A while back I took advantage of an Amazon Lightning Deal to get a PlayStation TV, which in case you don’t know is basically the guts of a Vita in a little box that plugs into your TV. The selection of games for it is relatively limited, but includes a fair amount of JRPGs, including Persona 3 Portable (by way of getting the PSP version through PSN) and Persona 4 Golden. They wound up being among the more compelling video game experiences I’ve had ever, and I can definitely see why a Persona-inspired tabletop RPG is kind of a holy grail for a lot of gamers.
The Persona series is a spinoff of the Megami Tensei series (which began on the Famicom in the 80s), and switches from characters dealing with demons to characters who can call up aspects of their personalities (Personas) to fight Shadows. I’ll probably give the first two games in the series (which were for PS1) a try at some point (maybe when they’re on sale on PSN), but my understanding is that Persona 3 was something of a turning point in that it was where the series became a hybrid of RPG and life simulation game. In Persona 3 your character goes to school, hangs out with friends, and then in the Dark Hour between days he and his fellow persona-users venture into the tower of Tartarus to fight Shadows. (With other encounters and story events along the way.) Where the other characters each have a single persona, your protagonist has an unusual ability to retain multiple personas, and can visit a place called the Velvet Room to (among other things) fuse personas together to create new ones. Socializing with friends thus serves the double purpose of unfolding a character’s storyline and increasing your Social Link ranks, which in turn power up the personas you create via fusion (and once you max out a Social Link, it unlocks the ability to fuse to create a special persona).
The result is something that often feels a lot like a playable anime, and one with a pretty interesting premise and a distinct aesthetic. It covers a lot of standard high school anime tropes, it has an engaging plot, and it has a lot of different options to try. There are different clubs your character can join, and different relationships (including romantic ones) to pursue. It uses the life sim game conceit of having a certain number of turns to use for various purposes, so you have to find your balance between socializing with different characters, doing various things that improve your social stats (which open up certain other interactions, like having enough Courage lets you stomach Fuuka’s cooking long enough to socialize with her in the cooking club), and exploring Tartarus.
The dungeon-crawling combat has enough twists on traditional JRPG gameplay to make it more interesting too. Different characters and enemies react to different elements and attack types differently, so detecting and exploiting enemies’ weaknesses (or at least avoiding their strengths) is a key part of gameplay. Targeting an enemy’s weakness can knock them down, and if all of the enemies are knocked down your party can do an “all-out attack” to cause a boatload of damage (and a Yatterman-style skull-shaped mushroom cloud), but your heroes have elemental weaknesses too (depending on their personas).
Persona 3 Portable added the option to play a female protagonist, which greatly changes the tone of certain bits of the game, mostly for the better I think. The male P3 protagonist comes off as kind of quiet and unsocial (which is a weird choice for a game where forming social links is a central conceit), while his female counterpart is generally more lively and friendly. Her being a girl also greatly affects how she relates to certain characters. The other girls aren’t romantic interests, your protagonist doesn’t get asked to participate in the guys being juvenile horndogs, and while there are romance storylines with the guys, they’re not as much shoved in your face. On the other hand Ken (who is 10 years old during Persona 3) has a crush on the female protagonist (it’s a teacher if you play with the male protagonist) that gets kind of worrisome.
Persona 4 moves the action to the small town of Inaba, and rather than the Dark Hour, the heroes discover another world inside of TV sets. By confronting their own hidden sides, they’re able to acquire the power of the persona, and fight the Shadows. While that’s going on, a murder mystery full of twists and turns unfolds over the course of the game. The characters in P4 are a bit more vivid and fun than in P3, and the willingness to change up major setting elements, shifting from the Dark Hour to the TV world, is really interesting. (Though characters from both games come together in the Persona 4 Arena Ultimax fighting game.)
Persona 4 also just has numerous improvements to gameplay (some of which they folded into Persona 3 Portable). The persona compendium (which lets you register personas and buy copies of them later on) feature makes gathering personas to do specific fusions vastly easier (though you can still waste a pretty ridiculous amount of time on it), you can set the other characters to take direct commands in battle (rather than having the AI mess things up for you), and so on. Persona 4 is also all-around more ambitious with the graphics, the interactions, and the general scope. It actually puts a bit less emphasis on the fighting side of things, since it periodically introduces a dungeon of 10 or so floors and lacks the 200+ floor dungeon of Tartarus. The social interactions are a bit more well-rounded, and where in Persona 3 you’d tend to interact with one character at a time, P4 often has your protagonist’s various friends run into each other.
