Persona 5: What We Want To See
When Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 released in North America, it hit gamers like a shot to the head. The next-generation was well underway, yet this bizarre PS2 title—a fusion of Japanese dating simulators with RPG mechanics calling for players to shoot themselves to summon demons based upon world religions in a Jungian representation of urban Japan—swayed many. That's an impressive feat in itself, and even more impressive was the quick release of Persona 4, its true sequel that built upon the core gameplay elements of chatting up friends, then slaying monster inside TVs. Atlus has been a friendly company to North American gamers, releasing every version of these two games, as well as rereleasing the original Persona from the PS1 to the PSP. It's a franchise that went from cult-classic to standard bearer for intelligent game design.
Unfortunately, little to none has been talked about for a new adventure in the world of Persona. While the Persona team finishes the sexual puzzle platformer Catherine, one hopes some progress is being made on the fifth true entry of the series. Who knows, maybe 2011 could be the year we see something new from the franchise. If Atlus is truly working on Persona 5, there are some major and minor issues we hope they address to truly take the franchise mainstream.
First and foremost, Atlus needs to be smart what console they bring this game to. It's pretty much a given that the PS2 will not be the place Persona 5 shows up. Rumors have pointed that Persona 5 may be a PS3 exclusive. If they used the Catherine engine, this could very well be the truth, and could be fine, although an 360 port would be appreciated. However, there is also confirmation of a Persona game coming to the 3DS. This was announced back in E3 during Nintendo's press conference, and while this is neither a confirmation of Persona 5 for the 3DS, or a remake of a previous Persona title, the prospects of a stylized Persona game in 3D is exciting indeed. Fingers crossed that wherever Persona 5 turns out to be, it looks better than the PS2 predecessors.
Moving on, the core element of relationships in Persona games are functionally sound. No other franchise has taken two such oddly different genres and made them one. Persona 3 and 4 have made social simulators somehow perfect foundational fodder for a supernatural RPG. However, social links are not perfect. While the player is able to make decisions and speak up at times, the things they say don't really make much of an impact on the story. What Persona 5 should do is take a page from Bioware, and use some sort of Good/Evil dichotomy. Let the player's response actually mean something as opposed to following the preordained path of the developers.
Social links also break down realism after a certain point. For example, in Persona 3, it is fairly easy to date all of the romantic options. Once the social link maxes out, there is some implied consummation of the relationship, and then the player never has to date the girl again. For a franchise that rather smartly replicates the angst of being a teenager, the fact that you can be intimately involved with someone and then just have it end is weird. Again, if Atlus forces players to make serious choices about their social links, it could make for a more dynamic game. Ultimately, Atlus needs to make the relationships a little bit smarter near the end of the game. Oh, and hell, they've danced around the issue well enough, they should allow for male and female gender choices like in Persona 3 Portable, and allow for homosexual relationships. Kanji took it pretty far in Persona 4, Catherine (another game made by the Persona team) is tackling sexuality full throttle, and Persona 5 can take this issue in a smart and grown up fashion.
Speaking of growing up, it's time we moved out of high school. The first Persona, half of Persona 2, Persona 3, and Persona 4 all took place in Japanese high schools. This alone has provided much fodder for Western gamers to peek into the lives of Japanese teenagers. The writers of the series are amazing, creating fairly believable characters who are beloved on both sides of the Pacific. However, you talk to many Persona fan, and the general impression is that the high school thing is getting a little...old. Four games in, and none of the characters have gotten older than 18! I propose that Atlus delve into some other period of a person's life. Japanese university life is distinct from our own, and could allow for more mature gameplay and story moments. Outside of a school setting, placing the game in a Japanese business office, alone a notorious mess of cultural uniqueness, would provide the repetitive daily interactions necessary for a Persona game, as well as allow for newer and more varied social links. Hell, some Western fans are asking that the game should take place outside of Japan, although this is unlikely to happen. The possibilities are actually quite broad, and if fans look outside of the high school, there are plenty of new places for characters to adventure.
