Persona, Atlus’ occult high school-sim series was an instant hit in Japan; it takes place after all in the land of the Rising Sun and highlights much of the nation's culture right alongside an entertaining supernatural element. While many Shin Megami Tensei games are indeed localized, titles like Digital Devil Saga and Devil Summoner do not enjoy a huge fan base like the one right across the ocean. Recently however, popularity has been on the rise, a fact that is in no small part due to Persona 4, in particular its upcoming re-release on the Vita, it's Arc System Works fighting game spin-off, and its smash-hit animation series. The Western audience is finally 'getting it' and is realizing what Persona brings to the RPG table: a thoughtful, rewarding experience that caters to just about every fan of the genre. But for those reluctant to dive into the deep waters of Persona, here's a look what exactly makes the series so appealing to a fellow Gaijin such as yourself and why.
Mythology Mash-Up: There are an endless amount of games that borrow a great deal from mythological tales…and why not? Just look at God of War and tell me that Greek mythology didn't help make that series epic.Whether it’s the story of Izanagi and Izanami and the creation of Japan, or a belief that Thor is an uber bad ass of a Norse God, there is much to admire when it comes to mythology. And here in the West, its especially easy to enjoy the history and creativity that many other cultures are known for, not necessarily because the West is devoid of its own mythological brand, but because there is so much more about earlier civilizations to learn about. Between the Norse Gods, the Christian Angelic Hierarchy, Goetian Demonology, and Indian Deities, there is undoubtedly a group of Personas that would appeal to us all. Each Persona entity comes with their very own synopsis and significance, so if you aren't careful you might start looking up this stuff and actually learn something. There is so much material in Persona roster alone that it’s difficult for us not to be curious about the incorporation of such a culture clash. Essentially, it serves as an icebreaker for those unsure of the games and fosters an interest at the very least from an educational stand point. It may even be perhaps an open-armed embrace from those who already enjoy reading up on mythology and get a kick out of the twist on some of their favorite stories and figures.
A Class Of Its Own: Much more prevalent in Persona 3 and Persona 4 is the social aspect, of attending class, studying for that pesky exam, and making a friend or two. While some of us may know what it's like over in Japan, we have also been exposed to a somewhat romanticized version of what goes on in its school system. Whether through anime, manga, or gaming, we tend to associate academic life in Japan with recreational clubs, martial arts battles breaking out randomly, powerful student councils wielding Kendo sticks and chi-based abilities, funky hair styles, and of course, oodles of attractive school girls constantly flashing their panties. Now, is any of this close to the real thing? Probably not… regrettably. Persona however, allows to experience a much grounded in reality side of teenage life in Japan…with the occasional demonic presence to deal with. Actual dates and holidays such as Golden Week and Respect for the Aged Day are on your virtual calendar and impact study time for exams (like when establishments such as the school library are open) and how the grades are posted. A lot can be learned about how high school life truly is in Japan by experiencing the lengthy in-game school year. This includes a play through of summer vacation activities and school trips, all of which result in teenage hi-jinks, hilarity and even some mild perversion to round things out (these are rambunctious teens after all).
The Not-So Shameful Dating-Sim: Time to come clean; we've all indulged in at least one dating-sim game. Whether it was a crappy flash game, an import from Japan, or even one of those slightly more pornographic ones that circulate the industry (you know which ones I’m talking about), on some level we've all been there and done that. I know it's something we don't all like to talk about. While nowhere near as focused or erotic as most sims out there, relationship building in Persona consists of somewhere between 5-10% of its gameplay. Via Social Links and only with certain characters, it’s possible to build a relationship through after-school hangouts, friendly chats, joining clubs, or just by avoid being a complete douche. This in turn leads to more intimate interactions with party members and other NPCs. But it isn't all just for giggles; it actually plays a role outside the hilarious dialogue trees you'll come across. Social Links contribute to the overall power of the Personas you fuse. So even though it seems subtle, it can have dramatic effects later down the line; strange how holding hands with that shy girl sitting right next to you may or may not bestow you with an incredibly destructive power.
Anime or Game?: At its core, Persona is very Japan-imated, cutscenes are drawn in the traditional anime style and much of the overall design has anime written all over it. And that’s a great big part of its charm. As Akira exploded all over the West and brought anime into the mainstream, the medium has since become a big part of our daily lives. And just as Naruto, One Piece, Bleach, and the works of Studio Ghibli are so lovingly accepted and praised, so too does Persona's visual qualities make it that much easier to appreciate and take a chance on. With such a familiar style, the occult-meets-teenage life sensation has also made the transition into successful anime series, as proven by the spin-off Persona: Trinity, Persona 4: The Animation, and even future plans for a series based on Persona 3. It’s easy to see how the series is expanding its audience with its tight grip on two different forms of media.
Shoji Meguro Brings The Melodic Funk: What are those beats I'm listening to? Why can’t I understand half of the lyrics? And why, why is what initially sounds silly is now stuck in my head whenever I shower, sleep, or even wake up in the morning! That, my fellow gamers, is Shoji Meguro's specialty, the masterful composer behind the Shin Megami Tensei games and most recently, Catherine. Nobody really knows what to quite make of the soundtrack of any Persona game; it’s a unique blend of remixed J-Pop, rap, and good old fashion atmospheric instrumental. And since it sounds so different from anything we are used to, is the reason why it strikes such a chord. Themes like Persona 3's “Mass Destruction” and the memorable “Reach Out to the Truth” in particular, not only get gamers into the rhythm of the battles (the RPG lives or dies by its Battle Theme) but the tunes are so damn catchy that it eases the sting of grinding, an inherent quality of just about every role-playing game.
JRPG 4 Life: Let’s face it; Persona is at the forefront of a dying breed here in the West. Once upon a time the term JRPG wasn't even used to describe traditional turn-based role-playing games. Final Fantasy was as much a part of the our gaming scene as it was in Japan. Companies like Squaresoft, Konami, and Sony Computer Entertainment had no problem finding a home for their RPG offerings here in America and in Japan alike. Times have changed however. And while the genre remains strong in the East, we here have become more accustomed to the “Western RPG”, games like Skyrim, Fallout 3, and Dragon Age: Origins. Not that there is anything wrong with those games; they are in fact among the best examples available for success in this sub-genre. The fact remains however that many traditional JRPG fans across the Pacific are suffering from a lack of choices, let alone quality titles. Cult favorites and smaller known sensations such as the Atelier games keep the scene colorful but Persona remains a leader for both Japanese and American gamers. With so much attention surrounding Persona 4 Golden's release, it is my hope that gamers will see how precious a franchise this is.
Persona's rising popularity is a refreshing change of pace and indeed well-earned; the games provide plenty of content for RPG fans to play for hours on end. I am hopeful that with its glory comes an urge for gamers to go back and play some its earlier titles. With once flagship pioneers like Final Fantasy dangerously careening away from the material that made it a household name, I assure you that Persona can and will fill that gaping void, now, and for future generations to come.