Releasing early in the lifespan of the original PlayStation, Final Fantasy VII was a cross-demographic smash hit that elevated Japanese role playing games out of the shadows and into the mainstream, helping to usher in what many consider to be a golden age for the genre. While the Final Fantasy series had a small but dedicated following on Nintendo consoles prior to the release of VII, and critical response to the games had been largely positive, Final Fantasy VII was the kind of success story that can’t be replicated by any conventional means. It was the right game in the right place at the right time; a perfect storm of ideas that were new and exciting for mainstream gamers with superb marketing that appealed to a demographic generally skeptical of role playing games, and a focus on mature, long-form storytelling that was instrumental in the Sony-led changing of public perception for video games from that of a childish pursuit to a cool and high-tech art-form for a more grown-up audience.
Final Fantasy VII wasn’t just a video game that reviewed well and sold a few million copies. We get plenty of those every year, and few can ever hope to achieve even a modicum of the cultural relevance and long-lasting influence and appeal that FFVII did. As with Star Wars rekindling a public interest in outer space that resulted in even James Bond going to the moon, and Nirvana causing record label executives to scour Seattle looking for similar sounds to try and sell to misanthropic teenagers tired of cock-rock’s flamboyant excess, the success of Final Fantasy VII paved the way for Japanese role playing games begging to be thrust into the limelight like never before. The original PlayStation served as host to a veritable banquet of JRPG classics, including Final Fantasy VIII and IX, Chrono Cross, Vagrant Story, Suikoden II, and Xenogears, and many of those wouldn’t have found their way into the hands of as many gamers as they did without the success of Final Fantasy VII.
It’d be remiss of me to ignore the fact that plenty of mediocre role playing games likely found undue success because of an elevated hunger for games within the genre among consumers who were willing to lower their standards somewhat in order to be satiated. But just as it’d be unfair to blame Faith No More for Limp Bizkit rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ their insipid musical disasterpieces into our ear-holes, so too would it be a mite inequitable to hold Final Fantasy VII responsible for Eternal Eyes being bought or played by anyone, ever. As always, not every game that found success off the back of the story of Cloud and Sephiroth was fully deserving of the attention they received, but an unusually high number of the games were, and are still fondly remembered today.
As is the case with any trend, eventually the collective eyes of the gaming community wandered to other genres, and by the time the PlayStation 2 arrived in the early 2000s Japanese role playing games began to enter a slump that they still have not truly recovered from. It’s not to say that there haven’t been any good JRPGs in the last few generations – there has – but rather that the quality to quantity ratio within the genre has practically inverted since the glory days of the mid to late ’90s. The Tales series has been a reliable if unremarkable franchise capable of, on occasion, doing just enough to scratch the itches of those pining for the JRPGs of yesteryear, while more niche titles like the Hyperdimension Neputunia series have found a small audience but failed to appeal to critics or consumers on a wider scale. Ni No Kuni managed to garner critical praise and also sold well beyond publisher expectations in the West, but was one of only a handful of JRPGs to make any kind of a splash during the last generation of consoles.
As the vanguard of the JRPG boom on the SNES and the original PlayStation, the Final Fantasy series managed to maintain enough cache with gamers beyond the PSOne era to ensure that each iteration of the series would be met with media interest and positive – if not always stellar – commercial successes. But in a desperate bid to recapture the mainstream appeal of earlier Final Fantasy titles, Square Enix repeatedly stumbled with misguided attempts at reinventing the franchise, alienating many of their long-standing fans while also failing to garner enough new ones to justify the moves.
