Persona: The Unlikely Critical Darling of Japanese RPGs

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What if the manifestation of your psyche, your inner thoughts, your fears, your desires, your most well-guarded secrets, was a monster?

Atlus’s Persona series tends to defy detailed descriptions, partially because the series itself has always had a hard time nailing down what it is. It tends to reinvent itself in sometimes dramatic and sometimes subtle ways, changing location, casts of characters, tone, thematic colors, and gameplay systems with each new mainline game. The one constant, a long-nosed phantom named Igor that offers you power in exchange for a front-row seat to your destiny, is only off-putting until you grow uncomfortably used to his presence.

Despite the difficulty in defining the games, or perhaps because of it, Persona has become a cult favorite among critics and gamers in the west over the last decade. The first game in the series saw release on the Playstation and was accompanied by the baggage of a somewhat infamous localization rife with changed names and, in one character’s case, a completely changed race. It was not until the 2007 western release of Persona 3, the game that transformed the formula of the series dramatically, that English-speaking gamers really began to stand up and take notice of the secret conflict of high school students versus unfathomable demons. The 2008 release of Persona 4 showed that its predecessor was not merely a fluke and the series has commanded veneration from faithful fans in the west ever since.

A simple description of Persona 3 and Persona 4 may fail to do either game justice, but confusion of why they triumph is not uncommon to those on the outside looking in. Generally, the cast of high school-age characters finds themselves in extraordinary circumstances with similarly extraordinary powers, evoked by mimicking the act of shooting themselves in the head or by staring down and defeating their own inner demons in very literal terms. They are then given a scheduled task—rescue this person, reach this floor of a tower, do something that allows the plot to move forward. In the midst of this endeavor, the characters live their lives, engage in hobbies, interact socially (with an end goal of improving your abilities in battle), flourish or fail in academia, manage their own sleep schedules, and run the gamut of daily obligation for most people, even for those that do not enter televisions to fight monsters.

If defining Persona is a gargantuan task, ascertaining what about the series resonates so well outside of Japan may in fact be impossible. Asking a dozen people yields several dozen answers, everything from the exotic Japanese locales to the grounded and sensible settings, providing very little consensus among fans. As a bullet point list, it does not seem like Persona games should be the kind that garner such wide acclaim; the western gaming media generally has little time or patience for Japanese RPGs, much less ones with significant dating sim elements or randomly-generated dungeons. It follows, then, that the best people to ask are the western gaming media that champion the series.

“They’re well-designed games, obviously,” answers Kotaku’s Jason Schreier. “The combat system is brilliant and strategy-heavy; the social links are satisfying and well-written; Persona collecting is addictive as hell, etc. And the tone is just so rad, simultaneously melancholy yet jazzy, gloomy yet peppy.”

Persona’s tone lends it an important distinction among most other RPGs, rather, even among most other videogames. The drama of defeating a world-ending horror or investigating a serial killer is given equal weight to your friend in drama club not getting along with her dying mother or your uncle’s struggles trying to raise his daughter alone. It grounds the series, but also provides it a contrast that is unmatched by RPG contemporaries like Dragon Age or Final Fantasy. It wraps up all these things, strife both apocalyptic and personal, and places them against bright colors and the mundaneness of everyday life.

“I believe that one of the reasons these games have resonated so well with people is because of the real life settings,” suggests Francesa Bologna, co-host of the Persona-centric S. Link FM podcast. “Sure, there are demons and magic, and people that walk into TV worlds, but all these things take place in a real world, one in which many people can envision themselves living in.” Francesca goes on to point that, at the time of writing this, the trailer for Persona 5 is nearing two million views on Youtube, a number no one would have expected for such an esoteric series years ago.

Similarly, Adam Vitale of RPGSite agrees that the series’ strength lies in the more relatable, human aspects. “The Persona series centers its themes in a manner that makes it easy to relate to—growing up, forming friendships, balancing obligations and leisure, these are all things that we experience in our adolescence.”

With Persona 5 on the horizon and already causing a quiet roar among a dedicated fanbase, there is a hope from many that the series will garner more acclaim and may finally achieve success commensurate with its quality. The story of a teenage boy confused about his sexuality and unable to admit it would never be told in less courageous games, but is just one part of Persona’s diverse and well-written world. Very few games are as committed to themselves and to their ideas as Persona can be, which is frustratingly rare in an industry where every game feels more and more like a carefully tested, committee-designed product.

And, as Jason Schreier was all too happy to point out to me, “Most importantly, we get to date [Persona 4 pop idol] Rise.”

I tend not to go for the obvious pairings, myself.

Imran Khan is a freelance games writer living in Atlanta, GA. You can find him on Twitter at @imranzomg.

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