For most people, an after-school club means kicking around a football or playing clarinet for an hour. For the unlucky student protagonists of upcoming role-playing game Persona 3 Reload, it means joining the Specialised Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES). By day, SEES members turn up to school, revise for exams, and keep up with their busy social lives. By night, they manifest their personalities as powerful fighters called Personas and use them to battle supernatural Shadow creatures. Debate club, eat your heart out.
This may sound familiar to fans of Persona 4 and 5, but this remake of 2006’s Persona 3 is significantly darker in tone. While Persona 4 Golden tells a grisly story about a small-town serial killer, it’s buried beneath a dazzling colour palette and relentlessly catchy pop soundtrack. Likewise, Persona 5‘s stylish visuals and upbeat jazz mask a grim tale of corruption in the heart of Tokyo.
Persona 3 Reload embraces its gothic roots. The game revolves around the Dark Hour, a secret 25th hour in the day that comes around every midnight. When the clock strikes 12, the moon over Tatsumi Port Island turns green and the area’s inhabitants are unknowingly turned into floating coffins until it passes. Our hands-on with Reload takes place during one of these hours, meaning there’s no chance to explore the world or get to know its cast – tonight, it’s all about combat.
To begin, we’re roaming the halls of Tartarus, looking for a way to climb up the mysterious tower that manifests each night. The floor we’re on resembles Tatsumi Port Island’s local school, although in the Dark Hour it’s streaked with gore and filled with monsters. There’s a 17-year gap between Persona 3‘s original launch and Reload, and it shows: everything looks incredible, and feels much smoother to explore than it did in January’s Persona 3 Portable re-release.
Reload‘s changes aren’t just skin-deep. Our first turn-based battle with a Shadow reveals that Persona 5‘s baton system, which lets you pass your turn on to another party member if you hit an enemy’s weak spot, has been grafted onto 3 in order to make fights a bit more engaging. There’s also a phenomenal new track to accompany fights, with Japanese rapper Lotus Juice returning to hype each battle up. However, Reload‘s combat will largely feel familiar. The core routine is finding the damage type an enemy is weak to, attacking that vulnerability, and doing so again until they’re dead.
While easy to grasp, it can be harder to manage in practice. In the second half of our hands-on, we’re dropped into the carriage of a monorail, which has been hijacked by Shadows and hurtles toward a fatal crash. The party is on the clock to save its coffin-bound passengers, which means clearing each carriage and winning a grueling boss fight before time runs out. With its modern-day makeover, the monorail segment feels much more atmospheric than it did in Portable – everything is bathed in a sickly green light, and it feels like there’s a Shadow hiding behind every coffin.
It all culminates with a fight against Priestess, a Shadow creature guarding the train’s brakes. Priestess hits hard and has the ability to slash precious minutes off the level’s timer, so it takes a careful balance of healing and Persona powers to eventually beat her. With seconds left to spare, we hit the brakes and bring our carriage screeching to a halt – and after a brief cutscene hinting at Tatsumi’s spooky goings-on, our hands-on comes to an end.
Though our time with Persona 3 Reload is positive, it’s all focused on combat that feels largely identical to the last two Persona titles. This means we’re still yet to see the real meat behind this remake, namely Tatsumi Port Island and its slice-of-life social elements.
In January, we said that Persona 3 Portable‘s visual novel format might not gel with fans who got into Persona through 4 and 5. For those who fell into that camp, clear your calendar for next February: if Reload lives up to the makeover we’ve seen so far, there’s a lot to be excited for.
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