Alistair has been playing video games as a hobby since 1993, and the "Shin Megami Tensei" series since 2001.
Understanding "Persona" as a Game Series
Firstly, one might assume that beginning the beloved Persona series would best be accomplished with Revelations: Persona for the Playstation 1, and while that is a valid path, there is much more to this quandary than you would expect. Dear reader, do enjoy yourself.
What Exactly Is a Persona?
Personas are mythological creatures such as fairies, titans, demons, angels, and hundreds of others. These creatures are oftentimes treated like soldiers or weapons to be used by Persona's protagonists and their allies to defeat other monsters. Most of the time, the creatures you fight can either be coerced into becoming your monster, not unlike a "demonic Pikachu," or fused between two or more monsters that you currently own. Collect, gain power, and vanquish your foes.
Where Did "Persona" Begin?
Right, so Atlus' Persona series is a spin-off series of the mainline Shin Megami Tensei franchise, burgeoning forth from the great Shin Megami Tensei title named If . . . which was never officially released in either NTSC or PAL regions. If you're feeling like If . . . isn't a great name for a game, you're not alone.
The entire Tensei line began with Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei for the Famicom in Japan in 1987. Being that this series has now spanned at least three decades, it's fair to say that it has evolved quite a bit over time as the entire Tensei universe has spawned three dozen individual titles.
As I mentioned earlier, SMT If . . . was the first Tensei entry to be located primarily in a high school setting which was very well received; leading directly to the creation of Revelations: Persona in 1996 for the original Playstation. This was nearly immediately localized for NTSC region which further contributed to the fandom of the Persona series overseas. While initially considered a "sleeper hit," the Playstation Portable remake sold well as the series had gained considerable traction worldwide by then.
Conventional wisdom would have it that Revelations: Persona would be the best spot to start your adventure in this unique sector of Japanese gaming. This idea is undoubtedly marred by the unfortunate truth that this game is incredibly hard to come by. While it is true that any original Playstation disc can be played on its successor consoles, finding said game is difficult now and becoming more expensive by the day.
When and if you do find it, the price itself may startle you considerably: listing for $100-150 on lukiegames.com, and upwards of $200 on eBay. There is, however, another way to play this gem, as you'll see in the table below.
Release Dates With Pricing Guide
|Title||Release Date||System(s) Playable||Price(s)||Additional Comments|
September 20: 1996
Playsation One: Playstation Classic
$50-250(PS1); $20-100(PS classic)
PS Classic can be found at many retailers for $20-$40, but initially debuted for $100
"Shin Megami Tensei: Portable"
Port of Revelations for PSP
"Persona 2: Innocent Sin"
June 24, 1999 (Japan Only), September 20, 2011 (PSP)
Playstation 1 (Japan Only), PSP, PSN (PSP, Vita)
~$60 (PS1), $20 PSN (PSP, VITA)
PS1 release was JP only. PSP release later in 2011.
"Persona 2: Eternal Punishment"
November 30, 2000
Playstation 1, PSN(PS3)
~$120 (PS1), $10 PSN (PSP, PS3, Vita)
"Persona 3: FES"
July 13, 2006
Playstation 2, PSN(PS3)
~$50 (PS2), $10 (PSN)
"FES" is a weird short form of "festival"
"Persona 3 : Portable"
July 6, 2010
Playstation Portable, PSN (Vita)
July 10, 2008
Playstation 2, PSN(PS3)
$25 (PS2), $10 (PSN)
"Persona 4: Golden"
June 14, 2012
September 15, 2016
Playstation 3, Playstation 4
$20 (PS3, PS4)
Metacritic Series Rankings
One of the easiest way to understand where to dive into this amazing game series is to understand where the turning point that helped garner mass appeal from critics and gamers alike.
Here is a cursory glance of Metacritic ratings of each individual mainline non-remake, non-port Persona title.
- Persona 3: FES: 89
- Persona 4: 90
- Persona 5: 93
I'll bet you're wondering where the first three titles are. That's a great observation, brother. Well, Metacritic did not yet exist in those early dates of 1996-2000. So, instead, we'll use the moderately less reliable Gamerankings.
- Revelations: Persona: 79.81%
- Persona 2: Innocent Sin: 76% (PSP version due to low review count for original)
- Persona 2: Eternal Punishment: 83.83%
So, while reviews and aggregate rankings can vary wildly on accuracy in its ability to tell any individual whether a particular game is worth playing, it's most definitely a start. These rankings serve to tell me that Persona 3 is when Atlus' series became more palatable for a Western audience, ergo we will begin there.
"Persona 3": Game Start
So we've arbitrarily settled upon Persona 3: FES, but make no mistake: The three games that came before it are extremely enjoyable and should not be missed. P3 is a great choice to start because:
- Availability: It's relatively easy to find a physical copy for your PS2, but also equally viable to play it on PS3 via the PS2 Classics download. And hey, it's upscaled so yay.
- Price: Can be found for as little as $10 on eBay and is always $10 on PS3's PSN.
- Has expanded epilogue compared to the original P3 among other improvements.
