I won’t lie. I easily sunk in 120+ hours into Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES for the PlayStation 2. It was, and still is, an amazing role-playing game and one of my personal favorite games. Persona 4, surprisingly, managed to be even better and has completely captivated me. Moreso than many other RPGs this generation, the Persona series has remained a close favorite of mine. After playing both games on the PlayStation 2, I can say with complete certainty that Persona 5 is my most anticipated role-playing game for this generation.
That’s right. Forget Mass Effect 3. Give me Persona 5.
Persona may have had far more humble origins than other juggernaut franchises out there today, but it has a certain charm that cannot be topped. Here are the reasons why I am so in love with the series and so incredibly impressed with the development team at ATLUS.
1) The modern day setting. The Persona series has one very special element going for it: the present day story and setting. Although it is based around fantasy elements, with a tinge of horror for good measure, the modern day setting gives it a story angle most other RPG developers fail to grasp. The vast majority of role-playing games try to immerse the player in either a swords-and-sorcery Tolkien-esque fantasy world or in a Star Wars-like science fiction world. There may be some discrepancies here and there, but for the most part, developers seem to ignore a modern day setting (Earthbound/MOTHER series notwithstanding).
The modern day setting challenges so many of the conventions inherent of the genre, which makes the Persona series both refreshing and engaging. Characters that exist in a present day setting are far more believable and attractive to us, because we can connect with them. Their challenges and concerns closely parallel ours. The characters in Persona 3 and 4 are engrossed in a fantasy story, but they also have to deal with their families, friends, school work, job, and so on. They speak and interact in a manner that makes them easy to engage with. Characters in more medieval or sci-fi settings tend to throw around a lot of inherent fantasy jargon or techno-babble, which creates a rift with the audience. Also, characters that exist in these other fantasy worlds are not as easily relatable, for a variety of reasons.
Consider a character in the Mass Effect universe. Technology in this universe has advanced to the point where interstellar travel, cloning technology, and medical applications are no longer the stuff of dreams. Even death isn’t truly permanent. It’s difficult to care about and truly connect with characters in this kind of world; why should we mourn the death of anyone if someone can simply say “Oh, we have this amazing new device to reconstruct him, so it’s ok!” In the Persona series, there is an element of fantasy, but the characters are firmly rooted in the realm of the everyday. They are not superhuman. They are susceptible to death. They are also susceptible to the problems of human emotions and everyday living.
2) The social RPG. Think about how you typically progress in a role-playing game. Do you immediately think of performing a series of quests? Or do you think about fighting enemies in a dungeon in the hopes of preparing to engage a giant boss? Or do you think about simulation-style gameplay, like Harvest Moon?
The Persona series brilliantly combines all of the examples above. This not only keeps the game interesting and varied, but it also perfectly ties into the theme and setting. The developers recognized that using the modern day setting would carry a set of implications. Among those, we can assume that a character would have a lot of social obligations, regardless of age. In the Persona series, you play as a high school student, so you have a lengthy list of items to consider. Not only do you have to attend school, but you also have to worry about preparing for exams, hanging out with friends, joining school clubs (band, drama club, soccer, basketball), maintaining a part-time job, keeping ties with your uncle and cousin, and engaging in a variety of extracurricular activities.
The developers recognized that gamers like to be rewarded frequently, but they also enjoy activities that have both substance and relevance. By measuring relationships with the “Social Link” meter, gamers can treat them all as specific quests. Not only do these relationships yield well-done, often emotionally-charged scenes, but they also endow the player with additional powers and rewards. Maintaining and pursuing Social Links grants the player the ability to make “Personas” related to that specific Social Link. Players can then use those Personas during fight sequences. However, what makes these scenes so successful is that they actually encourage the player to pursue them. The characters are endearing, so the game purposefully tries to make you care about what these characters go through.
Of course, Persona is more than just a social simulator. These elements work in conjunction with the “investigation” part of the game, which fit at the core of the narrative. In Persona 4, your team is a part of an elusive murder mystery that only you and your allies can understand. It’s not just a matter of going in and defeating enemies though; you actually need to pursue the story and resume your life. Your character can’t simply disappear from society, especially since you have all of these obligations to maintain AND the police (and your uncle) are competing with you to catch the killer. This goes into the next point.
3) The scheduled RPG. Persona operates on a day-today schedule that lasts for several months. It creates an air of believability that many other games don’t carry. Think about it. How much “time” passed during the events of, say, Final Fantasy VII? Chances are, you’ll measure that time with in-game hours—the time that you, the player, spent playing the adventure. There isn’t a viable measure of time in the actual context of the game’s narrative. The characters in the game all have to maintain their lives, because regardless of whatever strange occurrences going on, it’s impossible to just abandon everything. The level of connectivity that modern society has, and the amount of social and family obligations we have, are simply too great to ignore—and if we did, people would obviously notice.
