Persona 3 Reload Review – Iwatodai Blues

Dread burnt.

Persona 3 Reload on Xbox

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“This may be coming a little late for most of you, but welcome to the dorm.”

Persona 3 is a very special game to me for a variety of reasons. For starters, like many other casual fans, this was my introduction to Atlus and Shin Megami Tensei. It also marked the release of the new-school Persona games with dating sim elements and a visual novel-style story JRPG that would lay the groundwork for Persona 4 and Persona 5. In addition to all of that, Persona 3 also happens to have the darkest story out of the three modern entries, and it hits hard even today.

I remember poring over every single detail of the game as a teenager, rubbing my tired eyes as I stared at the television screen at 2 in the morning. Later on, I would jab at my PSP screen under the covers at night when Persona 3 Portable released, and I greedily inhaled every new plot beat that came with the inclusion of the female protagonist. I spent hours upon hours reading Gamefaqs forums, min-maxing my time on subsequent playthroughs, and reading theories about the ending and what the characters would do next.

Having your characters all be high schoolers that lived together in a school dorm was such a stroke of genius as well, because of how bonded everyone felt. As a student at the time, this resonated with me.

Basically, I lived and breathed Persona 3 for much of my formative teenage years. Like a total nerd. 10 years later, it’s still an absolute banger of a game.

Something, Something, My Friends Are My Power!

Persona 3 Reload is almost everything I could’ve ever hoped for from a remake of the classic PS2 game. If I could end the review here and go right back to playing more of it, I would. But I’m hearing from my editors that *checks notes* 275 words simply won’t do for a full game review, so alas, I must continue writing.

Starting with the obvious, Persona 3 Reload looks good. I mean, just look at it. This is a from-the-ground-up remake of the PS2 title, redone in the Persona 5 engine with refreshed character art and animations. The animated cutscenes and art look cleaner, and more importantly, we’re getting a more consistent art style between all three games. Tatsumi Port Island has never looked fresher, and modern consoles have allowed Atlus and P-Studio to get a little bit more ambitious with populating the environments with NPCs and other bells and whistles.

Image Source: Atlus via Twinfinite

It’s not all great, though. While it’s not a dealbreaker by any means, I did notice considerable slowdown whenever I entered Paulownia Mall. This is by far the most densely populated area of the game, and the framerate just chugs so much whenever I visit it. The issue persists even during Social Link conversations that take place here; my button presses lag, I can’t skip through dialogue fast enough, and it’s just not a pleasant experience overall.

It’s a shame because so many fun activities and events take place here. Yet in the Xbox version of the game, I found that I was never truly able to enjoy my time there because of how poor the performance is.

Thankfully, this issue is exclusive to Paulownia Mall and doesn’t pose a problem anywhere else. It’s an incredible feeling, being able to explore the island and its environs that previously looked so blurry and low-res on the PS2 hardware.

All Social Links are now fully voiced as well, which really added to my overall immersion in the game. While I’ve always adored the overarching narrative of Persona 3, the Social Links have always felt a little lackluster to me. Most characters seemed incredibly one-dimensional and dull; and while I wasn’t expecting the voice acting to do much for me, I was surprised by how easily they pulled me into these characters’ stories.

For instance, Yuko always struck me as a bit of a whiner, but her voice actress adds a bit of an edge to her character, which drastically changes how I perceive her. The voice acting is solid across the board, and while I won’t deny that Persona 3 Reload’s Social Links are still some of the weakest in the series, it’s still a direct improvement over what we got originally.

It’s a bit of a shame that the voice actors for the main cast have largely been replaced too, as I’d always been a fan of the original cast. Even so, the new actors do justice to all your favorite characters; it’ll likely just take a bit of getting used to.

Image Source: Atlus via Twinfinite

It’s important to note that there isn’t much in the way of story tweaks and additions in Persona 3 Reload, as you’d typically expect from a re-release of a Persona game. There are no new Social Links, though Reload does include plenty of new activities to help you bond with your party members. Junpei and Akihiko, in particular, were in sore need of social events and scenes that could bring them closer to the male protagonist, and Persona 3 Reload alleviates that by introducing new hangout sequences that pop up from time to time.

Every now and then, a party member will text you, asking you to hang out. This will result in a short scene of your characters bonding, followed by some sort of boon that will aid you in combat. With Akihiko, I got a lot more insight into his background and familial status, as well as a handful of small but key scenes that help foreshadow revelations that don’t come till much later in the game. I still wish we could’ve gotten new Social Links for these previously jilted party members, but I’ll take what I can get.

Perhaps the most striking bit about Persona 3 Reload is how perfectly the remake captures the school dorm vibe that the original game was going for. The upbeat jazz soundtrack adds to the homey atmosphere of Iwatodai Dorm, and coming back to it at the end of every school day just feels nice. You walk into the dorm, get greeted by one of your pals, and you just talk and hang out with them.

As the exam period draws near, you can now form study groups with them to get an Academics boost, while learning more about each character’s quirks. It’s just a great feeling, and it’s nice to see that Persona 3 Reload has properly brought the dorm to life.

Outside of school life and hanging out with friends, you’ll also spend your nights surviving Tartarus and the Dark Hour… Oh, right. Did I forget to mention what the game’s actually about? Sorry about that.

