In The Beginning…
A defining theme, a signature style, an undeniable motif, these are things that the Persona series lacked. While their titles had told genre defining tales for the time they lacked a certain charm that they needed to break away from the franchises niche roots. Persona had been purpose built to appeal to the masses and introduce Shin Megami Tensei in a more relatable way, however, this plan of action had been all but a failure. The mega franchise had failed to grow in the way they wanted it to and their spinoff had only enjoyed the same modest success they had been living in for over a decade when it was supposed to increase it tenfold. Persona just wasn’t going to cut it anymore. Priorities needed to be shifted, drastic changes were to be implemented, and this budding franchise was to be cut off for good. A hiatus with seemingly no end, as the years went on the memories of Persona would begin to fade slowly yet surely. The series thought provoking message and timely tales of yesterdays were gone for good. But there was still light at the end of the tunnel. One man still believed in what Persona had to say and how the franchise could change everything.
An Unending Hiatus, Broken
With development wrapped up on Persona 2: Eternal Punishment after its roaring success for such a bizarre sequel, the franchise hit a roadblock; a roadblock by the name of Shin Megami Tensei. The main franchise could no longer be ignored and over half a decade later its sequel desperately needed to be made. And so, development on Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, a game that had been in the conceptual phases ever since the second entry, finally began and Persona was put on indefinite hiatus. Every single veteran team member within Atlus was attached to the new project from Kouji Okada to Kazuma Kaneko so it would have been impossible to get a sequel off the ground in the first place. Thusly, Persona was dead for the three years Nocturne was in development. No ideas were being thought of, no characters were being created, there was simply nothing, nothing at all. Three years later and things had slightly changed. Everyone from the original team has been freed up and was raring to go to town on a new project. But there was a problem… no one had any idea what to do with it. They couldn’t just continue on from where they’d left off as the prosperity Persona was meant to bring to Atlus just wasn’t there. Persona needed to be reinvented from the ground up and no longer be tied down by the Megami Tensei franchises conventions, it needed to have its own. For this to happen the franchises mainstays Okada, Kaneko, and Satomi needed to step down and pass on the franchise to a fresh group of developers who had either never touched the franchise or only worked on it seldomly. But just like Okada, this team would need a figurehead to help guide the series into a supposedly brighter future, and Atlus had the perfect person in mind. One Katsura Hashino, a man whose origins were intertwined with those of Persona’s.
Hashino had been a budding game designer at Atlus over a decade ago. His first work was on Shin Megami Tensei If… the game that would prompt the company to kickstart the Persona franchise two years later. A planner for the title, most of his work was minor and wouldn’t be noticed by the general public. However, there was one gameplay mechanic that he played a crucial role in creating, the Guardian system; a system that would later be the basis for the Persona system that became an integral part of the series. Without Hashino, Persona may have ended up as something completely different and possibly less groundbreaking. So, when the time came to choose a new director for the third Persona game there was no doubt in Atlus’s mind that he was the right man for the job. Being one of the men who helped revive their main franchise with Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne didn’t hurt either. Luckily for them he’d also been considering taking over the Persona series for quite some time, as he was sick of it being in the standstill it was in. When they asked him to do it he already had a proposal lined up for them. A unique story that centered around human mortality and how death is all but inevitable. His concept would involve characters with various outlooks on both life and death and how their actions would come to shape the players worldview. Every feature, character, mechanic, and tale would all derive from this source, giving the project a solid foundation to stand on. This was just what Atlus was looking for and could prove to be a turning point for them as they were hoping to push their brand globally, more so than they had with the original. A flagship franchise for the company, Persona seemed like the right fit. With Hashino at the helm the results would be grander than they could ever imagine.
