Ode to Persona

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It’s not the best time for a guy who loves the turn-based RPG, but there have been a few series that have kept the turn-based fires alive.

Around the Internet, and frankly, around the Imprint office, the hype was high for the latest entry in the cult favourite series, Persona, with the latest release, Persona 5.

No lie, I’ve watched that trailer far too much. The black on red aesthetic, the stylish dance moves, skating on a road. I love the Persona series, and, as the growing fan base and numerous spinoff and anime adaptations will attest to, lots of others love it as well. 

Why the love for the series though?

Originally a spinoff, the Shin Megami Tensei series really hit a chord when Persona 3 offered a new, funky take on the RPG. A dark dungeon crawler with visual novel aspects, and a striking, if controversial, combat mechanic of shooting yourself in the face to summon your Persona. It was immediately a cult hit.

A lot of it has to do with using simplistic gameplay elements in compelling, interesting, and often stylish ways. The simple turn-based combat is coloured by exploiting enemy weaknesses, granting One More turn, or even an All Out Attack dogpile. 

Of course, as well as you can knock down enemies, they can knock you down, too. A one-sided battle can turn into a complete wipe with the wrong luck. It’s just a simple, snappy, and immediately gratifying way to do combat. Every move has potential, and every perpetration counts.

The titular Persona are analogous to Pokémon; helpful spirits, or demons rather, that grant you abilities in battle. One may have the right moves to exploit an enemy weakness or have a resistance to an enemy’s moves. While you level your character, and by extension the Persona you have equipped just as you would any RPG, to really get new and more powerful combinations of Persona you have to get more social links.

How do you do that? By going to school and making friends. Because this is also a visual novel/dating sim of sorts. And this really works because the characters are often a lot of fun, and have some deep stuff going on with them: Junpei’s goofball antics. The robotic Aegis’ struggle at selfhood. Chie’s plucky kung-fu and steak obsessions. Yukiko’s struggle between her family business and her own aspirations, and Mitsuru’s general awesomeness.

And not only does this deliver some good story, it actively powers up your abilities in combat. The social and battle aspects of the game perfectly combine to make a very unique experience.

But the real thing that makes the whole Persona experience shine is just the unhindered style of it all. Persona 3’s dark blue menus and brooding over memento mori. Persona  4’s yellow motif with a plucky supernatural crime solving group. And now what seems to be a group of thieves dancing like they just don’t care in front of a red panel sky in Persona 5.

I’m not a graphic designer, but damn if the menus and UI of the Persona series aren’t a wonder to behold. Bold blue or yellow colours and imagery intended to mirror the overall theme of the game, rather than mechanically offer options and settings — Persona 5’s seem to have reached a new pinnacle. Even when just shopping or selecting equipment, it is like the game is dancing. Bright colours and dynamic movements are a wonder to behold. Not a dull blue menu, but a red screen with a young man’s hand in defiance in front of the camera and menu options in large graffiti letters. Now that’s a menu.

And the music. The music. Funky jazz or J-rock, both with accompanying rap sections, should not work as a battle theme, but it does. “Burn My Dread,” “Mass Destruction,” “Reach out to the Truth” — the grindy nature of an RPG gets heightened when you’re just grooving your way through. 

And bear in mind, these are easily 80+ hour games. This sounds too much, and I would usually agree, but… there’s something about this series. The effortless merging of immense amounts of style with the simple-but-strategic and satisfying combat. It’s like having a “style sauna” you can just rest with for an hour or so, take it all in, and feel invigorated with an experience that’s all about style and smoothness.

Final Fantasy has the popularity. But Persona, man. The Persona series dances.

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