Understanding Persona 5’s design philosophy: Refining not reinventing

In less than a week, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 5 is finally going to hit American shores. For those of you who haven’t been following its Japanese release, it was very well received. Scoring a 39/40 in Famitsu and being heralded as the new gold standard for JRPGs by multiple outlets, Persona 5 delivered an experience that no other RPG could – and that includes 2016’s RPG of the year, Final Fantasy XV. It provided a truly updated, refined, and modern JRPG experience.

Our own review is still in progress, but we can tell you what a “modern JRPG experience” means, at least in this context. Instead of reinventing the JRPG, Persona 5 seeks to refine it.

Honoring Traditions

You may notice that there aren’t a lot of JRPG franchises anymore. The heyday of the genre was easily in the 16-bit SNES era, when every major publisher had a JRPG to sell. Now, the genre has been largely criticized for being unable to “keep up with the times,” leaving us with only a few major names like Pokémon, Final Fantasy, and, of course, Persona.

Yet when people say “keep up with the times” they usually mean “abandon the JRPG formula.” Common criticisms of contemporary JRPGs include their devotion to menu-based combat and linear storytelling, but longtime fans of the genre understand that these are traditional elements of JRPG design. There is a common belief that any JRPG that converts to an open world action-based formula will instantly become more popular, and while some franchises, like Final Fantasy, have seen mixed degrees of success with full genre conversion, other franchises, like Star Ocean, have failed spectacularly.

Atlus doesn’t buy into this idea. They believe a JRPG can be good as a true JRPG, and not as an open-world action game. Instead of abandoning design traditions that have stuck with JRPGs since the days of sprites, they examine why we loved these traditions and why we don’t love them now. By doing so, they can redesign these mechanics for a modern day audience without abandoning the core JRPG design that so many fans are starved for.

The Art of Menus

Let’s take a looks at menus. Menus are loathed because scrolling through them is tedious instead of fun and interactive. So instead of ditching menus, Atlus decided to try and make using them feel more fun and interactive. In Persona 5, each menu function in battle is mapped to a controller button. Instead of scrolling through a menu slowly, choices can be made simply by memorizing a sequence of button inputs.

But ease of use only eliminates tedium. It doesn’t make menu usage actually fun. To do this, Atlus decided to tie the actual act of scrolling through menus to character action.

Normally, scrolling through menus is a null action. Game time stops and nothing happens until the player makes his choices. This is why people think menu-based gameplay is boring. So Atlus’s solution was to not stop the game while scrolling through menus. The very act of scrolling through menus causes your characters to animate and react. Go into the firearms menu and your character will pull out his sidearm. Go into the Persona menu and your character will summon his persona even before you make your final decision. Animating the act of decision making gives weight to those decisions, both inside and outside of the game world. This weight is what makes decision-making fun.

And these improvements to menus don’t only apply in battle. The out-of-battle menu is similarly improved. While it doesn’t map functions to face buttons (which is fine since it gives out-of-battle decision-making a less pressing, more relaxed tone), it does spice things up with graphical improvements. It’s no secret that Persona models its graphical style off of Japanese anime and manga, and so flipping through out-of-battle menus is animated like flipping through the pages of a manga. High quality action stills of your party make up the background of these menus, changing as you scroll through menu categories. It’s like an art gallery that you get to view every time you go into the menu.

JRPG Gameplay with an Open World Feel

Persona also has its own unique approach to fixing issues with linear storytelling, though these elements were put in place far before Persona 5. The game world is a fictional version of Tokyo, and when you aren’t diving into dungeons, you can basically go wherever you want. You can work odd jobs, hang out at the arcade, and, yes, date your girl of choice. How you spend your time is up to you.

Despite this relative freedom, you are kept on a schedule. Story events will happen whether you are ready for them or not. Evil doesn’t wait for you, as it does in other open world games. This allows players to experience the freedom of player choice that an open world game gives you, along with the narrative weight that a more linear game gives you at the same time.

There are plenty of other ways that Persona 5 revamps the JRPG formula, from their attitudes on random dungeons, to the way they integrate stealth gameplay into grinding, but going over these elements would push this article dangerously into review territory, and if you are looking for a review you’ll still have to wait.

Persona 5 wasn’t their first attempt at following this design philosophy. You may remember last year’s Tokyo Mirage Sessions, which also stuck to the JRPG formula, and was similarly well received.  Personally, I hope that Atlus continues in this tradition and that other companies follow suit. There’s no particular reason to outright abandon a genre simply because it isn’t at the height of its popularity.