Their groundwork for the title began with, of course, the story. Taking up the mantle of a nameless protagonist, just like in the original Persona, you begin as a transfer student returning to the city you once called home Tatsumi Port Island. But things aren’t as they should be. The world has changed, coffins litter the street, and a mysterious boy asks you to sign a contract that you know nothing about. The situation escalates even further when an unknown girl seems poised to fire a gun at you until the world returns to normal and her senior stops her before anything else happens. These two are Mitsuru and Yukari, two of your classmates from your new high school Gekkoukan High, who were waiting for you to arrive. With that bizarre situation seemingly out of the way you start the next day at your school, getting acclimated to high school life, making friends, and generally trying to be a good student. But the oddities in life continue to appear. You end up in the mysterious Velvet Room run by Igor and his assistant Elizabeth, with the former stating that he’ll provide you with his services in the future. Days later, the world is enraptured in darkness yet again with you suddenly being awoken by Yukari and the dormitory seemingly being under attack. You race up to the rooftop to escape only to find yourselves cornered by a mysterious being called a Shadow. Yukari whips out her pistol seemingly to shoot herself but is knocked away before long. Instinctively picking it up, the protagonist fires the gun at his head revealing his Persona, Orpheus, and quickly dispatching the monster. After defeating more Shadows and collapsing from exhaustion, the protagonists wakes up and all is revealed. The gun he used was an Evoker meant to summon Personas. The Shadows that he fought only appear during the Dark Hour, a time between time where humans turn into coffins, a momentous tower called Tartarus appears, and the world is ruled by darkness. Only a select few, including Persona users, stay awake during this hour forcing them to fend for themselves. These few are members of S.E.E.S, the Special Extracurricular Execution Squad, the only one’s brave enough to venture into the heights of Tartarus. Joining this motley crew, and balancing your time between school, you’ll be the one to discover the true cause of the Dark Hour.=
Along the way you, of course, meet other fellow Persona users, each with their own trials and tribulations. All of them have no relation to the original cast, as Hashino wanted to separate his new work from that of the trilogy. This allowed for greater creative freedom for him when he wrote their character arcs and gave the art director reason to go wild with his imagination. Series art director, Kazuma Kaneko, was no longer at the helm. Instead he was replaced by his apprentice of sorts, Shigenori Soejima. Kaneko felt that his drawing style was beginning to become imprinted upon the series; he’d rather not have his work become the series central focus. Believing that Soejima’s stylings were a better fit for the series then his, Kaneko gave up his position and gave it to him, saying that it would be a good experience. Soejima, of course, was terrified because of this, as he’d never been given such a key position before. The series had grown quite a cult following during Kaneko’s tenure and he certainly felt the pressure from the franchises most hardcore fans, however, he was more than willing to step up to the task. The first step that he took was creating a design process that was unique to himself, as he wanted to make something new rather than continuously referring to Kaneko’s work. This came with the adoption of an overarching aesthetic and key color for his design. Persona 3 was billed from the beginning as a tale of despair and death, so the color blue seemed like a natural fit given this and the games urban setting. Blue was also the color of adolescence according to Soejima, which was befitting for the games more in depth look into high school life. When it came to the actual character designs, Soejima reminisced about his own real-world experiences, just like his predecessor. He remembered the people he met and had seen, their outfits and outward appearances, and tried to see what that said about their personalities. He modeled them after real people, although, not too much as whenever he did end up drawing someone he knew he’d alternatively draw a rough sketch while keeping the personality in mind. These thoughts in conjunction with Hashino’s storytelling would form the basis for Persona 3’s colorful yet somber cast of characters.
But character and story can only get you so far. What you truly need is a well-designed game, and the Persona series was a hallmark for that. Using the engine developed for Shine Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, the game was originally designed in a way similar to Persona 2, however, as time went on and the games thematic elements were expanded upon, Persona 3 soon turned into a very, very different beast. Persona had always been similar to most JRPG’s. You strictly followed the story with a few sidequests and activities being thrown in for good measure. Persona 3 threw all of that by the wayside by introducing something rather refreshing for the series, time management. Taking advantage of the high school setting in its entirety, the game takes place over one solid year, starting off in April and ending around March just like any other school in Japan. This choice was made deliberately not only to take advantage of that fact but also to keep with the themes of life and death as symbolically starting the new year off as a transfer student is your characters birth and, as you are told from the very beginning, you will die. Thematic reasons aside, this new dynamic opened up new and intriguing possibilities for the development team. The choice to either spend time in the real world or exploring Tartarus during the Dark Hour was a tough choice. In the real world, you had to act like a real student. You studied, took tests, hung out with friends, or explored the town. All these actions have tangible benefits too. Studying, performing other actions, and choosing correct dialogue choices increases your new social stats Academics, Charm, and Courage. These are a necessity and can gate you off from certain content if you aren’t at the right level, including failing your exams if your academics isn’t high enough. More importantly, these were essential to go down the path of some of the games Social Links, Persona 3’s defining feature.
