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All About Joker and Persona: An Extended Background on Smash's Newest Series
Hopefully this post will explain why Joker's inclusion is so cool, why Persona is so great, and provide some background on Persona. There was a fantastic thread by Paulie25 posted a while ago as a crash course on the topic, as well!
I can't help but make this thread super long, I hope it's interesting!
(Also, Reddit Enhancement Suite will allow you to view links in the post itself.)
So, let us start the game.
When talking about Persona, especially in a Nintendo context, I think it's right to also mention it's sort of "parent" series, Shin Megami Tensei, or SMT. See, Persona is a spin-off of SMT, but it became more popular than it's parent series over time. Don't let that fool you though, because SMT is also a fantastic series and even with Persona existing, there's nothing quite like it.
Keep in mind this section is about things that are mostly specific to SMT, so what you read here isn't necessarily reflective of Persona. We'll get to that soon.
SMT games are RPGs by Atlus (whose parent company is now Sega), and usually focus on a single individual or a small group as they sift through an apocalypse that has reduced the Earth to rubble. The world has been claimed by conflicting forces of Law and Chaos, which are comprised of beings from religion and myth, ranging from Angels to Onis, Horus to Cu Cuchulain, Satan (yes, that Satan), to Metatron to Vishnu. There's a ton of different demons (they are generally referred to collectively as demons regardless of affiliation) to battle, fuse together, and... talk to? Yes, a massive part of the SMT experience is talking with demons - about what humanity is worth, about the apocalypse, and about whether you'll join them to fight for a world ruled by law or a world that has no order. Or they'll even do trivial things like hassle you for money, they'll be really peculiar, or just generally rude - especially series mascot, Jack Frost. Either way though, you'll be trying to get these demons to join you. You can usually do this by fighting them, persuading them, or sometimes blackmail, the works.
SMT is a really great series and definitely worth a look - either alongside or seperate from Persona. They are different enough so that if you don't like one, you may like the other - though there's definitely a lot of overlap, so I recommend checking out both! Persona is generally more approachable, though.
As for why SMT is especially important in a Nintendo context - SMT is actually often available on Nintendo consoles, and usually exclusive. Though, what's probably the best in the series, SMT 3: Nocturne, is a PS2 exclusive, so unfortunately it's not on regular Nintendo consoles. Though, it's not especially difficult to get a hold off if you have something that can play PS2 games. This is the most recommended one.
- SMT 4 and 4 Apocalypse are available for 3DS. They are the most recent games currently. They are the most approachable in the main series, as well. I'd recommend 4 first, as it's closer to the series standard than Apocalypse.
- SMT Strange Journey is on the DS. It's highly advised to play the original DS version, Strange Journey Redux is generally considered weaker than the original. Strange Journey is really tough, but often considered one of the best in the series.
- SMT 5 is coming... eventually, as a Switch exclusive. It's kind of unclear how far along in development it is, but it should hopefully be out in the next couple years. Maybe we'll get to see Unreal Engine work it's magic on Jack Frost sometime soon-ish.
- There's also other SMT spin off titles like the SRPG Devil Survivor available for 3DS. They might be worth a shot if you're interested! They're a bit more similar in tone to games like The World Ends With You. Definitely different from the mainline series, but still strong.
Persona, as previously stated, is a spin-off of SMT that has become a popular series in it's own right - it's actually become considerably more popular than SMT itself. These games are RPGs, like their predecessors, and share some cues with SMT in some aspects - the main link is that the demons from SMT are featured in Persona's combat system, and are seen as Personas, manifestations of someone's soul that can be used to fight, or in some cases, provide support in other ways. Personas are essentially Stands, and more or less act the same way. Meaning, they appear on command to fight on your behalf, and don't normally speak except in select cases, since they're essentially extensions of the characters they belong to. However, while your party members only have one Persona at a time, you hold the Wild Card, which allows you to fuse the Personas you acquire into stronger ones, all the way from the lowly Pixie to the mighty Thor and beyond. Each Persona has it's own strengths and weaknesses, and they can inherit abilities from the Personas that they are fused from. It's very rewarding to put together a Persona you're especially fond of, since they're pretty customizeable. In Persona 5, the SMT demons are also seen as Shadows, the hostile denizens of the "counterpart world" that you explore. But more on that later.
