The Megami Tensei series dates all the way back the NES era. At that time, it was a JRPG game that paled in popularity to that of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Since then, the series has branched off in many directions with spin-offs, side stories and completely separate series. During the past two console and handheld generations of gaming, the Persona series of games has arguably overshadowed the main series. While Persona takes a lot of inspiration from the main series, it forged its own identity by focusing on a contemporary setting rather than an apocalypse. As a basic rule, Persona games still contain a number of dark and mature themes but they are generally more light-hearted than the mainline Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) games. As a general rule, these games tend to focus on a group of high school kids who awaken to their ability to call on Personas; physical manifestations of their psyches. They use these Personas to fight all manner of demonic monsters and face reality altering threats.
Persona has gained an absolutely huge following in Japan and has enjoyed a lot of success here in the west as well. Since the series resurgence in Persona 3, the games have become a household name in the JRPG community. With the upcoming release of Persona 5, why not take a quick look back at the series roots?
Revelations: Persona (Megami Ibunroku Persona in Japan) made its debut back in 1996 on the PlayStation. Interestingly, this game is actually a spin-off of sorts to the surprisingly well received Shin Megami Tensei If… (1994 on the Super Famicom). Persona adopted this game’s high school setting and a decidedly smaller scale adventure. The narrative focuses on a group of students that gain the power to summon Personas after playing a fortune telling game. With the help of a being known as Philemon, the kids travel around their town and take on threats. The SMT games are known for their dark themes and their focus on the world being hit by a demon apocalypse. While Persona also had dark themes, its focus is much more on the group of teenagers adjusting to their new abilities and coming to terms with their own personal struggles.
Revelations: Persona concepts and themes take cues from the philosophical stances of Carl Jung. The player’s guide, Philemon is based on the Jungian archetype “wise old man”. The main characters’ personal quest to find themselves is also taken from Jungian philosophy. As the series goes on, these influences manifest themselves in different and interesting ways. While philosophy is nothing new to the SMT games, focusing so specifically on one school of thought was a novel idea at the time.
The gameplay in Revelations: Persona is pretty old school. Traveling around the town is done on an overhead map. Walking around outside environments and story areas was done in third person isometric view and dungeon crawling was done in first person. Battles take place on a grid where both the heroes and the enemies move around and attack their opponents. Players characters can attack with melee skills, firearms skills from their Personas. The characters level up independently from their Personas, so players really had to pay attention to how they used their skills in combat. As is the case in mainline SMT games, players can also talk to enemies to get items or spell cards. By combining the items and the cards collected from demons, players can create new and powerful Personas to use in battle.
Revelations: Persona was notorious for its rough translation as well as its many visual changes to suit an American audience many of the characters names were changed to North American names and infamously, one character was changed to being black. This was an odd choice because the game so clearly took place in Japan, but the localization would have you believe these kids were all American. In 2009 Shin Megami Tensei: Persona was released on the PSP. This port was a much more traditional localization with names, characters and story content all intact from the original game.
Persona 2 is a completely different beast entirely. Arguably, this is where the series really came into its own. Persona 2 is actually split between two games: Persona 2: Innocent Sin (1999) and Persona 2: Eternal Punishment (2000). Infamously, Persona 2: Innocent Sin was not released in North America until its PSP port in 2011. It is speculated that Innocent Sin did not make it over here due to controversial topics and imagery (Hitler gets resurrected at some point during the story). Others state that most of the development team had already moved on to Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, so there was a shortage of resources to localize Innocent Sin. Persona 2: Eternal Punishment is a direct sequel to Innocent Sin and really should be played after that game. Even talking about the story could spoil the ending for the first game, so it was a bit frustrating for gamers at the time to only get the second half of this story. Eternal Punishment is unique because it is the first and only game in the series where a lot of your party members are adults rather than teenagers.
The Persona 2 games tell an interconnected tale of a world where reality is literally altered by people spreading rumors. I won’t go into the story as it would lead to a convoluted explanation, but the characters are truly unique. While this game has quite a few of the Jungian archetypes, each main character has a distinct personality and struggle. As a small example, there is a character named Lisa “Ginko” Silverman. Her parents are from North America, but they moved to Japan where Lisa was born and raised. Physically, Lisa looks like she is American, but culturally she is completely Japanese. This causes a lot of stress for her because people expect her to know English and be familiar with American culture. Each of your party members has some sort of internal struggle that informs where they came from and where their character arc is going. Further pursuing Jungian philosophy, a major theme is finding one’s whole self. A lot of the characters struggle with various identity issues that they overcome or accept during the course of the narrative. Personally, I feel the biggest improvement into this entry is the complex characters. Both games have a massive cast of complex characters, including cameos from Revelations: Persona. While the game had many new mechanics and was (mildly) more playable than the first game, the crowning achievement of Persona 2 is its characters and the strong narrative that follows them throughout the game.
For fans of JRPG’s, the first three games in the series offered something quite different than most were used to. The contemporary setting was quite a novel idea at the time, as was the focus on Jungian philosophy. Having young characters in a real world setting and using literal demons to face their metaphorical demons may be a bit on the nose, but the execution was done quite well. What held these games back at the time was their adherence to old school RPG tropes. While JRPG’s like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy among others were still very traditional, they tended to have deceptively simple battle systems that evolved as you played the game. The early Persona games’ combat was still fairly clunky and not the most user-friendly. While the challenge was certainly toned down in the later Persona games, it cannot be denied that it is Persona 3 and Persona 4 the solidified the series popularity. In part 2, we will look into what set these games apart from the earlier entries as well as what made them unique to most RPG’s at the time.