Two worlds exist inside Persona 3 Reload, and I’m not talking about the real world and the Dark Hour. I mean the thoughtful evolution of Persona 3’s relationships and refinement of its characters coexisting with missing features, careless lighting, bad environment scaling, and a dormitory afflicted with Fisher Price furniture. While bonding events and stronger voice direction for the English cast underscore Persona 3’s themes more effectively than ever, these improvements are held back by missing features and confusing design choices.
Persona 3 Reload is Japanese developer Atlus’ reimagining of 2006’s Persona 3 on PlayStation 2. It’s a social simulator by day as you navigate the complexities of school life, and a dungeon crawler at night. During the Dark Hour, a time tucked in between midnight and 1 a.m., a group of teenagers (and a dog) fight the darkness blanketing the world and their souls.
But despite being the most coherent version of Atlus’ vision for the story and the best representation of Persona 3’s cast, Persona 3 Reload is also a bit of a mess.
Persona 3’s plot remains largely unchanged in Reload. You play as a transfer student at Gekkoukan High School on Tatsumi Port Island and live in a dormitory with a small number of other students. It soon becomes evident that your roommates are far from normal students. Instead, they’re responsible for stopping the spread of hopelessness that’s driving people on the island to despair. Every full Moon, you enter a towering labyrinth called Tartarus that appears on the site of your school and battle Shadows — suppressed human emotions in monster form that steal people’s will to live.
Persona 3 Reload is one of the weakest video game remakes I’ve seen in the last few years. Almost everything outside of the main story feels rushed and ill-considered. Environments look sparse, unfinished, and poorly scaled. Somehow, the PS2 version of Iwatodai Dorm looks more lived-in and natural than it does in Reload, with less garish furniture to boot, and many of the environments just don’t scale up well on larger screens. There’s a lot of empty space in places such as the Tartarus lobby, the dorm’s command center, and even your room.
Reload does away with Persona 3’s infamous fatigue system, but without making any other substantial changes to the Tartarus dungeon, you’re left with an experience that feels strangely soulless. In previous versions, Tartarus drained your energy, and you’d grow weaker in battle unless you spent free time resting — you might even end up sick in the real world the next day. Some fans found this system annoying. I understand Atlus’ aim of making Persona 3’s time management less exacting, but the fatigue system added an element of strategy to tackling Tartarus, which is otherwise a pretty repetitive experience. Reload’s Tartarus looks suitably eerie and otherworldly, especially on higher floors, but the addition of locked chests, extra boss Shadows, and a small number of new combat mechanics don’t do much to lessen the slog of what feels like endless crawling through repetitive dungeons.
Reload is also weirdly inconsistent with its adaptation of scenes. It replaces some of the original’s anime sequences with gameplay segments that lack personality and storytelling, including the opening scene where you arrive on Tatsumi Port Island.
The original scene uses lighting to create a sense of unease and dread, a feeling heightened by the constant presence of the deathly green sky and unnaturally yellow Moon always in sight. Reload presents this as a gameplay segment, with a top-down camera angle that obscures the sky and a small handful of coffins you can interact with. The worst part about this setup is that it completely misunderstands the moment’s purpose. Apathy and a sense of detachment define the player’s character for roughly the first half of Persona 3, and seeing him walk blithely by these horrifying scenes without registering them is your first hint of his struggle. Reload adds some deadpan responses when you interact with the coffins, but the effect doesn’t measure up to the original.
Some exquisite in-game cutscenes look better than the rest of the game, and some sequences get brand-new anime versions. In the first thirty minutes, Reload replaces a detailed anime scene from the original games, where a person encounters Shadows for the first time, with a gameplay sequence with almost no action. However, the moment you see Tartarus first unfold from the top of Gekkoukan High School is an updated anime scene with style and visual flair. There’s no rhyme or reason, and if Atlus had an artistic reason for these decisions, it’s hard to imagine Reload couldn’t have achieved it with more consistency.
Fresh Takes on Familiar Faces
What does work is Reload’s new English cast and vocal direction. The new cast complements their characters’ development with more nuanced deliveries, and it’s impressive how much stronger the same characters, written the same way, come across with these fresh performances. It’s true for almost every character, but none more so than party goofball Junpei Iori.
Junpei’s new voice actor Zeno Robinson clearly understands the character on a deep level. His progression from someone who tries so hard to be likable that it’s embarrassing to witness to someone who grapples with bitterness and a sense of inadequacy, before finally coming out the other side as a well-adjusted person, is one of Reload’s high points. In previous Persona 3 versions, Junpei comes across as entitled, whiny, and a bit of a creep, making his eventual transformation feel more like a farfetched, sudden jump from Point A to Point B instead of a believable process of character growth.
The supporting cast and their development are Reload’s saving graces. Watching each character’s story unfold and seeing how they’re tied to the main narrative gives Persona 3 a greater sense of depth and thematic unity that you don’t necessarily find in the series’ later games.
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung thought of personas as universal archetypes that we wear like masks to impress others and conceal our true natures, an idea that Atlus built the Persona series on. Igor, a mysterious man who offers guidance in dreams in Persona 3 Reload, even summarizes that theory the first time he shows up. Persona 3’s cast hide behind these masks as a way to escape their trauma. Only when they learn to acknowledge their pain and find meaning in it can they drop the mask and learn how to live.
In Persona 3, learning how to live means opening yourself up to people, letting them care about you, and helping them in return. Before each character reaches this point, they live isolated, empty lives, even when friends surround them — hence why, during the Dark Hour, you find most people hiding in their own coffins, away from everyone else. Rather than just iterating on the tired idea of gaining power through friendship, Persona 3 shows how challenging it is to reach the point where you can even try to make friends. When the game eventually says your bonds are your power, it’s a weighty, truthful statement, one you’ve just spent the last 50 hours seeing in action.
The characters’ bonds with other people are essential to their growth as people, in other words, and the best parts of Persona 3 Reload build on this concept. In your spare time, you can hang out with a friend and watch a movie or cook together, a small touch that adds a welcome extra layer of depth to your relationships. Your time with friends in Reload feels more like, well, time with friends and not just an action that ticks a box on an achievement checklist.
Atlus made the confusing choice not to include Persona 3 Portable’s Kotone Shiomi, the female protagonist, as a playable character. Aside from giving players an option to feel represented in the game, Kotone’s story in Persona 3 Portable offered a fresh perspective on every main character, who interact with her differently than they did with the male protagonist. Without her, Reload feels like it’s missing half its personality and charm.
Sega did adapt one of the other best features from Persona 3 Portable: friendship with your male allies. (Persona 3 and Persona 3 FES, where you could only play as a male protagonist, didn’t let you get close to your male friends.) While Reload still avoids granting men Social Links or romance status, you can now hang out with them in special events and unlock new Persona fusions.
These sound like such basic changes, but giving more attention to the bonds you forge with your friends and how they develop gives much-needed extra weight to Persona 3’s final scenes, where these connections suddenly take center stage in a deep, emotional way. These moments felt forced in previous versions, where it seemed like you had stronger relationships with the random people you met around the island and your little merry band of friends was just the group where your potential love interest was.
Reload is the best version of Persona 3’s core ideas, in other words. It’s certainly not a definitive version of the classic RPG, though. Too many caveats must be given to call it that. However, at the end of the day, it’s still the beloved Persona series we know and adore. In every version, Persona 3’s deep and thoughtful heart always outshines its rougher parts, and the same is true with Reload.
Persona 3 Reload releases February 2, 2024 for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC via Steam. Inverse reviewed the Xbox version.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.