While the Persona games technically began as a spin-off of the Megami Tensei series, it consists of six main installments, a bunch of its own spin-off titles and many devoted fans who haven’t played any of the Megami Tensei titles. While the Shin Megami Tensei games remain as popular as ever, there are newcomers being introduced solely to the Persona series every day. The games have become something of a hit over the years, starting most notably with Persona 3. While Revelations: Persona and Persona 2: Eternal Punishment were considerable cult hits upon their Western releases, it was the wide-scale appreciation of Persona 3’s 2007 NA release for the PS2 that really garnered the series attention and thus Persona 3 (and all its related ports) is considered the first of the modern Persona games, Persona 4 and 5 making up the other two so far.
Many are happy to call these three main games (and their respective properties) the modern Persona titles and will likely accept Persona 6 into the ranks when it finally comes around (unless it kicks off the postmodern era of Persona games!). However, new fans are introduced to these games in all kinds of strange orders and even existing fans have unconventional stories about how and where they started off. After all, these games all stand alone and therefore can be played in whichever order the player is most comfortable with and finds the most convenient. This, alongside other factors, has led to a great debate amongst fans that shows no signs of letting up. In this feature, I hope to take you through the various major dynamics of this debate to help you understand it and then, at the end of the article, come to my own conclusion wary of everything I have examined.
The Nostalgia Factor
I first played Persona 3 Portable on my PSP the summer I turned thirteen, I believe, in the serenity of my bedroom in my family’s holiday home in France. That was my introduction to the Persona series, at an age about as young as you can get with these games and in the seemingly perfect conditions of a quiet summer holiday. For many, where they start off plays a big part in which game they consider the best, even if they don’t realize it. I was far from shocked when I jumped into Persona 4 Golden on my PS Vita a couple of years later because I played both 3 and 4 years after their initial release. I was already well aware of how different the two games were in terms of style and theme, even if the core mechanics were very similar. Others, however, may not always know how very different these three games are and so it is possible for them to feel underwhelmed or shocked by the experience of playing another after having fallen in love with their first. For example, those who fell in love with the joyful, feel-good anime romp that was Persona 4 may have experienced quite a bitter feeling when they started the slow, melancholic Persona 3.
Even if a player loved all three, they may still prefer the first they played. After all, it is far from impossible to fall in love with each of these games on their own merits. What makes the nostalgia factor such a killer is how the Persona series really is what one may call an ‘experience’. The games are truly fantastic, with memorable plots and characters. The themes of these games can vary greatly, but they all make for eye-opening, philosophical playthroughs. The games are known for being replayable and for having significant reasons for starting New Game Plus runs. That said, the first time you play through any of them is a deeply engaging number of hours. That effect is amplified the first time you try out the series. As such, it is common for players to associate that sublime feeling with the first game they played, and thus form a strong sentimental attachment to that game. Personally, I can’t help but feel very real emotions every time I hear the Persona 3 OST.
Mechanics and Style
Some fans who seek a more objective approach to this debate argue that it is important to consider how these games fare when you break them down into their individual parts and examine how it runs as a playable experience. Mechanics are important and, for the most part, these three installments are known as the modern Persona games because of how they share mechanics. For example, the Social Link system was first introduced in 3 and is a core part of these games, though it was renamed to the Confidant system in 5. In terms of how the game flows, it is obvious that one might consider Persona 5 for the PS4 to be the best. Its mechanics and gameplay are the sharpest since the previous two released on the PS2. This probably explains why, in a survey last year, 66.2% of participants rated Persona 5 the best Persona game, 14.08% voting for 4 and 12.68% voting for 3. However, it is also important to consider style. After all, each game is greatly stylised (particularly clear in their individual color palettes), but the fifth installment brings that to a new level with its explosive yet smooth user interface.
