A Strange Journey

I had what I thought was a great idea to play through Persona 3 or 4 over the course of a year, beginning on the date when the game begins and playing a week at a time. I was going to have a weekly update on the blog here of what I accomplished that week and my general impressions of the game. Not the most original idea, I know, but I thought it sounded like a fun way to replay one of favorite PS2 games.

That plan fell through. One reason why was because I didn’t get started in time; I missed the date that either game starts on. That was not an insurmountable problem; I still could have played a couple of weeks to get caught up and went on from there. But I also couldn’t decide which of the two games to replay. I like Persona 4 more, but I’d kind of like a second go at Persona 3 now that I am more familiar with how the Shin Megami Tensei series works. Again, a problem I could have easily solved. Another reason I held off was that I wanted to have a way to get some screencaps of the game while I played. I wasn’t planning to do a full on let’s play or anything, but a couple of shots a week to demonstrate things would have been nice. I do want to get some kind of capture device on the near future, but I have no definite plans. Or money for that matter. That was the big one. If I am going to devote a year to a project like that, I’d like to do it well.

There is another reason that greatly trumps those three reason for me giving up, or at least delaying, this Persona project. That reason can be summed up with one picture:

That is my pile of unbeaten Shin Megami Tensei games; there are 9 of them if you add in my PSN copy of Persona 2 Eternal Punishment. Some of them I’ve not played, like Digital Devil Saga 2 and Soul Hackers. Others I’ve played quite a bit but haven’t quite beaten, Persona 4 Arena and Devil Survivor 2. Going off of Howlongtobeat.com, I’ve got about 300 hours of video games in that stack. I find it hard to justify playing through either of the Persona games again when I haven’t yet played Nocturne.

So now my plan is to try to beat all of those games over the next year, in time to start a Persona replay at the correct date. I’ve made plans to beat a series of games over the course of a year before (see my still ongoing replay of the Zelda series), but this time it is less of a concrete project and more just making these games a priority. I’ve enjoyed every SMT game I’ve played so far, but they take so long that I kind of have to set aside time to play them. First up I am going to finish the single player of P4A. I’ve already cleared it as several characters, but I want to try to do with all of them. It shouldn’t take all that long, but it isn’t exactly fast. Also, I am going to put a little more time into Devil Survivor 2. I’ve been playing it some recently, but not putting any serious effort into it. And these games generally require some effort. That is part of what makes them great.

While I’ve become a big fan of this series, and all its various subseries, I haven’t been aware of it for all that long. The first Shin Megami Tensei game I played was Persona 3. I bought the FES rerelease after hearing the internet gush about the game forever. I loved it, despite some niggling complaints, mostly about having to rely on AI party members for healing. There was a notable flaw in the AI that if you were poisoned, they wouldn’t heal it unless you were at full HP. So every turn they heal your HP, but leave you poisoned so they would have to do the same thing in the next round. Still, once you learned the idiosyncrasies of the system it was particularly fulfilling. Persona 3 was not exactly punishingly difficult, but it did keep players on their toes. The player had to be wary or it would be game over. After years of Square’s fun but generally toothless RPGS, Persona 3 was a big change and a refreshing one. I was hooked.

So I looked into the series and tracked down a couple of other SMT games, Digital Devil Saga and Devil Summoner for the PS2, figuring they would keep me busy while I waited for Persona 4. Neither of them really grabbed me like Persona. I loved their settings, especially Devil Summoner, but they each had their faults. I wasn’t a big fan of DDS’s character building system or how it really felt like only half of a game. It was half of a game that took me fifty hours, but it definitely feels incomplete. Still, the battle system, which was largely similar to Persona 3’s, with an emphasis on hitting enemy weaknesses for more turns, was largely great. Devil Summoner’s battle system, though, was limited. It was an action RPG, but none of the fights were significantly different than any other. It was all dodge and slash and having the right element. Fun initially, but repetitive. Despite not really loving either of those games, I was hooked on the series at this point.

From Persona 4 on a new SMT game was something I greatly looked forward to. Which is strange, since I’ve only finished two games in the series since then. I’ve preordered most of them, aside from the PSP games since I didn’t have the system until recently, and spent a lot of time tracking down Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga 2. But I’ve only managed to finish the first Devil Survivor and SMT 4. Though I enjoyed it, Devil Survivor frequently paralyzed me by giving me many choices and no clear idea of their consequences. It also ended up taking me a long time to beat, which meant that I didn’t end up getting to Strange Journey or even Devil Survivor 2 when they came out. I have played those two games, getting probably halfway through each of them. SMT 4 was one of my favorite and most anticipated games of last year. I wasn’t letting anything put me off of playing it.

Shin Megami Tensei games are a constant struggle; that is part of their charm. They are generally fair in their challenge, but also unrelenting. Much like Etrian Odyssey, they require players to learn their systems and to exploit those systems. The enemies will do the same. You have to learn and take advantage of enemies’ weaknesses while covering your own. The general idea of hitting a weak point for a turn advantage is carried across the series.

The other big draw is how the series makes use of a wide variety of myths and legends to fill out its roster of enemies and allies. They are called Demons general, but they run the gamut from Japanese demons to Celtic heroes to Christian Angels. But it also uses them as characters in the stories. They aren’t embarrassingly reimagined like Final Fantasy’s summons (I’m looking at you Shiva) but they are sometimes recontextualized in a modern setting. Still, having knowledge of the myth that each creature springs from helps to understand where characters are coming from. In Persona, a characters persona tells you about their character. For instance, Persona 3’s protagonist starts with the persona Orpheus, who in the myth went to Hades to save his dead lover, and eventually becomes Thanatos, who is death incarnate. The game doesn’t just assume you know this stuff, though it doesn’t go out of to inform you either. Most games have a compendium, a list of all the demons you’ve encountered, that will give you information about them. That will tell you most of what you need to know. Having a basis in real myth gives the stories of these games another level that most RPGs lack. Sure, many of them end up being little more than the typical anime nonsense, but at least there is something going on rather than just blindly hitting all the otaku pleasing tropes.

So I am going to try to get back to Persona 4 Arena soon. I’m not doing much else with my PS3 right now, though I don’t get a lot of time for games on the TV. I am also going to try to power through the rest of Devil Survivor 2 soon as well. That would be a good start, but I doubt I’ll ever be actually caught up on this series. I expect to see Persona Q here a few months after its Japanese release in June, and Persona 5 is looking to be the big send off for the PS3 some time next year. Staying on top of this series is a never ending battle, but a worthy one.

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