The Greatest Games: Persona 4 (2008)

Persona 4 (2008)
Developed by Atlus

Playing Persona 4 back in 2008 was a major revelation. Being my first Shin Megami Tensei game, it surprised me that a traditional turn-based RPG could be truly challenging from the very beginning. But the truly mind-blowing element was the unique formula with which the Persona series tells its stories and the story this specific entry chose to tell.

As I have already written about both Persona 3 and Persona 5, I don’t want to waste too much time retreading the universal elements. The year-long visual novel/JRPG hybrid is phenomenal, and whichever did it best was destined to land a high spot. Instead, I will be comparing this directly to Persona 5 to argue why Persona 4 is the (slightly) better game, while hopefully making it clear why those unique elements add up to a truly masterful experience.

First, Persona 4 keeps things small-scale throughout most of the narrative. The protagonist has moved in with his uncle and niece in a middle of nowhere town named Inaba. An all-consuming Walmart-style entity named Junes has set up shop, so half the businesses on the central street are now closed. Few games bother with a rural setting, and it’s even rarer to find one exploring themes of modern economic hardship – to use this as the setting for an 80-hour JRPG was truly inspired. Compare this to Persona 5, which takes place in the sprawling metropolis you might recognize as Tokyo. Persona 5 is bigger than life, but that’s true of so many games.

Soon after arriving, an upperclassman named Saki Konishi is found hanging from power lines. The protagonist discovers a local rumor called the Midnight Channel, which supposedly shows a person’s soulmate on a foggy night. Instead, he and his friends soon realize that the people who are shown have gone missing. They stumble upon a world inside the television, where people are eaten alive by their own negative self-perception. Thus, the grand stretch of the game revolves around rescuing the various victims while trying to figure out who is shoving them inside in the first place. The overarching story is one of the elements in which I think Persona 5 has the edge, but I also believe the individual moments are Persona 4’s greatest advantage.

In Persona 5, the dungeons are typically built around the villain of the month. They are striking in the moment, but they have little lasting impact on the story; once you defeat the villain, they’re typically out of the picture. The ingenious idea behind Persona 4 is that most of the people being rescued are the future party members. Like Mass Effect 2, Persona 4 has a serious advantage over other RPGs due to treating the individual party members as the central focus for significant portions of the story. Persona 4 is especially interesting because it’s built around learning their deepest secrets before really getting to know them as people. The group coming together in this case also feels natural, as it’s a band of victims teaming up to rescue the next target.

In the context of the series at large, personas are the entities the party members summon to pull off their stronger attacks. At the same time, the series does dive into the Jungian psychology behind these terms. Persona 4 uses the concept of the shadow well, where the main bosses are the shadow selves the victims refuse to acknowledge as parts of themselves. By eventually confronting this part, the characters are better able to express themselves. This adds to the character dynamics; with these seemingly negative aspects out of the way, the party members come off as more open and honest with one another.

Despite the randomized nature, the actual atmosphere of the dungeons has always been striking. And while it might be easy to give Persona 5 the edge here because the main dungeons have a set design, that can actually be a hindrance – the spaceport level is not very good and was enough for me to take an extended break from a game I had wanted to play ever since falling in love with the previous entry eight years earlier. Persona 4, meanwhile, has a reliable pace and feel. They may not be as flashy or intricate, but these dungeons work.

I also enjoy the structure of Persona 4’s social links. In Persona 5, everything is explicitly connected back to the main case in some way. But I kind of like the idea that some random woman you meet at a part-time daycare job can have a serious influence on the protagonist’s psyche. It better captures the sense of not knowing who will be the most important people around you until making that connection while also building into the slice of life atmosphere that makes this game so unique within its genre.

