What We're Playing
Welcome! This column is part of a series in which members of the Tom's Guide staff share what they're playing and enjoying right now, with the goal of helping you find great games that you may have missed. Be sure to check out our previous entry, where we talked about RoboCop: Rogue City and how it's the unlikely poster child for Unreal Engine 5.
Over the last three years, I’ve inadvertently started my own New Year’s tradition of playing a Persona game in January. In early 2022, I dived into Persona 5 Royal, last year I spent the first few weeks of 2023 polishing off Persona 4 Golden on Nintendo Switch and right now I’m enthralled with Persona 3 Reload on PS5.
These are three excellent games that are well worth playing at pretty much any time of the year, but what I’ve discovered in particular is that the Persona series makes for the perfect companions during the bleak winter months when the weather outside is gloomy and it’s starting to getting dark by the middle of the afternoon.
January especially is a miserable month for many — especially in the U.K. — but playing Persona 3 Reload has been the escape I desperately needed from the seasonal blues, let me explain why...
Persona 3 Reload: $69 @ Amazon
Persona 3 Reload is a full remake of the beloved original game that set the structure for the Persona franchise as we know it today. You play a newcomer to Port Island and must live the everyday life of a student, while also exploring a dark mirror world full of dangerous shadows when the clock strikes midnight. Persona 3 Reload is perfect for newcomers and franchises veterans alike. View Deal
What shall we do today?
If you’ve never played a Persona game before, the core structure of this Japanese RPG series mixes life-sim elements with dungeon-crawling. Essentially, you spend your day living the life of an average high school student, and then at night venture into a sinister dark realm to fight off shadow creatures in turn-based battles.
Persona 3 launched in 2006 and set out this compelling combination that has become the role-playing franchise’s bread and butter. And Reload is a ground-up remake of the original game that upgrades the visuals and adds some modern quality-of-life tweaks to bring it more in line with Persona 5 Royal, which saw the series break into the mainstream.
Set on the fictional Tatsumi Port Island, in Persona 3 you play a newcomer to the area, and after getting settled into your shared dormitory digs you’ll uncover a whole load of ways to fill your daily schedule. Each day you'll have specific blocks of time to fill (usually after-school and evenings) and it's your choice how you spend free hours.
You can work a part-time job at a coffee shop, dine out at one of several local eateries, perform karaoke at a dedicated bar, or tend to your rooftop garden, and those are just a few of the more than a dozen different options that slowly reveal themselves as you progress through the 50+ hour story.
These everyday activities might sound very mundane, but each one improves your abilities in battle by raising your character's social stats. Higher stats also unlock even more things around the Island for you to do, which creates a satisfying loop. Plus, there’s something remarkable about any video game that can get me excited about spending time in my room studying for a school midterm the next day.
Even more engaging is the opportunity to hang out with a memorable cast of characters which include an elderly couple mourning the loss of their son, to a schoolmate who is seriously hot for teacher (although, that plot line is perhaps a little inappropriate).
Growing your social circle is another way to get even stronger for the combat portion of the game, and you'll very quickly find yourself caring deeply about many of the residents of the island.
The perfect distraction
If you’re looking for non-stop action you won’t find it in Persona 3 Reload. While exploring the game’s procedural-generated tower known as Tartarus does inject some momentum, battles are focused on strategy rather than quick reaction times, and the game’s visual-novel-style narrative takes priority for large periods. It’s not uncommon to spend a 30-minute play session doing little more than listening to dialogue and occasionally pressing the X button to skip through a pop-up menu.
But don’t take the above as a criticism. I’ve found that having now played a Persona game for each of the last three Januarys in a row, the series, and Persona 3 Reload especially, makes for some of the best video game escapism you can find. And that’s an extremely valuable selling point during a month that can be a real slog.
I’ll just say it, January sucks. The post-holiday comedown is real, the weather is miserable and many people go through a malaise waiting for the New Year to kick into gear. However, playing Persona 3 Reload has genuinely improved my mood over the last few weeks.
Having a quality video game to escape to has helped me deal with my own struggles with seasonal affective disorder (SAD, as it’s often known).
Of course, many video games offer a sense of escapism, but it’s the life-sim elements of Persona 3 Reload that make it particularly potent when it comes to getting truly lost in a whole other world.
Booting up Persona 3 Reload feels like returning to my second life, one where I'm the leader of a ragtag group of fellow misfits and one where I finish top of the class after acing all my exams — an experience I can assure you I'm very much not familiar with IRL.
For that reason, I thoroughly recommend you don’t just play this excellent RPG at some point in the future, but that you play Persona 3 Reload as soon as possible.
Fighting against the gloom
Persona 3 Reload’s main narrative is also surprisingly appropriate if you're dealing with your own form of SAD right now.
The shadows you’re fighting against in the aforementioned multi-leveled tower are spreading a strange condition known as Apathy Syndrome across the island, which as the name suggests, makes residents feel an intense sense of apathy and unwillingness to do much of anything. Ridding the world of such a blight is a pretty excellent motivation for pushing through even when the dungeons get repetitive.
Plus, much of your time with Persona 3 Reload is spent with characters who are dealing with emotional scars and painful past trauma. But rather than giving in to their negative thoughts and falling into despair, the people you interact with are all pushing back against the tide and trying to find a reason to keep pushing forward.
It’s remarkably inspirational stuff, and the core message of not wasting precious time, and instead finding things and people that bring you joy, is commendable.
An early GOTY pick
Persona 3 Reload doesn’t reinvent the franchise wheel. After all, this is a remake of the game that built the wheel, so it was never going to be anything but more Persona as we know it. But having enjoyed Persona 5 Royal and Persona 4 Golden during the winter months in previous years, Reload is exactly what I wanted right now in 2024.
As my colleague Anthony Spadafora explains in his Persona 3 Reload review this is a “remake done right” and if you often find yourself feeling a little blue during the early part of the year, then why not take a trip to Tatsumi Port Island, you might just find that escaping into the vibrant world of Persona 3 Reload is just the tonic to perk you up during the bleak winter months.