- It's in true 3D. Yeah that's a pretty silly reason, but it helps with avoiding dated graphic shock for new players.
- It's fun. Really fun.
The Premise Is All in Your Head
You start out the game with an opening scene that depicts, among other things, suicide. Hell of a way to start a game. 10 years prior to the game's events, a 'dark hour' was created by scientists that turned all humans into coffins at exactly midnight rendering them helpless and unable to keep themselves from being killed by shadow beings. As the main character, you'll attend Gekkoukan High School and simultaneously join the S.E.E.S. (Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad) which is a supernatural task force of mostly young people who are tasked with entering Gekkoukan at night which during the dark hour becomes the monstrous dungeon labyrinth aptly named Tartarus.
It sounds both simplistic and complicated, yet it's most often the latter as the game goes on. You'll meet dozens of interesting characters, some of whom you will be able to form bonds with—colloquially referred to in the rest of the Persona series as "social links," that allow you gain specific bonuses when fusing monsters of a particular arcana (from tarot mythology) your social link represents. These personas are avatars that represent the protagonist and his friends in battle.
"Persona 3" Controversies
You'll notice early on that the only way for a human being to command a persona is by committing suicide. Doing so allows you to command it to attack, defend, use spells, and the like.
If you're wondering if these suicidal depictions caused controversy, then you're absolutely right. But wait, you're not right. Because congressman, housewives, and media personalities were too preoccupied at the time with the likes of Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto to realize that P3 depicts and even makes suicide seem 'cool.' Crazy, right?
"Persona 4" Added QoL Improvements, Why Not Start There?
One simple reason: Persona 3 better exemplifies and bridges the gap between the darker tones of the first three games and the lighter emotional themes of P4 and P5. To understand the Persona universe, you need to see awful things happen and that there are truly horrifying monsters out there. In many ways, P3 has a very similar emotional feeling to its SMT cousins on the Playstation 2. Whether it be Nocturne or Digital Devil Saga 1, 2, there's an unmistakable sense of dread and loneliness that pervades P3. While there remains still some of that in the later entries, both Teddie and Morgana help blunt that a fair bit. In some ways, P3 may as well be known as the last Persona without a mascot sidekick. If you play this one first, you'll better appreciate the dorky themes that come later. Viva La Teddie Forever!
Now, I know what you're thinking: Wasn't there a big reason why people hated Persona 3's combat. Yes, absolutely yes. It's a 100% garbage idea that was fixed on the Persona 3 Portable version and all subsequent Personas as well.
You Are Literally Unable to Give Direct Commands to Your AI Allies
So why is this a problem? AI is dumb. AI is always dumb. Some small anecdotal instances of dumb AI is Mitsuru casting Agidyne individually against five single targets when she could instead use Maragidyne to 1) save mana and 2) get it over with quicker. Another is using the charm attack Marin Karin against an enemy with <10% HP when a single melee attack would kill it. And loads more.
Yes, many of these AI maladies can be mitigated by utilizing tactics and scanning your enemies thoroughly. The biggest problem is when you're fighting a boss that can't be scanned and your AI mates are just sometimes doing nothing. They'd rather do nothing than make a potential mistake. It's just so dumb.
Like I said, in P3P they allow you to give direct commands to your artificially unintelligent allies to fully control the flow of battle. This was a wonderful addition and made its way into Persona 4 as if it was always there, to begin with.
Listen to Your Temptation to Move on to "Persona 4"
While Persona 3 Portable is a decent entry into the series, it's worth a play for these reasons:
- Portable, woo.
- Option for a female protagonist.
- Ability to give direct commands to AI allies.
- All combatants are allowed to guard (as seen in all subsequent games).
However, since the PSP had less storage available on their smaller optical media discs, the game had to be trimmed down, which cut content and many over-world adventure scenes. It's easiest to see P3P as a separate experience than a portable remake of FES. And now, for P4.
The Reason You Need to Play "Persona 4"
That's because it's an amazing and very well fleshed-out story. The characters you meet are almost all interesting and unusually well voice-acted. In the English dub, you'll recognize some big-name voices from the anime dub industry. Beyond this, the combat, exploration and every ounce of ambiance contained in this PS2 epic is wonderful. Furthermore, P4 is cheap by all accounts. It's currently $20-$25 used on most gaming websites and it's $10 all day, every day on PS3's PSN.
Now, Persona 4 was released in 2008, well after the beginning of the PS3 lifespan began in 2006, but this doesn't hurt the game in any way. Thousands of hours of work went into creating this masterpiece, including the developers at Atlus learning from their mistakes with Innocent Sin and FES.
"Persona 4": Premise
You're a recent transfer to Yasogami High School, in Inaba which is a rural town in Japan. In P4, you're unable to play as a female protagonist, instead opting for the young yet mature-looking grey-haired vibe of your city-kid male main character. After two murders happen on the streets of Inaba, which is by-and-large considered an anomaly considering the mostly tranquil mom-and-pop-shop vibe of the town. Very quickly your character becomes acquainted with Hanamura Yosuke the manager's son of the local invasive department store that has recently opened up. From there you meet a tomboyish Chie, a milky pale daughter-of-the-local-inn Yukiko and several others, including the infamous Teddie. Similar to the other Persona entries, you find yourself going into the shadow realm to battle it out with mythological entities that have made themselves known in the most hostile way.
