The Persona Franchise’s Successful RPG Formula

The Persona Franchise’s Successful RPG Formula

The Persona Franchise’s Successful RPG Formula

Posted by Chanel Ferguson

22 Feb, 2021


The Persona franchise is at once unique and formulaic, rarely deviating from what works.

As a spin-off of the cult classic Shin Megami Tensei series from Atlus, the Persona games have steadily grown into juggernauts in the RPG and social simulator genres. The games typically focus on a group of high schoolers banding together to take down supernatural forces of evil within modern-day Japan. The protagonists use their personas, or alter-ego summons, to defeat shadowy forces and save the day, all while managing their schoolwork and social schedules with friends, family and love interests. The Persona games are unique for this blend of RPG and social sim elements, giving players a novel sense of living as a high schooler with a double life. The games also tackle mature story themes such as death and suicide, psychological issues and social justice, with friendship prevailing at the end of the day.

While popular in Japan, the Persona games remained somewhat obscure overseas, much like Shin Megami Tensei did. In 2012, the unexpected success of Persona 4 Golden on the PlayStation Vita brought this social-simulator-turned-RPG into the mainstream. But it wasn’t until the release of Persona 5 in 2017 that the series truly took off in the West, turning into a cultural phenomenon. Persona 5 spawned beloved characters, a catchy soundtrack, an eye-catching art style with a red-and-black motif and numerous memes (“You’ll Never See It Coming,” transposing the stylish battle menu over other people for fun and more), spreading interest to new audiences by word of mouth. Although Persona 5 is more expansive than its predecessors, it largely follows a formula set by older games in the series.

Obscure Origins—Shin Megami Tensei: If . . .

Atlus first experimented with the concept that would become Persona back on the Super Famicom. Released in 1994, Shin Megami Tensei: If . . . features a group of high school students in Japan. A vengeful, bullied student accidentally sends the high school into a demonic realm, thanks to a summoning spell gone wrong, causing demons to appear everywhere. The player then progresses through five towers inspired by the seven deadly sins, fighting against demons and collecting them as party members. The turn-based combat, demon-collecting and occult elements are staples of the Shin Megami Tensei series.

Unfortunately, Shin Megami Tensei: If . . . never received an official English release. The game also received poor reviews due to the grueling difficulty and shallow story themes. But this foundation for high school students battling it out proved to be popular among fans, leading Atlus to their next project.

Revelations: Persona

Debuting on the PlayStation in 1996, Revelations: Persona brings more focused concepts from Shin Megami Tensei: If . . . to the forefront. Players team up with their high school classmates, each using their personas to battle demons and other supernatural powers. The all-seeing figure named Philemon guides players through their journey to save the world. The psychological themes with the personas are inspired by Jungian psychology—a persona is a mask we wear to survive our daily lives in society. Revelations: Persona takes this concept to create several different collectible personas, each based on various religions and mythologies from across the world. 

Like Shin Megami Tensei: If . . ., Revelations: Persona keeps the tradition of turn-based combat with dungeon crawling exploration. To separate this new spin-off series from Shin Megami Tensei, Revelations: Persona’s story focuses more on friendship and the ties that bind humans together. However, the game’s English localization received substantial criticism, such as unnecessary changes to dialogue, cut content deemed “too Japanese,” and changing a character’s race from white to black, all in a bizarre attempt to appeal to Western audiences. Nonetheless, Atlus had the beginnings of a successful formula on their hands. They went on to create the Persona 2 duology, Persona 3, Persona 4, Persona 4 Golden and Persona 5, along with numerous spin-offs, such as Persona 4: Dancing All Night, Persona Q and Persona 5 Strikers. 

The Velvet Room

Inspired by the mystery drama TV series Twin Peaks, the Velvet Room is located between consciousness and subconsciousness. Within the Velvet Room, players meet Igor, a servant of Philemon, as well as his attendants. Igor’s attendants assist players with managing personas and fusing them into new ones. This room traditionally features a peaceful ambiance, where players can take their time sorting out their personas for battle. The same song plays in each version of the Velvet Room, a mixture of piano and opera music meant to soothe the soul. The name of the track translates to “Aria of the Soul” in English.

