the extra set of options makes things easier.
When you’re not focusing on self-improvement, you’ll want to be spending time with your friends. These Social Links are each represented by a major arcana from the tarot, with the characters’ storylines each following the meaning of that card. The Magician is naive and a bit odd, while the Tower foreshadows a terrible event that will bring the character to their lowest point. When spending time with these characters, you’ll need to respond in certain ways to earn points to reach the next level of their Link. You don’t always want to answer honestly here, and saying what a character wants to hear will often get you the most points. You’ll also want to have a Persona matching that character’s arcana in your stock to further boost point acquisition.
Reload features all the Social Links from the male protagonist’s route, which overall we felt weren’t as well written as the female protagonist’s route. Some of these are fantastic, like the Hanged Man, Strength, and the Hierophant links, while others are… inconsistent, to say the least. Possibly the worst of these is the Moon, which follows a portly boy who lost his brother to a cult he’s still a part of. There is something incredibly interesting here, with the boy using food as a coping mechanism, but it’s buried underneath some tasteless toilet humor, fat jokes, and generally uncomfortable vibes. Reload’s writing is decidedly faithful to the original game, for better and worse.
Since a few of the party member Social Links were a bit underdeveloped and kept mostly the same, Reload adds a ton of new social events with your party members at the dorm. These also have an additional benefit of letting the male protagonist actually interact more with the male cast, something he couldn’t do much in the original. This gives them some much needed spotlight. These dorm events let you do things like watch a TV series with Yukari, brush Koromaru’s fur, read manga with Junpei, and much more. Every single one of these is an absolute delight, and are fully voiced just like every Social Link. The individual events can give you stat ups, but completing a series will grant a party member a permanent bonus in battle. For example, you can reduce the amount of SP Yukari’s healing skills cost or boost the effects of Akihiko’s self buffs. So they’re not only fun, but incredibly useful to boot.
All of this leads into battle. Most nights you can head to Tartarus, a mysterious tower where you climb randomly generated floors, fight Shadows, and level up. Each floor of Tartarus is randomly generated and you’ll recognize rooms pretty frequently, but it’s still a lot of fun to explore thanks to their more varied design as well as the Shadows, treasure chests, and a host of other additions. Moving around already feels very smooth, with a run button (RT) and a two hit combo you can perform (X) to get the jump on enemies or break the aforementioned hands for extra loot.
Occasionally, you’ll also come across special floors with some optional extras. You can find clocks that will restore the party’s HP and SP in exchange for 7 Twilight Fragments, collectables found both in and out of Tartarus used to open special chests. Spending Twilight Fragments also has a chance of opening a special room that will allow two party members of your choosing to gain multiple levels after participating in the next battle. These Twilight Fragments are a great addition if only because it’s yet another incentive for the player to participate in the core gameplay loop. Social Links already give you experience bonuses when fusing new Personas but now for every Social Link rank you get a new Fragment, which you can then spend on the aforementioned benefits. So if the fusion mechanic has ever put you off of Persona, this would be a good way to let you go dungeon crawling for longer.
The most interesting additions to Tartarus are the changed Monad Doors and Monad Passages. These can give a permanent bonus to Shuffle Time (a bonus after battles) as well as some mysterious documents if you reach the end of them. They can be found throughout Tartarus, both in fixed locations or on random floors. These fights can be very difficult and a lot of fun as a result. They force you to think of new strategies and really test how you’ve built your characters. It feels balanced around the most broken and bonkers strategies, in a good way. That sort of applies to the game’s general difficulty. Despite being seasoned Persona players, the game has arguably been the most balanced Persona experience to date.
While you have to approach fixed battles normally, such as those on border floors or in Monad areas, you can gain advantage by striking a shadow from behind with your sword. Later on, you can also get advantage from the front by getting a running start and doing a jump slash. If you are hit by the shadow instead, they’ll gain advantage and have the first round. You can bring up to four party members into battle including the protagonist. On their turn, a character can perform one of multiple actions: attack with their weapon, dealing slash, blunt, or piercing damage; guard and reduce damage as well as prevent a knockdown if their weakness is struck; use an item; summon their Persona; or use their Theurgy.
All party members, save the protagonist, have a single Persona with eight skill slots. These slots can hold elemental attacks (fire, ice, lightning, wind, light, and dark), healing skills, physical attacks that consume HP instead of SP, buffs, debuffs, or passives. You learn new skills as you level up, but you can only hold eight at once so it’s up to you how you want to build each character, though their archetypes will nudge you in a determined direction most of the time like Yukari being a healer or Junpei preferring physical attacks. The protagonist, meanwhile, can hold and swap between multiple Personas once per turn, making him the most versatile character. The party has had overhauls to their movesets so a lot of the more redundant party members have some purpose now. Koromaru and Ken were Dark and Light focused characters and in the original they only had random chance instant kill spells. Now they’re BLESSED with actual attack spells, immediately making them more viable. They are no longer CURSED with lacking movesets.
Your short term goal in combat is to exploit each enemy’s weakness to knock them down, then do an All-Out-Attack with your entire party to deal massive damage. Of course, this isn’t always possible so you need to be prepared for a much longer, more difficult brawl at all times with buffs, debuffs, and healing skills. After knocking an enemy down, you can act again or pass your extra turn to another party member with Shift (LT). Smart use of Shift can lead to your entire party taking an action in a single turn. Thankfully, you have a trick up your sleeve to make things a bit easier: Theurgy. Each character’s Theurgy meter builds up over time and according to their personality. The protagonist will gain meter simply by summoning and using his Persona, while Koromaru gets a bonus only when striking an enemy’s weakness.
