When we reviewed the Xbox Series X version of Persona 3 Portable last year we slapped an enthusiastic 8/10 scoreline on it, calling the game "a turning point for Atlus' franchise", one that redirected the tone away from the dark and dingy aesthetic of the first two entries towards the more confident, cool atmosphere that's become the signature of this spectacular series ever since.
Persona 3 Portable was itself an updated version of the stunning 2006 original, one that transformed the game to better suit a handheld platform's capabilities. It stripped out some beautiful anime cutscenes, removed the ability to free roam your environs and generally cut back on some stuff that could make the old PSP chug a little. Why are we wasting time talking about this instead of getting straight into the new version? Well, because we want to point to the fact that, even in a resized portable form (and remembering that the added choice of a female protag, which is missing in this Reload version, didn't really affect the story at all), Persona 3 remains utterly gripping.
Serve up a story this well written, with a cast of characters this unforgettable and you can likely cut quite a lot of other bells and whistles before it dipped out of 'highly recommended' territory for us. Of course, Persona 3 Reload doesn't actually cut any bells and whistles at all, it adds them, and it adds them in spades. Before we dig into the details of this marvellous remake though, let's have a quick recap for those wise souls among us who haven't played through this one way too many times already.
Persona 3 invites us to Gekkoukan High School, where our nameless orphan protagonist (again, only male this time around unfortunately) has just enrolled after moving back to their hometown. True to form for the franchise, as soon as they've settled in and are beginning to make some pals, strange things begin to occur. Our hero learns that he has the power of Persona hidden within, a power he must wield against Shadows during the Dark Hour, a hidden hour that occurs at midnight and sees normal humans transmogrified into coffins while demons run rampant. So, just like a normal Monday morning at Pure Xbox HQ then.
The main rhythm of the game here, much like the other entries that followed in the franchise, sees you split your time between daily activities at school and battling bizzarro ghouls, with social/romance aspects cleverly tied to the combat side of proceedings. It's a world that designed to be explored on your own terms when you're not in a scrap, and making the time to strike out and get to know the neighbourhood rewards you with all manner of extra content and conversations that are helped long by uniformly excellent dialogue, strong emerging themes and a central mystery that keeps things compelling all the way through. It's the good stuff, is what we're getting at.
Before long our protagonist has joined up with the SEES (Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad), a group composed of other students who travel to the tower of Tartarus every night during the Dark Hour in order to fight off Shadows, rescue trapped innocents and generally just kick a lot of ass utilising the game's delightful turn-based combat. So, now that we're all none the wiser (we won't spoil anything beyond these opening details for fear of wrecking something for newbies), let's talk about what this reload layers on top of an already VERY GOOD GAME™.
First up, and the most obvious change is the graphics, which have now been brought in line with Persona 5's ultra stylish looks. "Brought in line" is a pretty poor way to describe what's been done here though really as, once you dig in, you'll find that the artists at Atlus have gone right to town with some cool as heck combat animations, Persona transformations and fancy stylistic flourishes that just keep on impressing, raising a smile and, most importantly, pushing return players forward to discover how everything they remember now looks, sounds and feels. It can't be overstated just how stunning some of this all-new fanciness is in motion, with the devs once again proving they are masters when it comes to creating cutscenes and attack animations that are about as funky as video games get.
3D models, backgrounds, scenery and everything else you can see here as you explore the city or dig into dungeon-crawling, has also been redone and updated and, with this Series X version running flawlessly at 4K/60FPS, it's quite the dramatic revamp overall, and one that stands as one of the more thorough remasters we've been treated to in recent years.
This graphical overhaul extends out to every other aspect of the game, including to the game's slick UI and menus - again, if you've played Persona 5 you'll know the general drill - and as a result everything just feels so much more modern and user-friendly. Menus in particular, even though they were fine in the vanilla version, are now so stylish and snappy that it's a joy to jump into melding fusing personas and all that good stuff that gives this one so much depth. Everything just looks and feels so damn good.
