A few weeks ago you might have found some of your videogaming friends getting excited over a trailer for Persona 5. Confused as to what all the fuss was about? Here's a quick rundown of why you should consider getting into the weird world of this long-running game series.
So what is Persona exactly?
Persona — or to give it its full title, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona — is a long running Japanese Roleplaying Game series from Atlus. In fact, Persona is a spinoff of the wider Shin Megami Tensei series, which has been running since the early 1990s. SMT is a whole other kettle of fish, but today we'll just focus on Persona, which is weird and crazy enough as it is.
How old is Persona then?
Almost as old! The series began in 1996 on the Playstation, and there have been five main games so far: Persona, Persona 2: Innocent Sin, Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, Persona 3, and Persona 4. Persona 5 will be out later this year, seven years after the first release of Persona 4.
Do I have to play six videogames just to understand what's happening in this one?
No one's really got the time to sink into hundreds of hours of games, but it's also not important. Like a JRPG series you're perhaps more familiar with, Final Fantasy, each entry in the series features new characters, a new setting, and a new story, separate from the others (well, aside from the Persona 2 duology). They share thematic similarities but they otherwise act as standalone stories.
What are the games about?
Each Persona game has a different story, but they all share a relatively similar approach — they're supernatural tales of urban fantasy, where a cast of young characters discover they have the power to summon "Persona," magical creatures based on a variety of folklores and religious texts (everything from Japanese deities to Old Irish mythology, and yes, even basically Satan), and use them to combat strange and mysterious threats to the normal world, usually created from a dark, twisted version of reality that lies beneath the surface of normalcy. Think of it as almost demonic, supernatural Pokémon.
That doesn't sound that unique.
You'd be right — here in the west, we've got plenty of awesome urban fantasy, especially from a YA perspective. But what makes Persona interesting is that it's the familiar concept of Urban fantasy, the balance of the mundane "normal" life of the protagonists and the problems they have there with the fantastical nature of the supernatural world that lies beneath all that, from a Japanese perspective. Over here, that's much less common, and the way the series portrays urban fantasy through that lens is what makes it so different, especially from what you would normally expect from Japanese RPGs. Sure there's your typical threat to the world stuff every once in a while, but it's not about knights and castles and traditional fantasy aesthetics. It's still fantastical, supernatural stuff, just told in a way you don't normally expect it to be, especially in (relatively mainstream) Japanese games.
So it's all fantasy stuff?
Well, kind of sort of. The more recent games also offer some interesting commentary on modern life. Persona 2 is about the nature of rumors and how people can grant tangibility to something that doesn't exist, while Persona 3 largely deals with issues surrounding depression and an underlying dark nature that resides in people. Persona 4 offers commentary on the modern world's love of gossip and the judgmental nature of reality TV and how we perceive the people around us. The fact that such obtuse commentaries are wrapped up in between the fantastical "save the day" plots is what makes them so interesting. The balance of the ordinary and the extraordinary, and all the weirdness that entails, is where the series really shines.
And it is super weird sometimes. One of the main Persona 4 characters is a teddy-bear-like creature that grows a human form inside himself during the story.
Are the leads all teenagers?
Yeah, teenagers. But don't run off just yet! Each Persona game's cast does tend to hover around the 14-18 age group, yes, and while they can be bratty kids some times, they're actually well written on the whole. They have problems and personalities that tend to go beyond what most people write younger characters like, which is usually adults in a young person's body. Persona's casts can be a little clichéd, but they actually feel like teenagers, young people with teenage problems, family issues, all that as well as having to deal with all the supernatural stuff. Persona 4's cast alone has characters who deal with gender dysmorphia, the perception of masculinity and femininity, sexuality, things like that. They're believable teenagers, instead of young shells for adult ideas.
Also the cast of Persona 2 deal with family issues while literally fighting a resurrected Hitler. You don't want to see teenagers deal with their own problems while doing battle with Hitler? It's pretty damn cool, let me tell you.
Is there a way to enjoy the series without playing the games?
You can still experience the setting, if you don't mind anime! There have been several anime adaptations and spinoffs of the series. Persona 4: The Animation covers the story of the fourth game faithfully if you don't want to sit through a 60-hour game, and can be found with an English dub if you don't like subtitled stuff. Our sister site Kotaku reviewed it and thought it was pretty good. There's also two animated movies (with one more to go) based on Persona 3 that have been released in Japan, and will soon come over to the US on Blu-Ray. As adaptations, you're basically getting the cool story stuff, with none of the gaming bit. As far as original stories go, there's also Persona: Trinity Soul, set after the events of Persona 3 with a new cast of characters. Die-hard fans don't like it, but it's apparently okay.
But hey, if you are interested in playing the games — and have got the time, as they're very lengthy — the first four Persona games are available digitally on the PS3 and Playstation Vita in America. I definitely recommend them!