WARNING: This article contains heavy spoilers for Persona 3/Persona 5 and mild spoilers for Persona 4.
On finishing Persona 5 at the weekend, I felt what I always feel at the end of a gruelling 80-hour role-playing game-fest: equal parts sad and relieved. I’d played the game on Normal mode, managing just a handful of Velvet Room death screens and surviving the final boss by the skin of my teeth. This was in stark contrast to my experiences with Persona 4, Persona 4 Golden, and particularly Persona 3, which I played on Easy mode - I still managed to burn through all of my Plumes of Dusk by halfway through the game.
My experiences with Persona 5 have made me reflect on the tumultuous relationship between the Persona series (indeed, the Shin Megami Tensei series as a whole) and game difficulty. Getting through an Shin Megami Tensei or Persona game has become a badge of pride for many, and I didn’t quite feel the usual sort of pride on finishing Persona 5. However, I began to think about how Persona 3 in particular maintained difficulty in part through sources of frustration, rather than merely demanding a high level of skill from the player. This would suggest that Persona 5 is actually an improvement when it comes to game design, since it makes use of difficulty in fairer ways.
So, has the series improved through fairer game mechanics, or has it lazily shed some of its signature difficulty as a cheap way to attract newcomers to the franchise? Let’s weigh up the changes from Persona 3 FES to Persona 5 and find out. Unfortunately, I’m still loitering in the Seven Sisters High School intro to Persona 2 Eternal Punishment, so games earlier than Persona 3 FES will have to wait for another day.
Switching out team members
The mechanic that stood out the most for me in Persona 5 was the use of Confidants to grant useful tactical advantages to the protagonist, such as being able to swap out teammates mid-battle. If you rub shoulders with Hifumi, the shogi player who's the Star Confidant, you gain the ability to substitute teammates during battle, first on your protagonist’s turn but later during anybody’s turn (as long as you're subbing out the teammate whose go it is).
This is a concept completely alien to Persona 3, Persona 4, and Persona 4 Golden. If you want to swap out teammates in Persona 3, you must return to the ground floor of Tartarus, which can be a feat in and of itself (see below). Furthermore, since your teammates can get tired in battle or they may simply want to go do their own thing/study/sulk in their rooms some evenings, your entire party won’t be available on some nights, making substitutions a little less open-ended.
In Persona 4 and Persona 4 Golden, leaving each dungeon is much easier if you keep Teddie in your party or stock up on Goho-Ms, but you do have to leave each dungeon before swapping around your team members. The removal of the tiredness mechanic and the presence of Fox to heal you (at a cost) is miles ahead of the annoying way that Persona 3 deals with going for a second bout of exploration with new team members, but it still has its limitations compared to Persona 5.
While I find that the free and easy swapping mechanic in the later stages of Persona 5 is a fun way to keep the action going (and I even found it indispensable in the final two dungeons, since I was running low on SP replenishing items), it did seem a little too convenient. The tiredness mechanic and the difficulties in leaving Tartarus in Persona 3 were indeed archaic, but having to think carefully about which team members I selected for the evening, since I couldn’t just swap them around at a moment’s notice, added an extra layer of strategy and planning to the gameplay. In Persona 5, any need to be strategic here started to feel like an afterthought; I knew that if I was struggling, I could swap people without putting the party at much risk, and the only punishment would be missing a turn.
Teammates levelling up, regardless of use
As long as you put work into your relationship with Yuuki Mishima, the Moon Confidant, you'll have no problems keeping all of your crew ship-shape, regardless of how you use them. Depending on how much you bond with Mishima, which unfortunately involves bearing witness to his pitiful attempts to take some credit for your fame, unused teammates will either level up at a snail’s pace or will level up at the same rate as those you use regularly. I stopped putting Ryuji in my team pretty quickly after his heartless reaction to Yusuke finding out the truth about his mother, but the insensitive clod still kept on levelling up. Hmph.
In Persona 3 and Persona 4, if you wanted to keep an even team, you had to put the work in; unused characters would not level up. This led to me having Junpei and Yukari (yeah, yeah, don’t judge me) stuck on Level 24-ish for pretty much the entirety of Persona 3, because I'm lazy and Akihiko and Mitsuru, as my senpais, always came first.
In Persona 3, the unevenness of levelling was made all the more troublesome by the fact that one combatant disappeared for good, along with his skills and expertise. Put a load of work into training the uppity Shinjiro in Persona 3? Too bad, so sad – he dies not long after he re-joins SEES. If you play Persona 3 Portable instead of the PS2 versions of the game, he can survive in the female protagonist’s arc, but he will still be absent from battle for the rest of the game, since he'll be in a coma.
In a perverted way, I was kind of hoping that disappearing characters would be used to sprinkle a touch of difficulty on top of Persona 5. Sure, Goro Akechi turns out to be a mole after one Palace and so is no longer usable beyond that point, but I didn’t think he added that much to the team anyway. Shinjiro regenerated health with every turn and had strong Physical skills, which made him quite useful. I ended up wishing Ryuji had died in the explosion at the end of Shido’s Palace, or that Morgana had “disappeared” just before the final boss battle, because the plot paved the way for either of those things to happen and they would have counterbalanced being doused in experience points. Furthermore, a cheery Persona ending isn’t a very true Persona ending, if you look at the series’ history.