The in-game map of the city has also had a very nice 3D revamp, making it far easier to read details, and, perhaps most importantly, Tartarus, that most divisive of dungeons, has seen changes that make it more impactful and enjoyable. There's more variety between floors and areas, new hidden secrets, treasures and areas to find (the fatigue mechanic has also been excised, so feel free to take your time doing this) and your party now engage in lots of banter along the way which really helps make this place feel so much more alive.
Speaking of banter, there's all-new voice-acting for the English dub too (it's uniformly excellent), and even some new scenes scattered throughout the enormous campaign. This voice-acting also extends to the game's social interactions, social interactions which now have brand-new "Link Episodes" to explore, which gives them much more life this time around. In fact, this revamped version of Persona 3 has apparently now got more lines of dialogue than any other entry in the series. So there! None of this added material changes the narrative in any way, it's just more gravy for an already delicious meal, and the core story and how events unfold remains unchanged.
Persona 5's network mechanic has made the jump, allowing you to nip into your menus and check out how other players are spending their time in the game, and new dorm activities ensure that there are a few new ways to chill during the downtime afforded between excursions to Tartarus. You get to cook food that can be used in battle now, do a spot of gardening, read and a bunch of other stuff. Oh, and we should also give a shoutout to a soundtrack that's been rejigged and refreshed with an excellent new battle anthem and lots of remixes of the OG tracks. It's a bit of a banger.
The game's already excellent battle system also receives plentiful upgrades here, again bringing the whole thing in line with what more modern Persona stans will be used to. The ability to move your party members around during turn-based scraps is retained from Persona 3 Portable, and there's even an all-new Theurgy attack system, which is activated by fulfilling on-the-fly objectives that charge your Theurgia Gauge. An example of this is Junpei's Hack n' Blast skill, which can be charged up by landing critical hits, and results in a devastating slash assault that ignores an enemy's various resistances for big damage.
These explosive new moves are fused with animations that honestly...there's just so many times during this remake we thought "oh s**t, that was awesome" during scraps, there are so many cool new touches, crazy Persona transformations and attacks here that it's hard not be be pretty blown away by how exhaustively this massive game been rejuvenated. The 'shift' mechanic is a new version of P5's 'baton pass', allowing you to switch to another party member once you've downed a foe, and Shuffle Time changes things up post-battle by allowing you choose your reward rather than being assigned a single Persona card for your efforts.
So, with all-new looks, flashy new battle mechanics, new content, refined controls and mechanics and little touches and improvements pretty much everywhere you think to look, what we've got here (and it's no surprise given it's been in development since 2019) is the best version of a JRPG classic that we could have dared hoped for.
Do we wish the choice of female protagonist was carried over from the PSP version? Of course, and although we get that this is a return to Persona 3 and not Persona 3 Portable, we can't help but feel as though they should have just put it in there anyway. We say "just put it in there" like we'd know how that works, it's probably complicated let's face it, but this is the one single issue we had game so it's getting a mention.
Beyond this, and mostly for younger players, it's worth noting there are some really dark themes dealt with here. It may look like Persona 5 (itself fairly dark), but Persona 3 really does go to some places and includes controversial imagery (you gotta shoot yourself in the head to enter Persona form) so this is something worth noting before digging in. We should also give a quick shoutout to a really nice accessibility addition in the form of a 'rollback' function that lets you jump back to earlier points in your game save to rectify any mistakes or do things a little differently, even if it's just stocking up a little better pre-scrap or doing some side activity you skipped over accidentally.
This really is a rather stunning return to Tatsumi Port Island. Atlus has gone the extra mile and it's paid off, with a game that now looks and feels the business in terms of providing a thoroughly modern experience. All additions have been carefully and respectfully implemented and all there is to do now, especially if you've yet to play this one, is dive in when it hits Game Pass on launch day. What an absolute treat!
Persona 3 Reload is a stunner. This is how you do remakes, folks, keeping the heart and soul intact whilst adding all the slick graphics, cutscenes, new mechanics, dialogue and voice-acting fans can handle. Everything that's been changed has been done so with the upmost care, every new addition sings and newcomers and diehards alike should find themselves absolutely glued to this one when it hits Game Pass. Yes, we'd have loved to see the option for a female protagonist added, but beyond this one niggle, what we've got here is very hard to find fault with.