Shin Megami Tensei: Persona is a series of dark supernatural RPGs. The franchise has also spun off a manga and several animated adaptations.
Our suggestion is to examine for yourself what each game’s content is and decide whether or not your child is ready for it.
The Shin Megami Tensei: Persona games feature cartoon-like gameplay with fully animated cut scenes. Those of you who are familiar with Japanese anime will note that the games strongly resemble that artistic style, while the cut scenes look like they were lifted from an anime series.
Note: There are many spin-offs and other merchandise (like graphic novels) in the Persona franchise; this entry examines only the major game installments in the series.
Violence: Fantasy violence is present in all Persona games, though the later installments are more explicit in their depictions of blood (particularly in the environment—blood is seen in pools on the floor and on walls). In Persona 3, tools called “Evokers” are used to draw out characters’ Personas (see below for more). The Evokers resemble guns, and characters must “shoot” themselves in the head in order to induce fear and stress, as this is the primary means of forcing the Personas out.
Scary Imagery: There are several scenes involving real-world murders, as well as enemies who might be scary for younger kids. The Evokers in Persona 3 may also invoke fearfulness in many kids.
Sexual Content: There is some sexual dialogue (e.g., “What are the school computers used for?” “Porn.”) and one instance of a succubus-like monster appearing, but no overt references to sex.
Strong Language: Mild swearing is common (e.g., sh*t and a**hole).
Substance Use: One character in Persona 4 is the daughter of a family who runs a liquor store, and adult characters may reference beer or cigarettes, but it they are not presented as positive. In Persona 2: Innocent Sin, several references to drug use can be heard, but they are not central to the gameplay and no specific drugs are mentioned.
Nudity and Costuming: In Persona 4, several monsters resemble human genitals to varying degrees. One demon (called Mara) is shaped like male anatomy, for instance, and is probably the most explicit depiction of genitalia. Another demon appears to be covered in female breasts. The enemies in Persona are all modeled after real-world mythological figures. Human genitalia is not considered as taboo in Japan, and thus characters do not react to these demons as Americans might.
Persona’s themes include coming-of-age, friendship, dealing with negative emotions, and coming to terms with adulthood. The games are heavily based on Jungian Psychology, with elements of H. P. Lovecraft’s vision appearing as well. Shinto myth, urban legend, and murder mystery are common themes.
The game mechanic is based on the manifestation of characters’ innermost thoughts as either “Shadows” or “Personas.” Shadows are negative emotions, fears, or aspects of the personality that manifest as dangerous beings. Characters must face their own Shadows and come to terms with these malevolent inner thoughts, at which point a Shadow will become a Persona—a trained and tamed version of those thoughts, working with the character to defeat enemies. Personas are positive manifestations of a character’s thoughts.
Megami Ibunroku Persona (called Revelations: Persona in the American release) features a group of high school students who start playing a game called “Persona.” The students lose consciousness while playing and meet an entity named Philemon who gives them the ability to summon their Personas. When they return to the real world, they discover that their town is filled with demons. It should be noted that these demons fit the Japanese definition of demons, not the Judeo-Christian one.
Persona 2: Innocent Sin and Persona 2: Eternal Punishment together make the second installment of the Persona series. The former features teenage protagonist Tatsuya Suou, the younger brother of a homicide investigator, while the latter focuses on Maya Amano, a young writer for a teen magazine. The two games are chapters in the same storyline and work as a sequel to the first Persona game. As in the first game, the protagonists are transported to an alternate dimension where the being Philemon gives them the ability to summon Personas. Again, the town is overrun by demons. Demons can be negotiated with or attacked. If negotiation is successful, a demon may offer friendship to the characters. The main antagonist is the Joker, a serial killer terrorizing the town.
The first game, featuring Tatsuya Suou, was not imported to the United States due in part to the option for the protagonist to engage in a homosexual relationship if the player chose to. Therefore it is not rated by the ESRB.
