Franchise Festival #2: Persona

Welcome to the second installment of our series documenting and discussing beloved franchises in video games! In a structural change from the last Franchise Festival entry, I’ll be going into a bit of depth here with regard to the history of the Persona series.

A quick note: where date ranges exist, these represent the games’ release dates across multiple markets; the earliest is always Japan, while the second year represents North America. Where only one year is indicated, it refers to a Japan-exclusive release unless otherwise noted.

Sources include a retrospective on Mashable, a series of videos by The Gaming Pilgrimage, and an extensive article on Polygon. Cover images are from MobyGames unless otherwise noted; please consider financially supporting that website’s tireless work to catalog and preserve information about video games.

Background

Persona was born as a spinoff to the popular Megami Tensei series of Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs). This Atlus series, based on a science fiction novel titled Digital Devil Story, began on Nintendo’s Famicom console in 1987 with Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei. A second Famicom game followed, then two more games in the series were published on the Super Famicom; these took up the name Shin Megami Tensei and were the final games published in the Megami Tensei franchise prior to the publication of the first Persona game.

Doing battle with some goofy demon thing in the original Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei (1987). Source: TAS_and_SUPERPLAY

All titles in the franchise were turn-based role-playing games that were set in modern or post-apocalyptic Japan and featured a party of humans battling supernatural, often demonic forces. Gameplay elements remained fairly unaltered throughout the first four entries, as talking with demons and convincing them to join your party of humans remained a major feature, though Megami Tensei‘s first-person perspective would eventually give way to a third-person perspective as the series went on.  The games are characterized by a postmodern approach to spirituality, as numerous deities and supernatural figures from Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other world faiths appeared as antagonists; at the same time, aspects of early 20th Century psychology – especially the work of Carl Jung – underpin the games’ narratives.

Note the slick parallax backgrounds showing lower areas as Jack Frost descends a 60-floor gauntlet in twin-stick dungeon-crawler Jack Bros. (1987). Source: Jeremy Parish

These early Megami Tensei games were not localized in the West, largely due to the presence of religious imagery conflicting heavily with Nintendo of America’s publication policies. Translation would also have represented a gamble, since JRPGs were text-heavy and the genre would not fully catch on among North American and European audiences until Square’s Final Fantasy VII (1997). The first game of the Megami Tensei series to receive an American release, consequently, was a Virtual Boy action spin-off titled Jack Bros (1995).

Shin Megami Tensei If… features more dialogue than its more combat-heavy predecessors, though it is still primarily focused on first-person dungeon exploration and battle with demons. Source: MobyGames

Spin-offs had become increasingly common for the Shin Megami Tensei series during the 1990s as its popularity grew in Japan. One of these spin-offs, a 1994 Super Famicom game called Shin Megami Tensei If…, shifted focus from adults attempting to survive an apocalyptic event to a group of teenagers averting a comparatively small-scale demon attack at their high school. The critical and commercial success of this concept led directly to Persona.

Revelations: Persona (1996)

Persona spun off of its parent series on the Sony PlayStation in 1996; as it was no longer being published on a Nintendo platform, it was localized in the West. Persona took much of Shin Megami Tensei‘s aesthetic identity and adapted it to a narrative-driven experience centered on a group of high school students in a similar way to Shin Megami Tensei If…. An emphasis on young protagonists at high school would become one of the core elements of the franchise.

 

Players take on the role of a silent protagonist who attends St. Hermelin High School in the fictional town of Mikage-cho. Along with his three friends Hidehiko, Yuka and Masao, the main character takes part in a game called Persona. To the characters’ surprise, the game connects them to the supernatural world surrounding them; the main character is introduced to Philemon, a mysterious figure who awakens him to his ability to summon a Persona. The Persona, which all characters in the party can eventually access, are physical manifestations of their own hidden personalities. In practice, the Persona take on the forms of dieties, demons, and other creatures drawn from world mythology and religion.

 

Though Revelations: Persona is focused on its narrative, much of the player’s time is spent traveling Mikage-cho and its buildings. The town is navigated from a distant birds-eye view, with the party represented by icons traveling along its streets. Interior settings in story sequences are depicted from an isometric third person perspective. In dungeon sequences, building interiors are navigated from a first-person point of view.