Final Fantasy X was a popular game, but changes to many of the systems that fans of the series had come to love were considered sacrilege by some, and the cheesy, J-Pop infused Final Fantasy X-2 was widely condemned as a fun but ultimately superfluous sequel that retroactively diminished some of X‘s narrative heft. Final Fantasy XII was well received critically, but the offline MMO-style gameplay and fetch quest laden storyline were bones of contention for many long time fans of the franchise, and Square Enix’s bizarre obsession with trying to make Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII a thing led to a trilogy of games that while not a complete bust – our features editor Mike swears by XIII-2 – failed to resonate with gamers as intended. The tortured development cycle of Final Fantasy XV – a game that took longer to make than the entirety of Breaking Bad – was a source of amusement and mockery for many within the industry for years, but sales and critical response for the game upon its eventual release were a pleasant surprise, if not enough to quash widespread disappointment that the storyline of the game felt woefully under-cooked.
As Square Enix is now planning a series of downloadable updates to Final Fantasy XV to try and get the game a little closer to the practically unattainable level of quality one expects after ten years of development, something altogether more exciting is happening for Japanese role playing games that we really need to talk about: Persona 5 might just be the most important JRPG since Final Fantasy VII.
On paper, Persona 5 seems like an odd proposition for a commercial hit. It’s part Japanese role playing game – featuring all of the dungeon crawling, turn based battling, and leveling up that one would expect – and part life simulator, as players must manage the time of the main character as he goes to school, spends time with friends, and potentially finds love in modern Japan. Despite the bizarre juxtaposition of two seemingly incompatible genres, and the tough elevator pitch for the main narrative thrust of the game – “It’s kinda like Inception, only there’s a talking cat.” – Persona 5 has been showered with superlatives by gaming critics, and is currently sitting pretty at a 94 on Metacrtic as the joint-highest rated JRPG of all time, and the highest rated game on PS4 that isn’t a remaster. For fans of the series, this overwhelmingly positive response should come as little surprise, but those unfamiliar with Persona are probably wondering just what all of the fuss is about.
The Persona series began as a spin-off to Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei franchise on the original PlayStation. As the first game in this new series, Revelations: Persona received moderate critical praise, but failed to make any significant dent in the public consciousness outside of Japan. The game introduced many of the ideas that would become staples for the series going forward, with the story focusing on a group of high school students battling supernatural entities using manifestations of their psyche known as Personae, as well as the game featuring characters, items and monsters that would go on to appear in future installments. Eschewing the traditional fantasy setting and stereotypical character classes that the genre was known for, and focusing on relatable characters being thrown into an extraordinary situation led to the first Persona game garnering a cult following in the West, but not a big enough one for Atlus to fund localization for the sequel, Persona 2: Innocent Sin.
When Persona made the jump to the PS2 the series started gaining some traction in the West. Persona 3 made it to America and then Europe after the PS3 had launched, but glowing reviews from numerous publications and some eye-catching visuals and controversial themes resulted in the game garnering a little more attention than many were expecting, which led to surprising sales outside of Japan. The game was famous for featuring an arresting gameplay mechanic in which the high school aged protagonists were required to shoot themselves in the head in order to release their hidden powers – their Persona – and the striking image of terrified teens ostensibly committing suicide in order to fight was original, troubling, and undeniably cool in equal measure.
Persona 3 was widely praised for the dark tone and mature storytelling that strayed far from what many considered to be the quintessential tropes of Japanese role playing games. In giving players control of an unremarkable teenager thrown into a supernatural battle, Persona 3 stood in stark contrast to what many people thought of as a JRPG – the increasingly po-faced Final Fantasy series or any of the games it inspired – that tended to feature more outlandish characters in a more fantastical setting with a liberal sprinkling of melodrama. Persona 3 was like the Buffy the Vampire Slayer of video games; yes, there were fights with demonic creatures and nefarious humans, and the plot contained plenty of horror and grotesquerie, but at its heart, the game was about a normal teenager dealing with normal teenager problems with some demon slaying on the side. The social aspect of the game, more than any of the faux-suicides or readily cosplayable character designs, is what set Persona 3 apart from the pack.
