Style. It’s a certain aspect that any video game series develops over time. Whether it be inventing a revolutionary gameplay mechanic, creating its own radical art design, or composing an iconic score that will be remembered for years to come every budding franchise attempts to accomplish one of these. Sometimes, though, these passionate creators hope to do something greater. To not only impact the gaming industry as a whole but their audiences as well. To tell a story that goes with the times of the day and send a message that is all too real and profound. This has always been the purpose of the Persona series since the very beginning. A spin off purpose built as a gateway for casual audiences, Persona could have been nothing, a simple blip on the industry’s radar that fade away forever. Its developers never let that happen. Dedicating themselves to the cause they’d use what little they had to craft something far more poignant then Persona’s creator. Something new. Something unique. Something that would go down right to their very soul.
It all began with an if, and a big one at that. Atlus, a rather prominent video game developer and publisher, had wanted to scale down their mega hit series Shin Megami Tensei. They didn’t want to change the amount of games they were creating nor the number of developers they had on staff, no they were looking to scale down the type of threat that their protagonists would be facing. You see Shin Megami Tensei games were massive in scope with protagonists fighting off the demonic horde as they attempt to invade the country of Japan, certainly a harrowing ordeal. This was a great concept yet limiting in the long run as they couldn’t tell any contained stories that didn’t have the fate of the world on the line. So, the obvious course of action was a spin-off of their own making. This what if scenario would end up becoming Shin Megami Tensei If… released on October 28, 1994. Instead of setting it in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo they’d go for a rural town and more specifically your average Japanese high school. There wouldn’t be any large cults or factions that clash over their ideologies. The core of its story would revolve around Ideo Hazama, a young boy bullied and wronged by his peers who summons demon in an effort to be rid of them forever. Everything goes horribly wrong in the process as the entire school is pulled into the demonic realm with the main character included. Setting out to stop Hazama, the newly declared emperor of the land, they recruit humans and demons alike in an effort to stop his misdeeds. Just like in the original Megami Tensei or MegaTen series your choices have some wait to them as depending on who you choose to party up with at the beginning the entire game will change. Along the way the game pretty much plays the same way as any other title in the franchise with monster recruitment and taking advantage of enemy weaknesses being essential to victory. There was one interesting mechanic that they added in to spice things up though, the Guardian system. Each human character has their own Guardian Spirit, one that teaches them brand new skills and alters their stats. There is one catch though. Whenever a party member falls in battle the Guardian Spirit is swapped out with another one, coming with its own unique set of skills and abilities. Determined by the strength of the Guardian gauge in battle, this small addition did much to add more variety to the gameplay and set Shin Megami Tensei If apart from the crowd. Its high school setting was also a surprising boon for the series as many fans were now clamoring for another MegaTen game to take advantage of it; and Atlus was more than willing to oblige.
Beginning development just after the release of If in 1994, Atlus had decided to do something drastic and create an entirely new sub series that honed in on that high school setting and the inner struggles of young adults. Focusing on issues that would hit closer to home and relying less on the fantastical elements, save the gameplay, this would be a bold new direction for the MegaTen series as they continued into this untrodden territory. For such a project, both new and old talent would be needed to make it a reality. Old talent so that the project would have a stable development cycle and fit in with the brand and new talent so that they could inject a certain uniqueness into the series that made it stand out from the crowd. For the project lead Kouji Okada, the director of every single Megami Tensei title since the RPG’s inception in 1987 and one of the six founders of Atlus itself, would helm the project and keep everything from going overboard. Another prominent figure was Kazuma Kaneko, the character designer; another veteran who’d been working on the franchise since Megami Tensei 2. Together, these two helped to push the initial concept for the series. Based upon their own life experience, the two wanted to keep If’s high school setting and take advantage of that aspect. Nearly everyone experiences being a student at some point in their lives. It was something everyone could relate to, representing a time of both learning and personal freedom. In their eyes, this approach would help players to accept the themes they would present in the game and in any title thereafter if it proved to be a success. Kaneko in particular wanted to recreate his experiences during that time in life and how it made him the man he was today. However, he still needed a story to help hone in his inspirations and Satomi Tadashi was the right man for the job.
