The Making Of...
The high-school RPG that shows the benefits of overthinking it
Persona 5, Atlus’s latest highschool RPG, demonstrates the benefits of overthinking it
Katsura Hashino offers a simple explanation for why Persona 5 was in development for so long. You would think the latest instalment in a long-running, beloved series, built to a familiar template, would not take too long to make. Yet Persona 5 arrived more than eight years after predecessor
Persona 4, missing an entire console generation in the process. What on Earth happened? “We had spent a very long time working on
Persona 5 and were satisfied with the direction it was going in,” he tells us. “However, as we reached this point, deep in development, Sony released PlayStation 4. We couldn’t ignore the opportunity to bring the game out on this new console, with all the advancements it offered.
“We had to look at how we could adapt what we had already created for PS3, and realised that the 2D graphics we’d created weren’t suitable for the new system. We basically had to redraw everything. It was the only way we could utilise the power of PS4, and it increased the development time massively.”
Perhaps. Yet we suspect Hashino himself might have had something to do with it. Our time with him makes clear that this is a man who thinks deeply about everything – and perhaps a little too much. When we ask what made him switch the game’s setting from the sleepy rural town of Inaba that played host to Persona 4 to bustling central Tokyo, his answer clocks in at a shade over 700 words. A request for clarification yields a further 400. His comments, while perhaps shedding a little light on the reasons for Persona 5’ s near-decade in development, also reveal the sheer depth of thought and thematic planning that goes into a game that, on the face of it, treads a very similar path to its predecessors. Hashino had his central theme for the game: phantom thieves, inspired by Japanese folklore and its heroes like Ishikawa Goemon, and Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin. He felt thieves were naturally at home in big cities, so Persona 5 would need to be set in one.
“Initially, I was convinced I needed to create a fictional city for the game’s setting,” Hashino says. “To distinguish it from the mountainous region in which Persona 4 took place, I researched coastal cities like Hakodate, Nagasaki and Yokohama.” An early test image had the Enoshima Electric Railway, a two-car train that traces a ten-kilometre stretch of the Kanagawa coast, running in the background. But Hashino felt it didn’t quite fit. “I couldn’t figure out why, and I lamented over it for a long while. Then I realised that when you think about classic phantom thieves – like Lupin, who caused a stir in Paris, or Niju-Menso, the fiend with 20 faces, in Tokyo – they’re associated not just with cities, but capitals. Persona 5 absolutely needed the same. I needed a setting where an outlaw “WE BASICALLY HAD TO REDRAW EVERYTHING. IT WAS THE ONLY WAY WE COULD UTILISE THE POWER OF PS4” could shine in a place overcrowded with people; where you feel like you’re just another cog in the wheel, yet kids from a nameless high school could still make an impact.” Tokyo is, of course, a big place, and while
Persona 5’ s world was intended to be larger than that of its predecessors, it could hardly take in the whole city. Hashino and team eventually settled on Sangen-Jaya, a lesser-known Tokyo district home to trendy bars, hip restaurants and, as luck might have it, Atlus itself. “I started drawing inspiration from the scenery around me on my commute,” Hashino says. “I looked up at the Shuto Expressway towering over me, a road built high in the air to accommodate Tokyo’s overpopulation. It made me feel claustrophobic, like someone put a lid over the city to block out the sky. I thought about the more charming sections of the city, lined with old-fashioned restaurants, and how they’re rumoured to be demolished sooner or later. The city you know can change just like that.
“I rediscovered Tokyo all over again – a lively, but shady city in which you can leave work on a Friday night and come across drunks getting on in years, rambling nonsense. The same people who used to bristle with energy and talk of freedom in their youth. I wanted the protagonist to live in a place just like that, boarding with a retired shop owner grumbling about the way things used to be. That’s what ultimately made me choose Sangen-Jaya. Of course, it helped that the entire staff was very familiar with the location! And it made it very easy to scout.”
So – finally – the location was chosen, and compared to that you’d expect the characterdesign job to run a little more smoothly by comparison. After all, the Persona games follow a certain path when it comes to their central cast. The protagonist must be a new arrival in an unknown place, in order to immediately position him as an outcast of sorts. Adults must be stern, aloof and probably up to something; your group of friends will be kids struggling to come to terms with what society – their families, teachers or peer groups – expect from them.
Yet by changing location to a big city, Hashino and team had to rethink conventions a little. How does any one person stand out in a city of 13 million people? “Unlike previous games, we didn’t design the main characters to stick out among their NPC peers,” Hashino says. “While it might be interesting within the school that Ann [Takamaki, of mixed race and one of the first friends the protagonist makes in the game] has lived abroad, once the school day ends, she goes back home just like everyone else. Pulled back from the school setting, Ann is an insignificant part of the big city. That’s why we relied on NPC students to communicate the dry, urban atmosphere – the feeling that school is just a waypoint in life.”
