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Persona 3 Reload tries to balance the series’ light and dark sides

Party members prepare for an attack in Persona 3 Reload.

I had never played Persona 3 until almost exactly one year ago. I remember loading up its Switch rerelease during a long, cross-country plane ride and finally digging in after years of curiosity. I adore Persona 5 and love the vibe of 4, so I figured I knew what to expect when I started my save file. I was dead wrong. The vibrant, plucky world I’d grown accustomed to shattered the first time I watched one of my characters put a gun to their head and pull the trigger.

Persona 3 is a dark game. It’s pitch black compared to the entries that succeeded it. That makes the idea of its modern remake, Persona 3 Reload, a bit of a challenge for Atlus. It’s clear that the goal of the project is to create parity with Persona 5, bringing its signature style to the game that paved the way for the series. But can you really slap one game’s spirited panache onto a much more haunting story?

The answer, so far, is both yes and no. I went hands-on with an hour-long slice of Persona 3 Reload, which would take me deep into Tartarus and have me completing a few social links. While it’s difficult to glean too much from that short time, the remake looks to balance the light and dark parts of the RPG series. That’s great news for Persona 5 fans, but the jury’s out on how it’ll land with Persona 3 evangelists.

Softening up

My demo dropped me right in the heat of the action, a few hours into the story. By that time, my party had already explored Tartarus and was well established. I’d spend my first few days exploring the newly built versions of classic locations, from Gekkoukan High School to Naganaki Shrine. It’s a delight to see those spaces polished up to a modern shine while still being immediately identifiable as locations from the original.

That’s largely the nostalgic vibe that my quick hour gave off. The original game’s excellent soundtrack still rocks, and I love spending time with friends like Junpei again. It is clear, though, that Reload is meant to bring the game stylistically in line with Persona 5. Its UI has received an overhaul that, at times, makes it look like Atlus ran Persona 5 through a blue filter, almost what you’d expect to see from a dedicated fan mod.

A character plays an arcade game in Persona 3 Reload.

For the most part, that’s a welcome change. Considering Persona 3 set the groundwork for the series’ modern incarnations, all the little flourishes don’t feel that far off. The main spot where you’ll see noticeable changes is in places like the main menu, which is full of diagonally aligned text jutting every which way. There are some moments, though, when it does feel like the changes soften up a bit of the original game’s darkness. When I pull a gun to my head to summon my Persona (yes, that’s a real system for those not in the know), the new result isn’t nearly as jarring. A stylish blue splash and makes it feel a bit more like a cartoon.

Persona 3 Reload feels a bit peppier than the original at first glance, trading in the original’s spooky vibe for something lighter. Maybe it’s just the cleaner, more vibrant art that pulls that out of the source material. Or perhaps it’s just that I’m only seeing a limited slice of the story that didn’t show many of its creepy scenes, aside from one unsettling encounter with Pharos.

The one spot where I can still feel the original’s distinct attitude is in Tartarus, the massive dungeon that serves as the RPG’s backbone. I was thrown in at about floor 40, right as my team got their SEES uniforms and unlocked the remake’s brand new Theugy system. Theugy is a small but nice touch in combat, which gives my party standard “ultimate” moves that charge up over time (not dissimilar to what last year’s Super Mario RPG added on top of the original).

A character swings a sword in Persona 3 Reload.

Whether you love or hate it, Atlus does a great job of bringing out Tartarus’s otherworldly eeriness in the newly designed version. I’d see lots of animation details as I ran around, like walls opening up and pulsing as I ran by them. It feels more like I’m inside of a living thing, fighting through a tower or organs. It’s still the same polarizing dungeon crawl, but it’s great to see the creepy side of Persona 3 still intact there.

After playing my hour, I’m sure that Persona 3 Reload will be a solid way to revisit a classic RPG with a modern sheen. I’m just not sure quite yet if it’ll be the definitive version of it. That honor still seems like it could belong to Persona 3 Portable, with Reload more serving casual fans who want another game like Persona 5. Regardless of where it lands with more dedicated fans, it sure is a good way to kill time before the inevitable Persona 6.

Persona 3 Reload launches on February 2 for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC.

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Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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