New to the production team and the franchise in general, Tadashi was the perfect candidate for the games writer, a fresh start that the game seriously needed. With no bias to any of the previous entries he could go all in and write a story that was fantastical yet eminently relatable. Atlus wanted the project to appeal to a more casual audience then the core MegaTen series so while his storytelling could be dark at times it could never go to the depths that the franchise had reached before. With all this weighing on him, it would take some time before Tadashi could complete his work, nearly half the development cycle in fact. During this time, he and the staff went through over twenty drafts of material which were excessively pruned down until completion. Through these various renditions of their new tale their focus on the inner struggles of young adults began to narrow to that of the figurative human soul and the true nature of human beings. Their series would be about people coming to terms with themselves and accepting every part of their being, so, an appropriate title was needed. What immediately came to mind was the word, Persona. Meaning the aspect of someone’s character that is presented to or perceived by others, it was the perfect vehicle for their message. Unraveling the true nature of ourselves and taking it for what we will; it just fit so perfectly. However, Atlus still needed to denote its status as a spinoff for the series, making the title Megami Ibunroku a necessary one. Thus, Megami Ibunroku: Persona was born.
Taking its high school inspirations to heart, Persona starts off in 1996 at St. Hermelin High School in the fictional town of Mikage-cho. Hidehiko Uesugi has convinced his friends, and in turn the main protagonist, to play a game called Persona, a ritual not unlike the real life Bloody Mary. But something goes wrong and the protagonist and his friends quickly lost consciousness due to some unknown entity. Waking up in the mysterious realm of Philemon, the protagonist is given the power to wield Persona’s, beings of immense power that come from the depths of the human soul. Awakening from his slumber alongside his friends, at the behest of their teacher they head to the local hospital to check on their friend Maki only to find the town under attack from demons, the manifestations of people’s inner darkness. Resolving to uncover the reason behind the demonic invasion, the protagonist and company set out to save their hometown in whatever way they can. However, the demons are only a set up for the real conflict of Persona, the characters struggle with their true selves. The revolving cast all have something hidden and throughout the course of your journey it’s all revealed in surprising ways with the protagonist helping to guide them on their path.
To make this work they’d have to be compelling and standout from the rest of the crowd, a job fit for Kaneko as the character designer. Taking inspiration from notable celebrities and fictional characters of the time, along with several Atlus staff members as well, he tried to differentiate themselves from one another which proved difficult due to the majority of them having to wear the same uniforms. To balance this, he had them express their individuality through accessories like hats, various other attire, and even some hair dye to go along with it; anything to make them unique really. Maki Sonomura, a constantly ill girl with a case of multiple personalities separate from her true self; Kei Nanjō, the arrogant heir to the Nanjo fortune whose cold logic hinders him at times; Yukino Mayuzumi, a reformed gang member; Hidehiko Uesugi, the resident class clown who puts on a facade of strength to cover his true weaknesses; Yuka Ayase, a shallow and blunt girl who consciously acts like a stereotypical “high school girl”; Masao Inaba, a kind hearted yet spoiled troublemaker; Eriko Kirishima, a woman with half-American parentage with an interest in the occult; and Reiji Kido, a venegeful, antisocial transfer student. These were the scarred individuals that would make up Persona’s cast. Kaneko’s pride and joy, though, was the creation of the Velvet Room, a space separate from reality. Run by the eerie, yet polite, Igor its creation was inspired by the Black Lodge from the cult classic show Twin Peaks, a very fitting source to derive from considering Persona’s outlook on storytelling.
