In terms of popularity and sales, Final Fantasy and Pokémon sit atop the RPG genre in North America. However, in terms of quality and style, Atlus’ Persona series has most RPGs beat.
With every new iteration, developer and publisher Atlus has been raising the bar and our collective expectations of the JRPG genre as a whole. The company’s first taste of success came with the celebrated release of Shin Megami Tensei: if… for the Super Famicom. The game’s quirky characters and high school setting were very well received.
Well, someone in an Atlus boardroom thought it would be a good idea to use that high school setting as the basis for a spin-off called Persona. Six feature-length video games and over two decades later, it’s easy to see the wisdom of that decision.
Today, we’re going to get you caught up on all things Persona by exploring the critically acclaimed franchise one game at a time. Don’t worry if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of diving into this complex universe. As it always is with world-class video games, the first play-through is always the most exciting.
Revelations: Persona was added to the original PlayStation’s legendary library of games in 1996. Its release marked North America’s first exposure to the long-running Shin Megami Tensei. It also introduced the concept of Personas.
The game describes a persona as the physical manifestation of each character’s personality traits. Over the course of the game, the characters learn how to summon, improve, and control their various Personas in battle.
The story follows a group of high school students as they try and navigate a succession of supernatural enemies using melee weapons, firearms, and their Personas. It’s a turn-based RPG that, by modern standards, is incredibly simplistic.
That’s not to say that Revelations: Persona isn’t an enjoyable experience. From the few reviews recorded, the game received praise for its unique battle system and multiple endings. Moreover, the first Persona was popular enough with fans to earn a PSP remaster and a place on the PlayStation Classic.
Persona 2: Innocent Sin
While the rest of the world played and re-played Revelations: Persona, Atlus kept on working. As such, three years after the release of the original, Persona 2: Innocent Sin hit store shelves in Japan.
Innocent Sin sees a new group of high school students and their various Persona’s take on a villain known only as the Joker. Instead of explosives and face paint, this Joker uses reality-warping rumors to bring the city of Sumaru to its knees.
These reality-warping rumors would find their way into gameplay. By spreading these special rumors among NPCs, you could make them a reality. Apart from the rumor system, Innocent Sin played in much of the same way as Revelations: Persona.
Although the original PlayStation release never left Japan, Innocent Sin would eventually see a worldwide release when it was re-released for the PSP in 2011.
Persona 2: Eternal Punishment
Persona 2: Eternal Punishment is a direct sequel to Innocent Sin.
Unlike Innocent Sin, Eternal Punishment saw a North American release for the PlayStation. While that may seem like a strange choice, the game presents “the other side” of the Joker story arc. Think of it like an alternative timeline to the events of the first game, with an independent story that weaves itself together with the game that came before it.
Considering it’s a direct sequel, Eternal Punishment plays exactly the same as Innocent Sin.
Like its predecessors, the third mainline Persona game received multiple re-releases. In Japan, the game received a remake for PSP. However, in North America, Eternal Punishment would come to PS3, PSP, and PlayStation Vita as a PSOne Classic download.
While previous games in the series played like many JRPGs of the time, Persona 3 pioneered the mechanics that the series has become known for. The Velvet Room, social links, and time management all get their start with this game.
In Persona 3, you take control of a transfer student who quickly finds him/herself in a very precarious situation. Every night at midnight, there is a secret hour where regular humans transform into coffins and Shadows roam. During this Dark Hour, a select few — which you are one of — with the power of Persona must fight the Shadows and explore a mysterious tower that has propped up out of your high school.
Regarded as the turning point for the series, Persona 3 received high praise for its mature themes, compelling story, and its unique day structure.
If you noticed the pattern by now, Persona 3 saw multiple re-releases over the years. The first was FES, an enhanced version of the original release with changes, additions, and a brand-new epilogue. The second rerelease was for the PSP. Called Persona 3 Portable, this release allowed players to choose the protagonist’s gender and gave them the ability to control all party members. However, it did lose some features such as 3D environments and the epilogue due to the PSP’s limited storage.
Unlike its predecessor, Persona 4 doesn’t rock the boat. Instead, it further refines the formula put in place by Persona 3.
While the premise is similar, there are key changes to mix things up. This time around the protagonist is shipped out to the rural town of Inaba to live with his uncle and cousin for a year. Over the course of his stay, a mysterious fog covers the town. However, whenever the fog lifts, a person dies. As part of the local investigation team, it’s up to you and your growing group of friends to solve these bizarre murders.
Despite the dark premise and mature themes, Persona 4 is easily the most lighthearted game of the series. The setting of Inaba perfectly emulates the warm homey feeling you get from a small country town. The palette is full of bright warm colors, which juxtapose Persona 3’s dark-hued blues. Plus, there’s the infectious Junes jingle that will put a smile on every time you hear it.
Persona 4 received only one re-release. This came in the form of Persona 4: Golden for PlayStation Vita and PC. Golden added plenty of new content including two social links, a new dungeon, and multiple difficulty settings.
Persona 5 iterates on every element of the series. It makes small refinements to mechanics that people love like the time management system and combat, while overhauling the elements that have received criticism, such as the dungeon design and Persona recruitment. Combine this expert gameplay refinement with a masterful story and wonderful cast, and it’s easy to see why Persona 5 is considered to be the best entry in the series and arguably among the best RPGs of all-time.
Like the previous games in the series, Persona 5’s story follows a group of well-intentioned teens. Known as the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, these teens set out to rid the world of corruption one infected heart at a time. However, stealing hearts isn’t as cut and dry as they initially believe.
Much like its immediate predecessor, Persona 5 received one re-release. While Atlus is known for going above and beyond for their re-releases, Persona 5 Royal takes the cake. Royal has so much new content and little tweaks that it is impossible to list them all. The biggest being the third semester, three new characters, and making Kichijoji an explorable location in Tokyo.