Persona 3 Reloads A Sobering Reminder Of Reality Into Games

The Reloaded release of Persona 3 brings with it a story and setting that isn't happy-go-lucky - and it works because of it.

Persona 3 Reloads A Sobering Reminder Of Reality Into Games
Cover art for Atlus' Persona 3 Reload.

Note: This article contains significant spoilers for Persona 3 Reload - read on if that's not an issue, skip it til you play it if you haven't!

Recently the New York Times ran an article on the upcoming next chapter of the remade Final Fantasy VII Remake series, focusing in on the original release's "shocking" death that's "haunted" players for years (clearly, they never played 1990's Phantasy Star II, which did it first, but at the risk of being a silly old pedant, I'll leave it at that).

Putting aside the fact that it's pretty wild (and perhaps a little bit too much "hello fellow kids" of them) for the NYT to be running something about a video game on its front page, I can acknowledge why Final Fantasy gets a lot of attention. Until a few short years ago, it was my JRPG series of choice, and at the time in 1997, it really was shocking to kill off a major character permanently as part of a major story beat.

But that doesn't mean it's the only JRPG to have taken that leap in the past twenty-plus years.

Enter Persona 3, whose gameplay and look got a recent facelift in the same vein as Final Fantasy VII Remake with Persona 3 Reload. Released originally in 2006, there's a reason why it subsequently had a couple more versions released with additional features and story points, and why it got the same stylized anime-style coat of paint that has delighted fans in the more recent Persona games. That reason is that it's been unafraid to pour an ice-cold bucket of reality onto the happy-go-lucky, everything-works-out-in-the-end JRPG fantasies that occupy the same space.

The group's navigator, Fuuka, struggles with her own sense of worth.

On its surface, the game's daily school life activity cycle and anime-style shenanigans/dialogue might make it seem as if it's as saccharine-sweet, but just below the surface are themes of sacrifice, tragedy, and more. The cast of Persona 3 Reload are not just suddenly talented teenagers with extraordinary abilities that save the world, but young people growing up with feelings of pride, self-doubt, anger, sadness, and more. And while there's plenty of deus ex machina and "power of friendship" type thinking, it's tempered with the sense that it takes mistakes and some difficulty to get there.

No, but tell us how you really feel, Akinari.

The game's Social Links, optional side storylines involving residents around the city, tackle themes of divorce, poverty, bullying, and more. One Social Link has a fatal degenerative disease with no hope of a cure. Another finds solace in overeating in order to cope with the death of their sibling and others' endless comparisons to him. Yet another deludes themselves into thinking they have a romantic (yet still improper) relationship with a teacher at school. You'd think that the resolution of these Social Links would mostly lead to happy endings, but that's not Persona 3 Reload's style. Rather, in many cases, what is slated or predicted to happen inevitably does, despite best efforts from you or the Social Link, and the result is, well, simply coping with that outcome.

Tragedy strikes more than once in Persona 3 Reload.

Oh, and character death? Yeah, Persona 3 Reload has that in spades, building on Final Fantasy VII's bold decision to crack open the door to major character RIPs by hitting you multiple times with it. Both heroes and villains lose people, most in violent ways. One particular story beat decides to wrench at your heart by introducing a love interest for one bombastic character desperate for validation and appreciation, only to kill them off in a tragic way worthy of Shakespearean drama. Another loses their life inexplicably protecting the vengeful person who seeks to murder them because of their accidental part in the death of that person's mother. You get the idea. It's a war of attrition, and nobody comes out unscathed.

The harbinger of Death really needed advice on better headwear.

All of this ties together into a theme of addressing and dealing with death and its inevitability. At the risk of boring my subscribers with whatever philosophical connections to lofty ideas (such as existentialism or nihilism) the game might be interpreted to be throwing at you, I'll make it simple by saying that beyond the usual "let's kill god and save the world" trope of JRPGs is one that asks the question about how you choose to deal with the fact that you're going to die - whether you know when that is or not.

Would you still find meaning in life if you knew the end was coming (and soon)? Is ignorant bliss followed by an inevitable end better than knowing and having the pressure to choose how to cope with that end? Amid all the cool combinations of Persona-summoning, tactical team attacks, and challenging dungeon crawls these deep and, well, very real questions get posed to you over and over. If you're the type of person who chooses games in part as escapism, Persona 3 Reload is probably not the game for you.

Not your typical anime scene. Trust me.

But Persona 3 Reload being "so real for that", as people younger than me might say, might just be the game that needed to come out (again) here in 2024, where polarization has become a bit of the norm, and recent happenings in the world have forced people to confront these questions and issues. Maybe even though it's more sobering in its presentation, Persona 3 Reload is just the thing we need to provide some kind of guiding light to these kinds of contemplations. It may not have the wholly happy ending that you expect if you choose to play it for yourself, but we may just be able to take more solace in the fact that the outcome's realness makes it that much more satisfying to get there.

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