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It took two decades for PlayStation’s best JRPG series to find itself

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How Persona evolved from a niche spinoff to a mega-hit

PS Vita Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

PlayStation is the console family for Japanese role-playing games. As the de facto home for RPGs following the Super Nintendo era, it’s enjoyed everything from Final Fantasy VII, Xenogears, and Suikoden to Ni No Kuni and Kingdom Hearts. Twenty-five years after the launch of the original PlayStation, however, its greatest offering is also its most improved: the Persona series, created by Atlus.

The developer’s most recent entry in the franchise, Persona 5, is a commercial success that’s sold more than 3.2 million copies worldwide — a long way from its beginnings as a niche spinoff series. In 1996, Atlus, best known for its work on demon-filled JRPG series Megami Tensei, released Revelations: Persona. While it didn’t completely trade away the dark tone of Atlus’ previous role-playing games, Revelations put its focus on a group of high school students who gain the ability to summon Personas — a sort of supernatural being that represents the inner self. The series is heavy on Jungian psychological and tarot, using both to weave in bigger ideas about the nature of existence.

persona

Revelations and follow-ups Persona 2: Innocent Sin and Persona 2: Eternal Punishment followed the same formula, cementing the series as one rooted in teenage fantasy, but its crucial turn came in 2006. Persona 3 introduced the series’ now core social sim elements: a year-long calendar; personality attributes, like charm, that you raise over the course of the game; and relationship building. The combination of dungeon crawling, time-based systems, and gameplay that rewarded players for taking time to slow down and bond with strangers set the series apart from juggernauts like Final Fantasy. Most popular JRPGs followed a straight and narrow path with little room for change; Persona 3 toyed with the idea of day-to-day impact and player-driven investment.

Wrapped up in its design improvements and fantastical story was a darker, sometimes poignant tale that sorted through themes like depression, grief, and loss. Death is a familiar concept to many of the cast, from those who’ve lost family to others who suffer from terminal illnesses. In order to unleash their Personas, the game’s heroes shoot themselves in the head with special guns called “evokers.” People in the game’s world struggle with “apathy syndrome,” an affliction that, like depression, makes it difficult to do even the most basic day-to-day tasks. Amid its consistently dark imagery, Persona 3 offers a hypothesis that while existence is pain and humanity will always hurt, salvation is other people.

That hopeful message has become a sort of through line for the series. Persona 4 veers sharply away from P3’s thematic colors of dark blues and greens for a bright, sunny yellow to accompany the story of a group of high school friends hunting for a murderer. It’s more Scooby Doo than CSI; at every turn it insists that friendship and love will save us yet.

Two decades after the first game, Atlus released its greatest iteration of the series to date: Persona 5, a polished execution of its already established ideas. The game’s cast is essentially a band of teenage superheroes. Each one is a rebel against society, disguised in an outlandish costume as they attempt to solve problems by changing the hearts of corrupt people. From the very first brush a player has with its world, Persona 5 is stylish. Its vibrant colors and flashy interface are designed to help players navigate a lot of complex systems as painlessly as possible. The more time you spend it its world, the more it expands with new friends, jobs, places to explore, and so on.

Image: Atlus

Persona has even spawned a variety of spinoffs of its own. Atlus’ experiments with the series span fighting games like Persona 4 Arena, dungeon crawler mashups with Persona Q, and rhythm dancing games like Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight. An action RPG from Dynasty Warriors dev Omega Force centered around Persona 5’s cast is currently being developed for PS4 and Switch.

As the series has evolved over four generations of PlayStation hardware, it’s tapped into a power fantasy rooted in seeking goodness in others. Every piece of Persona 5 feeds into the hopeful ways in which we can change, whether it’s working on self-improvement by taking on jobs or helping others through their problems. In Persona, Atlus has found a way to make even the most saccharine ideas an adventure.