SMT and Persona are also very different in a lot of ways, however, and this is mostly due to one key difference - SMT is about talking to demons, but Persona is about talking to people. This informs the biggest differences between the two series. The setting has been changed from a post apocalyptic world (usually Tokyo) to modern and (usually) urban Japan, and the questions about law and chaos prompted by self-righteous demons are now melancholic, tender, and often relatable musings by (usually) ordinary people about how to deal with life treating you unfairly. This is where a lot of the appeal of the series is.
But before I continue, I want to mention that Persona 1 & 2 (& Persona 2-2 (Persona 2 is comprised on the first game, Innocent Sin, and the second game, Eternal Punishment)) are very different from the "modern" Persona games, 3, 4, & 5. This is because Persona was much closer to older SMT titles when it was first conceived, and were made around 1996-2000. The series was dormant for about 6 years, until Persona 3 was developed under Katsura Hashino (who is currently working on Switch game "Project Re: Fantasy") and founded many of the elements that comprise modern Persona - like the calendar system and the ever iconic Social Links.
Because of their age and changing conventions, Persona 1 & 2 are mostly recommended after trying out 3, 4, and/or 5 (they still have great things going for them, but are less approachable). Now I'm going to focus on 3, 4, and 5, so some of the things mentioned from now on may not apply to 1 & 2.
The first two paragraphs in this section mention some pretty different sounding things, and that's because of a key aspect of Persona - it has two hemispheres that play off of each other. How intertwined those parts are depends on which game, but principally Persona is made of a dungeon crawling RPG half, and a social sim half - hanging out with your classmates, messing around in the arcade, helping people, fishing, going to the movies; you play through almost every day of the game's calendar year and really get acquainted with your surroundings. It's highly recommended to play these games at your own pace, because they really shine when you can immerse yourself in them. I'd avoid trying to speed through, because they are long. Like, 60+ hours is expected for your first playthrough. But every hour has something really great, and the culmination of it all results in something even greater than the sum of it's already wonderful parts.
You begin the game in a normal Japanese town/city, but eventually gain access to an alternate version of an area, or another world. A series constant is that early in the game, the mysterious Igor and his various assistants will instruct you on the rules of this land in the ethereal Velvet Room (which looks different in each game), while it's signature, enchanting theme plays. He emphasizes something in particular - that the bonds you make in the real world will give you strength in the other world. This isn't just a narrative deal - the bonds you create, called Social Links, or Confidants - each of which correspond to one of the major arcana of the tarot deck of cards, are leveled up by improving your relationship with others by spending time with them. Strengthening those relationships will make your Personas stronger when you fuse them, and sometimes even grant direct battle enhancements. Seeing these two halves compliment each other gives Persona it's unique identity, and it's difficult to find anything quite like it.
Currently, Persona games are mostly only available for Sony consoles, but I can see that changing in the future, especially now with Joker's inclusion. Either way, I can't recommend the games enough. The spin-offs Persona Q and Persona Q2 are available for 3DS, but to really get the most out of those games you'll want to play the main series games first.
Firstly, the premise is great, playing almost every day of a calendar year and interacting with the people of the city from different walks of life makes for a fun, and often thought provoking and tender experience. The game lets you play the way you want - you are encouraged to go at your own pace and see what you want to see. The series was designed around picking and choosing what you want to do, more or less like real life, so it's up to you to pursue the Social Links you want, and for you to prioritize what matters most to you - do you care more about being smart, charming, or confident? Which do you want to work on first? Do you care about being charming enough to gain approval and get closer to a few people, or do you care more about your friends who don't require that? Who are you more invested in, the old couple who are afraid the memory of their late son will fade away, or the odd monk who gives you life advice in the club at the mall? Or maybe you were more interested in the shady businessman who tries to get you involved in his schemes? Which of your party members do you want to focus on the most? Are you focused on supporting your friend who's been ostracized but helped you get through the first few weeks at school, or are you focused above all else on helping one of your friends get past life as a shut-in? Would you rather work on your realtionship with the back-alley doctor or the former yakuza store owner? There's always a rush when your favorite character is available to talk to, since they have their own schedules that they adhere to, so it feels especially satisfying to catch them on a good day.
