Out of all of the Persona series which would you say was mainstream? Was it Persona 1, 2, or 3? Not even close. The title that had finally propelled the series past its veil of obscurity was Persona 4. Upon its release in 2008, the franchise saw success like it had never seen before. People fell in love with the story, the gameplay, and most prominently the characters. The Investigation Team had a certain charm compared to past cast members and even though the story had ended with no reason for a follow up the team at Atlus was determined to flesh out the Persona 4 Universe. Following the rereleases of all four past mainline titles on the PSP, it seemed like the perfect time to bring this particular entry to handhelds. However, Persona 4 was special so they couldn’t half-ass it like they had done with Persona 3 Portable. It needed to be a perfect port that included everything from the original title and more. So, the PSP was a no go. Thankfully enough, PlayStation’s second shot at the handheld market, the PS Vita, was right around the corner and it was a beast. A powerful system that could render old PS2 games near perfectly, it was the right fit for their remake to release on. And thus they began work on their new project entitled Persona 4: Golden.
Directed by Daiki Itoh, director of Persona 3 FES, him and his team went to work expanding upon the game tenfold. Not only would they touch up the combat system by adding in some new attacks, rebalancing some characters, and giving you the option to choose Persona skills but several quality of life improvements would also be given to the game. Inaba was now explorable at nighttime on several occasions, opening up more possibilities to spend time with your social links and partake in other activities. A new feature added into Persona 4, the Vox Populi system can be accessed anytime over wi-fi connection giving players the ability to see what everyone is doing at any point in the game, helping you to decide on how to spend your time. Out of all these, the changes to the story were the most prevalent. Expanded to take advantage of the full year, multiple scenario’s and a brand-new endgame were written in to enrich Persona 4’s already compelling story. From scooters that let you got to areas only accessible during certain events to a lengthy ski trip there was more to do during your high school life than ever before with several intriguing dungeons to boot. More importantly were the new social links. One covers the killer, his backstory, and ideology leading to the first evil ending in series history. The second is entirely about a new character exclusive to Persona 4 Golden, Marie, an amnesiac resident of the Velvet Room. Uncovering her storied past is integral to uncovering the true ending of the game. Altogether, Persona 4 Golden was surely an impressive package for a handheld game. Complete with the entire original and 50% all new content, while it changed the games tone ever so slightly to a light hearted affair to say that this was the definitive edition was just putting it lightly. And their efforts wouldn’t be for naught. Hype surrounding Persona 4 had reached a fever pitch by the time Golden had released on June 14th, 2012 due to its cult status and a massive marketing push by Atlus. Golden not only reached the amount of copies sold by its original version, it exceeded it. Selling over 700,000 copies worldwide, Persona 4 Golden quickly came the most successful entry in the entire franchise. Persona had smashed its way into the mainstream, but where could they go from here? Why in the most ludicrous direction they could possibly think of, a fighting game.
Series director Katsura Hashino wished to create a fighting game based off of the many interesting characters and Personas from the series. The development staff were pushing for the idea too as they wished to see the franchise tackle other genres and give players new experiences. But none of them knew how to make a fighting game. The split second decision making and frame perfect gameplay needed was just out of their reach. If they couldn’t then they needed to call in some experts to create it for them. Hashino had the perfect studio in mind, Arc System Works. Known for their anime inspired BlazBlue franchise, there was no company other than them that could craft quite what they were looking for. Starting off right after the release of the original Persona 4 in 2008, the game would be a joint project between both Atlus and Arc System Works. While Arc System Works, led by director Kazuhisa Wada, would focus on refining the gameplay to perfection Atlus, led by Hashino, stayed true to its roots and took over the story, making sure that this spinoff looked and felt like a Persona game. Yet to everyone it never felt like a spinoff. Hashino was developing this as true canonical sequel to Persona 4, continuing the story from where it left off. Their project, entitled Persona 4: The Ultimate in Mayonaka Arena was no pet project, it was a true successor.
Like any fighting game, Arena has multiple characters with their own stories to play through, however, together they all tell a singular tale. The protagonist, now given a personality and a name Yu Narukami, had returned to Inaba for Golden Week several months after the events of Persona 4. Reconnecting with his old friends, everything seems alright until the Midnight Channel reappears with a mysterious new program, a fighting tournament called the P-1 Grand Prix. Depicting his friends fighting it out and hosted by an announcer that appears to be his friend Teddie, Yu and his friends decide it’s time to investigate the TV World once again. Delving into the world and becoming embroiled in the tournament, our heroes are forced to fight each other and their shadows to make it through unscathed. Along the way they meet a mysterious girl named Labyrs, the majority of the cast of Persona 3, and the mysterious individual that’s pulling all the strings behind the scenes. This was all backed up by stellar writing on Atlus’s part. Whereas most stories in fighting games were throwaway additions to occupy your time when you weren’t fighting others, Arena’s were different and felt just like the games that had inspired them. While they were significantly more text heavy due to budget constraints, it still came off as a genuine Persona game, not a small feat for such a game.
The gameplay on Arc System Works end was no slouch either. A beautiful rendition of what a Persona fight may actually look like in real time, Arena’s combat system brought style to each of them in spades. The fighting mechanics are similar to any other game in the genre with blocking alongside light, heavy, and special attacks limited by an SP gauge. Taking the Persona’s into account, they can assist each character in combat. However, if a player loses all four cards underneath their health bar they cannot summon their Persona for a time, leaving themselves open for attack. Below the SP gauge lies the Burst Gauge, giving you access to new attacks and the ability to refill your SP. Using all of these features to your advantage is the key to gameplay with only the best of the best being able to master them all. The gameplay wouldn’t have been as captivating though if the game wasn’t good looking, and series art director Shigenori Soejima made sure that wasn’t the case. Updating his designs for this brand new effort, his iconic style combined with Arena’s slick gameplay made for a feast for the eyes at all times. Arena didn’t only feel the part it looked and sounded like it too. This was thanks to returning composer Atushi Kitajoh and series mainstay Shoji Meguro overseeing that aspect, ensuring that it remained faithful to Persona 4 yet had the mood to get your blood boiling like any good fighting game would. Some songs were lifted straight from their original tracks while others were remixed to fit in with the respective genre.
