Let's start by talking about our past experiences with the Persona series, as this will doubtless inform our own personal hopes for where the new game is going.
I came to the Persona series largely as a result of peer pressure. In my spare time, I'm a member of a gaming enthusiast "book club" of sorts called The Squadron of Shame, and we've always sought out the more underappreciated, lesser-known games out there. Although Persona is much more well-known these days, Persona 3 on PS2 fell somewhat into that category when it first came out -- and from my friends' descriptions of it, I knew it was something I absolutely had to play.
Unfortunately, being European, it was a long time before I got to play it, since Atlus doesn't have a European presence. It was agony hearing my friends talking about what sounded like my dream game -- dating sim elements combined with dungeon crawling JRPG good times? Sign me up right now! -- but I was very thankful to discover it lived up to all my expectations when it finally released. Consequently, despite being well into the "next-gen" by the time Persona 4 came out in the twilight of the PS2's lifespan, it was a day-one purchase for me -- and Persona 5 will be likewise for me.
How about you?
Sadly, the memories surrounding the circumstances that led to my first Persona game are a little vague. I think it was serendipity, a chance encounter while I was rummaging through some bargain-bin pile somewhere. But that isn't important. What I do remember very vividly, however, is how much the game -- it was Persona 2: Eternal Punishment -- surprised me with its bleakness.
For the first time, a video game felt uncomfortably human to me. Before, it was mostly just a parade of weird, whacky personalities. Old-school point & click adventure games never had the most realistic casts. Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, though, did. Ulala Serizawa, the best friend of the main protagonist, was terrible with men, fought with her fists, believed in fortune telling and was constantly blurred out by the presence of the leading lady. She wasn't immediately likeable or traditionally pretty. Ulala was weird. Even her name was weird. And surprise surprise, I found that relatable. (I was a weird kid growing up.)
Anyway, I won't spoil it for you since I don't know if you've played it. But, that's how my obsession with Persona started. Hints of H.P Lovecraft? Jungian teachings? Reasonably accurate understanding of mythology? Fan for life. The subsequent installments only furthered my obsession. Persona 3 scarred me in the best possible way and one of Persona 4's Social Links (Remember the detective and his daughter? Yeah, that one.) broke my heart.
Weirdly, I'm looking forward to that the most. Forget great characters. Forget awesome primary narratives. I'm desperately hoping to see Persona 5 address difficult topics through its bit players. Why the supporting cast as opposed to the main roster? Because everyone knows the latter is supposed to experience personal growth. Everyone else? Window dressing. Flavor. Gravy on the turkey. Which is why I'm fascinated with the idea of seeing what Persona 5 might do with the people around the main characters.
Et tu, Pete-us?
Pete: Yep, you've nailed one of the reasons I love the Persona series so much -- well, from 3 onwards, anyway. I must confess to owning the PSP versions of both the original Persona and Persona 2, but haven't beaten either of them. I have put around 20 hours or so into the first Persona, but it fell by the wayside for some reason.
To back up for a moment, though, I actually first became interested in the Persona series well before I'd have the opportunity to play one. I'd not long discovered a love for role-playing games thanks to Final Fantasy VII, and I was hungrily devouring any PS1-era RPGs I could get my hands on. I was also big into Buffy the Vampire Slayer at the time, too, and the original Persona sounded like it included elements from both of these things that I enjoyed. In other words, it was a game that combined elements of the real world with elements of the fantastic, and that was -- hell, still is -- something that's very much appealing to me.
But, as you say, more than the combination of real world and fantasy, I love Persona's willingness to tackle difficult issues and explore them in a realistic, sensitive manner. The things the characters go through in Persona 3 and 4 in particular -- I can't really speak for 2, but 1 seemed fairly light on plot and characterization, all told -- are issues that teens have to deal with, and they deal with them in appropriate teen-like manners. Sometimes they're indifferent, sometimes they're irrational, sometimes they're confused. It's always compelling entertainment, and I've consistently found in both Persona 3 and 4 that it's almost more satisfying to see the Social Link stories through to their conclusion than it is to, say, fuse an amazing Persona or topple a particularly fearsome boss. It's also why I was immensely disappointed with Persona 3 FES' "The Answer" epilogue, which included none of the things that had made Persona 3 great and simply boiled down to a monstrously difficult dungeon crawl.
