Part 5-Plot and Themes
Persona Retrospective Introduction
Persona 2:Innocent Sin
Hell yeah! We’re back with this! It’s been, what, four years since we did the last entry in our much vaunted Persona Retrospective? You thought I gave up on it, didn’t you? And look at how much a fool you are now! No, you gave up on me! You think four years matters to one such as I? I never forgot. And I never quit.
Well, maybe I did. Sort of. You may notice that rather than finally doing the second half of Persona 2, I’m coming right in your face with Persona 3. That’s true. And I’m sorry. I’ve actually tried a couple of times to get the next step in this retrospective going with good old Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, and I just can’t. I was halfway through the game when I made a big cross-state move and life transition, and couldn’t keep up with my usual playtime in the aftermath. Then, sometime later, I picked up Persona 2: Innocent Sin again with the intention of getting background on that for the eventual Eternal Punishment analysis, but frankly, although the Persona 2 duology does a lot of really unique things and is a very interesting game in all, its design has aged a bit. Not as poorly as many other games, but I found, with a lot of things I was going through then and continue to go through now, I just didn’t have the patience for it.
So we’ll skip it and come back to it later. For now, it’s Persona 3 right up in your grill, suckers!
Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking. “Oh Aether, you sexy hunk of pure genius, isn’t your time already very full? And didn’t you just start another project where you’re going to be reviewing all the Godzilla movies? Are you really going to be able to keep up with another commitment?” And sure. That would be what sensible people would think. But I’m to busy being awesome to be sensible. I’m not one to let fear of failure or fear of commitment stop me. I’m going to bite off more than I can chew. And then I’m going to chew it.
In case you haven’t noticed, I like talking about the thing that I’m going to be talking about for a good while before I really get into talking about them. But let’s get into that now.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3
Okay, up until this point in the subseries, Persona games have been all about taking the ethos of the greater Shin Megami Tensei series and making it more familiar, more accessible, and more character-driven, while also experimenting the hell out of it. Shin Megami Tensei has been very WRPG-influenced, and the Persona subseries takes that and fits it into a JRPG shell, creates room for a hell of a lot of character exploration, then adds a whole lot of new, wild, and largely unpolished features onto it. Persona 3 follows on in that progression.
But it’s also the turning point in it. See, Persona 4 and 5 don’t carry the same wild experimentation the earlier games did. Instead, they take the model that Persona 3 built, and polish it further, and further. And they make beauty out of it. Persona 3 is a fantastic game. But it’s like a raw gem. It’s valuable. It’s beautiful. But it needs some rough edges pared off and a lot of polish to really shine. Persona 3 is a turning point in the Persona subseries. This is where, I would say, it really hit true greatness for the first time. And the developers recognized it, and went in the same direction for future entries.
To really get into Persona 3 and what makes it what it is, we have to talk about another game. Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. The first SMT game of the PS2’s era. And it would represent as much of a shift for the SMT franchise as a whole as Persona 3 is for that SMT subseries. Shin Megami Tensei games had largely stuck to its classic WRPG influences all through the SNES and PS1 entries, but by the time the 6th console generation had rolled around, frankly, technology had far outpaced that mode. Even WRPGs themselves were drastically different from the Ultima/Wizardry days. The technology was capable of so much more than the pure first person grid-based dungeon crawler with minimal world interaction was providing, and the largely 2d and simple visuals those games utilized were growing outright bland in that new world. So Nocturne brought the series roaring into the new era. Fully 3d environments, visuals that more accurately represented the urban apocalypse the series brought through, more involved visual storytelling, and a completely redesigned crew of monsters that would be distinctive of the series for years to come, it’s presentation has made SMT what it is every since. The gameplay updates were no slouch either. Battles were no longer matters of numbers against numbers, but made much more strategic with the press turn system in which the amount of turns you have were tied to your manipulation of elemental strengths and weaknesses. Enemy encounters designed so that even basic random battles would test you, requiring so much more than just mashing attack as was standard for most RPGs. Dungeons built so that the important thing in success is your long-term resource management across hordes of challenges as much as your ability to overcome individual battles. It created design elements that had ramifications across the entire series.
And all of that carried through to Persona 3, in some form. Previously, the SMT series had a more eclectic and varying mix of demons and what roles they held. Nocturne really codified and brought consistency to the mythological set of demons the series held, and Persona 3 slotted them firmly into the role of your personas. Your enemies and adversaries were made completely different in both tone and origin, marking the first time the series had such a significant demarcation between persona and enemy. They use the same visuals for the beasties, too, as do all 3d SMT games from that point further, building and taking advantage from the Shin Megami Tensei trademark design. The press turn system was imported in a more limited form, with both you and your enemies being able to gain a single extra move for targeting your opponent’s weakness, or lose one if your own are hit. Tonally, well, SMT has always been about destruction and apocalypse, but Nocturne brought new impact to that in the 3d era, and Persona 3 took that and run with it. Although it’s not as dire as Nocturne was, it’s still rather oppressive, and it takes that to a more personal level.
Persona 3 is generally considered the first of the modern Personas, and to many people, apparently Atlus included, the subseries starts here as far as they’re concerned. This is the first game that has the social link system, where a lot of emphasis is on getting to know and helping NPCs through a sort of visual novel/dating simulator-esque interface, that has become such a series trademark and one of the biggest draws of Persona games. Although 4 and 5 would make minor updates to it, this is also where they established the game model largely used in everything following. Whereas previously, every character could use multiple personas, but had some limits on them, and a lot of their capabilities were based on their stats, starting with Persona 3, only your main character could use multiple personas but they had no limits on them and their stats were determine by said persona, making your main character effectively over a hundred characters you could choose from. These is where you get Lotus Juice and the Jpop soundtrack setting the mood, driving home just how modern this series is in comparison to others of its genre. The Persona series had been pretty heavy with its theming and storytelling in the Persona 2 duology, but this is the first time the series with so deep in its plot and multi-layered in its themes. Everything where you have a certain amount of days to do everything you need to do while the plot and conflict progresses on a fixed calendar, where managing your available time as a resource is essential, where basically everything in the combat engine comes from, it all comes from here. Persona 3 represents not just a paradigm shift in the Persona series itself, it was so utterly different from every other JRPG out there, and yet, for all its experimentation, it still came together in a fantastic form. Honestly, it’s no wonder this is the model all the rest of the games took after.