Persona 3 features a new protagonist and a new storyline. The protagonist is silent and unnamed. He arrives in a city 10 years after losing his parents in an accident, and is quickly introduced to SEES (Special Extracurricular Execution Squad) after revealing that he has the ability to summon multiple Personas. SEES travels to an alternate dimension called Tartarus, located in a 250-floor tower, in order to defeat Shadows. Unfortunately, the teens have been misled; destroying the Shadows is inadvertently freeing a being called Nyx who will destroy the world if fully reanimated.
At one point the SEES members encounter a teenage boy named Ryoji who tells them that they must kill him by December 31 or else he will unwillingly usher Nyx (and thus the end of the world). The player must choose to kill or spare Ryoji. If Ryoji is killed, the SEES members lose their memories and lead normal lives until the world inevitably ends. If Ryoji is saved, however, the game continues. SEES makes it to the top of the Tartarus tower and fights Ryoji (whose true form is Nyx) and the protagonist must use the Social Links he’s gained from his friends and acquaintances to seal Nyx away.
The game ends with the world returning to normal and the SEES members losing their memories of the past year. They gather on the high school roof right before graduation, where they find the protagonist, who smiles at their brief reunion before he dies, having sacrificed himself to save the world.
Persona 4 features a protagonist who inadvertently becomes involved in a murder mystery in a rural town. There is an urban legend called the Midnight Channel that claims that if you stare at a turned off television at midnight on a rainy day, you will see a strange figure inside it. The protagonist discovers that he can enter the television, and he brings his friends into an alternate dimension via the screen. Meanwhile, people have been dying mysteriously.
The teenagers find that they must face Shadows in the TV dimension; in order to repel them, they must learn to accept these negative aspects of their egos, and embrace them as Personas. People who have disappeared in the real world begin to appear in the TV World, and as these kidnapped people face their Shadows, they join the group of main characters.
At this point the plot gets rather convoluted—depending on choices the player makes, a series of different endings are possible. One of the group’s friends is hurt and hospitalized, and she may die depending on the player’s choices. It turns out that the people who have been disappearing and reappearing in the TV World were being rescued from the murderer by a man who was shoving them into the TV World without realizing the danger he was putting them in. One ending sees the group blaming this man for the murders. Another ending has the group digging a bit deeper and discovering that the real murderer has been parasitized by a malevolent spirit. They defeat him, and at that point the game either ends—the mystery remaining somewhat unsolved—or the protagonist convinces the group to dig deeper still, and finally get to the bottom of the case. The final ending has the group facing a powerful spirit, the one who had given them the ability to call on their Personas, and restoring peace to both the TV World and the real world.
Despite some controversial content (Persona 3’s gun-like Evokers, for instance), the Persona games have never gotten much media attention in the United States. However, Persona 2: Eternal Punishment was not imported by the U.S., in part because the main character could engage in same-sex romance with NPCs.
Players must make a series of choices that determine the outcomes of the stories, including how many Social Links to pursue, whom they would like to pursue romantic ties with, and whether or not to kill, absolve, or rescue certain characters. Persona 4, in particular, has a series of different endings based on these choices. Here are a few questions to ask:
- Do you think the games point the player in the “right” direction? Are some endings worse than others?
- Do you feel that the Personas and Shadows are a realistic way of thinking about inner turmoil and acceptance? Would you use a visualization like this to come to terms with your own inner turmoil?
- What do you think of the Evokers? Why are they shaped like guns? Did this bother you?
- Did you relate to any of the characters? Do you think they are realistic depictions of teenagers?
- Several characters must confront inner turmoil over gender identity and sexuality—do you think this was realistic? Was this something you could relate to? Naoto, for instance, comes to terms with her gender identity by realizing that she, in fact, doesn’t want to be a man, despite struggling with her femininity earlier. This isn’t a story that is told often—can you think why?
Shadows are malevolent manifestations of characters’ secrets and innermost thoughts—particularly ones they haven’t come to terms with. Shadows become Personas when characters recognize and accept these aspects of their personality.
Social Links (or S. Links) are forged when protagonists converse or interact with other characters, forming friendships.
Evokers are tools that resemble revolvers. They are used by characters to summon Personas—characters must “shoot” themselves to call on their Personas. Evokers are only present in Persona 3.