 

Dungeon exploration is visually and mechanically inspired by the traditional turn-based dungeon crawling of franchises like Wizardry, Phantasy Star, and indeed Shin Megami Tensei. Its chief distinction is the use of contemporary office buildings and school corridors rather than a setting drawn from fantasy or science fiction milieus. Each step that the party takes during these sequences has the potential to randomly plunge them into combat with a group of enemies.

 

Enemies in Revelations: Persona consist largely of mythological figures, though some creatures are unique to Atlus’ work. The player can opt to talk with the foes or simply engage them in turn-based battles reminiscent of other 1990s JRPGs. The enemy dialogue system is the most unique aspect of Revelations: Persona‘s battles, as the player character can convince antagonists to give him items, depart the battlefield, or even provide a tarot card used to create new Persona. The results of dialogue depend on a complex set of factors, including an individual enemy’s personality and the lunar phase at the time of the encounter. Lunar cycles, which also impact enemy strength, serve as the origin for the Persona franchise’s ongoing emphasis on time’s constant progression.

 

Aside from a main cast comprised of teenage characters, a supernatural world underlying modern life, and a temporal gameplay mechanic, Revelations: Persona is connected to its successors through the introduction of the Velvet Room. This mysterious space, linked to the real world but not subject to the rules of space or time, is inhabited by an unnerving character named Igor. Igor assists the player character in developing new Persona for use in battle and comments on narrative events. He would go on to become one of the only characters to appear in all five Persona titles.

 

Though a comparatively unrestricted approach to thematic content by Sony would see Revelation: Persona published in North America, it would receive a highly unsympathetic localization effort. Christian imagery was edited or cut entirely, while characters underwent visual and personality alterations; the game’s setting was even renamed Lunarvale and referred to in-game as a small American town.  Perhaps most unfortunate is the omission of a lengthy late-game sub-plot concerning a play called “The Snow Queen.”

 

Revelations: Persona would be ported to Japanese PCs by ASCII in 1998 and would be re-made for the Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) in 2009. This remake was re-localized for worldwide audiences and is a significantly more faithful interpretation of the source material. The first entry in the series is one of its least popular, due to the absence of later titles’ core social features, but remains important for its role as a highly experimental dungeon crawler that introduced the West to the world of Persona and Shin Megami Tensei.

Persona 2 (1999 / 2000)

The second Persona title followed in its predecessor’s footsteps, changing very little. Released in Japan in 1999, Persona 2: Innocent Sin centers on a group of students attending Seven Sisters High School in the fictional Japanese city of Sumaru. Like the first game, the inciting incident sees the player-named silent protagonist introduced to the world of Persona through the intervention of Philemon. Much of the underlying gameplay structure and philosophic themes are the same as those found in Revelations: Persona. It’s more or less a dungeon-crawler in which players participate in turn-based battles against demons with the long-term goal of defeating an overarching enemy, the Joker. Exploiting the elemental strengths and weaknesses of party members and foes, respectively, is the key to victory.

 

A Rumor system represents Persona 2: Innocent Sin‘s most significant contribution to the series’ mechanics. This is tied to the narrative, as the Joker is undermining social stability by spreading rumors around the game’s city setting; these rumors have the disturbing effect of warping reality in dangerous ways. The protagonists also have the ability to spread rumors outside of battle, counteracting the Joker and improving the likelihood of victory in combat. It’s easy to see the greater emphasis on non-battle mechanics beginning to shape the direction in which the series would move from Persona 3 to present. In addition to expanding the game’s mechanics, Persona 2 also expands the game’s scope of characters, drawing from world history and H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.

 

Structurally, Persona 2 was bifurcated into two games: Innocent Sin (1999) and Eternal Punishment (2000). While the story of Persona 2: Innocent Sin, aside from certain characters like Philemon and elements like the Velvet Room, was entirely unrelated to the the series’ first game, Eternal Punishment is a direct sequel to Innocent Sin. The second installment in the Persona 2 duology picks up several months after Innocent Sin ends and features an ally from the first installment, journalist Maya Amano, as its main character. Though she had a speaking role in Innocent Sin, Amano is presented as a silent protagonist in Eternal Punishment.

