Welcome back to the Weekly Nerd! As you can probably guess at this point, I am a huge fan of the Persona series as well as the Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) series in general. To finish off the Persona Primer series, I figured I would talk a little about some of the prominent themes in the SMT games. Right now, I am playing through Persona 5 and so far it holds up well when compared to the previous games in the series. While I am far too early in the game to give a review, I figured I would talk about some general thoughts on the game and the SMT series in general. Spoiler Warning: Mild spoilers for the introductory section of Persona 5 and Shin Megami Tensei IV.
The introductory section of the game, you are thrown into a scenario that is quite different than the one you were introduced to in Persona 4. In that game, you are brought into a sleepy town where you are greeted by your weary but kind uncle and your adorable cousin. When you get to school, you are greeted with kind classmates that are willing to show you around the town. This warm welcome is shattered by an unexpected murder. Expectedly, the town is shaken by these events, but you can tell the adults are trying their best to protect you and your classmates from this grisly event. Persona 5 opening is significantly less inviting. You are a teenager who stopped a man from assaulting a woman. In the process, the assailant gets hurt and calls the police. Thanks to this, you start the game with a criminal record. Because of this, you are treated with suspicion and animosity from those around you. Your classmates spread rumors about you being dangerous and violent. The adults constantly talk down to you, tell you what a pain in the ass you are, and expect you to fail. It is a stark difference from the inviting tone of the previous game.
The tone of the game is quite oppressive. The introductory section of Persona 5 is quite long, but it sets the stage quite well. The game starts off by having you right in the middle of a heist, but you quickly get captured by the police. Interestingly, you being interrogated by one of your captures actually serves as a framing device for the narrative. The story will occasionally bounce back and forth between the main character’s interrogation and the main events that you play through. This furthers the feeling of oppression due to the constant reminder that despite any victories you have, you are currently in custody facing some serious charges.
Persona 5 focuses on some real issues including oppression, assault, and suicide. Early on in the game, you are treated to not one, but two cases of teenagers getting the shit kicked out of them by adults. You also face off against an opponent who is using his authority to physically abuse the males students and sexually harass the female students at school. Rather that having this situation play out for the sake of edginess, it focuses on how the students react to situations they are essentially powerless to change. I was actually a little surprised at how the game leaned into these dark themes so readily. Even after you triumph against the first major opponent, it quickly becomes clear that many of the adults don’t actually care that much about the well being of the students who were affected by the abuse.
This constant sense of oppression is very reminiscent of the themes found in the mainstream SMT games. While playing Persona 5, I was reminded of my 75 hour playthrough of Shin Megami Tensei IV. Throughout the narrative of that game, you are given multiple objectives where you think you are working towards a goal only to find out that you have been double-crossed or you realize the inevitability of an oncoming disaster. At one point, you are presented with multiple visions of the future, showing you that no matter what choice you make, the world is doomed. If you choose to continue the adventure, the game essentially mocks you for not knowing when to give up and having false hope when you clearly see there is nothing you can do. While that game is darker than Persona 5, the similarities are quite interesting.
A prominent concept in Persona 5 is one that I mentioned in my Persona Primer series: the collective unconsciousness. This is the idea that creatures of the same species share an unconscious mind, knowledge, and impulses that are essentially the same across cultures. In classic Persona style, the Jungian concept works well within the story. In fact, one of your party members uses this concept to explain why the shadows withing the dungeons take on the form of creatures from religion, myths, pop culture, and ancient stories. These creatures are basically drifting in the sea of human consciousness, but they become enthralled by the twisted minds of the major antagonists you face throughout the game. Like Persona 4, you will be taking on the Shadow versions of people, but these shadows are significantly more twisted than the ones in the previous game. Rather than finding out the deep rooted insecurities of a person’s shadow and having them be empowered by accepting them, these shadows are pure id. They represent the way a person sees the world and justifies their actions. Defeating these shadow versions of your enemies will result in them in feeling remorse for their actions and confessing to their crimes… or at least that is the idea. There are even questions regarding the morality of forcing someone to have a change of heart by invading their mind.
Unlike the past two Persona games, the main dungeons in this title are handcrafted, full of light puzzles and gimmicks. While I have only tackled one dungeon so far, I can say it was way more fun than any dungeon from Persona 3 and 4. In this game, these are called Palaces. Using a mysterious navigation app on your phone, you and your teammates are able to enter the something called “the metaverse.” Here, the twisted minds and worldviews of your enemies manifest in physical locations called Palaces. You enter the palace, fight of their guards and eventually steal their deep rooted desires in a climactic boss fight. This structure leads to the dungeons feeling a lot more involved and important to the actual plot of the game. Based on the first Palace in the game, I can say I am excited to see what other kinds of twisted things this game’s creators have come up with. The first Palace looks like a medieval castle, but as you get closer to your goal things get… weird. The castle begins to distort and the statues begin to reflect the owner’s twisted desires.
Shoji Meguro has outdone himself again with incredible music in Persona 5. This time around, he has gone with a predominately acid jazz style for a lot of the battle and area themes that you will hear throughout the game. There a lot of calmer songs that go well with living a normal everyday life like the song “Beneath the Mask -instrumental-“. This song will often play while you are wandering around Tokyo after school. In stark contrast to this, there is the incredibly intense battle theme “Keeper of Lust” that plays during certain battles. This song strongly calls back to the rock style music from darker SMT games like Shin Megami Tensei III and Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga.
Persona 5 continues the tradition of SMT games of delving into dark themes rather than just brushing the surface of them. Like the past games in the series, it also takes aspects of Jungian Psychology and weaves them into the narrative with ease. Megami Tensei is one of Japan’s oldest and strangest console JRPG series and has gained a lot of momentum over the past 10 years. Here is hoping this series is able to keep bringing interesting and non-conventional stories to mainstream gaming.