That sentiment is reinforced by the sheer size of the world – which is broken up, as ever, into small, discrete sections that serve to mirror our relationships with the cities we live in. Persona 5 has you spend plenty of time in Shibuya, but you’ll barely see the iconic scramble crosswalk or the famous 109 building. To the cast of kids, Shibuya is a metro station where you change trains on the way to school. It’s the
underground mall where you meet up with pals or work a part-time job. It’s a side street with a diner, a cinema, a convenience store and an arcade. For many players, these places are where
Persona works its magic. They are where a young protagonist becomes kinder, smarter and more confident; where he builds relationships with those around him; where the dungeon-crawling RPG gives way to a teen comedy, a relationship drama, a musing on the struggles of the young. Yet all these elements are, ultimately, in service to the combat system. Spend enough time with a girl to max out the social link between you and she’ll eventually fall for you, sure – but every step on the way to rank ten lets you fuse more powerful personas for use in battle. The Persona series may do a better job than most at hiding it, but Hashino admits that combat is the true heart of them all.
“It’s at the core of all roleplaying games,” he says. “All other features – facilities, equipment, customisation options, collecting personas, the characters, even the community system – all come together to serve a single purpose: to make winning battles feel satisfying. This doesn’t apply to all RPGs, of course, but on the titles I work on, it’s my chief priority.”
The end result is a familiar one to series fans, a game of identifying, then targeting, an enemy’s elemental weak spot, knocking them to the floor so your entire group can pile on top of them. Some tweaks to the formula were made – each character was given a gun or similar projectile weapon, for instance, while the phantom-thief conceit led Atlus to design a system whereby you could enter a negotiation with a downed foe, rather than simply destroying them. Dungeon design was overhauled too, discarding Persona
4’ s randomised battlegrounds and replacing them with hand-crafted, puzzle-heavy, stealth-focused palaces. Still, those who had played a Persona game before would find themselves on familiar ground as soon as the fists started flying.
That wasn’t always going to be the case: during early development Atlus experimented with a freeform, realtime combat system. “When we tried it, it tempted us to do more than we should,” Hashino says. “We wanted combat to be the culmination of all your pre-battle preparation, but once you gained control of the characters, there was an urge to work solely within the battles, instead of relying on preparation and planning.
“If we changed the battle system to be actionoriented, providing instant gratification, we’d have to rethink the game around that notion. So, in the end, we modified the battle system with the goal of enhancing features, while incorporating thief-like elements to make dungeon exploration feel more dynamic. We sped up the pacing to let players stylishly show off. I’m sure some might see the battle commands and think they’re old, but the battle system is an important component – one that ties the whole game together.”
We can’t talk about the creation of Persona 5 without discussing another vital element in tying all those disparate mechanical strands together: the user interface. Persona 5’ s is one of the best in the business, maybe the best of them all; absurdly stylish, yet always legible, it’s a rare game that manages to make even the mundane – a postbattle results screen, a line of dialogue, a smartphone screen – look impossibly cool. From very early in development, Hashino and his team recognised that the Persona games were known for their stylish UIs, and that Persona 5’ s would have to do the same.
“To elevate Persona 5’ s UI from its predecessors, we needed a concrete concept – like how a story needs a theme,” he says. “Without that, it would just end up a variation on the existing UI. The design staff was stuck on this, initially, so I pitched what would become the basis of our ‘pop punk’ art style. Persona 5 emulates picaresque novels, and the game’s visual design reflects this through dark, enclosed atmospheres. To contrast this, the UI that overlaps it moves vigorously, as if raging to break things down. Our goal was to have the UI stir the player to action, even during bitter, dark scenes.
“Although, at some point, we overdid it. There was so much information on the screen, the UI was incoherent and impossible to follow. We wound up forming a UI test team to discern the hard-to-see parts, then fixed them as much as possible. It cost quite a bit, but was well worth it.”
The whole project must have cost a lot, in fairness, but the results show it was money well spent. Development may have lasted a lot longer than originally intended, but almost 350,000 copies were sold in Persona 5’ s first three days on sale in Japan. Within a month, it had become the biggest seller in Atlus’ 30 years in business. It’s even performed well in the west, topping the UK retail charts in its first week on sale despite a conservative print run.
It’s quite the send off for Hashino who, after 12 years as the director of the Persona series, is leaving it behind, and heading up the creation of a new RPG series for Atlus. As we’ve learned, he has a tendency to overthink things. But he’s at a loss to explain why Persona, of all JRPGs, has found such a following in the west.
“I wish someone could tell me why,” he says. “What I can tell you, though, is that while the series takes place in Japan, we don’t develop it with the intention of catering to a Japanese audience. Nor do we factor in our overseas fans. Whether it’s planning, design, or music, we simply strive to do our best. We select a theme, then work our brains out.”
While the battle system is true to the series formula, the pace is faster. It’s an essential contrast to the game’s slower, more stealth-focused approach to dungeon exploration