When you read that a movie is being ‘remade’, you know what it means. But in games, the concept of a remake is far less concrete. Gaming remakes can run the gamut in terms of scope, ambition, and even intention. Honestly, thinking about the differences in approach between the remakes of Resident Evil 4, Final Fantasy 7, GoldenEye and Mario RPG practically gives me a headache.
Persona 3 Reload is yet another game that challenges our interpretation of that term. It’s not as lavish a remake as the attention paid to Resident Evil, and nor is it as meta and self-referential as Final Fantasy 7. But this is no ‘simple’ remake, either - it’s a ground-up effort, and in many ways delivers an experience almost as polished as an all-new main-line Persona game. Though not quite, because its PS2 origins shine through. In short, it’s complicated.
That’s the status of P3R among its peers in the industry - but the situation is complicated further still by the labyrinthine mess that is Persona 3’s past history. There’s three versions of that game: Persona 3, ‘The Journey’ as included in Persona 3 FES, and Persona 3 Portable. Each is slightly different, and Reload is an exact representation of not one of them.
By this I mean, for instance, that various additions and quality-of-life changes added in the Persona 3 FES version of the main game are present here in Reload. This makes it not identical to the original P3 - but it’s also not exhaustive, as much content from FES is nevertheless absent. Portable, meanwhile, made the most significant addition in the form of the choice of playing as a female protagonist. but Reload is back to the original lead. Without his female counterpart anywhere to be found.
It’s a strange choice, as re-releases and remakes often strive to be the definitive version of the experience. Persona 3 was already a game where you could argue for hours about exactly which version one should play; with Reload, a third contender has been added to the mix. It’s neither a disaster nor definitive - but it is the slickest, coolest, and most modern-feeling way to play this great game, which is most welcome.
In a sense, it’s perhaps best to think of Persona 3 Reload as one of the best and most lavish ‘HD Remasters’ of all time. By its very nature this game isn’t as slick or as showy as Persona 5 (one of the best RPGs of all time), and it features the old randomly generated corridor-like dungeons and slightly more stilted turn-based battles that were fine back in 2006 but were refined hugely by subsequent Persona titles. I’m not quite sure how ‘ground-up’ this game is, but it certainly gives the impression that it’s ultimately the same code under the hood, slightly more clunky in how characters move and things present. But the beautification job is still boundlessly impressive.
The snappy and visually enthralling menus and other presentational boons of Persona 5 are lovingly recreated here, with that game’s red palette swapped for P3’s patented cool blue. Characters have been re-sculpted with gorgeous new high-polygon models, and the soundtrack has been re-recorded. That last one left me a bit unsure at preview, as the original game’s score is so iconic that one could argue for it to remain untouched. Ultimately the new arrangements grew on me, however, and served to reinforce this as not a definitive version of Persona 3, but rather an alternate version with its own slightly different vibe.
There’s a handful of mechanics and considerations present in Reload - and they’re mostly inherited from Persona 5. The ‘Baton Pass’ battle mechanic that lets you swap turns around mid-fight carries over from that game exactly, adding a further (and most welcome) wrinkle of strategic complexity to encounters. Chunks of the game have clearly been rebalanced, though not in a wholesale way. The result, from a raw gameplay perspective, is a patchwork quilt of old and new that is curious but, nevertheless, effective. Outside of battle, earlier versions of Persona 3 only focused Social Links on a limited few members of your crew - Reload lets you get to know them all, as later games do.
Back on the PS2, way less scenes were voice acted - but in Reload, the vast majority of scenes now feature full voice recording, as in P5. The new voice cast are good - though in a few cases there’s the lingering ghost of especially iconic past performances. There’s also curious rebalancing; like how I’m pretty sure that the ‘Social Link’ requirements have been tweaked, meaning it’s quite a bit easier to max out every one of those important relationships as quickly as possible, a likely concession that P3 was less forgiving about this than the newer games are.
What this really feels like, then, is a version of Persona 3 designed primarily for the crowd that got into the series with the break-out hit fifth game - but who didn’t fancy going back to PS2 or playing the structurally-compromised PSP version. Persona 3 is the genesis of modern Persona as we know it, coining many of the structural hallmarks that became beloved in the fourth and fifth entries. For anyone who joined the series’ fandom more recently, it’s an easy recommendation.
If you pick up Persona 3 Reload on that recommendation, you’re in for a treat. This review has largely been focused on the mechanical nuts and bolts of this remake - on how it presents the game, structure, world, and characters we already know. But if you’re going in unfamiliar, Persona 3’s tale of high school students defending the world from shadows and clambering a seemingly endless, ever more dangerous tower.
It’s about turn-based RPG battling, but also about the power of people, friendships, and relationships - which through the social link system aren’t just a story contrivance, but key to gameplay and gameplay progression. As the adventure winds on, it also becomes rather about time management - making you question how your protagonist spends their limited in-game time and every precious second of their mortal life. It’s key to go into this expecting a PS2 game, though - because under the hood, in terms of design sensibilities, that’s what it is. It just has a touch of that Persona 5 flair as seasoning.
What I’ve always liked about Persona 3 is its vibe. Where Persona 4 is largely Scooby Doo-esque antics with a side of misogynistic murder and Persona 5 has a righteous passion to change the world, Persona 3 is somehow a little more personal, and thrives in its quieter moments. At the same time, it’s more weird - with a loyal, communicative dog, a friendly robot, and so on. Persona is quite a weird series as it is, but I’d say P3 is refreshingly the least grounded-feeling of the lot, alternating between high school life and an eerie science-fantasy feel. The ending remains absolute dynamite. I love it a lot - and I’m thrilled more people are going to get to experience it, and do so with a sweet modern presentation.
Persona 3 Reload is a unique release in that it’s brilliant but also easy to pick holes in, primarily because of how many versions of Persona 3 there are, each featuring content that doesn’t appear in this new version. It’s not quite like Reload fails to stitch in the content from all versions, either - there just doesn’t appear to have been even a remote interest in doing so. And much as I’d love to have a definitive version, I also willingly accept that I’m probably not the target audience - because I’ve played P3 before, back in the day.
At a certain point you have to step back and judge a game for what it is rather than what it isn’t. After all, if you want the female protagonist there’s Portable, and if you want the epilogue there’s FES. But as a stand-alone thing – as a convenient, modern, and attractive way to experience a truly great RPG classic – Persona 3 Reload is a wonderful offering.
This review is based on the Xbox Series X/S version of the game. Persona 3 Reload launches on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S on February 2, 2024.