You can manage to do a lot of this stuff in one playthrough if you manage your time well, but the overall design of having to choose what you are more focused on helps the game shine, and really makes the gameplay systems come together. It's impressive, the social sim aspects are just as strong as, sometimes maybe even more so, than the RPG part of the game, which is no slouch either. The battles are snappy and satisfying, fusing Personas to get stronger is very fun and rewarding, and there is an immense satisfaction when your fusion nets you a strong Persona that corresponds to a Social Link you've been working on. The bosses are often tough and interesting as well.
The games also not only have a unique identity within the landscape of games as a whole, they also have unique identities from each other, and you can see this through a lot of aspects, but especially in the art and music. Each game has a key color, Persona 3's cool blue, Persona 4's bright yellow and Persona 5's striking crimson, each of which inform the feel of each game. We'll talk about Persona 5 a lot in it's own section, so I think now is a good time to go over 3 and 4, which also both cannot be recommended enough if they at all interest you, just like with 5.
Persona 3's key color of cool blue reflects the melancholic nature of most of the game. P3 is focused on a pretty heavy topic - death. But more principally it's about moving on, and realizing that life is worth living even when it may not seem like it. It's also about making the most of the time you have, and forging bonds with others so that they'll have memories of you. When I said Persona was about picking and choosing what's most important to you, that's in full force in Persona 3. You can do everything with proper setup and knowledge, but the developers didn't go out of their way to make that happen, because they were more interested in the idea of players prioritizing things just like in real life - and I think that's brilliant, because it creates an incredible thematic resonance with the rest of the game, because it's all about appreciating the time that you have and spending it wisely.
In Persona 3, you are a new student to Tatsumi Port Island's Gekkoukan High School. Upon arrival though, you stay conscious during the Dark Hour - an enigmatic time that appears at midnight that leaves everyone save for a select few people unconscious. During this time, you awaken to your Persona, and are recruited into what will become your party, S.E.E.S., who climb the mysterious tower of Tartarus to eliminate the strange beasts known as Shadows and end the Dark Hour. The game is themed around the Fool's Journey of the tarot, and you as the Fool Arcana face powerful Shadows of each Arcana until you are forced to fight the Death Arcana. It takes a few creative liberties with the tarot, but uses them effectively to create a compelling story.
What's really interesting is that your party often have internal quarrels, and all feel like people vying for their own goals and interpretations of how things are and how they should be. It adds an interesting layer of depth to the internal dynamic of the group, but makes it all the more satisfying once everyone is on the same page. The game does a great job at making it's characters feel like their own people, beyond it's Social Links, party members typically have two major arcs that flesh them out and make them grow, and they have their own schedules and circumstances that they abide by.
P3's visual design is also really incredible, the way it combines interesting, otherworldly designs with with modern architecture in Tartarus creates a sense of familiarity, despite it's distance from the normal. Even with it's age, you can make out some really nice, cool environments across Tasumi Port Island. While the game's shown it's age, there's a certain charm in some of the solutions it found to accommodating the time and circumstances it was made in, with some interesting art choices - there's a large focus on flat colors with minimal shading. This is also present in the animated cutscenes, which results in a really memorable and unique style that gets developed to create really cool things like this piece for the Persona 3 movie.
P3's strong points are also amplified by it's great soundtrack, the sincerity it puts behind tracks like Iwatodai Dorm and the similarly cheesy, yet endlessly hype Mass Destruction make them impossible not to love. Whether you're currently listening to When The Moon's Reaching Out Stars and the complicated feelings behind it, or the eerie yet invigorating Master of Shadow, there's nearly always a song playing that's helping to tie the experience together.
