(Warning: Spoilers for the beginnings of Persona 4 and Persona 5!)
Persona is a series beloved by many, myself included. Its mixture of turn-based JRPG and slice-of-life anime is both unique and brilliantly executed, but there is more to it than that. Persona games tell unique and interesting stories with incredibly lovable characters. The games have always had long, exciting narratives, and as the years have passed by, each new installment has had increasingly impressive storytelling.
On that same note, for this article I’d like to compare the beginnings of the two latest installments in the franchise: Persona 4 and Persona 5. I’m going to discuss how much higher Persona 5 has set the bar in this regard, not only for the Persona series, but for gaming as a whole.
Persona 5 and Persona 4 have some similarities in how they start. You play as a high school student moving in with strangers to start a new life in a new place — but I would say that is where the similarities end. In Persona 4, your character is welcomed with open arms, and you’re introduced to each of the characters, whether they be the relatives you’ve started living with or your school friends, with nothing but good first impressions. This segment is certainly nice as it introduces us to the characters we will grow to love, but it is rather simple in that aspect. Nothing really stands out.
Persona 5, on the other hand, raises the stakes substantially in the opening alone. This newest Persona title has a theme of rebellion that is consistent throughout the entire game, and the beginning of the game highlights it spectacularly. In Persona 5, your character has been wrongfully sued for assault, despite his efforts to perform a noble deed in saving a woman from being sexually assaulted. We learn this fact early on, and as such the game has immediately instilled rage in us. We don’t know anybody — heck, we don’t even know our own character very well — but we do know he is brave and noble for what he tried to do, and that he was punished very unjustly.
As you progress through the game’s intro, meeting new characters, you become even angrier, and the feeling of rebellion grows in you. Everybody treats your character like some kind of delinquent criminal. Everybody blames you for your circumstances, even though you understand (or at least should understand) that you are undeserving of punishment. Even your new caretaker, who treats you fairly and seems to be somewhat of an ally, tells you that it’s what you get for involving yourself in adult problems. How could you not be furious about such a thing? I certainly was when I played.
Now we meet Ryuuji, one of your closest companions throughout the entire game, and more importantly, the only person who treats you like a human being (at least at first). Ryuuji knows about your criminal past, and he doesn’t seem to mind it and doesn’t judge you for it. He treats you as an equal. He offers to walk to school with you — a walk that unexpectedly throws you into a palace for the first time.
Now, in Persona 4, the first time you are thrown into the TV World (Persona 4’s version of the Metaverse) it is certainly baffling and confusing, as you have no idea what is going on and are confronted with scary and inexplicable rooms. Not to mention a giant talking bear! It’s jarring and enthralling all at once, and certainly draws you into the game.
Yet once again, Persona 5 takes it further. Upon entering the Metaverse, you are immediately captured by palace guards and thrown into a jail cell, where Kamoshida, the game’s first major villain, starts pummeling Ryuuji and even orders the guards to kill him. Even while Ryuuji is about to be killed, he yells at you to save yourself, instead of asking for help. The fact that this guy who has been so kind to you is about to be killed is utterly enraging.
Your rebellious spirit awakens again. You don’t know this Kamoshida guy but you hate him already for what he’s doing, and you feel you must stop him. Persona 5 understands this, as it is right at this moment that your persona awakens for the first time. The literal personification of your character’s rebellious spirit bursts out just as your real-life rebellious spirit feels as if it wants to burst out as well.
Through your newfound power, you manage to save Ryuuji and escape the palace. The game leads you through the exact emotions it wants you to feel and executes it all wonderfully. As soon as you escape the palace, though, you’re back to being powerless, and it is at this moment that you meet the real Kamoshida. He treats Ryuuji like the same delinquent trash that everybody else is treating you as, and as you progress further, you learn that Ryuuji has a terrible reputation at the school for having assaulted Kamoshida in the past. This made me angry when I played. This is the only person who has treated you with dignity, respect and genuine kindness, and yet people are condescending and dismissive towards him.
You also meet Ann, another person who, though seemingly being against your actions, has treated you as an equal. You learn the horrors of what she is going through and that Kamoshida is trying to force her into sexual relations by threatening to ruin her best friend’s chances of becoming a volleyball player. You may not know Ann too well, but you already hate Kamoshida for how he treated Ryuuji, and this only bolsters your rage. It also establishes a connection with Ann very quickly as you know Kamoshida well at this point and empathize with her struggles.
The theme of rebellion comes up once more. You desperately feel like defying Kamoshida and sticking with Ryuuji and Ann. The game cleverly uses a character as bland and incredibly easy to hate as Kamoshida to ensure that the player does not empathize with him even one bit, and instead simply hates him for what he’s doing to their new friends. You want to prove to everybody that neither you nor your friends are the garbage that you’re being treated as, and the game, of course, gives you that opportunity.
Let’s cut back to Persona 4 for a second. What has happened so far? You’ve met some nice people, gotten a grasp on your surroundings, and been introduced to the strangeness of the TV world… And that’s it. I am not saying this is a bad introduction, but can you really compare it? Persona 5 has taken us on a roller coaster of emotions so far without even needing to develop any of it’s characters. I’d like to say more about Persona 4, but there just isn’t as much to say! Persona 5 establishes its main theme and the emotions inspired by said theme so well that even a game with a great introduction like Persona 4 can’t compare.
Now, let’s fast forward a little to when you finally get a chance to explore the palaces. In Persona 4, this is the point where you have learned how the TV World operates and have even gained some insight into the personalities of the main characters. It’s rather abrupt, but is still pulled off well. You go through Yukiko’s castle in an attempt to save her from death, which pushes you forward, but considering you don’t know Yukiko that well, it makes it difficult to care all that much. Eventually, though, you are shown the disgusting truths of what’s inside the hearts of your new friends. This certainly does an excellent job of making them relatable and making them feel human — you grow to like them more because of their flaws. It’s interesting… but, once again, doesn’t hold a candle to Persona 5.
In Kamoshida’s palace, you must defeat him to avoid an unnecessary and unjustified expulsion from your school, drawing a parallel to the beginning of the game when your character was wrongfully sued. You were already unjustly punished once, and there’s no way you’re letting it happen again. Your motivation for conquering the palace is already a big one. And throughout the palace, we learn the horrors of what Kamoshida has done and how unremorseful he is of his crimes. He crippled Ryuuji so that he could never run again as a track athlete. He drove Shiho, Ann’s best friend, to a suicide attempt through sexual and physical abuse, and blames Ann for it. He sees his students as nothing more than slaves for him to play with. He is truly a monster.
After grinding through the palace, we make it to Kamoshida and his treasure. After defeating him, your explosive feelings of anger toward him are rewarded. He confesses to his crimes and everybody stops looking down on Ryuuji and Ann, at least a little bit. You finally prove to everybody what a monster Kamoshida is and you show them how much your friends have suffered. Your rebellious spirit has prevailed, and your journey toward a life of further rebellion has started.
Persona 4 has a good beginning, and it makes us love it’s characters, but it’s not comparable to Persona 5’s introduction. Whether it be better methods of making you love its characters, stronger motivations to succeed, or a close adherence to a central theme through every ordeal, Persona 5 beats out Persona 4 in every aspect.
Do you agree that Persona 5 does a better job than Persona 4 with its introduction? I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions in the comments below!