So yes. The thing I'm looking forward to most about Persona 5 is the exploration of that supporting cast who embody the different arcana. If previous games set the pattern, some of those "supporting" cast members will also be in the main party, but others will be in the game for no other reason than for the protagonist to see them through a defining moment in their lives. I have a lot of faith in the Persona team to tell some gripping, emotional stories that are all but separate from the game's overarching narrative, and I fully intend to explore each and every one as much as I possibly can.
So let's talk a bit about how it might play, then. Would you like to see it shake up the current formula at all, or are you happy with the "dating sim in the daytime, dungeon crawling at night" structure P3 and 4 adopted and cemented respectively?
Cass: The tedium? The slow, inexorable crawl towards the finish line? The endless grinding? Have I mentioned the tedium? It feels weirdly blasphemous to articulate that as we're both fans of JRPGs but the second Persona to me, at least, was long, conflict-riddled intervals punctuated by bursts of good storytelling. (There's a spot of Lovecraftian mythos in the second one. Just, you know, throwing it out there.)
As for your question? Well. Maybe. I'm eager to see what else Atlus might do with the Persona series. Remember those recent announcements? Some of them were outright bizarre, in my opinion. If I had a say in the matter, I'd want Persona 5 to quite possibly be an attempt at a tactical role-playing game. Look at Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor. It was awesome. Who doesn't want to skulk through the near-apocalypse with your friends in tow and a demon in every pocket? Plus, dungeon crawlers make me nervous. Like so many other people, I'm a little claustrophobic and the idea that something dark and foreboding is constantly on the brink of leaping out at me makes my skin crawl.
Still, that's probably not realistic. Franchises stick to familiar ideas for a reason, I suppose. If there's one thing I really want, it'd be for the dating aspects and the dungeon crawling to be less, you know, separate from one another. Let me be worried about more than just the risk of being caught by my girlfriend. Let me be concerned that a date will end in hell. Let school be intimidating because it might be assaulted randomly. Something.
Actually, scratch that. The truth is that I'd be happy if Persona 5 was exactly the same as Persona 4 -- except with a new story and new friends. The only thing I desperately want changed is the staticity of the protagonist's gender. I don't want the option to play as a female to be something worked into a re-release. Let me romance bishounen now!
What 'bout you? It's a weird question, but would you want the chance to play as a girl to be available from the onset?
Pete: I would, actually! Given the choice between playing as a male and female character in an RPG, I will almost always pick the female option. My BioWare game characters have always been female since Baldur's Gate; my Final Fantasy XIV character is female; I had the most fun with Tales of Xillia when I was playing as Milla; and arguably my favorite series of JRPGs -- Hyperdimension Neptunia -- has an all-girl cast of characters who are more than capable of taking care of themselves, and certainly don't need no man looking after them.
Why? Well, this is a gross generalization -- the specific reasons are probably beyond the scope of this article! -- but I simply find it enjoyable to play as a female character, because it allows me to enjoy the escapist feeling of playing the part of someone who is completely different to me in pretty much every way. It's an interesting experience to walk in someone else's shoes.
Persona would seem to be an ideal fit for a female protagonist. The series, as we've said, has certainly never shied away from intriguing and complex real-world issues -- gender dysphoria, homosexuality and terminal illness, among numerous others -- and thus the option to play as either a male or female character could certainly open up the possibility of exploring matters such as sexism, the differing attitudes society holds towards men and women and even how relationships are approached differently by different people. I'd be interested to have those experiences for sure, and the Persona series feels like it would be a good place to explore those things. I must confess to not having tried Persona 3 Portable's female protagonist path as yet, so I don't know how much of this has already been attempted, however.
To return to the previous point, though, I'd also be quite happy to see Persona 5 continue in the same mold as its predecessors -- tedium, grind and all. I actually felt the fact that Persona 3 and 4 were so long was part of the intended game experience, though. Their respective plots last for a whole year each, and it feels like it. How many other games can you say that about -- where the passage of time feels relevant and meaningful, and where the amount of time you spend with the characters makes you feel like you've been to Hell and back -- possibly literally -- with them by the end? Sure, it's a significant investment of time to ask any player to engage with, but it's also a worthwhile journey.
One thing I absolutely and positively hope does not change is Shoji Meguro's involvement in the music. Persona just wouldn't be Persona without lyrics in broken English and the oddly effective juxtaposition of cheerful J-pop and dark narrative themes.
