This week on Extra Punctuation, Yahtzee discusses why he likes the Persona franchise even though he usually isn’t so fond of the JRPG genre.
Extra Punctuation Transcript
I have a fondness for the Persona series of JRPGs that I occasionally constantly talk about. For the longest time I assumed I didn’t like JRPGs. I grouped them alongside real time strategy and flight simulators as genres that aren’t part of my little world because the standard fundamentals of their design aren’t to my taste. I generally don’t like JRPG-style combat, or excessive dialogue, or samey plots, or the way all the main characters are almost always cut from shallow archetypes, with the female ones in particular rather blatantly catering to a range of fetishes that always makes me feel a little icky. Is that condescending of me? Sorry. Obviously I respect an individual’s choice to wear lacy maid outfits and go to hot springs all the bloody time.
Nevertheless I liked Persona 5 quite a lot when it first came out, although I only played it long enough to review it at first. I know in an ideal world one should finish a game before one reviews it but one can’t generally fit hundred-hour RPGs into one week’s work schedule, can one. But on the strength of liking that I played Persona 4 Golden when it came out on Steam, and ended up finishing that one in my spare time, after which I decided to replay Persona 5 bit my bit in what free time I get at the end of my work day, so I got through it within a short six or seven months.
All of which brought on a bit of an identity crisis. Could it be, I thought, that I actually like JRPGs? There were some I’d enjoyed in the past. Maybe the fact they’re always hundreds of hours long just means I find them obnoxious to review, and if I can find the time to let them play out in full then I’m as surely a sucker for them as the most hopeless weeb. Boy, I hope “weeb” never becomes a slur. I used to say “Retard” a lot and that’s come back to haunt me.
So in the spirit of experimentation I tried out a couple of things like Bravely Default 2 and Tales of Arise, and I think it was at the point in Bravely Default 2 where a princess and a mysterious hero are tasked with visiting four temples that each represent one of the four elements, I declared “Oh thank fucking christ I’m bored out of my skull.” So that put that theory to bed. See, the only JRPGs I’ve ever finished besides Persona 4 and 5 are Earthbound and Paper Mario 2, neither of which I’d call representative of the genre. I’m the same with animes – I could never be an anime fan because the only animes I’ve enjoyed are the ones that are completely unlike what animes are usually like.
Still, Persona 4 and 5 are a lot closer to what you’d call the standard JRPG experience, they even have a distinct focus on waifu hunting, so what is it that sets them apart for me? Well, I’ll tell you what it isn’t: the RPG bit, as in, the combat and dungeons and actual gameplay stuff. And I know that for a fact, because I tried to play Shin Megami Tensei V. Which as we all know is the franchise from which Persona spun off, and which by all accounts is much more heavily focussed on the gameplay than the waifu side of things, and I really didn’t like that game at all. Turns out Persona 5 didn’t sell me on JRPG combat, I just liked it in spite of that. The wonderful visual energy and soundtrack carried me through and the reduced combat difficulty meant I didn’t lose a sense of flow. It’s hard to stay bored at your data entry job when there’s a rock concert going on in the same room but it’s still a data entry job.
So the new theory is that I liked Persona 5 because it’s a singularly good game. The wonderful visual and audible energy that infuses even its least important GUI menus verges on hypnotic. And it’s a good story well told. Or at least it is early on, but that’s what gets you hooked so you don’t mind so much when things take a dip later. I’m confident a lot of people would get into Persona if you can just persuade them to at least finish the first dungeon of Persona 5. It worked on Nick the editor. The lead characters are so downtrodden by a villain so incredibly and effectively hateable you can’t help but get invested in their very satisfying comeuppance at the end of the first act.
All of which goes towards explaining why I liked Persona 5 but not so much why I liked Persona 4 so much as well. Which doesn’t have quite as good music as Persona 5 and isn’t nearly as stylish. I mean, you pick combat options from a fucking vertical list rather than an exploding radial lightning bolt thing. I also didn’t like the story as much. Instead of the very relatable story about youthful defiance against an uncaring adult world that eventually devolves into the standard JRPG plot of using the power of friendship to kill God, Persona 4 is a murder mystery story in a sleepy small town that also eventually devolves into the standard JRPG plot of using the power of friendship to kill God, and while it does have a certain Scooby Doo charm, it wasn’t what I’d call electrifying.
Alright then, by process of elimination if it’s not the story or the JRPG dungeon crawling it must be the other half of the gameplay of Persona games, the whole life simulator aspect where you wander around a contemporary Japanese city randomly doing shifts of your various jobs and building up your relationship level with all your friends. Hm, I suppose you could be ri- no. No, no, no, it can’t be that because even the prospect of playing a game consisting of only that is making my boredom gland twitch. While I do appreciate that the lengthy relationship stories lends almost every character an interesting depth beyond the usual anime archetypes, i.e. is the shy one with big tits, I think if I liked that sort of thing alone I’d be the sort of person who likes visual novels, and I only like visual novels if the central characters get their tits out or hang themselves.
The truth is, I wouldn’t like any aspect of a Persona game if it was just that by itself. I’d find the story too trite, the fantasy RPG stuff too grindy and the life simulator stuff too anime. So, in conclusion, the thing that I like is nothing less than the intersection between them all. I’ve always been interested in the juxtaposition between the bizarre and the mundane as a theme. What gets me through playing the anime life sim is knowing that after my shift at the convenience store I have to travel to a fantasy realm based on the human psyche and fight a giant comedy homosexual and if I don’t the world will end. What gets me through the fantasy dungeon grinding is knowing that I’m actually just an ordinary Japanese dude with above average waifu attracting skills. It’s the having a foot in both worlds that keeps my interest. I’d probably enjoy playing The Sims a lot more if my house was built on a portal to Hell and every now again I had to play a few rounds of Doom 2016 to be able to afford a new coffee maker.
In brief, that’s why I like Persona. I can’t tolerate either half of its gameplay indefinitely, so I just use them both as a chance to take a break from the other. It’s an uncommon example of something that only works because of all its ingredients working together. Like drinking a White Russian as opposed to drinking a pint of Kahlua followed by a pint of cream. That’s all very well, Yahtzee, but when are you going to tell us your favourite Persona waifu?
Oh for fuck’s sake. See, this sort of shit is a debasement of cultural discourse. Here I am trying to be academic about this, trying to pull a game’s threads apart to to get to the bottom of its appeal on a thematic and conceptual level, but all anyone wants to talk about is which character we think our character would most like to snog. (…) It’s Chie.