In Persona 3 the protagonist is on a fixed time limit in which he can complete each major dungeon, and eventually the main storyline of the game. Certain pivotal events are destined to happen on a predetermined day, but the time between those moments is free for the player to use as they wish. The social system of Persona 3 was a hit with gamers and critics alike, not just because the various intertwining storylines were unusually well written and acted for the genre, but because allowing the player control of what they could do with their time while also funneling them down linear path allowed Atlus to skillfully sidestep one of the most common issues that players have with Japanese role playing games. Rather than presenting gamers with an often frustratingly linear experience that opens up after forty hours for the completion of side quests before the final battle, or following the Western role playing game approach of freedom at the expense of the overarching narrative, Persona 3 made sure that the storyline of the game was always moving inexorably towards the grand finale, but players were able to do whatever they wanted on days between major plot points.
Persona 4 released two years after Persona 3 in Japan, but the delays to Persona 3 in the West meant that the gap between the two games was much shorter for American and European gamers. Still on the PlayStation 2 well after release of the PlayStation 3, Persona 4 fought an uphill battle for recognition as many gamers had moved on to the next generation of consoles, but the stellar reviews and strong word of mouth for the game coming immediately off the back of Persona 3 led to it managing to stay on top of Amazon’s best selling PS2 games list for over two weeks. While the PS2 was barely supported at that time and so the statistic isn’t quite as impressive as it would have been a couple of years prior, it never the less indicated that the Persona series was making some waves with fans of Japanese role playing games, while perhaps even entertaining some cross-over appeal thanks to the less stereotypical life-sim elements of the gameplay and intelligent writing being championed in reviews.
Persona 4 used many of the same systems as it’s predecessor, but the storytelling was refined, the battle system improved, and more variation was added to the array of social interactions made available to the player. The story centered around a series of mysterious murders which the player must eventually solve via supernatural means, grounding the tale in some semblance of reality before occasionally veering into more traditional fantasy fare. The narrative of the game was widely praised for touching on numerous heavyweight topics then considered somewhat unusual within the medium, including confusion surrounding sexual orientation, sexism, and gender identity crises, while also maintaining an upbeat and positive outlook that charmed players throughout much of the playing time.
Ultimately, Persona 4 became a sleeper hit for Atlus, finding a small but incredibly dedicated fanbase in the West. Deciding to strike while the iron was hot, Atlus started working on a new and improved version of Persona 4 for the PlayStation Vita called Persona 4 Golden, which revived sales of Sony’s struggling handheld significantly in Japan upon release. Golden instantly became the highest rated Vita game on Metacritic and has yet to be removed from that position more than five years later, while racking up over one million sales on a handheld console with an install base of a little over ten million.
The impressive commercial performance and popular characters of Persona 4 led Atlus to branch the game out into a franchise of its own; there were two separate anime adaptations of the story of the game, a manga sequel, two fighting games using characters from Persona 4 and 3 together, a dancing game spin-off, and an honest to God stage play. While there was a definitive risk of milking Persona 4 dry and inciting a backlash due to overexposure, Atlus was obviously just attempting to keep the series in the public eye in preparation for the eventual release of Persona 5. The good will they had built up with gamers over the few years previous and the overall quality of the various spin-offs prevented any such franchise fatigue kicking in, and the groundwork was laid out for Persona 5 to arrive.
For all of the successes that the Persona series had in the build up to the release of Persona 5, it cannot be overstated just how unlikely those successes truly were. Persona 3 and 4 increased the popularity of the series dramatically, but both of those games released on the PS2 once the PS3 was already on the market – a similar set of circumstances that led to the relative commercial failure of Final Fantasy IX, which released for PSOne after the launch of the PS2. Persona 4 Golden later managed to drum up strong sales despite being manacled to a system that had a small install base and was being decimated in units shipped by its closest competitor. The Persona series had always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and still somehow managed to make a name for itself, and now finally with Persona 5 it appears that the stars have aligned for a JRPG to make an impact on a scale unseen for many years.
