Monday, December 31, 2018

Persona 3 and Its Spin-Offs

I've been playing Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight and it's been giving me thoughts about how Persona 3 fits among the rest of the Persona games and why it didn't get the same kinds of spin-offs that its successors did.

Persona 3 was the first of the modern Persona games, popularizing the high school sim/RPG hybrid model the games have been using ever since. It's also the most daring of them, as I think Atlus felt free to make it different both from its predecessors and its successors. Once they realized they were on to something, and they ended up playing things safer with later installments.

Being in the middle of the current five game series, Persona 3 has the darkness of the previous games, but laid the groundwork for the more optimistic games to follow. Though 3, 4, and 5 are often grouped together as the modern Persona games due to featuring the same game design, thematically Persona 3 doesn't fit. For one thing it had the gall to kill off its protagonist, and there is a playable pseudo-sequel called "The Answer" in Persona 3 FES that is largely about the rest of the cast coming to terms with grief over his loss. That's heavy stuff for a JRPG.

It didn't limit the death tally to the protagonist either, also killing off another party member, Shinjiro, not by any supernatural enemies, but simply other humans.

One of the taglines of the game is "Memento mori" (Remember you will die). Characters summon their personas by pointing evokers designed to look like guns at their heads and pulling the trigger. The trauma of performing the mock suicide is what makes the evoker work.

And it's not just that Persona 3 is darker than its successors. It also felt free to be strange. The modern Persona games tend to have at least one non-human party member, but Persona 3 had two, and neither of them were a sort of shadow creature. Instead we have an android designed to fight Shadows, and a dog. Not a special talking dog, but just a regular shiba inu in every way other than the fact it can summon its own persona.

Since Persona 3 was an overhaul of the series from the previous installments, it didn't have much to lose. It could afford to be edgy and weird, both in regards to what previous Persona games were like (the high school sim element proved to be a big hit) and what future games became (it retained a lot of darkness the parent Shin Megami Tensei series is known for).

But being unique also made the game unwieldy when it comes to spin-offs. It has the largest playable cast of the modern Persona games (though it's less noticeable because of Shinjiro's death two-thirds of the way through and the fact Koromaru is a dog) and because they killed the protagonist, this meant he was unable to return for spin-offs in the same way that the P4 protagonist could return again and again with the canonized name of Yu Narukami.

Persona 4 Arena was pretty neat in that it added older versions of Persona 3's Akihiko, Mitsuru, and Aigis as playable characters. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax took it a step forward and added Junpei, Yukari, and Ken to the roster, making all of the Persona 3 cast playable except for the dog, the dead people, and Fuuka (who has had a non-combat role). I remember when they did this, I wondered if someone at Atlus was kicking themselves (or someone else) for having the P3 protagonist sacrifice himself, ending his marketability. A grudge match, or even a dream match, between Persona protagonists would have been fun.

Eventually the two of them to meet through Persona Q, an Etrian Odyssey style cross-over that brought them both to a sort of pocket dimension that was not tied to a particular time and place, so we got to pull both teams from the middle of their story. It was fun and rather goofy seeing the characters interact with each other, and the game permitted the player to choose which team to play as, allowing those who wanted to play as the P3 cast to remain with them the entire way through.

And then the Persona 4 life cycle ended. Anticipation moved on to Persona 5, which had a longer development cycle than I suspect Atlus would have liked. P3 and P4 both managed to release ahead of their in-game calendars, even in the US with translation delays, but Persona 5 came out in 2017 in Japan and 2018 in the US. From the in-game calendar and references to the P4 cast, P5 clearly takes place in 2016. If Atlus had kept to the ahead-of-the-game-calendar release they were probably originally shooting for a 2015 release.

After Persona 5's release, people suspected the spin-offs would continue as a way to fill the void between new Persona games, and they did, starting with a dancing game to follow up after Persona 4: Dancing All Night. But what I didn't expect, was that it would be partnered with a new Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight.

I'm pretty sure Persona 3 would not be getting a spin-off title now if not for Persona 5, but I'll take it. I suspect since Atlus was already working on Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight, most of the groundwork needed for Dancing in Moonlight was already done. They would still need to change the music tracks, create the character models, and write/record a new script, but the game engine was already there and it probably wasn't terribly difficult to retain the key staff for both games.

The result is beautiful.

We've never had high res models of the Persona 3 cast and they're fantastically realized. Most of the US voice cast returns (Fuuka and Ken use their Persona 4 Arena VAs rather than the original cast).

The story, such as there is, is pure fluff. Everyone is in a dream state pulled from some point in time prior to the final battle, except for Elizabeth, who is clearly existing in a future after Persona 5 since she is aware of both the P3 protagonist's fate and that her younger sister has a guest of her own.

This adds an element of tragedy to an otherwise happy game about cutting loose in a dream to relieve stress (and if you remember the later parts of Persona 3 it gets really dismal for everyone). The characters frequently talk about what they're going to do in better times, once it's all over, including how they want the protagonist to continue to be involved in their lives, which we know isn't going to happen.

Everyone feels uncharacteristically crazy about dancing, but aside from that, they're much the old friends I first met years ago. The lyrics to the opening song (which appear to be written by an American employee at Atlus, since her name appears elsewhere in the credits in another position) bank heavily on the nostalgia and what it was like for the P3 protagonist and the player to leave their friends behind and then join them again for a night of dancing.

There's still Persona Q2 on the horizon for cross-over material, and realistically that's probably all we're going to get of the P3 cast unless there is a P5 fighting game that's willing to age them even further. (I'm a little doubtful about that, but would still be okay with it.)

But I suspect that will be it for Persona 3 spin-off material, which is too bad. It paved the way forward, but for whatever reason it didn't catch on quite as much as its successors.