For such an influential game, Persona 3 has a bit of a complicated release history. It first launched on the PS2 in 2006 and ushered in a whole new era for the franchise, mashing together an RPG with a life sim, tasking players with balancing dungeon crawling with the day to day of a normal high school student. That release was followed by a special edition — called FES — which added an epilogue that spanned a hefty 30 hours. Then, the game was remade for the PSP with Persona 3 Portable, which last year was rereleased on PC and modern consoles.
While the base game is great, each version is slightly compromised. FES has the most complete story, but it’s missing the streamlined gameplay and option to play as a female character that are in Portable. Portable, meanwhile, adds a playable character but reduces exploring the world to a series of menus and removes most of the beautiful animated cutscenes. And now we have Persona 3 Reload, a full-on remake that is so close to being the definitive version of the game.
First, let’s step back a bit. Persona 3 takes place in a world that has something called the Dark Hour, a period of time after midnight where monsters called shadows roam and most people sleep blissfully unaware in coffins. But some special folks not only stay awake during this time but also have the ability to summon beings called personas to help them fight in battle. The game follows a group of high school students who use this power to traverse a seemingly never-ending tower called Tartarus in order to learn more about the Dark Hour and its connection to a spreading affliction known as apathy syndrome.
It’s a dark, grim game — did I mention that the teens summon personas by shooting themselves in the head with magical guns? — but it also balances that with the mundanity of regular life. Your evenings are spent slashing shadows in Tartarus, but during the day, you go to school, hang out with friends, work part-time jobs, and lots more. These two sides feed into each other. Eating a mystery burger will increase your courage, while getting closer to an MMO guild mate could strengthen a persona in battle.
It’s a weird and fascinating mix that turned Persona into a beloved franchise. Reload doesn’t mess with it; it refines things. The graphics and menus have been updated so that they’re similar to the incredibly slick Persona 5 (though with a notably darker edge), and things like combat have been streamlined to be faster and more intuitive. I particularly love the new “shift” mechanic that lets you swap characters after pulling off a well-timed attack, adding an extra layer of strategy and letting you speed through regular battles. Reload also reworks one of the game’s more questionable sequences, and — thankfully — has added more things to do and see inside of Tartarus so that the dungeon crawling doesn’t get so monotonous.
In short: it takes the original game and makes it better. But the key there is the word “original.” Reload only includes the original PS2 version of Persona 3, which means no FES expansion and no playable female lead. In every other way, it’s an improvement over Portable, particularly because having 3D spaces to explore is such a key part of the worldbuilding of the game, giving it a real sense of place. But it’s disappointing that this isn’t quite the ultimate version of Persona 3 that it might seem at first — even if it is, overall, the best.
Persona 3 Reload is available on Xbox, PlayStation, and PC.