Persona 3's real standard version is Persona 3 FES for the PS2. Another version of the game, Persona 3 Portable for the PSP, added the option to play as a female protagonist with new Social Links and enhanced/updated several battle mechanics. Unfortunately, it doesn't have the free roam featured in the original, you now use a cursor to explore the overworld. It's hard to make a definitive recommendation on which version since each has it's strengths and weaknesses, but if you really value the free roam and better graphics I would go for Persona 3 FES. The female protagonists route in Portable is absolutely wonderful though, I think her version is considerably better than the already great male protagonist route.
Persona 4's key color of bright yellow reflects the comfy small town atmosphere of Inaba. What is interesting though, is that it's indicative of the games themes of evasion from the truth. Behind that peppy yellow and the sleepy atmosphere of Inaba is the fact that there's a serial killer in the town who's methods are unfathomable to the police department. Only those with
P4 focuses on the tension between the case and the relief of trying to live life peacefully and fun in Inaba, where you'll be staying with your uncle Dojima, a detective for the local police force. Soon after transferring to Yasogami High School, you and some classmates will investigate a local rumor that you can travel to alternate world through a television. Low and behold, the rumor wasn't unfounded, and you'll find yourself in the backside of the TV, home, among other things, to it's great signature theme. After an enigmatic resident of the world explains how it works, you'll begin to use the world to stop the murderer. This is where the Investigation Team is born. P4 is also heavily about escapism, and what's perhaps the main crux of the game is helping the people who'll become your party members confront Shadow versions of themselves, borne from their repressed malcontent with who they are. For them to awaken their Personas, they'll need to come to terms with themselves. They'll end up being the ones who reach out to the truth when no one else can. The Investigation Team frequently meets up for general activities and gets along well, making for a comfortable atmosphere despite the creeping tension of living in Inaba. It makes for an interesting experience, even within the Persona series.
The art is very pop, and does a lot to emphasize it's more upbeat exterior compared to the other games. This extends to it's battle screens and UI elements. It's further supported by some incredible tracks like Heartbeat, Heartbreak, and Signs of Love, which really build up your time in Inaba as something special. Because of this, along with it's character dynamics and welcoming atmosphere, it's also a good way to get into the series since it's tone leaves it very approachable, and eases you into the eccentric and odd elements that give Persona it's unique flavor.
Persona 4 is available for the PS2, and the updated rerelease, Persona 4: Golden, is available for PS Vita.
Now to actually talk about Persona 5, the main course here. And it's incredible.
Persona 5 is the most recent main series Persona game, released in September 2016 in Japan and April 2017 in the West, after numerous delays from it's supposed Winter 2014 release date. Despite Persona 3's 2006 release and Persona 4's 2008 release being very close together, it took 8 years after 4 for 5 to be released - mostly due to the transition to HD development. Taking their time proved to be well worth it though, because we ended up with one of the best, most passionately adored, and memorable games of 2017 - and probably of the console generation - likely beyond that, too, even. Even Sakurai himself is a massive fan of the game!
P5 has done a lot to update the series' visual presentation to the modern era, and you can really see the fruits of the labor of developing Catherine (PS3, 360, PS4, Vita) here, because the experience in creating HD models acquired from making Catherine couldn't be more clear - the models in Persona 5 are gorgeous.
In fact, the whole game is gorgeous. That Joker announcement trailer wasn't just for show - it's inspired by the Persona 5 intro. Everything, from the title screen, to the shop menus, to your equipment menus; from every component of the battle menu, elements of it's battle mechanics, and beyond - all of it is absolutely dripping with style. And not just any style, it's style reflecting the picaresque stories that inspired it, as well as it's key color - a striking crimson.