Overall, I thought the simultaneous levelling up was a little too forgiving, but I still enjoyed the fact that rotating between teammates in the later Palaces became easier because of it.
Frequency of save points and warping around the map
Saving regularly in Persona games is an absolute must, unless you want to run the risk of losing upwards of an hour of progress and being unable to look at the game for a week afterwards. Thankfully, Persona 5 encourages you to take risks in dungeons, since it's generous with the amount of Safe Rooms (which also serve as warp points) spread throughout each Palace. While it's on you to seek them out for yourself, and they can sometimes be quite easy to walk past accidentally, finding one and being able to use that to warp back to the entrance of the Palace and fuse more Personas is a godsend.
Persona 3 is ruthless with how few opportunities it provides for saving in its one big dungeon. You must always warp back to the ground floor in Tartarus to save; there are no intermittent save points, as there are in the analogous Mementos in Persona 5. Furthermore, being able to warp back to the ground floor is a challenge; every 5 floors or so, there is a one-way warp machine, but (as the name suggests) if you leave using this, you will lose any progress you made in Tartarus past the last two-way warp machine you activated. These rarer two-way machines are only on every 10th floor or so, and if you’re clinging to health, with little SP, and desperately need to reach the bottom floor, there’s no guarantee you will find the warp machines that are there before you’re knocked out. Basically, good luck, buddy.
Persona 4 is much fairer, though it still has its own challenges. As mentioned before, if you keep your stock of Goho-Ms replenished and/or keep Teddie in your team with a decent amount of SP, getting back to the TV overworld is no sweat. You must still return to this overworld if you want to save, however, with one exception: if you're on a boss battle floor in vanilla Persona 4, you do have the option of saving before you start the battle. Depending on your chosen difficulty level in Golden, you may have the option to restart disastrous boss battles or the previous floor, so being unable to save immediately before boss battles makes little difference if you’re smart with your items.
Furthermore, upon entering a dungeon you’ve already visited in vanilla Persona 4, you'll have the option to start at the beginning of the highest floor you reached; in Persona 4 Golden, it's the last floor you were on, even if you'd been on a higher floor previously but descended to hunt for items. This only works if you use Goho-Ms or the Traesto spell to leave the dungeon. Nevertheless, some of the floors in Persona 4 can be quite tricky, and Shadows respawn much more frequently in all versions of Persona 4 than in Persona 5, so there’s no guarantee that even the concessions mentioned will save your skin if your team gets into a state.
Overall, the easier travel and save system in Persona 5 is so intuitive that it’s difficult not to love it. While I put up with battling my way to the next warp point in Persona 3, and stocking up on potions and keeping Teddie in my team became second nature in Persona 4, the saving and warping mechanics of Persona 5 ultimately remove a layer of frustration which only served to provide false difficulty spikes in previous games.
Where Persona 5 still packs a punch
This is not to say that Persona 5 is an RPG fit for toddlers. Some of the most excruciating aspects of the older games remain in place.
The first feature that needs a mention is the fact that if your protagonist is KOed, regardless of how your other team members are doing or whether they have revival spells in their repertoire, you get a Game Over/retry screen. This is completely nonsensical, given that in the later chapters of the games, you almost expect one or two of your teammates to need revival. However, it's easily explained away with the cop-out argument that “you are special”. Furthermore, it does get easier with time to adjust your play style to this fact, always healing the protagonist before others and increasing his Defence wherever possible. Using shields on characters other than your protagonist also becomes taboo, unless you have a particularly healthy stock of them.
The second feature is almost unforgivable, particularly paired with the first: the use of Mudo or Hama one-hit spells against your party. Sure, there are items to guard against this and there are Personas you can equip that are impervious to one-hit kills. But in every single Persona game I’ve played, my protagonist has been unexpectedly one-hit killed and I have then launched a tirade of swear words at my TV screen for the next half hour. It’s a crushing feeling when it happens to you.
Is lowering difficulty lazy or laudable?
Based on this article it might seem as though I think lowering the difficulty of a Persona game is a bad thing. I suppose, given that I started with Persona 3 and it will always be “my first”, I do feel that way… some of the time.
Trying to take a more objective view, I think Persona 5 concedes a little to the need to open up the Persona franchise to more players, while mainline Shin Megami Tensei will always remain dark, torturous, and uncompromising. In many ways, this is a good thing. Previous Persona games may have purported to reward the cunning, strategic player, but actually they were stowing clunky mechanics away in dark corners, creating a false impression of difficulty in some areas through merely irritating the player. Ultimately, we want games as good as Persona to keep players gripped from start to finish, rather than players being compelled to take days-long breaks to calm themselves down thanks to an unjust Game Over screen. As a result, I think Persona 5 generally constitutes a strengthening of the core Persona game mechanics, particularly in comparison with my beloved Persona 3.
I just hope that I don’t have to play the next Persona title on Hard mode; I am so terrible at RPGs that there really is a problem if even I can trounce Normal mode.
What do you think of the Persona series and how it handles difficulty? Are you a fan of Persona 5's relative accessibility? Try not to get a Game Over in the comments section below.