There was a time when Square Enix (known as Squaresoft back in the day) and Final Fantasy were the toast of gamedom. Timeless 16-bit classics like Final Fantasy IV and Chrono Trigger reinvented video game storytelling as we knew it and the glut of JRPGs in the first two PlayStation eras following their mainstream breakthrough will not long be forgotten. And just in case we were going to forget, Final Fantasy X has been remastered twice and Final Fantasy VII is getting a full remake. But while most of us gladly welcome these timeless experiences back into our consoles, I have to think that it symbolizes a certain lack of ambition in Square and the genre as a whole. Turn-based JRPGs and Final Fantasy in general are just not what they used to be.
But while the most classic of role playing franchises was dominating, Atlus was quietly building up their Megami Tensei series with a wildly different approach to Square’s traditional fantasy tinged with sci-fi. It was a hit in Japan, but we in the West didn’t get a crack at the series until 2003’s Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. A lot of the rest of the series has since been retroactviely localized on PSN, but needless to say, we’ve missed out big time.
American gamers hit the jackpot in 2007 when Atlus got Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 localized. While the main series has been relegated to portable status, the Persona spin-off franchise quickly became the apple of JRPG fans’ collective eye, and for good reason. While Final Fantasy continues to disappoint in the modern era, Persona‘s fresh approach has kept us wanting more, and the PS2 titles hold up extremely well in comparison to most current-gen RPGs.
After several re-releases for Persona 3 and 2008’s Persona 4 and a very long wait through the entire PS3/Xbox 360 generation with only older games and a fighting game detour, Persona 5 is finally making noise. It was supposed to come out this year, but has recently been pushed back into 2016. Tears were shed. For anybody who’s never experienced these games and is curious about why they should care, here is a brief list of genre elements that have been redefined by Persona since it migrated West and why the upcoming fifth game should on the top of every JRPG fan’s wishlist.
This is one area where Final Fantasy has long set the standard and held the title. When Nobuo Uematsu composed the scores for that series, the simplisitic themes that defined gaming up to that point became mostly a thing of the past. Beautiful, touching, epic, sweeping scores set the mood, and now most AAA video games rely on dramatic music as heavily as films do. And to this day, Final Fantasy never disappoints on the music front.
Persona has found its own equivalent to Uematsu-san in Shoji Meguro, but their approaches are wildly different. Rather than epic classical scores, Meguro specializes in eclectic contemporary pop sounds. These games contrast against Final Fantasy‘s combination of medeivel futurism by being set in the present day, so it’s natural the music would reflect that. However, I can’t help but notice recent FF tiitles have been using more pop vocals and heavy metal as background music. It could be they’re trying to get some of that ecclecticist mojo for themselves.
Pieces of hip-hop, rock, J-pop, funk, and electronica have helped give Atlus’ flagship series its own identity and a tone very different from anything else on the market. Recent Persona soundtracks define the “something for everyone” approach and embrace both the lighter aspects of the titles and the more dramatic and forboding. Live performance of the music in Japan are popular and the soundtrack for Persona 4 was big enough to gets its own rhythm game spin-off, Dancing All Night. The music that currently defines the series is a huge part of its identity, and this unique approach to gaming soundtracks has been a breath of fresh air.
The first few hours of Persona 3 and 4 are a bit maddening. But after the insanely long intros where you are shuffled from one scene to another with no control, the games open up a world of possibilites and a level of player freedom usually associated with open-world games, but without all the wandering and generic questing. Where most RPG’s have you walking around massive open areas and towns searching for loot or being constantly harried by random strangers demanding you go there and kill that, walk them here, bring this there, or bring that here, Persona seldom bothers you with this crap. These games are about what YOU, the player, wants to do.
And boy, is there a lot to do. Once the options open up, it can be overwhelming. On one hand, you have work to do and you need to go grind in the dungeons and accomplish your current story objectives. The game will not hold your hand on this, but at the same time part of maximizing your character’s potential is in extracurricular activities. More on these points later.
You can spend time with friends, make new ones, go fishing, cook food for yourself, work any number of jobs, join school clubs, go to the movies, study, read, surf the internet, play games, shop, or grind levels to your heart’s content, all of which will reward you in some way. There’s really no wrong way to spend your time, but that time is limited so a huge part of the fun is in balancing your story duties with character building and managing your social life. No other franchise that I’m aware of does it this way.
Like I said before, these games do not hold your hand. They tell you what needs to be done and even offer some reminders, but if you should fail, it’s game over, man. Literally. The enemies are equipped to take you down before you even know what happened, there are few to no save points in the dungeons, and if you die, it’s back to the title screen. This will happen because the enemies don’t always fight fair and you’re often one random slip-up away from wiping. All they need to do is take out your main character, and this is pretty easily done. Sorry about you losing your last couple hours of progress, experience, and random loot drops. See you soon. Buh-bye.