Of course, the balance between the often dark and shocking nature of the games with the light-hearted teenage humor is something that will need to be kept to the forefront. I think young twentysomethings could offer a lot toward bridging these two contrasting tones, although I don't think anything will be as shocking as teenagers shooting themselves in the head. Wherever Atlus takes Persona 5, I seriously hope it's not a high school.
This could also afford developers a chance for even more fan nods in the game. One nice moment in Persona 4 was running into Chihiro from Persona 3, or seeing a younger Yukiko in Persona 3 Portable. Sure, it didn't do much for the story, but it was a nice surprise all the same. Setting Persona 5 an additional three or four years after Persona 4 could allow for more cameos. Setting Persona 5 in college or in a work environment could allow for some neat and surprising returns of familiar faces.
Outside of the story and character relations, there are some basic gameplay elements that could be tightened up. For example, the schedule of events. One thing we can probably expect from a new Persona game is a play off of “things outside of our control.” For example, Persona 3 used the phases of the moon to control the order of events, and in Persona 4, it was the weather. Whatever Atlus decides to use as the foundation for the surreal events bound to happen, a better calendar would be appreciated. For a game about interacting with people and going on dates between slaughtering bizarre manifestations of teenage sexual identity, it would be nice to have everything cataloged in one calendar. This is Japan. Everyone has cell phones. It wouldn't be hard to let everything be placed in one easy spot so players can better choose the direction they want to take, as opposed to accidentally hanging out with the jock when they really wanted to drink tea at the coffee house or sing karaoke.
Additionally, the battle system needs some work. One area that Persona 4 fixed over Persona 3 was a pretty simple one: giving players full control over the party members. This alone made the game that much easier to play, as well as allowed the developers to make the battles harder. Another big change was allowing players to check out what exactly the spells they were using meant. Bufala, Nervundi and Dekaja may all be really cool sounding names, but without Persona 4's "info" button, they might as well be...Japanese.
But when all is said and done, the battle system in Persona 3 and 4 were never the best part of the games. They follow the traditional JRPG turn-based, rock-paper-scissors system in a way that was fun, but it's getting old now. What I propose is to take this battle system and make it much more dynamic. For example, the system links mechanic only made an impact on the demon fusion. What if the game went real-time? What if player's relationships with other characters had a much stronger impact on the battles themselves. What if your Sun Arcana relationship with the old man down the street results in an exclusive spell, or special weapons, or modifications to equipment. What if Atlus made the actual, non-persona related physical attack useful, possibly tied to social links? There are a few things that could be done to make the battle system more interesting. For radical to minute changes, something should be done.
Also, an area that fans love, yet rarely understand, is the fusion system. A complex jumble of collected demons, the Velvet Room, Igor, Social Links, etc. the fusion system functions better by luck than anything else. Trying to figure out if this Sun Arcana demon will make a Star Arcana demon with some other demon, or three demons, or even six demons, is all very complex, and not very fun. If Atlus can make the system a million times easier to use, we'd be on the right path. However, at the end of the day, it's very difficult to “collect 'em all”
Finally, Atlus needs to fix the dungeons. While the town of Inaba and the city of Iwatodai were beautifully realized contemporary towns, the dungeons in Persona are drab and boring. Persona 3 was a worse offender, with very little changing in the appearance of a dungeon, and all the levels being nothing more than randomly generated rooms attached to each other. Persona 4 was an improvement, allowing for each dungeon to better represent the psychosis of the person inside. Ranging from 8-bit videogames, strip clubs, and even bath houses of ill repute, these actually told as much for the story as the characters themselves. However, it didn't stop many of the areas to become mind-numbingly dull and repetitive. Thus Atlus should invest some serious time in making sure that the dungeons of Persona 5 look and feel as dynamic and alive as the cities and characters of the rest of the game. Wandering through yet another hallway would be a major disappointment for what would hopefully be a next gen title.
So that's what we have to say about the future of Persona. With some thoughtful changes and the always rocking storyline, Persona 5 could be the next big RPG. Now we've just got the slow wait until Atlus announces the game, and we'll be slaughtering evil demons in a crazy unreal world once more.