by Danny Wadeson
How many games do you know that manage to combine Jungian psychology, Japanese school-life and urban legends? Just like me, the Persona series isn’t as popular in the West as Final Fantasy, but it’s been around just as long (since 1987), and is arguably much more interesting.
Now the (too, too) long awaited Persona 5 is looming on the horizon — the first main game in Atlus’ series since 2008’s superlative Persona 4. Maybe you’ve seen one of the slick as hell trailers and want to jump aboard the hype train? We’ve got just the ticket.
Buckle in. The heritage of the series is confusing as hell, with multiple spin-offs, re-releases, alternate timelines and anime/films. The Persona games are technically a spin off from the larger Shin Megami Tensei (True Rebirth of The Goddess) series, itself borne from the original 1987 NES game Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei. The game’s dungeon crawling and emphasis on mysticism, urban legends and demons based on folk mythology proved popular, putting developer Atlus on the map and paving the way for 17 main series sequels. The 4 most recent spin-off games span 3 platforms. The 3DS was home to old-skool dungeon-crawler Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, 360/PS3 enjoyed a pair of fighting games (P4 Arena and it’s Ultimax sequel) so good they were included in EVO tournaments, and the Vita was blessed with visual-novel-rhythm-game Dancing All Night.
So, why the fuss? What is it about Persona that people love?
The Personas Themselves
Simply put, a Persona is a manifestation of someone’s willpower and subconscious personality. You can collect them, craft them, and level them up. Personas are modelled on a huge range of demon/god/spirit influences, ranging from cutesy designs like Jack Frost to the gruesome flying brain that is Omoikane. In battle they function as a ‘set’ of abilities and stats, and the whole system just fits into the fiction beautifully.
Normally I play games to get away from my friends, but damnit, I love making new ones in Persona games. Maybe it’s something to do with the appeal of an idealised Japanese school life, where you always play as a strong but silent type who is popular and admired.
In each game, your ‘social links’ are hugely important. As you choose to spend time developing your relationship with a particular character, your ability to ‘fuse’ new Personas of their ‘Arcana’ grows stronger, which basically means you can use more powerful move sets in battle. What makes the system so loveable, though, is the way it ties together a ‘level up’ mechanic to actually learning more about the motivations, fears and hopes of your party members and NPCs.
There’s never time to max out your social links with everyone, so there’s a brilliant tension between levelling up your favourite arcana, and getting closer to your favourite characters. It also helps that Persona has great characters, from a wide-eyed blonde kid who lives in a bear costume to tongue-tied young reporters to an actual dog.
What shocked me most when I first played Persona 4 (my first game in the series) was just how deliberately Jungian it was. It’s hugely refreshing to see characters openly discussing their inner turmoil it and admitting that it’s a part of them too, rather than struggling silently with the repressed elements of their personality. Hell, in Persona games, the characters even have fun with it.
This series isn’t afraid to discuss trauma, LGBT issues, loss, fear, depression, and more. The way the characters explore it all is usually sensitively written, and it never feels cynical or gimmicky. The bosses in the game are physical versions of a character’s darkest emotions, set free by their inability to accept it as part of themselves. It’s way more interesting than the usual good vs evil trope.
The exact combat style differs throughout the series (in Arena, pictured above, it's obviously completely different), but it’s always weird and wonderful. In the battle system of the Persona 2 duology you can negotiate or dance with your enemies (not saying Undertale ripped it off…) and 3 and 4’s is streamlined and colourful turn-based battling. In some ways Persona encourages grinding, but the actual battles are so fast it’s like Atlus doesn’t want you to get bored.
It’s also *gasp* actually quite accessible. You can even make your party members AI controlled. But if you want to go full nerd, there’s plenty of theorycrafting to be had perfecting the Persona fusion system.
In Persona 2 (and sometimes on the internet), rumours have power - so much so that if they become popular enough, they become real. Your team can even manipulate this system, eventually causing all manner of bat-shit crazy legends to come to life. P3 (and Dancing All Night) instead focuses on one urban legend - the ‘apathy syndrome’ - and 4 kicks off with people appearing on an unsettling TV channel, viewable only on a rainy midnight.
Persona is about the pull and sway these legends and rumours hold over us, taken to their illogical conclusions. It infuses each game with an almost True Detective or urban horror vibe, and a crazy amount of gameplay possibilities. Each legend has some brilliantly thought out mechanics, and getting to the bottom of it all is awesome motivation that keeps you guessing well into the story.
Shoji Meguro is the man responsible for the sublime fusion of funk, jazz, hip-hop and instrumental hard-rock (dare I say metal?) that make up the Persona soundtracks. From the infuriatingly catchy Junes Department store jingle to the spine-chilling Midnight Channel theme, there are a lot of great, memorable tracks and motifs in the series. So many that perhaps Atlus had no choice but to build a rhythm-action game (Dancing All Night) around them.
Persona games are about the unreal and the very real. They are a riot of colour, imagination, humour and humanity, chock-full of weird and cool mechanics and unforgettable characters. If you had to pick one game to play before Persona 5 to get yourself up to speed with the series, I'd suggest Persona 4 Golden. It's the best in the series, and indeed one of the best JRPGs out there.