A lot of modern RPG’s heal your party automaticallly after each battle. But this series embraces the grueling attrition of dungeon crawling like no other. Each dive becomes a gamble where you have to gauge how far in you want to go and when you want to go back. Your Spirit Points are your lifeline to keep you healed, so when you begin running out of them, it’s time to look for a way out. Persona 3‘s procedurally-generated grind tower, Tartarus, had exits that would appear randomly. If you passed one by you never knew when you’d get another and you couldn’t go back down once you ascended a floor, leading to some serious tension between maximizing your dungeon dive to get the most out of your night and risking dying and losing progress. Persona 4 relented on this point a bit by allowing you to buy items to teleport you out or backtrack like a wuss in lieu of randomized exits, but the tension is still there as some enemies are quite powerful and capable of sending you back to the main menu at any time.
Storywise, you have a window to get to where you need to be to beat the boss at the end of each chapter. If you’d rather procrastinate and chase girls or focus on schoolwork and try to make up for lost time at the end rather than grind in the dungeon, it’s on you. But if you find yourself unable to get it done when the clock runs out and the big day comes, you’d better hope you’ve got some saves far enough back to load and make better choices next time because the game won’t take it easy on you. This challenge ties into the freedom.
Persona‘s current combat system also has a very different feel from its traditional JRPG brethren. Even the layout is different. Rather than lining up you characters on one side and the baddies on the other, your team surrounds the enemy, making it look more natural as a combat situation. In addition to traditional weapons, your characters fight using incarnated aspects of their personalities (the titular Personas). Your main character can obtain, use, and create a variety of them but the rest of the cast has one apiece. Each Persona has a set of skills and attributes as well as abilities that either drain your SP or HP, so they need to be used judiciously.
In order to survive, you need to find each enemy’s weakness. Failing to do this, you’re going to have a bad time. If you hit an enemy with the right attack or manage a critical hit, it knocks them on their ass and you get another turn. If you can get them all down at once, your entire party can jump in for a devastating melee and likely end the fight. This should always be your goal because anything else is going to eat up more precious resources. Also, if you don’t find their weakness and end them, they won’t hesitate to find yours and end you. Sometimes, it’s like walking a tightrope and one missed spell could mean the difference between victory and the dreaded game over poem.
One of the things I really enjoyed about Persona 3 was that your allies acted of their own accord. Normally in JRPGs you have to micromanage every action in battle, but this way you really felt like part of a team. And the AI would make the right call more often than not since they take note of enemy vulnerabilities and heal whenever necessary, which was pretty impressive. But not everyone was a fan so Persona 4 mainstreamed a bit and gave players the option for direct control over teammates. I’ll admit in some tough boss fights I’ll get all control freaky, but overall I really like the AI approach. It makes your characters seem more independent, which brings us to my final point:
Any good story-based game lives and dies on the strength of its cast. This is naturally one more area where Persona shines. The mythologies and themes of each game in the Megami Tensei series are a wonder in and of themselves, filled with inscrutable weirdness, classic anime stylishness, dense metaphorical allegory, and provocative symbolic imagery (teenagers shooting themselves in the head to unleash their Personas in Persona 3, for instance). But what good is any of that if you don’t care about the cast?
Your lead is traditionally a silent blank slate with different dialogue choices for the player, but the rest of the cast is expansive, diverse, and extremely well-developed. Not only that, but the development of their backstories is often intrinsic to your own character’s progression, as getting to know each character allows you to create more powerful Personas associated with their affinity. There’s brotherhood and romance and comradery as well as tragedy and strife to be found depending on any given character’s arc. If you choose the wrong reaction to a given situation, you could face losing a friendship.
While BioWare games obviously do a pretty great job of fleshing out their cast, Persona avoids some of the pitfalls that make the interactions feel unnatural like checking on characters all the time to see if they have new dialogue and having the same conversation over and over again as a result. When a character is ready to talk to you, they let you know, and you can pretty much choose the pace your relationship grows at without much waiting. In fact, the game keeps you so busy it can be hard to find the time at all.
The strength of the characters is largely what’s led the last two Persona games to branch out into other genres and media. Persona 4 has been made into an anime series while the story of Persona 3 is being recounted as a series of films and the casts intermingle in the fighting game Persona 4 Arena, a dream collaberation with Blazblue creators Arc System Works.
Final Fantasy has lost its touch with creating fresh memorable casts in recent years with a lot of one-note characters straight out of bland shonen anime, so it’s really nice to have another go-to series that combines the best aspects of classic turn-based role-playing with a fresh modern approach that embraces both the fantastic and mundane joys of gaming and life. That is to say that Persona 5‘s delay may be a blessing in disguise that will give some Western gamers who haven’t yet experienced this series a chance to go drop a few bucks on PSN and see what all the fuss and anticipation is about. If you’ve ever loved a classic JRPG, it’ll possibly be the best money you’ve ever spent.