Author’s note: This article contains a number of GIFs so might take a bit to load, and might be a hit to your data if you’re on a mobile device. Sorry, but they’re really the best way to explain how the game looks in motion!
It was a hot December afternoon in 2008 when I first played Persona 4 on a modified PlayStation 2 in my cousin’s room in the Philippines. The PlayStation had been ‘hacked’ so that it would run bootleg copies of games; a common practice in the country.
I had never played a Persona game before, and I only picked it up because it was reviewing quite well, was an RPG, and I had a lot of free time to kill. It only set me back around 500 pesos ($13.50 AUD) when I picked it up at Green Hills. I had no idea what was in store for me. I managed to boot it up after a somewhat convoluted process required by the modded PS2, and the first thing I was greeted with was an amazingly choreographed animated music video:
It was so striking that every single time I started the game I couldn’t stop myself from watching it all the way through. At its core, the intro offered a glimpse of the characters and various plot elements, but what really gripped me was what I’ll be addressing throughout this article: its style. Combined with the amazing backing track (which was synced to the lyrics shown on screen) it really defined the game’s personality and set the tone for the experience to follow over the next 80 hours. It was a combination of the art direction, soundtrack and central themes which formed a cohesive whole and served to give Persona 4 its distinct personality.
Flash forward to 2017 – nine years and two console generations later – and the next game in the series was finally released, after multiple delays. The feeling of watching Persona 5’s new intro video gave me flashbacks to being the 15 year old kid in an upstairs room in Manila. And after only a few hours with the game I could come to one certain conclusion: the wait was worth it.
Into the metaverse: the story
Each of the Persona games are set in different time period with different characters and rarely ever reference others within the series, meaning anyone can theoretically pick up and play any of them with no prior knowledge of the others. There are a number of common threads: they are all Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) with elements of life simulation which place you in the role of a Japanese high school student who is, through means which vary drastically between games, gifted with the power of Personas; beings manifested from the human psyche which can be summoned to fight.
The series of games began in 1996 with Revelations: Persona on the PS1, with the latest entry, Persona 5, being released this year (2017) on the PS4. You take on the role of a scruffy-haired Japanese high school student who has been wrongfully charged with assault and sent to live/study at a school in the middle of Tokyo under a year-long probation period. The game spans the course of your year at your new high school, with each day filled with narrative events which could be anything from studying for upcoming exams, spending time with your friends, learning to brew a mean cup of joe, or venturing into the subconscious minds of corrupt adults and stealing their hearts. Yeah, that last one is the kicker.
Over the course of the game, the protagonist and his slowly expanding group of friends form an anonymous vigilante group dubbed the ‘Phantom Thieves of Hearts’. Using the mysterious power of Personas, you find you can target corrupt adults by venturing into an alternate reality called the ‘Metaverse’ and stealing the ‘Treasure’ from their ‘Palace’. Look, it makes sense in the context of the game. Simply put, you go into their mind and beat the crap out of the physical manifestations of their distorted desires until they confess their crimes in the real world.
The whole premise is pretty interesting in itself, but what really cements the game as what I would consider one of the best video game RPGs of all time (seriously) is its style.
Behind the mask: the art direction
Every element of the user interface has been meticulously and individually designed, and everything has a purpose.
Each of the Persona games has a distinct colour palette. All you have to do is Google them and you can tell right off the bat. Persona 3 uses blue, black and white. Persona 4 (as seen above) uses yellows and greens. Persona 5 uses red and black, like in the image at the top of the page. It’s really that simple. Check out a clip from the intro below:
Using solid, flat colours (no shading or gradients) and emphasising the blacks and reds creates a highly stylised yet cohesive graphic style. Solid colours are used to highlight the most distinct parts of the characters such as their hair colour or small accents on their clothing. No unnecessary information is provided to the viewer; even if you don’t realise it, you’ve already established in your head an idea of what these characters may be like, even before you’ve started the game.
This is just an animated intro video, however, and not during actual gameplay itself. So here’s another example for you – the menus in the game:
Damn son. Yeah, it’s a little distracting to watch above but bear with me, and let’s look at all the details. Again, the primary menu uses predominantly red and black. Transitioning between different areas of the menu causes a stylised version of the protagonist to perform different actions, and all the while the graphics move dynamically with him. The blue and green menus use a similar style but represent the medical and weapons vendors in the game; note the double helix motif in the former and the military motif in the latter.
But these menus also serve another role; they provide characterisation. In the first clip, we see the rebellious, trickster nature of the protagonist. “DON’T LOOK AT ME LIKE THAT” is the text in the top right as he holds his hand up to the screen as if to say the same thing. In the second clip, the mellow, relaxed nature of the medicine vendor, Tae Takemi, is conveyed through rounded shapes and slower, less sudden transitions (all the while she’s in the background reading her book while reclining). Finally, Munehisa Iwai, the weapons vendor, is shown behind chain links with a serious expression, moving to an intense posture when the player actually begins browsing weapons.
Every element of the user interface has been meticulously and individually designed, and everything has a purpose. For comparison, let’s look at another triple-A JRPG released recently, Final Fantasy XV. Here’s the pause menu:
Mmm. I mean, it serves the function that it has to. It provides all the information needed in a very clear manner. But that’s all it does. I understand that Final Fantasy menus all have a similar look. But why? There’s no reason that Square Enix couldn’t have at least jazzed it up a bit. We can’t learn anything about these characters, besides their names and what they look like. They all have the exact same pose. It looks like they’re only standing there because someone made them. Yawn.
