A Brief History of 'Persona', the Best RPG Series You Never Played

A Brief History of 'Persona', the Best RPG Series You Never Played

Persona is one of those game series that provokes unbelievably strong feelings from diehard fans, while seeming impenetrable and incredibly weird to just about everyone else Atlus

With 'Persona 5' shaping up to be one of the best-reviewed games of its time, we chart the series from cyberpunk oddity to demon-slaying epic

With 'Persona 5' shaping up to be one of the best-reviewed games of its time, we chart the series from cyberpunk oddity to demon-slaying epic

Persona is one of those rare video game series that provokes unbelievably strong feelings from diehard fans, while seeming impenetrable and incredibly weird to just about everyone else. Ahead of this week’s release of Persona 5, critics heaped almost unanimous praise upon it. Its Metacritic score currently sits at a whopping 94, making it the third highest-rated PS4 game ever on the review aggregator behind Grand Theft Auto V and The Last of Us Remastered, and ahead of more universally understood games like Uncharted 4 and The Witcher 3.

The first Persona game arrived in 1996 as a teen-filled RPG spin-off to Atlus' complicated Megami Tensei series – a franchise that’s as twisted and torturous as they come, rivaling the likes of Castlevania and Ultima for the number of spin-offs and side-stories. Despite changing dramatically over the past 21 years, all entries in the series adhere to a fairly consistent foundation. Each game follows a group of teenagers capable of incredible supernatural feats – summoning manifestations of their personalities known as "Personas" to serve them in battle – with the later ones adding in elements of social simulators. Persona games are stylish, grind-heavy RPGs that make a point of stressing the importance of relationships between characters and the ensuing drama.

These are life-swallowing games, demanding hundreds of hours of your time. But with the buzz surrounding P5, the world’s most stylish RPG series seems finally poised to break into the big time. Here's a quick primer on its evolution.

THE EXPERIMENT: Shin Megami Tensei: If...

In 1994, a small Tokyo-based developer called Atlus released an oddball spin-off to their most popular role-playing franchise, Megami Tensei. Titled Shin Megami Tensei: If…, it traded cyberpunk demons and world-rending drama for the sailor uniforms and colorful delinquents of a Japanese high school. Previous Megami Tensei games might have concluded with the protagonist’s army of demons vanquishing God, but there was no such apocalypse here; just a tormented student exacting revenge on his bullies by ripping open a portal to Hell. While If… never made it out of Japan, its success in its native territory allowed series leads – like director Kouji Okada and artist Kazuma Kaneko – to explore this high school setting further, which eventually resulted in the first entry in what would eventually become the Persona franchise – Megami Ibunroku Persona, released in Japan in 1996.

THE EARLY GAMES: Revelations: Persona and Persona 2

Known in America as Revelations: Persona, this early release was Atlus' first attempt to break into the lucrative US market, where Japanese RPGs like Capcom's Breath of Fire and Square's Final Fantasy had achieved unexpected success. Unlike those games, where the constant "random battles" that defined the JRPG genre serve as more of an annoyance than a challenge, the lengthy hallway-grinds of Persona – like that of greater Megami Tensei as a whole – require smart resource management, which sometimes means reasoning with the demons instead of simply slaying them. And while the tiny studio’s inexperience at producing ports led to some rather questionable decisions – including the removal of a substantial sidequest, and the somewhat hamfisted recoding of one of the game's Japanese leads as a breakdancing black teenager – its emphasis on tactics over visuals won it a substantial Western following. More than anything, its contemporary plot – which followed a group of disaffected teens summoning their inner demons ("Personas") to prevent a possessed classmate from raining down armageddon – helped it stand out from the crowd.

Sequels followed, but only one of the two made the journey to the West; the first game known as Persona 2 (subtitled Innocent Sin) never made it to our shores, apparently over concerns related to its depiction of hellish Nazis (Hitler made an appearance as the bad guy – in aviator shades). Its 2000 follow-up Persona 2: Eternal Punishment made the leap, and it fared better both critically and commercially than its 1996 predecessor, selling 350,000 copies worldwide. While devotees of Atlus’s broader RPG catalog might still hold these early games in high-regard – especially in regards to their shades-of-gray storytelling, which deals with love, loss, sacrifice, and survivor’s guilt on a level still rare in games today, let alone at the turn-of-the-century – their old-school dungeon-crawl style ensures that any resemblance to Persona 5 extends no farther than the demons that inhabit them.