But Persona’s weren’t just for show, they were your only hope of defeating the demonic horde. A fusion of the standard Megami Tensei battle system and a revamped version of the Guardian Spirits from Shin Megami Tensei If, battles take place on a grid based battlefield with characters’ and enemies’ movements being determined by their placement. When the battle begins you can either choose to attack your opponents with melee weapons, firearms, or even your very own Persona. A spirit that enables spellcasting for each party member at hand, these Persona can be swapped out on the fly to capitalize on the enemy’s weak points, a Megami Tensei staple. Persona level up alongside the player at their own pace and can be earned through a variety of ways. Like in past Megami Tensei titles you can strike a bargain with the demons, eliciting a certain response based on their personality. These can result in them running away from a fight, attacking you out of spite, giving you a special item, or even a special tarot card that can help in the creation of a new Persona. You see every character, demon, and Persona belongs to a certain Arcana found in any tarot card deck. The Fool, The Chariot, The Magician and more. All of these define a certain person within Persona, and gaining these cards allows you to take them to the Velvet Room, and to Igor, for fusion. Using this system is essential to gameplay, resulting in more powerful Personas and interesting combinations for battle. You could build your party to be whatever you liked as long as you had the time and wit to outwit your adversaries and gain the Personas you needed.
However, there was still one last puzzle piece missing from their project, an iconic soundtrack. Several composers would step up to the plate for this effort such as Hidehito Aoki, Misaki Okibe, and Kenichi Tsuchiya, however, none would be as influential as Shoji Meguro. Motivated like Kaneko by the creation of the Velvet Room, his very first piece was Aria of the Soul, the theme of the room in question. Instantly recognizable and emblematic of what the series would be, with its menacing yet calming tones just fitting Persona so well. With the rest of the composers in tow they’d craft a score that was very different from many of the popular RPG’s of the time, with the orchestral tracks mixed in with rock and electronica to help mix things up quite a bit.
Persona was slowly shaping up to be something very very different from what it was originally intended to be. Atlus and its employees were enthralled with the characters, setting, story, and gameplay so much that their main series was start to get delayed. Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne was put on hold indefinitely until they finished Persona and possibly its sequels if the project succeeded. And succeed it did as it went on to sell over 400,000 copies in Japan, far exceeding anything the original Megami Tensei series had ever achieved. It was a breakout success for Atlus who’d always been lagging behind the heavy hitters such as Square or Enix and a surprise in and of itself as somehow the spinoff has succeeded the original. Playing to a more casual crowd and amping up the high school setting had done wonders for them. It seems, though, they knew it would be a hit from the start as Atlus had already been working on an American localization, a first for such a massive title in the series. This wouldn’t be a walk in the park like the development, however. It would be fraught with difficulty and mishaps.
The localization of Persona would be done by none other than Atlus’s newly opened North American branch, Atlus U.S.A. By why Persona over all their other franchises? Hoping to cement the MegaTen franchise as a leading RPG series among the likes of Final Fantasy, Suikoden, and Breath of Fire, Persona was chosen specifically because of its high school setting and relatability to younger gamers. A perfect fit for their needs. However, in their eyes, there needed to be significant changes made the material. The Megami Tensei series heavily used Christian imagery in their stories, something the Japanese could care less for but the Americans would never stand for. The removal of these wouldn’t have been a big deal, but then they started to be more drastic with their changes. The localization team, small as it may be, went through the arduous task of translating the entire game into English but fear gripped the team throughout; fear of alienating Western players. So, every single reference to Japan and Japanese culture was scrubbed away leaving an Americanized RPG with Japanese students becoming American ones and even one of the characters having their race completely altered to fit in with the demographic. Critics and hardcore fans alike were obviously appalled by this blatant censorship that unfortunately went with the times as many an RPG lost its Japanese roots as everything in the in America had to be “Made In America”. Still, Persona, now released as Revelations: Persona due to Atlus’s American rebranding, was a sleeper hit. It never received the mountains of fame and success that the Final Fantasy series has earned but it was a cult classic in its own right.
Persona was never meant to reach the heights that it attained. A spin-off of a spin-off meant to capitalize on an audience that never would play their main hardcore franchise, its origins were obscure to say the least. But with a change in pace comes a change in mindset as the high school and real-world setting allowed for more complex storytelling that tugged on the heartstrings just a bit more. Compelled by their own experiences during their youth, the developers sought to bring what we all struggled with at the age to the forefront, who we truly were and wanted to be in life. Will a stellar narrative, enthralling characters, and addictive battle system, Persona was the culmination of everything that the Megami Tensei had achieved since its inception. Its fans were addicted, its developers were too. They should’ve moved on to the next great Megami Tensei game. But their Personas were calling to them. A sequel just needed to be made.