This week, with a lot of fear in my heart, I started playing Persona Arena. I feared that my favorite series could have been ruined, I feared that the Persona series, which just finally received its own anime treatment, may very well fall into some strange abyss because of a bad decision in direction. Never in my life have I ever been so happy to be proven wrong.
Persona 3 and 4 mean a great deal to how I’m perceived online right now. Their messages spoke to my soul, and are a reflection of things that have happened in my past and possibly a path to who I may one day like to be. Through the use of clever dialogue and character design these two games have covered concepts based so very brutally in reality that a vast majority of other games’ stories by comparison are just worthless cut scenes. Persona wasn’t just a game, but a series of personal life statements that the Persona Team has had in their minds for years. When they talk about death, these are things that they’ve witnessed, and when they talk about life, these are things that most likely saved them from depression. What makes it so unique is that to this day almost nothing has been wasted. Things have been done in very specific ways to fuel the messages, and with something so intricately laid out for the world to see, having the next game in the series be an arcade fighter seems like nothing short of blasphemy. Thank god Persona Arena was handled well.
I’ll be blunt, in the grand scheme of things Persona Arena can be a bit tough to handle control wise, but then again this has become a staple for all fighting games. If you have to move a stick in two distinct careful patterns then hit a button right in order to see shiny special effects, then there’s a chance some of the audience may get a disconnect. Even though this disconnect can happen and has happened, it never stopped the team from trying anyway. A year ago one of the developers said,”The reason why we’re making a fighting game is because we want to remind our fans that there’s more out there than just RPG’s.” I don’t think that’s what they meant to say when I look at the final product, what I really see is ”we want to expand our own horizons.” Making video games is a lot of hard work and being forced to make the same games over and over again even if you are doing things right can certainly be exhausting. If I look back on their previous work, Persona 3 was a massive undertaking, Persona 4 was them showing off while only making minimal adjustments to the formula, and this time I think Atlus wanted the BlazBlue crew to take a decent amount of the load off so the Persona team could focus on the story and direction while giving the regular crew a well-needed rest before Persona 5 is started.
Even with the Persona Team getting what I considered a “break” we still see tiny bits of experimentation inside Persona Arena. For the first time we see each character being treated as a main character. P4′s main character is given his own voice, a brand new name (Yu Narukami), and they’ve added more to his personal identity. I think this may be the first JRPG series to start out with a blank slate character that later decided to shed the blank slate approach. In some ways it makes me wonder if a change in theory or beliefs has occurred within the Persona Team, or perhaps this is just another outcome they’ve reached after using blank slate characters for such a long time? Either way we now have all characters in a Persona game on equal footing. Each character has something new to the story, some perception, some belief, some account of the situation, and unlike traditional story telling in RPGs that only use characters to push things forward or show us the path, we are now able to see multiple perspectives of a certain point in time. It’s an interesting way to get people up to speed, cover old territory, remind people just how evil the “Kirijo group” really was, then sell everyone on the idea that Persona 5 is something they need to play when it’s eventually released.
Lately a lot of talk has been thrown down about how expensive the game industry is becoming, how the business has become an “all or nothing” model. I say we should all take a long hard look at what Atlus has done with the entire Tensei series. Minimal core design changes until they see something painfully obvious, a clear hard “try” in making a functional storyline, release schedules that can be almost as elusive as Valve, and a clear, ever-constant obsession with trying things that are new. In one game we could have a personified “Satan” that can destroy almost anyone with a flick of the finger, and in the next game he can still flick that finger but have some of the most insane stats ever conceived in a JRPG, while in other games that same Satan can be tough, but in a different way that is both unique and in some ways personal to how that game works, and how that AI thinks. It’s in with the old and in with the new when it comes to Tensei games and it’s been working well for them for 20 years now. It’s almost enough for me to believe in the game industry again.