 

Persona 2: Eternal Punishment was developed as a response to series writer Tadashi Satomi’s sense that an alternative perspective was needed on the events of Innocent Sin. Unfortunately, only Eternal Punishment was localized outside of Japan at the time of its original release; Innocent Sin suffered from a lack of resources for localization efforts and contained a number of elements believed to be too controversial for Western audiences, including the presence of Nazi imagery (even Adolf Hitler appears in the game!). Happily, a Western localization of the game’s PSP remake was finally published in 2011.

Persona 3 (2006 / 2007)

Persona 3 was published on the PlayStation 2 (PS2) in Japan in 2006. This entry represents a significant break with what had come before, as the developers leveraged the PS2’s hardware to expand the series’ scope. No longer was the game primarily a dungeon-crawler; while large portions of the player’s time would be spent guiding their party through the procedurally generated dungeon floors of a spooky alternate world called Tartarus, the balance of the game is spent bonding with the protagonist’s classmates and improving his skills by participating in various activities. These activities are typically optional, but serve to deepen the narrative and expand the universe.

 

While the previous games had emphasized the party’s role in halting some world-ending catastrophe, Persona 3 instead foregrounds the protagonist’s role in his various relationships via the Social Links system. Much of the game’s strongest narrative moments come not through its overarching plot, but rather through the day-to-day events in which the main characters interact outside of battle. Each character is tied to a particular tarot arcana and developing relationships with them improves the player character’s battle proficiency. Additionally, some elements that had been a part of the series before – like the Velvet Room – are made more visually engaging and more organically connected to the rest of the game’s setting.

 

The opening hours of Persona 3 center on the arrival of the player-named protagonist to a fictional Japanese city called Iwatodai and his introduction to a secretive group of Gekkoukan High School students. The members of this group, the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES), summon Persona and fight the spread of a deadly supernatural illness called Apathy Syndrome. At night, the world freezes for every human except for this team of high schoolers, who spend this so-called Dark Hour exploring the aforementioned Tartarus dungeon. In addition to its crew of Gekkoukan students, SEES is eventually joined by an android and a Persona-wielding dog.

 

Thematically, the game explores issues of isolation, the burden of growing up in a high-pressure society, and developing relationships with one’s peers. After school activities and a host of non-playable characters (NPCs) allow the player to connect with the residents of Iwatodai and grow connected to its culture over the course of one in-game year represented by individual days. Most days afford the player the opportunity to choose what his or her character does in the afternoon and evening following class. The player constantly confronted by the question of how he or she should spend these limited time periods: growing relationships, taking part in school or leisure activities that govern access to future events, or exploring Tartarus.

 

The cities of earlier Persona releases had lacked much distinctive flavor, opting instead to present themselves as generic urban centers populated largely by stock character archetypes. By shifting its focus towards dialogue and relationships, Persona 3 represents a turning point for the franchise. From this point on, Persona would turn increasingly towards the high school simulation and social elements while reducing (though never abandoning) the prominence of dungeon crawling and combat.

 

In 2007/2008, an expanded edition of the title called Persona 3: FES was released on the PS2. This was treated as something of a ‘director’s cut,’ offering new storytelling as well as mechanical improvements. A PSP version, featuring a radically redesigned interface in which the events are viewed from an overhead perspective and the player controls a cursor rather than directly moving the game’s player character outside of Tartarus, was published in 2009. This version lacks the extensive epilogue of Persona 3: FES but adds the ability to directly control all party members in battle, rather than controlling only the protagonist, and the opportunity to choose a female avatar at the game’s start. Since each version of the game includes unique enhancements, no definitive version of Persona 3 exists at the time of writing.

Persona 4 (2008 / 2009)

Released in Japan in 2008 and North America in 2009, the fourth game in the Persona series carries on many elements introduced in the third game. It again begins with the arrival of the main character in an unfamiliar location, though this time the setting is a rural town called Inaba rather than an urban environment. The plot concerns the protagonist’s attempt to solve a series of murders that are tearing the town apart. The lunar system of previous games is replaced by a weather system that impacts daily events.

 

Like preceding iterations of the increasingly popular series, Persona 4 features turn-based combat with supernatural opponents who are fought through the use of Persona. Dungeon-crawling occurs, this time, in a bizarre world within the television instead of a dark, twisted version of the local school. Social links return and are the primary focus of the narrative; rather than being an important side activity, they are emphasized to a greater degree by the main story as the player seeks to confirm which of the town’s residents is responsible for a series of mysterious slayings.