Hashino and Soejima, together, decided to look at Persona from a fresh, modern perspective to see where they could truly innovate with the franchise. Exploring the root of the word in Jungian psychology, the works of famed psychologist Carl Jung which much of the series is based on, they saw that everyone puts up a face, or a mask if you will, for any given situation. For example, if you’re at work you may put on a “work” Persona that makes you out to be a cheery, happy go lucky individual while at home you’re a depressed, sarcastic one. When you communicate with someone, you may have a Persona dedicated to that type of person. The conflict between the true self and the fake self that we all put on to get through the day, this was what the Social Link system was defined by. As you meet new characters and get to know your friends their corresponding Arcana and social rank increases resulting in better Persona for you to find and fuse. Over the course of the year as you learn more about these troubled individuals, their pasts, and their futures you come to care about them sincerely in a more intimate way then you could in past Persona titles. But as with real life, you could make these people hate your guts. Persona 3 had elements of dating simulators as well. Every female protagonist was dateable, yet unlike in a fictional dating simulator if you cheat on any of them they will find out and they will despise you for it resulting in a Reverse Social Link and possible causing you to lose all the Persona from a specific Arcana. Incorrect dialogue choices can result in that too. Even if the consequences were dire if was just like real life. You had to live with them. Character was always at the forefront of the series and the social links were just more of that. You could relate to them, feel their inner strife. These weren’t just any old video game characters anymore. By the end of the year they might as well have been lifelong friends. And who wouldn’t want lifelong friends at their side when they passed away? Circling around to the games main thematic element, death was important to Social Links as they meant that you left an indelible mark on the world and acted as evidence that you existed. Death was all but inevitable but your legacy, now that was eternal. Hashino didn’t want players to fear death but accept it as a just another part of life and the Social Links were his way of showing this.
Nearly every single feature in Persona was changing so, of course, the combat had to change as well. Combat, of course, only takes place during the Dark Hour as the player ascends Tartarus, a randomized labyrinthine dungeon. As you explore the various floors you come across chests and access points you’ll find Shadows raring to fight. Attacking the Shadow before it sees you gives you the upper hand in combat and the same goes for the enemy. Originally combat was set to be a 3D rendition of Persona 2’s battle system, with characters moving around as the battle progressed. Over time, this began to drastically change as the team continued to take advantage of the 3D technology. For battles, they used a variation of the Press Turn system developed for Nocturne, essentially a fancy name for a standard turn based combat system. Party members and Shadows each take their turns to attack, unleash a spell with their Persona, or use an item. What follows is your standard Megami Tensei battle, exploiting your enemy’s weaknesses and defeating them in quick succession. If you end up knocking down all your foes with the right moves, then you’ll initiate an All-Out Attack, inflicting a massive amount of damage and potentially ending the battle right then and there. This can be complicated though, but not due to your own ability. You see party members in Persona 3 are controlled by an AI, an odd decision to say the least. Other than issuing general tactics to your teammates they’re mostly left to their own devices which can sometimes be good and other times will destroy the experience as they fail to do what you want them to do. This decision was a deliberate one as Hashino thought it was more fun for the party members to be controlled by AI, so each of their characteristics and personalities could be displayed. It also fit in well as a stylistic choice as one of the core themes was conquering the fear of death through bonds and as each character was their own person the player could only change their actions by interacting with them. Because of this, greater focus was put on the protagonist during combat, wherein he’d be the only one to wield multiple Personas and the only way to get them was through the Shuffle Time mechanic, a randomized card game that gave you only a slight chance of receiving a Persona. This went in the face of the very idea of personae, but they needed to do it for the sake of the gameplay as players needed to relate to the person they were playing as. Plus controlling other people’s personae just felt wrong to Hashino.