Once the meter is full, you can press RT to select a Theurgy and activate it. Most Theurgy deal massive damage with that character’s element, ignoring resistances, while a few can heal or buff the party. It takes some time to build the meter back up, so strategic use of Theurgy can make or break a battle. For example, buffing up Junpei’s attack during a Full Moon boss battle led to his Theurgy taking out ⅓ of the boss’ HP just before the rest of the party would have gone down. If you can get a combo of buffing everyone’s attack power, doubling their next physical attack with Koromaru, and then unleash suffering unto your enemies with Aigis’s revamped Orgia Mode, nothing survives.
Your Navigator, Fuuka, also has her own Theurgy and a few abilities she can use. These consume SP just like other Persona abilities, but she can buff the party before the next fight, make the party invisible to enemies for one floor, and even scan an enemy to learn their strengths and weaknesses once a full round has passed in battle. She is incredibly useful when you’re about to encounter Tartarus bosses or rare Shadows. Her Theurgy will build after scanning an enemy, and can be used on any turn by pressing Select. This doesn’t use an action, and grants the entire party a random bonus such as increasing all stats for a few turns or refilling SP. Fuuka has come in clutch more than a few times, even during normal battles, so don’t sit on her abilities too long. Unfortunately, Reload continues to have the Modern Persona mainstay of getting a game over if the protagonist is KO’d. If your party was always able to revive you, you’d never lose anything. However, with Reload adding in the ability to just start the battle over, what’s the point? It’s an odd inclusion to an otherwise solid battle system.
Finally, linking back to the social aspects, the protagonist can earn new Personas during Shuffle Time. Shuffle Time can occur randomly after a battle, but is guaranteed if you win with an All-Out Attack. During Shuffle Time, you can choose one card from the minor arcana to heal the party, increase experience earned, gain money, or a few other effects. Personas and major arcana cards will occasionally appear as well. If you choose a Persona, they are instantly added to your stock if you have enough room, while major arcana cards each have different effects. Some will increase everyone’s stats for that run in Tartarus, others will increase experience earned or All-Out-Attack damage until you leave Tartarus, and yet another will allow you to pick two cards during Shuffle Time. Acquiring a set of major arcana cards (shown in the bottom left during Shuffle Time) will increase the effects of minor arcana cards until you leave Tartarus, so it’s always a good idea to pick major arcana cards when they show up. The way the major arcana are implemented it almost feels like a roguelite.
Personas in your stock can be taken to the Velvet Room, where you can register Personas to the compendium to summon later, or more interestingly: fuse them together to create new Personas. Fusing Personas will allow you to inherit a set amount of skills from the two fused to the result, letting you greatly customize each Persona for different situations. You could create a (pyro) jack of all trades with an attack of every element, a pure healer, a Persona focused on party buffs, or even one focused on building up to one big attack. The possibilities are vast but it’s nice that players overwhelmed by the Fusion system can make do with most of the Personas they can get from Shuffle Time, as those are generally good enough.
After fusing a Persona, they will gain bonus experience based on the level of their associated Social Link. This can even bring the Persona above the protagonist’s level, making them extra powerful. The gameplay loop comes full circle. Form bonds in the real world to make better Personas to use in combat then use those Personas to further deepen your bonds. It’s incredibly addicting and fun! One moment you’ll be listening to an old couple’s woes then the next you’re 100 floors up Tartarus and oops it’s 3 AM. …Worth it. In terms of mechanics, this is easily the best Persona game to date.
The story is also one of our favorites across media in general. Portable was the game that introduced me (Flynn) to the series, and playing the female protagonist’s route when I had just entered high school made me feel like I had friends before I made some in real life. Its themes of death also resonate deeply with me, both back then and in Reload now. I think about death a lot (don’t worry, I’m fine), and the protagonist’s journey from being depressed and uncaring to deeply empathetic and loving friend is incredibly powerful. He’s even better characterized here in Reload, so make sure to take in the little details as you go. Not only have my favorite moments been enhanced and fully realized here, the new English cast arguably outdoes the original crew, who do mostly appear here in smaller parts. Some scenes, such as the infamous beach scene, have been completely rewritten to actually be funny. This game means a lot to me, and it’s clear the team at Atlus felt the same.
While some Social Links are certainly still lacking, the dorm events, new story content, and dialogue tweaks make up for it. I certainly wish Reload included The Answer and the female protagonist, but the mystery in the main story is complex and unraveling all the time, the imagery is evocative and poignant, and the style is impeccable. Reload opens with a content warning about suicidal imagery and themes, but for good reason as these taboo topics deserve to be as thoroughly explored as possible. Persona 3 Reload is dark, but that darkness only lets the light shine even brighter. This is the new team at P-Studio, the ones behind Persona 5 Royal’s new content, coming out swinging and bringing the Persona formula to the next level. This almost feels like it’s a sample of what’s to come, and if it’s just a taste? The next mainline game is going to be amazing. This has been a remarkable experience.
David is the kind of person to wear his heart on his sleeve. He can find positives in anything, like this is a person who loved Star Fox Zero to death. You’ll see him playing all kinds of games: AAAs, Indies, game jam games, games of all genres, and writing about them! Here. On this website. When not writing or playing games, you can find David making music, games, or enjoying a good book.
David’s favorite games include NieR: Automata, Mother 3, and Gravity Rush.
Persona 3 Reload
Persona 3 Reload is the best Persona game to date. It reimagines a fan favorite to be the best it can be, even if it does stumble in some ways. There are a few Social Links that could have used overhauling, and the game is a bit too faithful to the original in these ways. However, the overall experience is transcendent and took me straight back to hanging out with my virtual friends in high school, getting to know them and slicing up Shadows. There really is nothing out there like Persona.