Tower of Grind

Persona 3 Reload’s story centers around the mysterious Dark Hour — a mysterious hour that appears at midnight, and only select people can experience it. During the Dark Hour, a strange tower called Tartarus appears as well, and Shadows start roaming the city. You quickly become part of SEES, a group largely made up of Gekkoukan High students who have the power to call upon a Persona to fight these Shadows. Your goal is to defeat powerful boss Shadows every month, while exploring Tartarus, in the hopes of eradicating the Dark Hour forever.

It’s pretty typical JRPG stuff, if I’m being honest. But look, like most other JRPGs, it’s about the journey, not the destination. Maybe the real Dark Hour is just the friends we made along the way, or something like that.

Image Source: Atlus via Twinfinite

Before each full moon, you’ll want to spend your time climbing Tartarus to get stronger. This was the most criticized bit of Persona 3: Tartarus is a damn slog. This might be one of the most boring dungeons we’ve ever seen in a JRPG. The music barely changes, the layouts are dull, and it’s just a grind.

So, has that changed in Persona 3 Reload? Well, kinda? Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a slog, and you’re still battling your way up hundreds of floors to reach the top. The key differences are that Tartarus looks prettier now, the combat system has been improved, and there are little detours you can take that make the game just a little more challenging overall. Let’s go over those points one by one.

First, Tartarus looks a bit prettier. Which is to be expected. What else is there to say?

Secondly, the combat system has seen such a huge improvement since the P3P days. Persona 3 Reload now has a Shift mechanic, which is basically this game’s equivalent of Persona 5’s Baton Pass. Being able to hand your extra turn over to another party member after hitting an enemy’s weakness makes battles feel so much more efficient and fast-paced, and that’s great.

Persona 3 Reload also introduces a new Theurgy system, where your characters can unleash an ultimate move of sorts once certain conditions are met. For example, Mitsuru’s Theurgy bar fills up faster when she inflicts status effects and ailments on enemies, while Yukari’s bar fills up by healing and supporting the party. Once the bar is filled, you get to use Theurgy at no SP cost, and these are usually very damaging elemental attacks that can turn the tides of battle.

I must mention that Fuuka’s Analysis ability has been greatly improved as well. Fuuka was basically all but useless in the original game, but she’s received a bit of a facelift in Reload, where she can expend SP to instantly reveal all weaknesses and affinities after the first turn. She also has access to Theurgy and other cool skills to give you an edge while exploring Tartarus.

Basically, combat feels much smoother and fast-paced, which in turn makes Tartarus a lot more bearable.

Finally, there’s also the introduction of Monad Doors and Passages, which are detours that will show up as you’re exploring Tartarus. These are home to powerful Shadow enemies that guard valuable items and treasure. Fighting them is optional, but they serve as a fun challenge if you need to break up the monotony of climbing the tower.

These are all solid changes that make the grind in Persona 3 Reload just that little bit more fun. While Tartarus definitely still feels like a drag, I’m glad these changes exist.

What Do the Guns Evoke?

Image Source: Atlus via Twinfinite

Looking at all of the fun stuff, it can be easy to forget that Persona 3 Reload is, at its core, a rather sad game. Don’t let the warmth of Iwatodai Dorm and its denizens fool you, P3’s cast is severely messed up. Revisiting the game today, some of these plot points are still hard to stomach, and the game is never shy about pushing them in your face.

From parental abandonment and neglect to survivor’s guilt and extreme self-loathing, Persona 3 is perhaps the most poignant game in the new-school trilogy in that it was able to pinpoint the most basic struggles of your average teenager and magnify them to make them feel important, like they matter. This, I think, is the key to Persona 3’s success, and why it’s still so beloved today.

The imagery of the Evokers is a bit hamfisted perhaps, but the message is there. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Persona 3’s characters summon their Personas by pointing a gun at their heads and shooting. The central theme of Persona 3 is death and one’s acceptance of it, and the game isn’t afraid to explore that to varying degrees of success. Some stories work, like a terminally ill patient who tries to find value in what little time he has left. Some stories fall a little flat, and it can occasionally feel like we’re retreading old ground and anime nonsense about revenge plots.

Despite the occasional stumble, though, Persona 3 is oftentimes tragic and heavy, but also earnest and hopeful. And it’s these little moments of brightness and warmth that make it feel special.

Persona 3 Reload is an outstanding and worthy remake of a game that’s proven it can withstand the test of time. Welcome back to the dorm.

4.5
Persona 3 Reload
Persona 3 Reload is an outstanding and worthy remake of a game that's proven it can withstand the test of time. Welcome back to the dorm.
Pros
  • Huge aesthetic and graphical upgrade. Need I say more?
  • New social events for previously neglected party members are a nice addition.
  • Combat is much smoother and fast-paced.
  • The story and characters still hold up very well today.
Cons
  • Tartarus is still a drag.
  • Awful performance issues in one specific section of the game.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review. Reviewed on PS4, PS5, Xbox, PC.
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Author
Zhiqing Wan
Zhiqing is the Reviews Editor for Twinfinite, and a History graduate from Singapore. She's been in the games media industry for nine years, trawling through showfloors, conferences, and spending a ridiculous amount of time making in-depth spreadsheets for min-max-y RPGs. When she's not singing the praises of Amazon's Kindle as the greatest technological invention of the past two decades, you can probably find her in a FromSoft rabbit hole.