In P4, there's usually someone you don't really know who is mortal danger in the shadow realm. It's up to you to save them and potentially add them to your growing investigative team hellbent on capturing and bringing to justice the villain of Inaba.
All things considered, it's a great story with dozens of hard-hitting emotional moments at regular intervals. While most of your every-day life will consist of going to school and hanging out with your friends, this game is quick to remind you that there is a murderer on the loose and you're the only one who can stop this.
It's a veritable guarantee that you'll enjoy your 80-100 hour stay in the town of Inaba and it'll forever alter your perception of how great and memorable a JRPG can be without abandoning the darkness that has become emblematic of the Tensei series in favor of ultimate cuteness.
With "Persona 5," the Long Wait Is Over
There was a massive eight-year gap between the original Persona 4 and Persona 5's debut. Four years if you count Golden. Eight years is a huge amount of time in anyone's life. Your young children may have become teenagers while you were waiting for the newest installment. And you know what? Damn, it was worth it. How many game series have you played where each and every game in the series gets better than the last? No dip in quality, no Fallout 76-type catastrophe. It's insane, no matter how you look at it.
The Royal Era in "Persona" Gaming
P5 debuted on September 15, 2016, 20 solid years after Revelations: Persona was first released. P5 was greeted with absolute universal acclaim from critics on both the PS3 and PS4. I can't say enough how rare this is in the gaming industry. For a series to be so stellar in both quality and reception speaks very highly of Atlus. Anyway, enough fanboy praise.
Persona 5 revolves around the similar high school atmosphere as previous installments in the franchise, but with a twist. You aren't going into the Metaverse to save your allies from shadow versions of themselves, but rather to "change the heart" of the villains you come in contact with in the real world. The first one is your volleyball coach slash tyrant Kamoshida Suguru who makes your lives hell at school and is abusing several students. The protagonist alongside new friends Sakamoto Ryuki and Takamaki Ann are tasked with trying to change Kamoshida's heart by defeating his avatar inside the Metaverse. Broad strokes: think entering the Grinch's mind to change his hatred of Christmas by defeating his inner demon avatar. Cool, yeah?
This story is both more engaging than P4 and also more stylistic in its aesthetics and themes. Each Persona has a theme to it that tends to become stylized by the technology of the time, be it an MP3 player with headphones, CRT televisions or in Persona 5's case: Smartphones.
In P5, Joker and allies use their smartphones to enter the Metaverse and for group chats that help you keep tabs on what's going on in the story. This is one of my favorite aspects of the game, as it successfully captures the social culture present in 2016 and then forever memorializes them in the same way that P4 did for televisions and early flip phones.
Coupling the entertaining modern aesthetics and the engaging story, P5 is likely to be an experience you'll never forget. You might say it'll change your heart.
Now That We Have Defeated All the Bosses
You thought I missed them, didn't you? Persona Q, Arena, and Dancing are valid entries to the mythos of Persona as a series, but they aren't mainline games. They aren't starting points. They're niche experiences that borrow from what's already been established by the mainline games and turns them into fun, albeit less serious alternatives.
Yes, but . . . What Do I Play After "Persona 5"?
Don't worry, Persona 5 Royal was released on March 31, 2020, which is funny to type as it still feels like the base game just came out. Time is a cruel cruel thing.
Alright, so here's the thing about Persona. When Atlus released and saw the reactions to Shin Megami Tensei If . . . they saw that more relatable games draw more people to a series.
According to Destructoid, Tensei titles have sold a combined 7.5 million units since 1987 and yet Persona has sold a combined 8.5 million since 1996. P5 sold 1.8 million of those on its own. A more recent number is quoted by Game Revolution is 2.7 million.
So, even though Megaten has sold less, it doesn't mean you should ignore those entries into gaming history. My favorites of this chronology are Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga, both on PS2. DDS2 is worth a shot too if you enjoy the sort of insane storytelling of the first. Cannibalism is cool, don't you know?
More recent editions of Megaten can be found in SMT: IV and IV: Apocalypse, which I own for the 3DS. They're faithful to the Megaten vibe, but they add plenty of modern conveniences that are simply not present in previous entries. One last choice that is incredibly easy to find is Strange Journey for the original DS. It's maybe not as feature-laden as the more recent Strange Journey Redux on 3DS, but it's also less than half the price.
"Shin Megami Tensei" Is Among the Best JRPG Series in History
From the philosophy to the underpinning themes of social adaptation and what it means to be a human in the first place, there's just so many wonderful things to find in these deprave places. From Amano Maya in P2 to Joker in P5, there are five hundred hours of amazing storytelling, combat, and hardship. You owe it to yourself to play these games.
© 2019 Alistair Torrance