The use of strong crimson works well to establish that you will make yourself be seen. It's a color of confidence. We'll get to that soon. In Persona 5, you play as a transfer student that you choose the name of. This is Joker. Joker, though is a code name, which will make sense in a short while. His canon name is either Akira Kurusu or Ren Amamiya, depending on the adaption. You, Joker, were expelled from your original school due to trying to help a woman deal with a belligerent man who turns out to be a powerful politician. He gets you in a lot of legal trouble, and this leads to you having to move to Yongen-Jaya, near Tokyo, where you'll be attending Shujin Academy, and live in the (surprisingly comfy) attic of the LeBlanc cafe, owned by your new guardian, Sojiro.
You'll notice your phone has a mysterious application that cannot be deleted, and at night you appear in the Velvet Room. This series of events will allow you to access the Metaverse, an alternate version of the world where people will especially strong distorted thoughts and feelings alter the very landscape. In the Metaverse, the world is dictated by what people think and feel. For example, if someone happened to think a model gun was a real gun, in the Metaverse, the model gun would work exactly like a real gun would. The places resulting from that are referred to as Palaces, and are inhabited by Shadows, as well as a Shadow version of the one who's thoughts and feelings created the Palace. You'll end up here alongside a couple of classmates, and you'll find that a truly vile and manipulative teacher has transformed the Metaverse version of Shujin into a castle. An odd and enigmatic character will explain how the Metaverse and it's Palaces operate. They'll focus on something in particular - stealing hearts. By sending a calling card to provoke the owner of the Palace, a precious item will appear within the Palace's confines. By stealing that item, you can force someone to admit their crimes. Naturally, you'll be using this technique to take down the revolting teacher, while the school administration tries desperately to cover up the issue to save face. This operation is the birth of the Phantom Thieves, your party who seeks to use the ability to steal hearts to bring hope to downtrodden people, just like creating rivers in the desert.
That's where the use of crimson and picaresque inspiration comes into play, and what the central theming of Persona 5 revolves around. Persona 5 is about making sure your voice is heard. When the powerful are free to control people however they want, and apathy begins to set in as no one feels like they can do anything, the only choice you have is the wake up, get up, and get out there, because that's the only way life will change. So, you do just that. With your newfound power, you help out various people who have resigned themselves to live underneath someone else's heel, and give them the reminder that they need that it's worth trying to control your own life and push for change. There's a lot more to unpack in this department, but some of it dives into spoiler territory, so please trust me when I say it's remarkably well thought out, interesting, and powerful.
Each of your party members Personas are based of off famous rogues of history and myth, with your own original one being Arsene, based on Arsene Lupin. Almost every aspect of the games plays up your nature as the Phantom Thieves - the story dungeons of the previous games are now elaborately designed areas where heists occur, from castles to tombs to museums. The Social Links are now Confidants, and the bonuses they provide are not only to your Personas, but also directly help your abilities in the Metaverse, as they come to support your intentions as the Phantom Thieves. There's now a stealth system, and the advantageous stage on an enemy Shadow is now an ambush.
There's been several gameplay improvements as well - dungeon exploration is perfected, with the Palaces each having their own unique layouts and themes, as well as sporting some great art direction. You're fully free to run and explore the Palace with snappy terrain traversal, as well. In battle, the game is streamlined immensely by one simple change - the new battle UI. What's changed is that instead of scrolling through menus like a traditional JRPG, every button corresponds to an action. There are menus you can enter from there, but this one simple change really improves the game feel from great to sublime.
P5 also brings back demon negotiation from SMT and Persona 1 & 2. As stated far back in this post, the demons you acquire as Personas appear as Shadows in the Metaverse. Now, not only can you fuse Personas in the Velvet Room, but you can also persuade Shadows by targeting their weakness and holding them at gunpoint, known as a hold up. From there, you can pressure them into joining you, or giving you money/items. The Shadows are pretty weird though, so prepare to think outside the box when it comes to your conversations with them.
I've dotted some songs around in this section, but I do want to point out that the music, lovingly crafted by Shoji Meguro (composer of most of Atlus' largest games, including SMT 3 and Persona 3-5), is superb. It has some of the smoothest, some of the most invigorating, and honestly some of the best general music I've ever heard - the music in Persona 5 is a narration of the game to a degree that few other games compare to.
