I fucking love Persona 3. On any given day I could say it’s my favorite entry in Atlus’ supernatural teenage life sim RPG series, or at the very least tied with Persona 5 Royal. That’s why Persona 3 Reload, which remakes the 2006 game from the ground up, is such a treat. I spent around 45 minutes with the upcoming remake during a hands-on preview, and I’m intrigued by how new it feels while also unapologetically maintaining so much of the PS2 game’s original structure. But my brief preview also comes with one glaring caveat: I don’t think the music of this game needed to be remade at all.
Persona 3 Reload is visually stunning. It maintains the dark, blue-and-black color scheme with all the production value of Persona 5. This is good, because more games should look like Persona 5, and seeing how Persona 3’s visual motifs and themes are being modernized is exciting. The original PS2 game set a baseline for the franchise’s visual identity, but Persona 3 Reload looks like concept art finally realized and explored. It’s a visually stunning game, with every spell, strike, and summon popping off the screen with gorgeous animation, stylized cut-ins, and focus on colors and contrasts. Persona 5 really solidified the series as a stylistic visual powerhouse, and seeing Persona 3 remade with those design goals in place is a delight.
Outside of the visual overhaul, I was surprised at how intact Persona 3’s original game design pillars are in a remake nearly 20 years removed from the source material. If you’ve come into the series with Persona 5, you should know ahead of time Persona 3 didn’t have the crafted dungeons its successor did. Instead, the party travels through Tartarus, a seemingly neverending tower of procedurally generated floors overrun by demonic shadows. Navigating Tartarus isn’t about puzzle-solving or following an overt plot. It’s a grind of climbing up the hornet’s nest and trying to take out as many enemies as you can on the way. Eventually, you’ll reach a barricade that prevents you from moving forward, and that’s how you know you can’t do anything until the next big boss shows up on the full moon. Compared to Persona 5, it’s structurally more akin to the endless, sprawling, procedurally generated Mementos than it is to a Palace’s crafted design. If you’re looking for a more crafted experience where every dungeon has a distinct vibe and plot beat, Persona 3 is not that.
While the argument could be made that this feels like a missed opportunity, I don’t think Persona 3 Reload could have completely restructured dungeons without also upending how key Tartarus is to its story. The tower is an anchor to the plot that you return to every night and while yes, it’s arduous and monotonous by modern standards, that grind was part of the teenagers’ bonding process.You can’t restructure Persona 3’s dungeon design without fundamentally altering its story. While I’ve only played a very small slice of a very large game, I have a respect for how closely it sticks to the source material while finding ways to bolster parts that need tweaking. Tartarus is just too inherent to what Persona 3 is to change.
But that brings me to things that have changed. Persona 3 Reload has an entirely new voice cast, and while that deeply wounded me as a long-time fan of those original actors, I’m happy to say the new crew understands the assignment. Zeno Robinson’s work as resident goofy dumbass Junpei Iori was a standout during my time with the game, and I’m looking forward to hearing more of everyone’s take on these beloved characters. But the voice acting isn’t the only thing that’s changed on the audio side, and so now we turn our attention to what was easily my least favorite part of the demo: the new soundtrack.
Persona 3 has my favorite soundtrack in the series, which consistently brings nothing but bangers. Where Persona 5 was heavily influenced by jazz and funk, Persona 3 is much more embedded in hip-hop and J-pop. It’s got a bunch of songs that have stuck with me, like the iconic daytime vibe of “When The Moon’s Reaching Out Stars” or when Lotus Juices’ punchy rap vocals come in on songs like the battle theme “Mass Destruction.” I was really looking forward to hearing these songs as a backdrop to all of Persona 3 Reload’s visual splendor…but man, I am not feeling the remade soundtrack.
It’s a phenomenon I’ve been feeling with Taylor Swift’s remade “Taylor’s Version” albums, which have been born out of a corporate dispute around who owns Taylor Swift’s music, but while they’ve brought some great new songs alongside the remade ones, some of those new recordings just aren’t doing it for me. The original composition is there, and the talented people behind the original song are still playing and singing their hearts out, but its clearly re-recorded, and it doesn’t hit the same way the originals do—the version of “Mass Destruction” that plays during battle made me grimace with its ironed-out mix and more timid vocals. When everything else in the game is getting remade from the ground up, I understand the inclination to re-record these songs. But I’m listening to these original versions now and they still hold up. Did Persona 3 Reload need to do this? I don’t think so, and I hope other songs fare better in the remake process.
Music aside, I’m really intrigued by Persona 3 Reload’s commitment to the source material and knowing when and where it needs to iterate on the PS2 game. There’s still a lot of old stuff missing in terms of content from the Portable and FES versions of the original game that make its status as the “definitive” edition contentious, but at the very least, it looks like a worthy version of a stellar game so far.
Persona 3 Reload will come to PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S on February 2, 2024.