Compare this to Persona 5, which manages to take something so mundane like navigating a menu and make it into an exciting and somewhat educational experience for the player. There are dozens of examples I haven’t even touched on yet, but in the interest of you not falling asleep, let’s move on.
Wake up, get up, get out there: the music
Wake up, get up, get out there
Raise your voice against liars
Feed your anger like fire
Why does nobody want change?
It’s not an unreasonable thing to assert that the soundtrack to Persona games are consistently high quality. While the majority of video games may use music as simply supplementary to the gameplay experience – to create atmosphere in a horror game, or signify an upcoming battle for example – Persona frequently uses songs (complete with voiced lyrics) not just as background music, but completely integrated with the gameplay experience. Shoji Meguro, the composer on these tracks, has imbued Persona 5’s music with the personality reflective of the game and its themes.
The lyrics, which are English but sung by Japanese vocalists, maintain the Japanese quality reflected by the setting of the game yet are not so far removed from our own sensibilities to be unrelatable. The lyrics above are part of the opening theme for Persona 5, titled Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There, which accompanies the animation shown previously. The tempo and jazz-orchestral vibes sync perfectly not only with the movement of the animation itself, but the entire game to follow. The main theme of rebellion, defiance and freedom is almost tangible in both the music and the mannerisms of the characters as they glide effortlessly across a stylised Tokyo expressway.
Musical analysis is definitely not my area of expertise, so it may be more beneficial if you just watch/listen to it for yourself.
One of the other compositions in Persona 5, and one you’ll likely hear the most during the game, is the music which plays during combat. Titled Last Surprise, the track is so flashy that it’s something you’d expect out of a one-off boss fight rather than something you’ll hear every time a common enemy engages you. In any other game, it might feel out of place. But channelling the tempo and a more jazz-funk style, Last Surprise, combined with the stylish interface and animations of combat in Persona 5, feels completely appropriate within the game. Check it out here.
I could go on and on about every single track in this game. It’s all masterfully composed and, like the art direction, individually tailored to convey certain moods and emotions in a manner specific to the personality of the game. And before we finish, I just have to drop my favourite track, simply titled Price. It plays in the background as you’re robbing a bank. All I can say is that it makes illegal activities feel so cool.
Life will change: the themes
Each Persona game shares common elements yet attempts to tackle different themes. These themes influence the method in which characters summon their Personas to fight. Persona 3 has a darker tone than its successors, tackling death; guns called ‘Evokers’ are used by the characters must shoot themselves in the head with to summon Personas. Persona 4 takes a much lighter tone (also evidenced by its brighter colour palette) and centres on seeking the truth, with characters summoning their Personas by use of tarot cards. The concept of one’s ‘true self’ is also prominent, as characters must confront their doppelgangers who personify their true emotions.
Persona 5, on the other hand, combines both dark and light elements to reach something more mischievous or playful; the idea of rebellion, freedom and breaking free. Within the mind of the protagonist, the metaphor of a prison is a prominent manifestation of physical space (appropriate, considering his criminal record). Along with his friends, they must all break free from the expectations of society in their own unique ways. Similarly, the portrayal of the group as ‘Phantom Thieves’ is evident as each character dons a mask (which are also used to summon Personas) as they explore the Metaverse, with each mask and costume intended as a physical manifestation of the rebellious personality of each character:
Additionally, the portrayal of each ‘boss’ (each corrupt adult whose heart you are tasked with changing) is loosely in line with the Seven Deadly Sins, and defeating them is symbolic of the liberation from vices that the main characters bring on Tokyo and the world beyond.
Building a cohesive experience
Persona 5 is the persona-fication (kill me) of everything that the gaming industry should strive for. Not necessarily the style, which is synonymous with the Persona series, but rather a holistic game design which feels cohesive and immersive for the player. More often than not I find myself being kicked back into the real world by game elements which feel out of place or do not communicate with the rest of the game as whole. Persona 5, over the dozens of hours I’ve played it, has never given me this problem. Everything just feels right. It only makes me more excited for the future of this series.
One can only speculate on the colour scheme of Persona 6. I’m calling it now; it’s totally gonna be purple.
Author’s note: As the developers have blocked screenshot/recording functionality in Persona 5, all screenshots and videos have been externally sourced.
Image 1: Zi 3Aya. “Persona 5 Stylish Title Menu.” Still from YouTube video. Accessed 1/5/17. [Link]
Image 2: Wonderpierrot. “Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 – English Opening Intro (HQ).” GIF from YouTube video. Accessed 1/5/17. [Link]
Image 3: Prima Games. “The Art of Persona 5.” Artwork by Shigenori Soejima. [Link]
Image 4: OriginalOpenings. “Persona 5 – Opening.” GIF from YouTube video. Accessed 1/5/17. [Link]
Image 5: Original source unknown. [Link]
Image 6: Corey Plante. “The 11 Best Skills in Final Fantasy XV.” Image from article. Accessed 8/5/17. [Link]
Image 7: Wonderpierrot. Ibid.
Image 8: Original source unknown. Accessed from [Link]