Naturally, like the previous games, Persona 5 blends it's art, themes, gameplay, and music extraordinarily well, but 5 might just be on a level above even them. Every element on it's own is incredible and well thought out - from it's art, it's themes of rebellion and change, it's wonderful gameplay systems, to it's legendary music. The cohesion and synthesis is at an unbelievable level. Here's just a few examples of how it's elements play off of each other:
- The art supports the gameplay by making the battles incredibly satisfying with wonderful animations. Targeting enemy weaknesses conveys a large weight. I linked a regular attack that didn't exploit a weakness as a frame of reference, critical hits and high-level skills get even better.
- The menus and UI take inspiration from comic books as well as grafitti, evoking underdog heroes and a rebellious nature, so the themes of the game are always present in some capacity - even when simply equipping a new weapon.
- The music sells the themes through it's lyrics and subject matter, creating some truly incredible moments. Especially in the later half of the game, the music will take you on it's own journey with how much it can command the mood of a scene, especially during heists and boss battles.
- The Palace exploration gameplay supports the themes, because you are not only like thieves in a narrative sense, you also explore Palaces like a thief, ambushing enemies with maneuvers they never saw coming.
- Often many elements will be supporting each other at one time. Once a calling card is sent, the tension rises to a fever pitch - you are executing your plans to topple corrupt individuals, the music is playing your signature theme as the Palace owner is getting increasingly desperate to stop you, the art is selling each of the Thieves' unwavering determination, and the whole Palace is on absolute maximum security, which is even reflected by the game's stealth mechanics setting the Palace to it's maximum alert level. These moments and many more are truly brilliant.
Persona 5 brings the series to the modern era in a spectacular fashion, and I think it's a game people really should enter with an open mind, because it might just become one of your favorite games ever.
Persona 5 is currently available for PS3 and PS4, but I highly doubt Atlus will keep it exclusive to those platforms now that there's a few million people with a Switch who are interested. Every prior Persona game has been remade, and Persona 3 actually had an updated rerelease fairly soon after the original. We'll likely see Persona 5 appear on Switch in the coming year or so, and maybe it'll even be updated!
So, Joker is the main character of Persona 5. He's your player character and the leader of the Phantom Thieves. In the real world, he normally tries to avoid drawing attention to himself, though when confronted he can get pretty sassy. He often has dialogue choices for messing with people. In the Metaverse he's in his element, and is very cocky. You can tell he enjoys every second of being a thief. He's got a great design and he's just generally really fucking cool. He also sounds amazing, given that he shares his voice actor with the Smash Bros. announcer, Xander Mobus. You can listen to all his voice lines right here, in all their glory. They're also very entertaining to listen to in a row like that.
In terms of moveset, Joker's has three weapons - a dagger, a gun, and most importantly by far, access to well over 100 Personas, all of which have their own unique forms and abilities. His Persona abilities are absolutely gargantuan, and this is very certainly going to be his main method of combat, no matter what game he's in. Even his main Persona, Arsene, will provide a wide array of abilities, with an emphasis on dark magic. Expect Joker to be fairly fast and have a wide array of tools at his disposal.
It's abundantly clear by now that I love Persona, and not only is Joker's inclusion beyond wonderful for bringing a very nice character from an incredible game to Smash, it's also going to bring so much more attention to this series, and I couldn't be more glad for it.
The reality that there's gonna be so many new faces experiencing this series is so heartwarming to me, because I look back at my time with Persona 5 back on it's initial release as some of the best time I've ever spent with a video game. I hope many more will get to feel the same.
Just to think, there's probably well over a million, probably well over a few million people eagerly awaiting the first DLC character of the fighter pass, and Nintendo and Atlus took this opportunity to introduce so many people to this absolutely lovely series. Persona used to be pretty niche before Persona 5, despite the series' constant praise along with it's fairly wide and intensely passionate adoration, so I'm glad it's finally and indisputably made a name for itself, and gets to be included in the ever growing family of Smash Brothers, among the greatest names gaming has ever seen.
To me, I think it's earned it. Lookin' cool, Joker.