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Persona 3 Reload (PS5) Review

March 6, 2024 | Posted by Marc Morrison
Persona 3 Reload Image Credit: Atlus
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Persona 3 Reload (PS5) Review  

I’ll be honest, from the moment this remake was announced, I was very excited for it. Original Persona 3 wasn’t the first RPG I ever played, by any stretch, but it was still one of the first ones I remember that really hooked me. I was really into the social side of the game, mixed with the Pokemone-esque way you could capture demons, and tried to unravil the mystery of what is going on. While this version of the game is very solid, it did help underline some cracks I didn’t even realize the original game had from 17 years ago.

Persona 3 Reload starts you off like the recent Persona games do: you getting off a train in a new town and almost immediately as you set foot from the train station, supernatual stuff is happening. To wit, the moon is green, there are no people but there are a ton of upright coffins everywhere. You quickly make your way to the dorm and figure out the score, while joining the “S.E.E.S.” or “Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad”, whose goals include eliminating shadows, trying to stop the Dark Hour, which happens every night at midnight, and to climb the mysterious huge tower that springs up every night from your high school.

Right from the jump, you’re kind of thrown into the actual mystery of what is going on. You quickly meet your first few party members and can start battling it out and acquiring new Personas comparatively quicker than Persona 4 or 5.

The actual structure of this game is highly reminiscent of those games also, which makes sense, since this was the forebear of that style. During a classroom day you might have a classroom lecture or question to answer but your day is primarily split up into “Afternoon” and “Evening” blocks. You can do one activity in each block, such as, hanging out with a friend to boost a social relationship, studying or improving your social skills, or doing other activities.

Unlike with Persona 4 or base Persona 5 (Royal did fix this, somewhat), almost from the get-go, you have complete freedom in how you want to spend your time. Those game locked you out of the whole “Evening” activity for the first month in the game, but this game gives you relative freedom in that respect.

With that said, while this game does have a lot of the framework that the later games have, it doesn’t have much meat on those bones. While it does seem similar on the surface, if you played the later games, you’ll run into a few instances of either having nothing to do because all the other stuff you need to do isn’t active, or that you have like five things to do on a certain night.

As far as the actual JRPG stuff goes, you don’t get separate palaces like in Persona 5, or even the different dungeons in Persona 4, your sole battle time is spent in a huge, randomized tower called Tartarus. Every time you go there, the floors have a new layout but there are some key floors, usually every 6 floors or so, that always have a teleporter on them so you can go back to the ground level, take care of some maintenance and then go back to ascending the tower.

Generally speaking, you are gated from just ascending all 250+ levels of Tartatus in a single trip. There are story progression gates that basically stop you every 25 floors or so. Around every 50th floor is a new decor/biome change for Tartarus, going from a obscenely colorful nightmare to an all white/pristine looking setting.

Because (most of) the floors are randomized though, no two visits are entirely the same. Once you stop exploring Tartarus for one night and you go back the next day, your teleporter location floors remain fixed but all the floor layouts are changed, so you’ll have to re-explore to go up, if you didn’t unlock a particular teleporter.

That’s a lot to talk about Tartarus and that is because is really is the focal point of the battle system. There are some one-off boss fight locations outside of Tartarus, but for the most part, you’ll be spending 99% of your time in here, so you better learn to enjoy it.

Functionally, the battle system is like 99% the same as in Persona 5. You still have the ability to get extra turns from damaging an enemy with whatever attack they are weak to. You can then use that turn yourself or pass it to another party member, only instead of calling it the Baton Pass, it’s now called “Shift”. The “All-Out Attacks” are there also, if you manage to hit all the enemies with something they are weak to, you can trigger a special attack where all your party members do damage to the enemies in a cinematic attack. You also actually have direct control over all of your party members, in original Persona 3 you only directly controlled your main character, everyone else was on AI autopilot where you could dictate some behaviors but it was a wonky system. This was something they added in Persona 3 Portable and it’s still unbelievable to me that original Persona 3 and Fes didn’t have it.

The biggest difference in the battle system is with the “Theurgy” system. Every character has an uber-move they can do when their Theurgy gauge is full. This ranged from healing your party, to doing strong damage against a group of enemies, to doing massive damage against one enemy. Every party member has a different method of filling their gauge, be it from healing each other, damaging an enemy weakness, inflicting critical hits, etc. Once the gauge is full, you can unleash this attack, and most characters have a few of them, which can turn the tide in the battle.