 

With regard to the game’s sense of place, Persona 4 constitutes a major improvement on its predecessors. The small town of Inaba is ironically more full of life and diverse activities than Persona 3‘s Iwatodai. Though the player character joins a group of his peers for dungeon-crawling and events, his home life is characterized by a warm relationship with a household composed of his detective uncle, Ryotaro Dojima, and Dojima’s daughter Nanako. Conversations with these characters end many in-game days. In keeping with the series’ ongoing emphasis on contemporary real-world cultural issues, another major subplot concerns the community’s ambivalence towards corporate superstore Junes’ slow erosion of Inaba’s downtown shopping district.

 

Persona 4‘s visual design, in contrast to its relaxed rural tone and sometimes grim outlook on modern life, is thrilling. Colors pop and the game’s nine distinct dungeons are designed with more visual flair than the largely uniform floors of Tartarus. Most of the dungeons are associated with characters who join the party, and each dungeon’s boss represents a garish physical manifestation of the associated character’s internal struggle. As seasons pass – the player character lives in Inaba for a full year – new environmental details are revealed in town.

 

Even battles are overhauled from their comparatively functional appearance and mechanics in Persona 3. Menus are stylish, while enemies are depicted as creeping shadow creatures while exploring each procedurally generated dungeon floor. The most important quality of life improvement, given the length of the game and high level of challenge, is the ability to independently control each party member. Fans had been so vocal in their appreciation for this mechanic in Persona 3: FES that it was retained for the sequel; the series would, as of writing, never return to the stripped-down AI-driven combat of Persona 3.

 

An expanded edition called Persona 4: Golden (Persona 4: The Golden in Japan) was published on the PlayStation Vita in 2012/2013. This is widely considered the definitive edition of the game, as it offers a dramatically expanded narrative and more social links. The player character can now befriend Marie, a denizen of the Velvet Room, and explore a new optional dungeon called the Hollow Forest. In spite of the Vita’s unpopularity, Persona 4: Golden would actually outpace the original Persona 4‘s sales during its first week on the market in Japan.

Persona 5 (2016 / 2017)

Persona 5, published simultaneously on the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 in 2016/2017, had faced a lengthy development cycle. Compared to the intervals between earlier games, fans had to wait almost a decade between Persona 4 and the series’ HD debut. Much of this is down to the expanded resources associated with high-resolution textures – the team ballooned from 40 people at the start of full-time production in 2011 to 70 at its peak – as well as concerns over whether turn-based battle mechanics could still attract an audience in the 2010s; an early prototype of the game featured real-time action sequences, though these were scrapped long before the final version was developed.

 

All of the hard work by director Katsura Hashino and his staff paid off: Persona 5 is one of the most visually and musically arresting games of its generation. From the opening train whistle and jazzy theme song to the highly stylized battle sequences and cutscenes, Persona 5 is a feast for the player’s ears and eyes. Though character designs were still handled by Soejima Shigenori, the main character artist for the two preceding series entries, they are much flashier than those of earlier games.

 

The game’s plot is similarly larger in scale than its predecessors. Opening with the player – named by the player but eventually nicknamed Joker in-game – character being put on probation and shipped off to a school in Tokyo after defending a woman from sexual assault by a politician, the narrative scope slowly expands to address corruption at all levels of civil society. Given its setting of real-world 2010s Tokyo, it’s not surprising that the density of characters and dialogue is much greater than in earlier Persona games. These characters and their assorted subplots are all put to use in Persona 5‘s preoccupation with themes of crime, conformity, alienation, and the country’s highly stratified hierarchical culture.

 

The main character befriends students at his new school as each finds themselves confronted by some serious social ill. The first two human characters to join him, Ryuji and Ann, are both caught up in a track coach’s sinister subjugation of young runners to his sadistic desires. These three characters are joinied by Morgana, an anthropomorphic cat creature who believes himself to be human. Together, the four found a vigilante crime-fighting outfit called the Phantom Thieves and endeavor to fight injustice throughout Japanese society.

 

This is articulated through the identification of unjust individuals and the exploration of dungeons associated with them. These places are called palaces, and constitute a major improvement to the dungeons of earlier Persona titles; every one is handcrafted rather than being procedurally generated. Each palace is associated with an unjust real-world owner’s distorted desires, though the real-world owner is unaware that such a place exists. Palaces only manifest in an alternate reality called the Metaverse, accessible to the Phantom Thieves through a smartphone app mysteriously installed on their mobile devices. It is only through navigating these sprawling palaces and securing a treasure hidden in their depths that the Phantom Thieves are able to positively influence the real-world behavior of unjust palace owners.