The menu screens in Persona 5 are phenomenal, all things considered. After all, they are just menu screens and yet they are exciting and bring life to the simple act of navigating the game’s menus, upholding the game’s overall tone. All of this translates into gameplay too as animations are bigger, faster and more exciting. Battles can still seem repetitive but they never cease to look cool. Thanks to technical advancements and how visually stunning the game is, it seems clear why fans claim that it is the “objectively best” game. Even though the gameplay isn’t everything that makes up an experience like this, it is important. However, it seems unfair to judge two PS2 games in light of a 2016 PS4 release. That said, comparing the two, 4 plays a lot better than 3. Whether it’s navigating the town or comparing 4’s dungeon-crawling to 3’s Tartarus grind, many would argue that Persona 3 is the least enjoyable to play, and the most repetitive.
Plots, Characters and Themes
While I have mentioned all three of these already, I have put off directly addressing them because this is certainly the greyest area of the debate. The three games follow similar templates and yet have very different plots and characters. Most importantly, at the core of each of the three is an altogether unique theme. How each theme resonates with you is a deeply personal thing and can vastly, even unexpectedly, change how you view the series and which game is your favorite. Equally, it might be the story that draws you in and so you might consider one game superior in plot and interactions because of your own preferences and enjoyment. Finally, while you might not expect it, the cast is a large part of what shapes each game’s dynamic and the characters can often be the main reason why players prefer one game to the other two.
Some may love Persona 4 Golden because of the introduction of Marie and her subplot/Social Link. Others may find Persona 3 Portable to be their favorite because they love the female protagonist and how she changes the game. One might be a fan of the darker subject matter in Persona 5’s plot while another simply loves Persona 4 because they think Chie Satonaka is ‘best girl’. The plot, characters and themes can affect players in such wildly different ways and equally can cause players to prefer one game over another for entirely personal reasons.
In all honesty, I cannot conclusively say which game is the best. It is, in the end, wholly subjective. I hope that this feature has helped you, either as a long-time fan or newcomer, to consider some of the factors that play into this debate and why this is very much a case where popular opinion is not always correct. I would argue that this particular debate is the most harmful to the fandom as it puts unnecessary strain on everyone’s tolerance for one another. It is entirely personal which game you prefer most and why, and which game resonates the most with you. Those reasons can be any combination of what I looked at or other things that I didn’t even consider.
I view these three factors as the three most important things to examine when understanding this debate quite simply because of the ground they cover. Consider this: The nostalgia factor is important because of how exclusively subjective it is. At the same time, the mechanics and style of the games are important to consider from an aesthetic or objective approach. And finally, the plot, characters and themes have such a profound effect on the player and yet it is so difficult to determine what that effect may be and where these factors fall on a spectrum ranging from subjective to objective.
However, I will say that Persona 4: Golden is my personal favorite. It comes down to a number of things, and the decision was very close. I will say that it was between 3 and 4 for me. I loved Persona 5, but it didn’t quite evoke the same feelings as the other two. Don’t get me wrong, I was engaged by the plot and enjoyed playing through the game. It just doesn’t stand up to the fantastic plot and characters of the other two. Of course, I loved the updated gameplay and refined mechanics. It was a great, smooth experience and I didn’t fast travel once (walking the streets of Shibuya and riding the subway was immersive and fun). Even though I played Persona 3: Portable first, Persona 4: Golden hit just the right notes at just the right time in my early-mid teenage years to still evoke, in part, the nostalgia factor.
Furthermore, its gameplay and mechanics were better than the previous game and created an enjoyable experience. The themes and plot of Persona 3 really resonate with and inspire me, but the brighter plot and themes of Persona 4 remind me most of my teenage years and encourage me most to remember what makes the day-to-day and the extraordinary equally wonderful. While I love a lot of the characters in these games, it makes sense that my favorite overall cast is that of 4 seeing as how I related with them most and enjoyed their company more than in the other two games. At the end of the day, it’s really a matter of opinion. More importantly, Persona 4: Golden is my favorite because that’s how I feel deep down, regardless of logic, objectivity and understanding. You can reason with me, convince me otherwise, but this isn’t a debate that was ever meant to be won, and I hope fans remember that.