Where most Japanese RPGs tell epic tales of fighting against evil, Persona 4 resists those urges to explore themes closer to earth. Despite all odds, it manages to capture the same tone, hooking the player with a phenomenal cast and intriguing mystery, all built around one of the best turn-based combat engines. Some might prefer the bombastic nature of Persona 5, but as someone who spent their teenage years questioning their identity in a small town, Persona 4 has always carried a special resonance. The fact I got to experience this story during those years simply seals its place as one of my all-time favorites.

The Greatest Games: Persona 5 (2016)

Persona 5 (2016)
Developed by P-Studio

Persona 3 established a phenomenal structure for long-form narratives favoring day-to-day moments over a more unified epic struggle. The two games which followed expanded upon the concept by building complex narratives spread across the entire length of the game, all while diving deeper into the central theme of what it means to create a persona. Persona 5 comes off as a maximalist piece, eschewing the everyday presentation of the two previous entries for a stylish take on life in the big city.

Few if any games have such jaw-dropping visual design. Even navigating menus is a striking experience. Of the many games I have now written about, I don’t think anything else has made me want to highlight the interface. These are screens which can be acceptably utilitarian, after all. Yet Persona 5, never wanting to drop its aesthetic for even a second, imbues these with motion and color. Most works have their own grand aesthetic goals, but few have ever been so all-consuming.

The Phantom Thieves is one of the coolest video game parties around. The Persona games typically tell the story of a covert group fighting comparatively minor evils under the cover of a mysterious world. The masquerade is a much larger element of this story, with the Phantom Thieves loudly announcing their operations to the world. This sense of public anonymity is a unique and tense structure. Additionally, their goals feel a lot more active. Many JRPGs games, including the other Persona games, revolve around the idea of fighting back against evil. Here, the Phantom Thieves are the instigators, fighting for what they think will cause a better world. This helps add an edge to their moral position which casts them in a complex light.

Persona 5 also makes the many stray elements all feel more strongly connected. Even the non-party social links have a more meaningful connection to the task at hand, giving benefits beyond stat increases for personas of the same type. Befriending someone like the doctor Tae Takemi can feel more beneficial than focusing on party members. Everyone from the protagonists to the antagonists to the bit players play a notable role, and it’s hard to find another game with this big of a cast with such consistently well-defined characters.

On a gameplay level, the biggest change is that the dungeons are now defined instead of randomly-generated. Thus, every section is more intricate. With the dungeons representing the inner workings of the game’s many villains, the defined structure can help to better symbolize their mental processes. This also allows more big events to occur midway through a dungeon. All of these palaces have a distinct atmosphere, from an art museum to a bank to a spaceport. Meanwhile, those who like the randomly-generated dungeon crawls still have Mementos, a journey through a twisted subway system representing the city at large.

Otherwise, Persona 5 is largely more of the same thing. But with such a strong structure and so few games attempting this general idea, more of this is a great thing. Balancing the daily life between forming bonds and tackling the monthly dungeon is as fun as always. The key part of Persona 5’s stellar features is that they are largely a horizontal evolution. The three Persona games since the third are all clearly part of the same series, yet their atmospheres vary enough that none feel like a direct attempt to simply outdo what came before. Like Final Fantasy, the best Persona game comes down to taste; do you prefer the rural slice-of-life murder mystery of Persona 4 or the aggressively stylized urban heist narrative of Persona 5? It’s easy to love both without either feeling like too much of the same experience.

Persona 5 is simply as cool as video games come. This is what Tetsuya Nomura wishes his nonsensical designs managed to pull off. Sure, the Phantom Thieves may look a bit silly running around in fox masks, but the performative nature of creating an outward persona gives a lot of leeway. The structure of the Persona series is simply phenomenal at incorporating a lot of concepts spread over an extended period. While I sometimes question the apparent need for video games to keep getting longer, every second of Persona 5’s 100 hours feels earned.