Instead of negotiating with the various demons & whatnot, Persona 3 Reload has the “Shuffle Time” mechanic. Sometimes after a battle, though it happens more often with All-Out Attacks, you’ll have a chance to pick a card that gives you a reward. One of the rewards can be a new Persona, but the other cards can be money, more experience from the battle, a battle power-up (like restoring health, or improving the next battle), or a skill card that you can use to give a Persona a specific ability. As you beat more bosses and complete “Monad Passages”, you’ll unlock Arcana cards, which can alter Shuffle Time or give you a lot more benefits. A few good examples are letting you fuse Personas that are above your level, giving you more items for destroying breakable objects, or letting you put two cards during Shuffle Time, or even three cards, if you do it right.

Monad Passages and doors are side fights in Tartarus. They’re all functionally the same, the door parts only have one tough enemy and then two treasure chests to open to finish it. The passages typically have two or three hard enemies for you to face with your treasure being a new Arcana card if you finish it. The doors are randomized inside Tartarus but the passages are static and the game tells you that if it’s too tough at your current level to come back to it later, since you can easily do so.

I’ll give one big plus and one weird negative when it comes to the battle system in Reload. The positive part is that in the original Persona 3 games, there was a system called “Condition”. Basically, your characters each had a tiredness ranking ranging from: Great > Good > Tired > Sick. Good was the base level, with “Great” giving you more critical chance and accuracy. As you would explore Tartarus though, you would go from Great to Good to Tired and eventually to Sick. When Tired, a character would do less damage, be less accurate and have lower defenses. When “Sick” this stuff would be even worse and they would be highly ineffective during battle. This whole system was basically a forced way of preventing you from grinding out levels/Personas, or from exploring too much.

It’s ALL gone in Reload. And frankly, the game is much better off for it. This system was an absolute nightmare in the original game, so with them basically chucking it and making it play like a modern game, it is very appreciated.

On the flip side, my one criticism with the battle system is basically with the weapon trinity. There are three ways to deal melee damage: Slash, Strike and Pierce attacks. Slash attacks are with characters that use swords or a melee weapon. Pierce attacks are for characters that have ranged weapons, although one guy does use a big spear. Finally, Strike attacks are for characters that use only their fists. Now, there are eight characters in the game, so how do you think the weapon balance might shake out? Two for Slash, three for Strike, three for Pierce? Or maybe just two for Pierce, and Strike/Slash each get three each? No. Instead it goes, four for Slash, three for Pierce and one for Strike. That is a bit nuts. Now, you do get a temporary party member who is another Strike archetype but they are only that: temporary. So, from a balance perspective, I had to keep the character who did Strike damage in my party almost all of the time because only they could reliably do that type of damage. You can learn Strike attacks with certain Persona combinations/skills, but physical Persona skills take health to actually use, so it’s not always a safe bet.

While not a criticism, most of the bosses you face in this game are, to be charitable, less than weak. Persona 4 and 5 got it a lot better when it came to more interesting boss mechanics or actually making the bosses meaningful to your characters. While there is an “evil” version of your team called Strega you encounter and occasionally fight, most of the actually bosses in this game are just “Hey, it’s a big Shadow monster” and that’s about it.

One oddity I did notice as I played this time around is the Social Link system being a bit different. You don’t actually have any social links with the male members of your party. You do have social links with the female members of your party and there are some guys in the school and around town you have social links with, but not the core guys in your party.

They did try to address that a bit here with a new “Link Episodes” system. At certain points, one of your party members, from the guy group, will invite you to do a special activity. With one character, it was fighting off thugs downtown, or with the younger kid Ken, sparring with him. While it’s not quite as deep as the traditional social link stuff, they did make an attempt at trying to balance it out. It’s worth it to do this stuff also, since it’ll confer permanent bonuses to your characters and their Personas.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
I would generally recommend this game but with a few caveats. If you’ve played Persona 4, or especially Persona 5/Royal, don’t expect nearly the amount of side content in Reload. Also, expect a far more brutal schedule when it comes to the time crunch. What Reload does have going for it though is, largely, the same great battle system as P5, a darker storyline and it is a very faithful remake of a seminal game.

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Persona 3 Reload, Marc Morrison