The last piece of the puzzle was the soundtrack and this team Atlus was finally able to wrangle Shoji Meguro onto the project. Meguro was excited at the prospect of returning to the series after nearly a decade. He had felt limited by his work on the original Persona, mostly due to the confines of the PlayStation, as the console required him to compose music in 100-200 kilobyte samples making them sound pretty cheap. The PlayStation 2 had no such limitation, giving Meguro free rein to truly express his musical style. And Meguro’s true musical style was far more unique from what anyone had anticipated. His score would be dripping with influences from a variety of genres. From jazz to electronica, hip-hop to rock, orchestral to vocal, Meguro’s soundtrack was unlike anything any RPG had ever seen. And it might not have ended up that way as he was unsure as to whether he should go all in on this varied score. His first prototype song was the game’s battle theme, Mass Destruction, and he would’ve thrown it away too if not for its popularity among his co-workers. Spurred on because of this, he took some drastic directions, even adding English vocals to many of his tracks even though the singers weren’t native speakers. But his decisions created masterpieces such as Iwatodai Station and the iconic opening theme, Burn My Dread, making the chances he took all the more worthwhile.
A Successful Reinvention
Persona 3 was a game of chance. A chance of death and a chance of life, both for the games main characters and the franchise as well. Whether Persona could be revived as a mainline franchise in Atlus’s lineup remained to be seen. Releasing on July 13th, 2006 in Japan, Persona 3 would go onto sell over 210,000 copies during its run, slightly more than Eternal Punishment but less then Innocent Sin. Thankfully, Atlus expected this due to the series six-year absence so the series was far from being cancelled. In fact, they still believed in the franchise enough to localize it yet again in North America but also worldwide through Koei as they left publishing rights to other third-party publishers in the rest of the world. The localization team, lead Yu Namba and Nich Maragos, saw this as an opportunity. As Persona was infused with Japanese culture and tradition it would make sense to use Persona 3 as a vehicle to introduce western audiences to it. In lieu of this thought process even more Japanese specific dialogue was retained such as honorifics and jokes specific to the culture were rewritten as close as possible to the original text. All in all, they tried their best to create the most faithful adaptation of the source material possible, something that many other localizations couldn’t say. Gamers seemed to warm up to this concept as they flocked to the title, growing the fanbase and making Persona 3 a cult classic for the PlayStation 2. Persona wasn’t as big as Final Fantasy per se but it was never meant to be. It had found its niche and was content enough to stay there.
Reinventing a franchise is a tough task to tackle. You have to keep true to the originals work whilst improving what you can and changing what didn’t work. Persona 3 is one of the few that was able to straddle the line between a pale imitation and a by the books sequel to become something much greater. Bringing style and flair all its own, this new entry in the venerable franchise helped it to truly stand out in the sea of its competitors as something novel and enthralling. Driven by personality and thematic undertones, every cog in then machine that was Persona 3 moved towards the same goal and under the same motivation. Its characters were eminently relatable, fraught with real world issues that anyone could be going through. Getting to know these people’s thoughts, motivations, and dreams made them more than an image on a screen, it made them human. Its world was one that we all had experienced before either through our own lives or vicariously through others; and that’s what always rang true. Persona wasn’t just about the fantastical battles and increasingly unreal scenarios. It was about the inevitability of death and trying to conquer the fear of it through the bonds we shape. Now that is something anyone could understand.
Persona had achieved notoriety once again. Atlus’s secondary franchise was alive and well and raring to go for a sequel. But where would they go next? And what direction would they take? If anything, they would just have to remain true to their selves.