Cass: Awesome! And, you totally need to play through Persona 3: Portable again as the female protagonist. Putting aside the novelty of being able to woo the male protagonist, I found it fascinating as to how greatly my opinion of the supporting cast changed with but a single chromosome. Let's make an example out of Yukari. In my original playthrough, I found her slightly cloying and too in-your-face, an alleged 'popular' girl who looked as though she had something to prove but couldn't quite deliver. I didn't despise her but I rolled my eyes at our encounters and did my best to stay away.
Then, I returned to Persona 3 as a girl and was instantly won over. Her anxieties felt more understandable, her personality more likeable. Yukari had issues, had insecurities, had things that made her human. Mitsuru? Who I thought accomplished and elegant while playing as a male character? I thought her too distant this time around. While the core narrative had not changed, it felt like I was playing an entirely different game the second time around. Revisit it. You have to.
You mistake me! I found the pacing in Persona 3 and 4 likeable. Persona 2: Eternal Punishment? Not so much. But that's not important since you brought up a keen point. I genuinely liked the way the days progressed in those two games. The moments of levity felt desperately happy; brief interludes snatched from an impending interludes. They were important. I liked watching the clock, the way the game quietly ticked closer towards scheduled conflict. It made me appreciate the school day, the nonsensical interactions.
Let's get to the fun bit, though: what do you think is coming up with Persona 5? What little we know so far tantalizes me to no end. The bit about "slavery" makes the cogs in my head wheel madly. Given that this is a Japanese game, did they mean the way we're yoked to the rat race? Or does it encompass a broader definition of servitude? Where are we going? And what happens when someone breaks free?
Bonus question: Did you enjoy the mythology in 3 and 4? Persona 2 had Lovecraftian influences, something I'd like to see again. What about you?
Pete: I really liked the concept of "shadows," particularly as depicted in Persona 4 -- I've had the conversation a number of times with friends where we'd try to figure out a) what arcana each of us are and b) what our shadow would look like. I'd like to see that explored further, albeit perhaps from a different angle to Persona 4. The "pursuing my true self" thing has sort of been done now.
It could tie in with the "slavery" concept, though, and you're absolutely right that could go in a few different directions, particularly given Japan's general willingness to push the boundaries of subject matter explored in video games. We could see shadows "enslaving" characters by refusing to allow their true selves to shine, for example, or by keeping them trapped in a difficult situation somehow.
We could potentially see exploration of mental health issues, too -- characters "enslaved" by depression, anxiety or self-worth issues, which then opens up the prospect of quite literally helping people overcome their demons. There's even scope for the exploration of masochistic characters who actively enjoy the prospect of being enslaved, whether it's for sexual gratification, a sense of belonging or some other reason. The last time I saw that explored in a console game was Ar Tonelico Qoga's exploration of the character Finnel, where it was extremely thought-provoking and forced me to consider an outlook on life I hadn't really contemplated before; I have no doubt that if Atlus were to turn its attention to similar subject matter, the result would be similarly intriguing. It would certainly be in keeping with the series to unapologetically and non-judgementally explore this sort of thing.
It's difficult to know exactly what sort of direction Persona 5 will end up taking, but I know one thing for sure: I'm very, very excited to find out. With Persona 3 and 4, Atlus earned my trust; I have little doubt that 5 will end up being very special indeed, and with the vastly increased recognition of the brand that's come in recent years thanks to the relentless marketing, rereleases and spinoffs of Persona 4, I'm confident that more people will pay attention to it this time around.
Cass: The possibilities are endless. Which is simultaneously appropriate and ironic thing for me to say, I guess, given that we're discussing the sticky issue of slavery. But now that you've mentioned, I'd actually like to see Atlus attempt to address something like BDSM -- mostly because I want to see a franchise of considerable popularity do right by the scene. I won't lie. This is because of Fifty Shades of Grey, a book I utterly abhored due to its worryingly one-dimensional portrayal of a D/s (dominant/submissive) relationship. Atlus, I suspect, could probably do way better. Pfft. Speculations aside, I just want Persona 5 to happen already. It's one of the few properties I unabashedly fangirl. Whatever Atlus ends up throwing at us, I suspect I'd be pleased and hopelessly riveted for days to come.