Fighting Evil by Moonlight, Winning Love by Daylight: Persona 20th Anniversary

November marked Persona’s 20th anniversary in the U.S. The legacy of its succession of sequels and origins are as bizarre as the plots in these titles. So sit back for a demonic retrospective on apocalyptic levels.

Let’s begin with Persona’s father figure Shin Megami Tensei. The first game, Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, was released for the Famicom on 11 September 1987 in Japan. The subject matter for it and the rest of these games revolve around the apocalypse in Japan where demons have invaded. They began as first-person dungeon crawler RPGs.

Around the series’ 10-year mark a change to the formula was introduced with a spinoff. Persona: Revelations launched in Japan on 20 September 1996 for the PS1 and two months later for the U.S., making it the first game in the SMT series to be localised. Instead of focusing on the apocalypse, Persona instead shifted to a group of high school students who stumble upon demonic powers in order to fight for their lives and uncover what is going on inside their school and surrounding town. The battle system is similar although tweaked from SMT’s origins.

Persona 2: Innocent Sin debuted in Japan on 24 June 1999 for the PS1. It stars a new cast of high school students and a plot involving a mysterious man named Joker who is causing chaos. Although the focus isn’t on the firsts plot, there are reoccurring themes and characters to tie the two together. The mechanics also stayed relatively the same, but the big switch was the exclusion of the series’ standard first-person perspective. It also received a somewhat direct sequel called Persona 2: Eternal Punishment in 2000. Now here’s where things get tricky for Western fans.

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Europe received the first game in 2010 when it was remade for the PSP. Both the U.S. and Europe got Persona 2: Innocent Sin on the PSP in 2011. Persona 2: Eternal Punishment was also released in the U.S. in the same year, but it has yet to be distributed in Europe. So to put things into perspective, Europe didn’t get any Persona game until 2008, and the U.S. received the original followed by the third game, which in itself was a sequel to the second, so was technically only half of a whole. It’s odd, but censorship was a huge part of localisation fears due to religious themes and sexual content for Persona in particular.

It’s unfortunate, but I would argue that the important era of Persona didn’t start until 2006 when the series seemingly rebirthed itself. Now admittedly I haven’t played a lot of these three games except for giving myself some context when researching for this retrospective. I can definitely see the pieces falling into place for the future, but a lot of things held me back from getting into them. The story pacing, art, battle system, and everything in between feel like relics of a bygone RPG era. I see them as important to the franchise, but for me this long-awaited sequel is where my love began both with Persona and Shin Megami Tensei. Let’s stop beating around the bush and talk about Persona 3.

It first launched for the PS2 in Japan on 13 July 2006, which marked that year as Persona’s 10th anniversary. This third game was meant to revitalise the franchise, pushing it forward in all capacities to fit more into a global appealing game. As such, it debuted just a year later in 2007 for the U.S. and 2008 for both Europe and Australia, making that year the franchise’s beginnings in each territory.

Players take on the role of a male protagonist who is ushered into a secret school society known as SEES, or Socialised Extracurricular Execution Squad, who are tasked with stopping Shadows during the mysterious 13th hour, or Dark Hour, where supernatural chaos runs rampant. Your school serves as the central dungeon you’ll traverse through as the game progresses, which is a standard mechanic in a lot of dungeon crawlers. Other than that, most other RPG mechanics set forth in the games previous remain intact albeit readjusted.

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Where it differs is both in the art and tone. It’s reminiscent of an anime like Sailor Moon where a young high school student is mild mannered by day, turning into a monster-slaying badass at night. In turn there are a plethora of side activities to keep you occupied inbetween big missions. There’s school to study for, jobs to attend, and friends to socialise with which all help in battles one way or another. Pursuing studies and other academic clubs can lead to increased stats along with friendships that will unlock new Persona monsters, and jobs help you earn money. Days and nights go by along with holidays and it gives the player a sense of progression. Even though it’s just a game you’d be a cold fish if you didn’t fall in love with these characters. That passing of time builds bonds that no other RPG can claim. Because of this, the game’s length is huge and I’d be lying if it wasn’t repetitive at times, but the highlights far outweigh any sense of ill well.

While Persona 3 was my first in the franchise it seems Persona 4 was really where things exploded globally, enticing Atlus to release a litany of spinoffs in order to tide fans over inbetween its release and Persona 5. Persona 4 launched in Japan for the PS2 on 10 July 2008, followed by the U.S. later in the year and in Australia and Europe in 2009. Players are yet another silent protagonist in high school although the subject matter was handled differently. While each story in the Persona games offered mystery, the gang in Persona 4 is trying to solve a set of murders along with figuring out why there’s another world filled with demons inside TVs. While this is in itself a gruesome subject, the tone of Persona 4 changed to a more lighthearted adventure, further delving into the friendship simulation that begin with the previous entry. I didn’t think it was possible to love a set of characters as much as I did in Person 3, but Persona 4 proved me wrong. Gameplay remained as solid as ever.

As I previously teased, Persona 4 got three spinoffs. First there was Persoan 4 Arena in 2012 for the PS3, which was a fighting game developed by the BlazBlue team. Next a more mechanically-focused dungeon crawler with gameplay similar to Etrian Odyssey called Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth in 2014 for the 3DS. It featured both casts of Persona 3 and Persona 4. And then last year we saw the rhythm dancing game reminiscent of the Hatsune Miku franchise in 2015 for the PS Vita called Persona 4: Dancing All Night. While I enjoyed these games for what they were, it definitely felt like Atlus was trying to fill the void of Persona 5.

Now Persona 5 was originally teased with the announcement of Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, Persona 4: Dancing All Night, and a reissue of Persona 4 Arena in 2013. It was supposed to originally release in 2014, but it kept getting pushed back until it finally launched back in September in Japan on both PS3 and PS4. I’ve been on a media blackout since in order to remain unspoiled. Both the U.S. and Europe were going to get the game on 14 February 2017, but it has been now pushed back to 4 April 2017.

Until then I’ll end off by wishing the Persona franchise a very worthy, and confusing, happy 20th anniversary!