While the Velvet Room takes on a different appearance from game to game, the function is always the same. In Persona 3, the Velvet Room is an elevator constantly taking the player upward, mimicking the game’s primary dungeon, Tartarus, with its many unending floors. In Persona 5, the protagonist lands himself in criminal trouble at the beginning of the game. Thus, the Velvet Room takes on the appearance of a prison, with the players stuck in a cell, trapped and chained within their own minds. 

Character-Focused “Social Link” Stories

Starting with Persona 3, players have access to social links, or character-centric stories within a story. While Persona 5 doesn’t use the term “social link,” the confidant system is exactly the same, only changed for thematic reasons. These social links and confidants tie heavily into the social sim aspects of the franchise, where players meet up with friends and other townspeople, gradually getting to know them better. Fully leveling up a social link rewards players with unique perks, such as new persona fusions and romantic relationships. Social links across Persona games feature many characters, such as the players’ classmates, their teachers, a pro gamer at the local arcade, a shady fortune teller on the street, an anonymous MMO buddy who becomes so much more, and several others.

These social links also correspond with classic tarot signs or arcana, such as Temperance, the Tower, the Hermit, the Moon and more. Leveling up a social link grants bonuses to players’ associated arcana, such as greater experience points gained when fusing personas linked to those signs. These social sim elements become more than just optional fluff pieces, granting helpful gameplay boosts. Persona 5 takes this even further, with confidants granting extra abilities for battle and dungeon exploration.

Attitude in Presentation, Artistry and Atmosphere

The Persona games are special not only in their substance but also in their style. Since Persona 3, the games have taken on a vibe of their own, featuring a blend of stylized character designs, smooth graphics, strong color schemes and superb art direction. Shigenori Soejima first brought his brand of style to Persona 3, and it’s stuck with the series ever since as a thematic trademark. There’s an undeniable air of uniqueness to the Persona games. The worlds feature true-to-life Japanese locales packed with detail while also existing in a realm of their own.

The soundtracks and story presentation across each game are also in a league of their own. Persona 3’s mix of pop, trip-hop and classical-inspired music fits together in unexpected ways. Given that the bleak story centers so heavily around death and hopelessness, with friendship acting as a single ray of hope, the game’s ambiance seamlessly grounds players with the right emotions. Persona 4 has a sunnier presentation on the surface, with its vibrant yellow menus and a more pop-heavy soundtrack. But the murder mystery hanging over the protagonists changes the tone as appropriate, with a story unafraid to get into darker subject matters. Persona 5 wouldn’t be the same without its art direction and the many splashes of reds, blacks, whites and grays popping off the screen. That boldness translates nicely to the game’s unabashed story—corrupt adults poisoning society with their power and influence and the Phantom Thieves acting as vigilantes in their quest to bring those adults down no matter the cost.

With the resounding success of Persona 5 and the latest PC port of Persona 4 Golden, there’s no doubt we’ll see future entries in the Persona series. But time will tell if Atlus will continue with this successful formula. There’s little financial incentive for them to change things up too much. So, they may decide to keep building on what works—with a few tweaks to keep things fresh. If they stick with the usual school setting for the inevitable Persona 6, it would be intriguing to see Atlus experiment with college-aged students instead. Going by the multiple-year waits between Persona 4 and Persona 5 as well as the numerous delays with Persona 5’s launch, it’s safe to say Persona 6 might not release for quite a while.


About Author

Chanel Ferguson

Chanel Ferguson is a novelist who loves gaming. She grew up with role-playing games such as Final Fantasy and Shin Megami Tensei. While pursuing an undergraduate degree in philosophy, she spent her free time writing fiction novels, crafting unique worlds and characters inspired by video games.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments