Persona 3 Reload PAX West 2023: the Arcana Priestess boss and the new Shift mechanic
Seeing Persona 3 Reload for myself at PAX West helped ease some of my initial worries. It was remaking one of my favorite Persona installments and much of my admiration for it stems from its unique atmosphere. Sure, Persona 3’s systems fundamentally laid the foundation for all future mainline Persona titles, though its cast of characters and the themes it tackles still resonate with me today.
There were actually two demo modes available for Persona 3 Reload at the PAX West show floor - New Moon and Full Moon. New Moon was more tuned for beginners as it focused on early-game dungeon exploration. On the other hand, Full Moon fast-forwarded players to the Dark Hour on May 9th, the showdown with the first Full Moon boss on the monorail against the Arcana Priestess.
Naturally as a RPG Site writer, I picked the sane option… Full Moon.
It immediately starts players with Makoto (the Persona 3 protagonist’s name in this demo), Yukari, and Junpei on the monorail tracks. Like in the original, players quickly make their way to the monorail and board it to deal with enemy Shadows before facing off against the major Arcana Priestess story boss.
At this point in the original Persona 3, this is one of the key moments in the game where you feel that the scope of this game’s narrative is much larger than you originally thought. It’s not just a game where you live out your school and personal life, while slowly climbing this odd Tartarus tower at night. The threats that you felt were confined to Tartarus have begun to bleed into other parts of the real world again, like at the very beginning of the game.
Before making my way to the monorail, I quickly skimmed the new menus of Persona 3 Reload to get a sense of how much of Persona 5’s UI design philosophy has influenced it. While it’s certainly livelier and prettier than the other prior releases of Persona 3, I was glad to see that it wasn’t as ‘in-your-face’ as Persona 5’s main menu was. Of course, Persona 5’s main menus reinforced its narrative themes of rebellion, though it’s obvious that it’d be a bit of a mismatch to duplicate that tempo in Persona 3.
Instead, I really dug the calmer ebb and flow that Persona 3 Reload’s menus exuded. It’s like diving deeper and deeper into water gently - common imagery that Persona 3 has always displayed as an allegory for the human soul. Shifting between different options in the menu carried the seamless transitions of the protagonist repositioning themselves to display your new options elegantly. I especially liked how the Status screen was displayed; it had the Persona 3 MC lay back carrying some sort of mirror shard with his right hand displaying it to the player. As people cycle through different party members on which Status screen they wanted to see, the mirror shard reflects that person’s eyes. It felt intimate without being flashy about it.
Anyway, I made my way to the monorail and the scene that plays out is identical to the original. As the three S. E. E. S. members board it and investigate, they’re ambushed by a few enemy Shadows. The battle system, as you’ve probably seen in previous Persona 3 Reload footage, looks much closer to Persona 5’s presentation. Actions are mapped onto face buttons, instead of scrolling through a circular menu in the original release. The battle BGM in this demo was a rearrangement of Mass Destruction, so you’ll still get your dose of “baby baby baby” as soon as battles start.
One aspect of this new modernized look in Persona 3 Reload’s battles that stuck out to me was how impactful summoning Personas are. Characters still take their gun Evokers to their heads and shoot them to summon their Persona. The higher visual fidelity emphasizes the Evoker models, while you could barely see them in the original due to its lower native resolution. Persona models themselves carry that outer edge shimmer that Persona 5’s models had.
When hitting a weakness or critical attack, the brief cut-ins of a character’s eyes are still displayed. This time, it looks even nicer to see because the artwork of the cut--in itself is slightly animated as the character’s hair moves, which provides a nice subtle, slightly punchier effect to it.
Perhaps the biggest addition to Persona 3’s battle system in Persona 3 Reload is the new Shift mechanic; it functions similarly to Persona 5’s Baton Pass. If a character hits an enemy weakness or fires off a critical attack, they can choose to take an additional turn or pass their turn immediately to another character by initiating a Shift to them. I wasn’t exactly sure if the recipient of the Shift gained any noticeable status buffs or if that would be a feature that’s unlocked later in that character’s Social Link for Persona 3 Reload.
Shift would allow players to more evenly control their party’s SP consumption as they continually gain the upper hand exploiting weaknesses. Of course, Persona 3 Reload allows for direct control over all party members like in Persona 3 Portable. For those that prefer how the original Persona 3 automated their party member’s turns, Persona 3 Reload allows for that too by tweaking each of your party member’s behaviors.
Once again, the events at the monorail in Persona 3 Reload are identical to how they were originally with Junpei running ahead after a Shadow. Eventually, you reunite with him after the Persona 3 MC and Yukari fight off a few more incoming Shadows.
Then, Persona 3 Reload starts to handle things differently. I’m not exactly sure if these tweaks are just confined to this Full Moon demo or if it’s reflective of what happens in the final game.
After Junpei rejoins the party, an 8-minute timer starts as the monorail starts to move. Players have to make their way to the front of the monorail and beat the boss before the timer expires; there’ll still be a few enemy mobs in their way too and that’s how the original game unfolds.
In Persona 3 Reload, this timer doesn’t start when Junpei joins back up. All the following fights before the boss are scripted. There wasn’t a segment where you saw Shadows freely traveling around in the monorail car for you, or them, to initiate the fight manually.
Finally, I made my way to the Arcana Priestess boss at the front of the monorail. Her design remains faithful to her previous iterations; all aspects of her are intact, but in much higher fidelity. It made me look forward to seeing how all the other story bosses would look in Persona 3 Reload if the Priestess boss was anything to go by.
As soon as the boss fight starts, a timer for… 30 minutes shows up. It begins to tick down.
No sweat, the demo will end long before the 30 minutes is up. After a few turns of chipping away at its HP, the Priestess does a move I didn’t recognize - Invitation to Chaos. Suddenly, she starts tearing off parts of the monorail at her side and it begins to accelerate. The 26 minutes on the clock began to accelerate at an alarming speed down to around 18 minutes.
I’m beginning to suspect I’m going to have less and less time the more this fight goes on. It was very cool to see how there were slight changes in how these story encounters now work; I hope this is actually reflective of how it’ll play out in the final game. Seeing the environments start getting massacred by the boss gives some weight and stakes to the entire situation. If the surroundings getting gradually degraded in some way, shape, or form is an ongoing theme during major boss encounters, there’s some real potential in expressing that in creative ways.
I can accidentally confirm that the Persona 3 protagonist dying in battle gives you a game over. The Priestess boss got a lucky critical hit on Makoto; meanwhile, Yukari and Junpei were still healthy. Game over. Demo done.
Persona 3 Reload isn’t too far away. It’s coming out on February 2, 2024 for PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and PC (Steam). I’ll definitely be checking it out and I think this demo at PAX West was a good first taste for me.