In Persona, you actually have to stick to a schedule. You have a limited amount of time to work with each day; this means you can’t just go out and decide to tackle every single objective at once. You have to plan out your activities, because they actually take “time.” Do you want to spend the day exploring and fighting monsters in the TV world after school? Or would you rather attend band practice so you can upgrade your Social Link? Or would you rather hang out with your friend Yosuke, since you feel bad that you declined his offer the other day? Or do you want to take that part-time job at the hospital to take in some extra cash so you can afford new items? Time management makes the game more interesting to play for a wider audience. Even if two players choose all of the same kinds of events and characters to engage with, it’s highly unlikely that they will do them in the same exact order. Being able to maintain and change your schedule at your own discretion makes the game experience more personal and vivid. YOU are in charge of how the game progresses. This perfectly fits with the game’s setting and theme. It doesn’t just happen to be a role-playing game set in modern day, everything is planned out with this theme in mind.
4) Something classic, something simple, something challenging. Look at any of the battles in Persona 3 or 4. Compare them to other JRPGs or other Western RPGs. Most gamers may first respond with “A turn-based RPG? Haven’t I seen that a million times before?”
Well, yeah. That’s the point.
The battle system is classic and easy to understand. For many gamers today, the words “turn based” are synonymous with slow and dull. Remember though, whether or not a game is turn based, real time, or even shooter based, what truly matters is how well the elements are designed and integrated. A turn based game can be excellent. There are many of them out there. Turn based RPGs hardly deserve a bad reputation, as long as the game puts that system to use in an effective manner. The gameplay system in Persona is both refined and simple, no matter how you approach it.
In battle sequences, the options are fairly standard. Basic attacks, special attacks, items, and so on are all recognizable and the system should be familiar for anyone who has played an RPG since the 80s. What makes Persona fun is how it is balanced. By using a wide variety of different Personas, you are given a wealth of different abilities to use both in and out of battle. By using the right attacks, you can knock enemies down and gain an extra turn. Knocking down every enemy means you can rush in for a massive, all-out attack. This makes battles go much more quickly—if you know how to defeat an enemy, they won’t even get a chance to act.
This concept works the other way around too, though. Enemies can easily exploit your weakness, making an otherwise “slow” system into something far more tense and exciting. Rushing into battle unprepared can spell certain doom, especially if an enemy has the right attack to exploit your weakness. Because each Persona has a different set of strengths and weaknesses, you need to constantly think about what best fits the situation. Even boss enemies are susceptible to certain attacks, so the game has a unified “feel.” It’s all a matter of playing it smart.
Luckily, Persona manages to avoid the negative JRPG battle traits as well. This means no “random” encounters. All enemies are plainly visible and can actually be engaged differently depending on how the player approaches them. By striking an enemy first, the player can gain an extra attack, similar to the Mario RPG series.
5) Creating Persona and collecting Arcana cards. Persona also incorporates what makes the Poke’mon series so popular. “Collecting” is in the game’s theme as plain as day. Throughout the adventure, you are encouraged to engage in social events. Doing this strengthens Social Links, which represent specific “Arcana” types, which in turn govern classes of Persona. By strengthening these bonds, the player can create Persona of these types, gain experience boosts, and more. The player cannot create a Persona greater than his or her level either, which means the player has to balance social events, fighting enemies, and advancing the story. Going too far in one means sacrificing the other.
Creating Personas and advancing social ties gives the player more options in battle, gives your teammates more support abilities, and opens up the possibility for rewards after battles. Once you begin to strengthen certain social ties, their respective Arcana cards can show up after battles. They can either appear in an upright position (for a positive effect) or upside down (for a negative effect), for potentially dramatic effects. For example, one Arcana card can either restore your health completely or drain it to the point of near-death. Support abilities are also varied. Teammates can gain the ability to perform a follow-up attack if you knock over an enemy, for example. The developers cleverly slipped in a variety of rewards.
This keeps the gameplay interesting at every stage of the game. Throughout every step of your adventure, you are always asked to consider your options: What Personas can I create? How many more are there? What Social Links should I pursue? Even when you chose to take a break from the game’s battle sections and story-heavy sequences, you still have a lot to think about.
6) A Japanese flavor. Even in other JRPGs, themes and settings tend to be more universal. They are based in fantastic worlds that try to convey common story themes. The Persona series rejects the notion of going for the common ground, and instead indulges in its heritage. It has a distinctly modern, urban, Japanese setting. Japan has had an enormous impact on how the video game industry has evolved and how video game culture has taken shape, yet there aren’t many games that give us a great glimpse of the Japanese culture. Except for the Persona series that is.
Most games try to weave a story that creates its own mythos, but Persona is unique in that it establishes its fantasy story into a more realistic world. The characters celebrate traditional Japanese holidays, like Golden Week. Even though dialog is translated into English, characters retain their original names and still hold on to use of honorifics (“san,” “kun,” etc). In Persona 4, players can visit a local shrine, reinforcing the idea of Japan’s Shinto and Buddhist heritage. Many of the Personas in the game are taken from a variety of cultural backgrounds, and Japan is definitely among them.
Granted, the game could just definitely be fun and engaging if it were made with another basis in mind. Nintendo’s Earthbound set you off in a small American town, for example. However, we have to admit that as far as pieces of gaming fiction go, there are only few instances when we get a legitimate view of an actual world culture. If it is done well, it can make a game experience feel legitimate, heartfelt, and maybe even enlightening. This helps contribute to why the series is so compelling. The developers can craft a more heartfelt adventure by using their culture, their experiences, and their ideas as a basis to tell the story.
What do you say? Are you as excited as I am? Or do you feel differently? Sound off with your comments!