Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Shin Megami Tensei, Pokemon, Mother, Tales of, and Persona. Any fan of role playing games would do well to familiarize themselves with these series (And before any of you crawl up my ass about it, yes I consider Persona and SMT to be two different series. All the games since Persona 4 Golden have lacked the SMT name and have taken more risks with different game genres.). Over here in The West™, we have our own tradition of RPGs from Dungeons and Dragons and Mass Effect to Fallout and The Elder Scrolls. However, when I think of RPGs, I think of the turn-based combat of the first 10 Final Fantasy games and the Mother series, and not the shooter like, or strategy combat of its western peers. Though it’s very much up to personal preference, I know quite a few people who would agree with me when I say that Final Fantasy defined what RPGs are. Now, if you aren’t a JRPG fan, I don’t think this blog post will do anything to change your mind. The only thing that can do that, is a playthrough of Persona 5. But why? What makes Persona 3, 4, and 5 so damn interesting that even people who don’t like turn-based JRPGs go “Huh, that game is okay.”? I believe it has to do with how the story is presented, but I’m ahead of myself. First up, a little look at the past.
The original Final Fantasy, was slow. You’d wander around the map, getting into random, turn-based battles and slowly power up your team of four. It was grindy, and I can’t really play it for very long before getting frustrated. FF1’s pacing and format was perfect for making you feel like you were going on a world spanning quest. With a more methodical approach to battle, the devs were able to focus a lot of the time outside battle on telling the story, and while I don’t think Final Fantasy stories really came into their own until FF4, the first three games in the series showed the devs’ clear interest in using the medium to tell epic stories.
Here’s a question, what would happen if took all the wandering around and repetitive combat of the standard JRPG and threw it in the trash, instead focusing solely on telling your story? I’ll tell you. You’d end up with a visual novel. For the uninitiated, a visual novel is a partially voice acted video game with little or no gameplay beyond clicking dialogue options. Visually, it usually consists of images of characters presented alongside dialogue boxes, and the occasional full screen image. I realize that description sucks, so here are some images of what I’m talking about.
I hope that made this clearer. Now, full disclosure here, my experience with visual novels starts with Danganronpa and Ace Attorney, and ends with Nekojishi and Night in the Woods, so I don’t claim to be an expert in the genre, but the ones I’ve read (played?) have really held my interest. They’re like a natural midpoint between anime, manga, and video games. From what I’ve seen, VNs generally tell very interesting stories and even though the most choice you’re usually offered is who you want to talk to, it still feels good to make that choice and learn about the other characters (because more often than not, you’re experiencing the story from the eyes of one of the characters). But what would happen if we took this really cool way of telling a story, and also stuck a JRPG into it? Enter Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3.
In 2007, Persona 3, the fourth game in the Shin Megami Tensei spin-off series, came out and revamped everything SMT had been doing up to that point. It sported a story full of intriguing symbolism, great visual design, some staples of the SMT franchise, and a bunch of new bells and whistles. The first big change was the battle system, which was the first iteration of the now famous 1MORE battle system (or Press Turn lite if you prefer). The second big change came in the form of Social Links. Essentially, your character’s strength in persona 3, 4, and 5 is directly tied to the protagonist’s relationship with their friends and associates. This addition split the game in two. Half the time, you’d be running through dungeons, killing monsters and leveling up, and the other half, you’d be wandering around your town, hanging out with friends, advancing their subplots and passing time making sure your protagonist doesn’t fail in school. The connection between the two is the strongest in Persona 5, where almost every level grants you a huge buff, from the ability to change out party members mid battle, to the fortune teller who can increase your relationship with someone without needing to spend time with them. The days themselves are split into two main segments. You get to take one action after school, and one at night, before bed. An action, for the sake of clarification is either increasing a stat, or spending time with a friend. Shopping and walking around do not advance time. These segments are basically 100% visual novel with occasional minigames and RPG shopping and menu navigation. What makes this so brilliant, is that beyond the mechanical tie between the RPG and visual novel segments, the turn-based nature of battle is reflected in how you have to pick how to spend your limited number of days before the end of the game.
Persona was the inevitable outcome of JRPGs. As far back as they existed, RPGs were trying to tell an immersive, interactive story. Visual novels attempted to do something similar by telling their stories from a second person perspective, but they lacked the gameplay and interaction that kept people invested. Persona combines these two very similar types of storytelling into a winning formula that gives us both strategic combat, and deep stories with fleshed out characters. The two halves don’t even feel dissonant because the turn-based nature of JRPGs mirrors the slower pace of visual novels and makes them a real match made in heaven.
Just some last minute clarification, I ain’t saying Persona was the first game to do any of this. I’m just saying they did it best.