 

This basic outline naturally grows more complex as the game goes on and the surrounding society grows to appreciate and resent the Phantom Thieves in equal measure. A in-game website run by an ally of the Phantom Thieves offers an outlet for public criticism and praise, connecting the player directly with the reception to his or her characters’ efforts at social reform. Small-scale requests for intervention in negative behavior are also conveyed to the player character through this website; these requests lead the party to Mementos, a lengthy puzzle-free dungeon more in the vein of Tartarus than Persona 5‘s highly personalized palaces. Mementos is randomly generated rather than being handcrafted, in the style of Persona 3 and Persona 4 dungeons, and serves as a means for the player to level up his or her characters and complete sidequests rather than being engaging in its own right.

 

The Social Link system and turn-based battles return, along with a focus on developing multiple Persona for the purpose of exploiting enemy elemental weaknesses. Acquisition of new Persona reintroduces the negotiation feature of Revelations: Persona and Persona 2. This had been omitted in Persona 3 and Persona 4 – which each offered alternate methods of summoning new Persona – and its implementation in Persona 5 is more streamlined than the complex, clumsy approach from the series’ earliest days. In Persona 5, the player must knock down all foes by exploiting their elemental weaknesses and then enter into dialogue with them; their personalities determine how they react to the player’s responses to their questions. If the player has already acquired a Persona encountered in battle, or is not interested in acquiring them, Joker can instead demand items or money.

 

The game was widely praised upon its release in spite of an at-times lackluster localization. Continuing an ongoing series tradition, an expanded edition Persona 5 is currently being produced. As downloadable content has become commonplace in the decade since the release of Persona 4, however, Atlus has already taken advantage of this route for distributing more Persona 5 material. Paid downloadable costumes and Persona were released via Sony’s PlayStation Store and can be purchased either individually or in a bundle by new players.

Spin-Offs

Though Persona is a spin-off of Shin Megami Tensei If…, which is itself a spinoff of Shin Megami Tensei, it has gained enough popularity to inspire its own spin-offs. These include fighting games featuring the characters of Persona 3 and 4Persona Arena (2012) and Persona Arena Ultimax (2013/2014) – as well as a rhythm games focused on the casts and music of Persona 3, Persona 4, and Persona 5. These include Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight (2018), Persona 4: Dancing All Night (2015), and Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight (2018). Persona 5‘s Joker has proven so popular that he was even added to Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. Ultimate in 2019!

A party comprised of Persona 3 characters takes on the Gorgeous King in Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth. Source: Johneawesome

Surprisingly, a crossover game was produced in which the characters of Persona 3 and Persona 4 explore a tile-based dungeon in the style of the Etrian Odyssey series. This game, Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, is already scheduled to receive its own 2019 sequel integrating characters from Persona 5. Rather than being shameless cash-ins, these spin-offs are generally considered to be excellent games in their respective genres.

A still from Persona 4: The Animation (2011). Source: Infonochikara [inactive]
The stories and characters of Persona have also managed to find success outside of their original medium. The franchise’s first leap to anime was Persona 3: Trinity Soul (2008), a 26-episode side story set a decade after the events of Persona 3. This was followed by more anime series, including Persona 4: The Animation (2011), which retells the events of Persona 4Persona 4 The Golden Animation (2014), which features the same cast as the Persona 4‘s 2011 adaptation but emphasizes the new story content of Persona 4 Golden; four feature-length films released between 2013 and 2016 that tell the story of Persona 3The Day Breakers (2016), a single-episode television special that serves as a prequel to Persona 5; and Persona 5: The Animation (2018), an anime retelling of Persona 5‘s narrative. Stageplays, manga, concerts, and even a web-based talk show have also been produced from the late 1990s to present, though – unlike the internationally released anime adaptations – virtually all have remained exclusive to Japanese audiences.


I’d love to hear your thoughts on the series in the comments below. What are your favorite and least favorite entries? What fun trivia have I skipped carelessly over? Where would you like to see the series go in the future?

For past entries in the Franchise Festival series, please visit this link: https://the-avocado.org/tag/franchise-festival/