THE REINVENTION: Persona 3
It was 2006’s Persona 3 that first exhibited the new genre-busting formula that would come to define the series. Unlike most RPGs, where only your patience and temperament limit your party’s power, P3 handcuffs you to a ticking clock and swallows the key. Delving into demonic depths was only half the equation – Persona 3 subjected you to an equal nightmare: the Japanese high school system, complete with exams, social clubs, and a domineering student council. The social simulation elements granted you a regular respite from the tricks and traps of Tartarus, the one and only megadungeon, which spirals endlessly up into the night during the "Dark Hour," a liminal period between days that only Persona-users are aware of. (Everybody else simply "transmogrifies" into a coffin; that is, if they aren’t getting ripped apart by dark manifestations of the human psyche.) By socializing with your teammates and other acquaintances – your "Social Links," which include a terminal cancer patient and a robot programmed to love you – you sharpened your ability to fuse bigger, better Personas, which upped your battlefield prowess.

While the Final Fantasy series increasingly chased after a more real-time combat style associated with traditional action games, with Persona 3, Atlus pioneered perhaps the best turn-based system that the genre has yet seen, ditching the trial-and-error "fusion spells" of P2, and introducing the "One-More" concept, which grants a player character an additional turn if they strike an enemy's weakpoint. This gave battles a livelier pace, while staying true to the strategic origins of the Megami Tensei series. Importantly, Persona 3 saw a shift in Atlus USA's philosophy of localization; rather than apologizing for the innate "foreignness" of a franchise developed, produced, and set in contemporary Japan, they embraced it as a unique asset – choosing to include, for instance, Japanese personal honorifics that might sound odd to a Western audience, including the now meme-ified term "Senpai." The result was one of the boldest, brightest, and best RPGs of its time. Sales surged appropriately – between the original P3 and its enhanced re-release, P3: FES, Atlus sold nearly a million copies. And somehow, despite the game’s repeated use of suicide-heavy imagery, which included its teenage party members shooting themselves in the head with fake guns to summon their Personas, the release and re-release of the game met with almost zero controversy. Persona was still a cult series, but it was a cult whose ranks were growing. An explosion seemed imminent.

THE EXPLOSION: Persona 4

2008's Persona 4 ignited the sales charts and cemented the series as a durable gaming institution. It ditched the urban labyrinth of Persona 3’s Iwatodai for the tiny mountain town of Inaba, but the two games' obvious mechanical similarities vastly outweigh the stark change of set. Persona 4 embraced an entirely different mode of storytelling. Instead of the usual save-the-world routine, you’re merely trying to solve a series of murders – committed by throwing a victim into a television set on a rainy day – with a ragtag group of your fellow students that recall Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Scooby Gang. Where Persona 3 tells a story steeped in individual sacrifice and unavoidable fate, P4 purposefully avoids "Chosen One" histrionics – it’s a story of strength through cooperation and weathering impossible odds to reach the truth. P4 was successful enough to birth not only a enhanced director’s cut for Vita, subtitled Golden, but also a sub-series of its own that crosses over with certain Persona 3 characters. Those includes two Arc System Works-developed fighting games, Persona 4 Arena and its sequel, Ultimax, as well as a rhythm game called Dancing All Night. They're okay but, like most expanded series, they eventually began to converge on fanfiction. Really, the RPG is the main attraction here – between the PS2 release and Golden, it sold more than 2 million copies.

With key Persona series talent moving to a new sub-studio of Atlus – dubbed Studio Zero – it’s not clear as of yet if Persona 5 will end the series. With the much-anticipated release of the excellent P5 today, it’s clear that the cult of Persona continues to grow. Now, on the cusp of finally receiving the recognition they deserve, there’s never been a better time to take the plunge. These tales of superpowered teenagers defying the odds might demand a lot from you, but the rewards are too immense to ignore.