For so many people I know, Persona 4 Golden on the PlayStation Vita was where they started their own personal Shin Megami Tensei journey. The first of the modern Persona games though was Persona 3, which revolutionised RPGs with its slick combat and a focus on schoolyard socialising. Although I played and enjoyed a small amount of Persona 3 back on the PS2, this early entry in the series didn’t really click with me and like everyone else Persona 4 was the game I fell in love with. I’m so glad I have been able to finally play through the Atlus game I skipped though thanks to Persona 3 Reload (with a few lovely mod cons) because it is magnificent.
As is the case with all the Persona games, you play as a high school student who has moved to a new town. Life as the new kid at Gekkoukan High would be tough enough, but when you throw in the fact that you are one of a very small number of people who remains conscious in a secret hour between midnight and 1AM full of monsters it’s more than a teenager should really have to deal with.
Thankfully there are other teens who are aware of this “Midnight Hour”, and they’ve all banded together to try and discover why it happens and to put a stop to the monsters that have been killing folks on the regular. Led by the head of the student council Mitsuru, all of those who are aware of this phenomenon are assigned to live together in the same dormitory and train to beat the shadows using their Personas.
All your child allies who are awake during the Midnight Hour are Persona users, which basically means they have a magical demon inside them that they can summon by shooting themselves in the face with a special gun. This is the main thing people remember about Persona 3, and let me tell you it’s even more shocking in 2024 than it was in 2008.
Once you get used to the constant sight of children performing this horrendous act though you’ll learn to love your Personas, because they have all sorts of wonderful abilities that help you in combat. As is always the case in Persona games the battles are turn-based and are built around the mechanic of being able to take extra turns if you hit an enemy’s weakness, which means constantly making sure you discover what enemies are vulnerable to as quickly as possible so you can beat them down before they do too much damage.
Getting extra turns to deal more damage is great, but what you’ll be aiming towards in most battles is to knock down all enemies by hitting their weaknesses so the team can unleash an All Out Attack. A staple of the series, this attack hits every enemy at once for massive damage and unless you’re in a boss fight usually wipes out the lot of them. It’s easier said than done, but thankfully a new mechanic that allows you to swap your extra turn with another party member after hitting a weakness makes it much more manageable.
That’s the basic loop of combat in Persona 3 Reload anyway, but there’s also so much more to it than that. Unlike a lot of RPGs things like buffing stats and status effects really matter in Shin Megami Tensei games, which leads to a much more thoughtful and engaging combat. Also new for this remake are Theurgy, which are flashy and massively powerful special attacks that you need to fill a meter to unleash. Each character has a different method to quickly fill this meter too which adds an extra layer to the combat. I couldn’t imagine going without Yukari who gets her Theurgy quicker by healing her friends, but based on your playstyle you might prefer to team up with someone else for something different.
Most of the shadows you’ll fight in Persona 3 Reload are in a giant tower known as Tartarus, which appears during the Midnight Hour where your school normally is. This massive structure is made up of hundreds of floors, and on each of them you’ll find baddies, chests and other fun surprises. In the original release of Persona 3 I found it to be a bit of a dull place to have to spend dozens of hours, but in Reload it has all sorts of different themed floors that are visually interesting, you can move around it faster and you don’t get fatigued when you stay there too long.
Fighting creepy monsters is only half of what you’ll be doing in Persona 3 Reload though. The rest of your time is spent living your ordinary high school life. Days are made up of going to school and deciding how to spend your time afterwards, and my word there are plenty of ways to spend that time. You can hang out with the friends you make at school, go out for some fancy ramen to become more charming, or if you really want to get that authentic high schooler experience study hard in the library so you do better in your exams. Deciding how to spend your time is hugely important too, because it affects how strong your Persona are.
Much like other games in the series each person you bond with in Persona 3 will form a social link with you, and these power up specific types of Persona when you fuse them in The Velvet Room (a weird other dimension where a familiar sinister man combines your mind monsters). Fusing Persona is compelling and fairly straightforward really, with plenty of options for those who really want to maximise their shadow fighting potential. For example you can pass down skills from the Persona you fuse into new powerful demons, so all your favourite healing spells and buffs are safe and sound.
Persona 3 Reload is also a ridiculously stylish game, which is par for the franchise. The flashy menus, combat HUD and even text boxes just make playing this game for hours and hours an absolute joy. The visual upgrade from the original is seriously substantial too, making Persona 3 Reload feel much more in line with modern offerings from the studio like Persona 5 Royal.
As a game on the whole, Persona 3 Reload has so many elements that are as good or better than other games in the series. The soundtrack is probably my favourite in the series, especially thanks to the remixed tracks this remake has added. The story is fantastic as well, with one specific moment shocking me more than anything else I’ve played in a very long time. There are even elements of the writing that have improved too, bringing the game a little more in line with the world at large in 2024.
With the positives though come the negatives, although admittedly only a few. The main issue I have with Persona 3 Reload is that you just don’t spend enough time getting to know your party members. It improves a little later in the game, but for the first ten hours or so I basically knew nothing about my closest allies other than that Junpei is an awful pervert. Even though it’s been improved a lot, Tartarus is still a little overwhelming too. It just feels like it goes on forever and the new additions don’t do quite enough to help that.
Finally an issue that many will have with Persona 3 Reload is the amount of content that has been cut from previous upgraded versions of the game. Reload is still a hugely worthwhile game to play with loads of overhauled systems and improvements, but getting rid of things like the option to play as a female main character and the bonus FES campaign is undeniably a shame.
Persona 3 Reload is a sensational entry in the Persona series, with a plethora of improvements that make it an absolute joy to play. The combat is among the very best the genre has to offer, the story has some truly shocking moments, and the soundtrack is on another level. I do think that the less fleshed out cast and overwhelming massive dungeon still make it slightly inferior to the other modern Persona games, but it’s still one of the best games you’ll play all year regardless.
A huge improvement over the original
Some of the best turn-based combat around
One of the best soundtracks of all time
A wonderful story and writing
Doesn't let you get to know the party enough early on
Tartarus is a bit overwhelming
Is missing some content from other versions of Persona 3