The Greatest Games: Persona 3 (2007)

Persona 3 (2007)
Developed by Atlus

Atlus’s Persona series, starting with 3, mixes a ton of disparate elements into a surprisingly effective package. Persona 3 is the simplest take on the formula, but that simplicity has helped keep it distinct from its sequels. Where 4 and 5 weave intricate plots throughout the massive length, 3 feels more episodic. This allows the social element to feel more centralized.

The selling point of Persona is the way it mixes classic JRPG elements with the visual novel. Set over the better part of an in-game year, each day gives you time to do only a few things. The main character has just started at a new high school, where he’s dragged into a group fighting Shadows which invade the city during certain times. At the center of all this is a massive tower which the player must climb over the course of the 80+ hour game.

As a teenager, a social life is also necessary. Throughout Persona 3, you will meet characters corresponding to tarot cards. The player can summon his own personas with those labels, and improving relationships with these characters makes his personas stronger. These connections are a necessity – fresh personas tend to be under-leveled, but the experience boost from a strong bond gives a powerful edge.

Thus, the game is all about balancing time between building those bonds and conquering that tower with little direct guidance. The game suggests reaching a certain floor by certain points in the story, but it’s up to the player to find the time. Unfortunately, party members will grow tired over time, limiting how much you can explore during a single in-game day. Though this game is massive, time is always limited – unless you follow a guide, you will simply have to ignore some social links. Though well-integrated into the gameplay, these social links are also well written and serve to better emphasize the setting outside of the party members.

Something which has always intrigued me about Persona is how it manages to capture the feeling of an epic without necessarily being one. Despite its size, the majority of Persona 3 feels like a slice of life story which gets repeatedly invaded. Though plenty prefer the stronger narrative presence in the later games, Persona 3 lends itself to a more laidback experience. By breaking the experience into daily activities, it’s a story which is easy to take in pieces – or if you’re really engaged, it can have the same effect as the Civilization series. I’ve definitely found myself promising to only play ‘one more day,’ with the longer dungeon sequences being a nice reminder to take a break after that day turns into a week.

As with the mainline Shin Megami Tensei games, the Persona series has its own strong combat engine compared to other JRPGs. While a bit simpler than Nocturne’s turn press system, the one more system still emphasizes the need to hit weaknesses. In this system, each character acts separately, and they can chain together multiple hits if they keep hitting weaknesses. The main character might be well-equipped to hit whatever weak point is present, but that’s where the time mechanic becomes essential. Magic costs SP, and SP generally only recovers once you rest for the day. This forces a heavy focus on resource management during each trip – the last thing you want is to use more days than necessary to climb Tartarus. You need that time for social links!

While the overarching narrative remains in the background throughout most of the second act, the finale hits hard. Throughout most of the game, why you’re stuck fighting these shadows is a mystery. The finale goes to some heavy places, a perfect payoff for such a long journey.

It would be careless of me not to mention the soundtrack. From the soothing Velvet Room piece which serves as a series staple to the J-pop bops scattered throughout the cities and battles down to the dark ambience of key revelations, everything here stands on its own while perfectly adding to the game’s modern atmosphere. The highlight is “The Battle for Everyone’s Souls,” which plays during one of the final battles. Starting with heavy metal guitars, the song soon gives way to the Velvet Room vocals. These two disparate sounds are seamlessly mixed together and help make this one of gaming’s most unforgettable final bosses. The guitars reinforce this difficult battle, while the serene vocals serves as a reminder of how far you’ve come with these people. Another highlight is the tragic yet empowering “Memories of You” which plays over the credits. The fact both of these come from the ending reinforce the fact this game simply gets better as it goes – and it starts pretty strong!

Persona 3 helped establish one of gaming’s best formulas. The year-round social mechanics sets a perfect stage to really get attached to the characters while also serving a gameplay purpose. Like any other Shin Megami Tensei game, this is a JRPG which provides a legitimate challenge. Plenty of games mix genres to varying degrees of success, but few match how Persona 3 uses elements of the visual novel to add weight to its procedurally generated dungeon crawler.