Weird Little Things
- I kinda wish the other characters had more of a reaction to the protagonist having multiple personas and changing them over time, since it would seem like it defies everything they know about persona-users. That and it’s possible for him to turn up using Satan as his persona.
- Likewise, I have to wonder what the other characters are thinking when the protagonist goes into the Velvet Room to fuse personas for half an hour. Does he vanish completely, or is he just staring into space? And if the latter, do his friends ever take the opportunity to doodle on his face?
- Persona 4 has “quests” where NPCs will ask you for various favors. Some involve mundane stuff like asking another NPC for information, but there are a bunch that involve getting items that Shadows drop. Which seems like it should be a bad idea. “I got a board for your desk like you asked. Don’t worry about the gray face on it that screams when it rains.”
- Similarly, rewards for quests can include items that are only really useful in otherworldly dungeons. “Thanks for finding me a new miniskirt. Here’s five keys for treasure chests in another dimension or something.”
- Yousuke is horny teenager, and he is also generally a font of bad ideas that the game doesn’t let you shut down. Getting a scooter works out okay though.
- Every time you raise a Social Link’s rank there’s a flash of white and it shows you the new S-link rank. I can’t help but imagine the hapless protagonist flailing around shouting “Gah! I can’t see!” every time he becomes closer to someone.
- I derive way too much amusement from how in Persona 4 Teddie will shout “BEARSONA!” In the Japanese version he apparently ended every sentence with “kuma” (bear), and in the English version they localized his speech with lots of bear puns, which I heartily endorse. My next RPG character will very likely be a weirdo in a kigurumi suit.
- One nice change in Persona 4 Golden (the enhanced PS Vita version of P4) is that you can get the “True Ending” on the first play-through, albeit with 10+ additional hours of gameplay. Overall this was a lot of fun–and let me spend more time with the characters–but one of the special dungeons takes away all of your items and constantly drains your SP (which you spend to cast spells), which made it a pretty obnoxious departure from the rest of the game. (Though since my characters were at level 90+ it wasn’t actually hard.)
There are a few other Persona games I’d like to play, though those would involve buying hardware (a 3DS for Persona Q and a PS3 for Persona 4 Arena and the upcoming Persona 5) that I can’t really afford right now. But it seems to have rekindled my thing for JRPGs, so we’ll see what comes of that. In the meantime I’ve been watching the Persona 4 anime, which is actually really fun (and both the Japanese and English audio tracks have most of the game’s voice cast) and generally does a lot of neat things with the characters.
A while ago I’d had the idea of making a Persona-inspired alternate setting for Magical Burst, to be titled “Zero Hour.” Over the course of playing through the games the idea evolved into a more extensive retooling of the MB rules, and also something I really want to make happen. The widely variance in the secrets behind things between P3 and P4 points to developing the setting differently in each individual campaign like in Magical Burst, and both settings involve characters with special powers trying to balance that with their everyday lives. (Though I definitely want to look at other titles more or less in the same genre like Shakugan no Shana and Night Wizard.)
It’s going to be a bit tricky to figure out just how much of the video games to really put into the RPG. It’s a single-player video game, so there are a lot of things about it that don’t necessarily translate well. Making persona fusion that isn’t a massive time sink would be a major challenge for example, and making the elemental specialization of personas work is harder when it can potentially totally eliminate a given player’s ability to participate in a key part of the game. The anime adaptations also depict things a bit differently. In the Persona 3 movies the characters wield specially made weapons to fight shadows and periodically summon their personas to cast spells, while in the Persona 4 anime series they pretty much exclusively have personas fight for them, and battles are more a matter of finding the right strategy rather than wearing down the opposition (which sometimes boils down to the protagonist picking the right persona to use). An RPG that simulated the fiction of the anime would be pretty different from one that stuck close to the video games.
A few other random ideas:
- I do want to mess around with the tarot card element seen in the Persona games (and stuff like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure), possibly including assigning each character an arcana and using the cards to randomly generate dungeons.
- The skirmish/full battle distinction from Magical Burst would slot nicely into Zero Hour, and would make those dungeons much more manageable.
- Persona 3 had gun-shaped invokers for characters to trigger their powers, while Persona 4 had them manifest and strike at glowing cards. I’m thinking Zero Hour will let you determine what your character’s “avatar focus” is, with examples like glasses, books, remote controls, musical instruments, etc.