You’ve probably heard the word “Persona” floating around in the ether, even if you’re unfamiliar with the franchise. Whether it’s a friend gushing about the pals they made in one of its games or the inventive bosses they overcame, Persona has been bubbling under the surface of video games for well over two decades. But to someone not well versed in the realm of Persona or even Shin Megami Tensei, the word “Persona” might fall upon confused ears. So what is Persona, and what makes a Persona game? Well, dear reader, our resident Persona expert is here to tell you. (That’s my cue.)
Where did Persona get its start?
Persona got its start in 1996, with Revelations: Persona, a spin-off of the 1994 Super Famicom Shin Megami Tensei game, Shin Megami Tensei If..... Revelations borrowed If….’s high school setting. But beyond that, followed the Shin Megami Tensei template of magical teenagers and their silent leader battling demons in an dark, dark world. Revelations ended up being the first Shin Megami Tensei game to be localized and released out West, arriving in North America in November 1996, a few months after its Japanese release.
After Revelations, Persona 2: Innocent Sin and Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, saw a release in 1999 and 2000 respectively. Eternal Punishment is a direct sequel to Innocent Sin, and unlike its direct predecessor, saw localization for the West. (Though later, Revelations and Innocent Sin both had ports onto PSP.) The games also, unlike Persona 3 onward, have direct ties to Revelations with a returning antagonist. And unlike any other game in the series, has a Rumors system where players can spread a rumor they overhear around town, bearing negative and positive effects on its characters. The first three Persona games, in all their brutal, dungeon-traipsing glory, had a glue that bound them together: a deeper pondering of analytical psychology, coupled with teenagers summoning demons via some alternative supernatural world.
But Persona’s early days still felt like typical JRPGs. Or rather, like crushing Shin Megami Tensei JRPGs, first-person dungeon crawling tedium and all. However with Persona 3’s release in 2006, the series was ushered in a new direction, toward the Persona we’re more familiar with today. Every title with new characters to get to know, new locales to survive in. Persona 3 introduced a calendar-bound social simulation, where in between all the dungeon sleuthing, players could build relationships (gamified by Social Links) and partake in mundane activities. Persona 3 put you literally into the shoes of a teenager with supernatural powers, without forgetting the fact that they’re still a teenager, with all of the typical teenage qualms of crushes, friendships, and exams.
Persona 3 singlehandedly flipped players’ expectations of a JRPG by tossing in social simulation efforts, thus making a JRPG’s characters more relatable than ever before (even if they spent their nights moonlighting as a sort of Ghostbusters squad). With Persona 4, the next mainline game in the series, the doom and gloom of a potential apocalypse was backpedaled in favor of a more grounded murder mystery, and frankly, a more lively bunch of characters. The social simulation in the later Persona games is what's made them helm such an rabid following. That they're singular RPGs that make you feel like an actual teenager with actual friends, not just another kid on an impossible adventure.
But what makes Persona, really? A clear reason within the series’ massive shift with Persona 3 came with enlisting Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne director Katsura Hashino, who would later go on to direct Persona 4, Persona 5, and Catherine. Accounting for the three drastically different early games in the series, and the series’ hard redirect with Persona 3, the spirit of Persona has always stayed the same. In the essence of every Persona game, social simulation or not, is the idea of teenagers struggling with a power they did not anticipate, as they fight necessary evils to save others, or even the world.
Yeah, yeah, but what even IS a Persona?
A persona, as described in many ways over the series, is essentially a manifestation of one’s self. Or rather, the mask they wear out in society. In Persona 4, this is taken quite literally, as they confront their shadow selves in the Shadow-saturated TV world, awakening their Personas through coming to terms with themselves. In Persona 3, Personas are summoned by putting an Evoker (a GUN) to your head and firing away. With the game’s heavy themes of death and depression, the Evoker cozys itself as a dark, purposefully uncomfortable way to confronting oneself and summoning your inner power.
In Persona 5, Personas are summoned by a character ripping a masquerade-esque mask off, which rips off their face in the process. Persona 5 feels the most literal of the Persona summoning thus far in the series. Wherein its core idea has its roots embedded in Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s analytical psychology, and its quest to achieve wholeness and do away with masking your true self in society. For Persona 5’s face-ripping-off-mask antics, they sure did get that memo.
In dungeons, Personas are the player’s greatest ally in battle. Personas, which for the most part were once nefarious Shadows, are the primary tool you battle with. As the protagonist, you switch between a number of Personas, sculpting your own ultra-powerful demon team. For your teammates, they’re stuck with the Personas they awakened themselves, though they grow stronger and get new abilities over time.
That sounds cool, but why do people like Persona games so much? Why should I play them?
Well, I’m glad you asked, dear imaginary reader! If you’re a fan of JRPGs, then Persona 3, Persona 4, and Persona 5 are essential playing. Persona 3 adheres to more brutal difficulty and school-life balance, the former like the Shin Megami Tensei games long before it. Persona 4 is a bit less punishing, where its characters are more the focus, rather than the dungeons themselves. Persona 5, however, is likely the most accessible of all. Persona 5, like Persona 4, eases you into its unique blend of balancing a social life and building a deadly arsenal of personas for demon eradicating. (Alternatively, Persona 3 throws you into things a lot less explicitly, which may be a challenge for newcomers.)
In terms of versions, Persona 5's is obvious, because it's brand new and hasn't gotten the chance to be reiterated yet. Persona 4 Golden, its Playstation Vita remaster, is widely regarded as the best way to experience the game (even though the Playstation 2 edition is fine as well). Persona 3 gets a little bit trickier though. There's its (forgettable) original edition on Playstation 2; Persona 3 FES on Playstation 2, which fixes some of its clunkier issues and adds an epilogue; and finally there's Persona 3 Portable for the PSP, which essentially makes a lot of the game into a mere visual novel, but grants you the opportunity to control your teammates in battle, and better yet, be able to play as a girl. Both FES and Portable are fine ways to experience Persona 3, though I personally prefer FES.
The Persona series may seem daunting at a glance with its two decade history and its (arguably too many) spin-offs. But for the newcomer, ignore all that for a moment. Persona 4 and Persona 5 are equally good places to start. While the rest of the series, if you’re so inclined, can be saved for later. In particular, Persona 4’s many spin-offs are the most inessential, because with a game that pushes 100 hours, how much more time do you really need with its characters once their story is through? If there are any games that scream massive universe-building franchise a la Star Wars, it’s not the podunk town heroes of Persona 4. (Though the rhythm game spin-off isn't too bad.)
If you’re interested in reading more about Shin Megami Tensei and the other essential games in the series, you can check out our gateway guide to Shin Megami Tensei, as well as our review of Persona 5, which is out Tuesday, April 4th on Playstation 3 and Playstation 4.