Putting it altogether in one distinct package, Persona 4 Arena had no right being as good as it was. A worthy sequel to the fourth Persona as well as a compelling fighting game to boot, who could have asked for more. Whilst its status as a spinoff should have meant that it would receive only modest success the results were staggering albeit not on the surface. Releasing on March 1st, 2012 in Arcades and later on August 7th for current generation consoles, during its opening week, Arena outsold nearly every fighting game franchise of the time from Street Fighter to Tekken. Somehow, this pet project had become as successful as some of the most legendary fighting game franchises of the time. They hype for Persona 4 was insatiable, so insatiable that it demanded a second entry the next year. Persona 4: Ultimax The Ultimate Suplex Hold, later retitled as just Persona 4 Arena: Ultimax, released in late 2013 in arcades and mid 2014 for the rest of the world, and it was a real kicker. 8 brand new characters, a story that brought closure to the tales of the casts of Persona 3 and 4, incredible design work by Soejima, and distinct tracks that defined each character, a first for the series. It was an extravaganza of content, a celebration of all things Persona.
So how would they follow up a double knockout like this? Would they continue to make Persona fighting games for years leading to a franchise that would rival the likes of Street Fighter… no they wouldn’t. In fact they would turn their heads to one of the most obscure and often bizarre genres of all, rhythm games. The soundtracks behind each and every Persona title had always been a highpoint for the series. Thanks to the talents of Shoji Meguro, they had come to define the series with their rock, pop, and jazz influences. They were nothing short of iconic. Several large scale concerts and successful soundtrack releases later and they knew there was potential for a game revolving around just that one part of the Persona machine. The popularity of the Arena titles didn’t hurt either. And so, they began production on a Persona music game but they ran into the familiar roadblock of not knowing how to even create one. This presented many problems for Kazuhisa Wada and his team, who returned for this project. They needed another partner prompting them to contact the game developer Dingo, who’d had success in crafting titles surrounding the popular vocaloid Hatsune Miku, as their technology would be crucial for the effort they were undertaking. But who would be dancing to the beat this time? It could’ve been interesting to have characters from all over the franchise compete, however, they chose to keep up with the Persona 4 cast as they still had room to grow and their story could be continued canonically unlike others. Putting these iconic characters on the stage would prove to be quite challenging though, as part way through development Dingo left the development staff, leaving Atlus to pick up where they had left. Creating a Persona game around this type of gameplay wasn’t easy either. While in Persona 4 the setting could be based around the story, a rhythm game required the gameplay to take precedence over the plot. They needed to strike an equal balance between the two while also maintaining that signature Persona feel, a tall order for a studio so inexperienced in the genre. Some studios might have crumbled under such pressure but Wada and his team instead took it as an opportunity to flex their creative muscles and try something new for once. What resulted from this abundance of creativity was quite intriguing
Entitled Persona 4: Dancing All Night, the story picks up right after the events of Persona 4: Golden. Focusing on Rise and her return to the idol industry, it all begins right after she’s asked her friends to be backup dancers for bit in the upcoming Love Meets Bonds Festivals. During training the group meets fellow idol Kanami Mashita or Kanamin Kitchen, who’s fellow idols have mysteriously disappeared. Investigating this and rumors regarding a video of a supposedly dead idol, the group ends up in the Midnight Stage, a world completely opposite of the midnight channel where Shadows force them to dance for freedom. With the Investigation Team united once again they get back to work as usual and seek to find the cause of the Midnight Stage and free those trapped within it. Although the story was a surprise addition, giving players yet another reason to go on journey with the old cast, the true meat of the game was the gameplay. True to form it was simple, like any rhythm game should be. Matching the symbols with the correct inputs was the name of the game, but it wouldn’t have been exciting if that was it. Using Catherine’s improved engine that had been built specifically for Persona as a basis, the characters come to life like never before with phenomenal facial expressions and animation. The songs, composed by Ryoto Kozuka under the supervision of Shoji Meguro, are superb as if the original Persona 4 soundtrack had been purpose built for a rhythm game. Their intention was to create a fun, over-the-top element in their game, so they sought out popular remixers, such as Lotus Juice, who’d be to give their own unique spin on each track. Mixing the series’ traditional musical flavor together with the essence of this game, along with a hint of playfulness to it, Persona 4: Dancing All Night was an interesting sight to behold to be sure. While rhythm games have never much of a seller due to their obscurity, the popularity of Persona 4 quickly pushed it into the limelight. When Persona 4: Dancing All Night released in 2015 it ended up selling nearly 370,000 copies during its run, an absolutely insane number for rhythm game let alone one that was on the PS Vita, a system that had already faded into obscurity. It surely was a testament to the tenacity that the Persona series had begun to emanate around that time.
When a video game franchise is born its usually expected that the original series will always its studios central point of focus. Not so with Persona 4. It had struck a chord with the company and the video game industry due to its interesting setting and intriguing characters more so than past entries, so much so that it deserved multiple follow-ups. Persona 4 encouraged Atlus to get out of its comfort zone and try new things, whether they end up being successes or failures. The rabid fanbase of the game would never let it falter, though, and with each successive title the series continued to flourish more and more. Without this trend of popularity it’s likely that Persona might have been stuck in a veil of obscurity. Lucky them.