Persona 5 released in the West last week to rave reviews from critics and instantly shot to the top of the UK sales chart. While it would be foolish to expect Persona 5 to be selling like Call of Duty, or even Final Fantasy XV, early sales figures are very positive and point to the game being the best selling entry in the franchise so far. Persona 5, unlike its predecessors, is launching on the most popular and relevant video game console in the world, and it’s got the critical backup and strong word of mouth necessary to be the breakout hit that the series so richly deserves. But beyond all that, the potential success of Persona 5 could be just the shot in the arm that the Japanese role playing game genre really needs.
The game features an eye-popping visual style that has received almost unanimous critical praise, and looks utterly unique when held up in comparison to other Japanese role playing games. The game visually pulsates with a sense of style unlike practically anything else on the market. The menus and transitional screens exhude more personality than entire games – so much so that they inspired a series of amusing memes on the Internet last week – while the soundtrack made up from a fusion of bizarrely eclectic musical styles seems purpose built to get stuck in your head for days. The battle system has been streamlined and refined, taking much of the busy work and trial and error away from the player, while still providing a satisfying challenge. Persona 5 is a JRPG that’s genuinely slick and cool, and in a world in which the Final Fantasy series has devolved into a Japanese boy band driving around in a car for forty hours completing fetch quests, that’s something that every fan of Japanese role playing games should be celebrating.
But Persona 5 isn’t all style over substance. This is a hundred hour adventure featuring dozens of unique and memorable characters, touching on subjects as varied as bullying, sexual assault, murder, the nature of justice, hacktivism groups, the influence of social media, and slavery. The overarching story of the game is compelling right from the word go, presented as a series of flashbacks being told by the unnamed protagonist after his arrest. He’s part of a group known as the Phantom Thieves, that for unknown reasons have been blessed with the ability to enter the subconscious of other people in order to steal their twisted desires. One day you’ll be living the life of a normal teenager; hanging out with friends, working a part time job, studying for exams, or playing video games. The next you’ll be breaking into the mind of a teacher who sexually abuses students so you can remove the evil from within his heart and attempt to force him into confessing his crimes. Also there’s a talking cat.
The characters are well written and acted, and the storylines connected to each of the various friends you’ll acquire throughout the game give you a reason to care about NPCs that would give you little more than two lines of dialogue and a fetch quest to complete in many other games. The dungeons are villain specific, each taking the form of an elaborate heist that the Phantom Thieves must undertake, featuring puzzles to solve, unexpected gameplay changes, and some superb boss fights. Variety ensures that the game never becomes a seemingly endless grind of slaughtering enemies for experience points, and the finely tuned battle system gives the player an opportunity to systematically take apart enemy groups by targeting their specific weaknesses if you think about what you’re doing.
For a genre that is often seen as oppressively stuffy and too reliant on character tropes and recurring themes, Persona 5 is a breath of fresh air; at once steadfastly proud to stick to it’s traditional JRPG roots, while simultaneously unafraid to throw the rule book out of the window in service of a more palatable experience for genre newcomers and mainstays alike. Persona 5 won’t recreate the success of Final Fantasy VII in terms of influence, or how that game was one of the primary reasons that PlayStation became the number one brand in gaming. Nothing will. But with Japanese role playing games having found themselves in a seemingly inescapable doldrums for the last decade and a half, it’s perhaps the most important game for the genre since then. With Final Fantasy jumping from one reinvention to the next while failing to address any of the recurring problems holding the series back, the stage is set for a new contender to set the standard for what the genre can be going forward. If there’s any justice in the world, it’ll be Persona 5.
John can generally be found wearing Cookie Monster pyjamas with a PlayStation controller in his hands, operating on a diet that consists largely of gin and pizza. His favourite things are Back to the Future, Persona 4 Golden, the soundtrack to Rocky IV, and imagining scenarios in which he’s drinking space cocktails with Commander Shepard. You can follow John on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JohnDoesntDance