Nick V. explores the very different approaches of western and eastern developers when it comes to RPGs with Bioware’s Mass Effect and Atlus’s Persona.
There are exactly three major games coming out in 2017 that I considered must-plays from announcement (the first being Horizon: Zero Dawn), and somehow they are all coming out within a little more than a month of one another. It’s going to be a busy springtime for us all, fellow gamers. My two most anticipated games of the year come from two franchises that have represented the best that Eastern and Western RPGs have to offer, Mass Effect: Andromeda and Persona 5, and they are coming out a mere two weeks apart. With only twenty four hours in each day and hundreds of potential gaming hours staring me in the face, this has caused me no small amount of distress. After preordering both I’m now fretting the pressure to rush through the first to get to the second and how I’m going to fit multiplayer into all of this. First world gamer problems, right?
But let’s say you aren’t an RPG aficionado, you’ve never gotten into Mass Effect, and you’ve never even played a Persona game (and fair enough, the last one came out as a relative obscurity in America nine years ago), but you are interested in giving one a shot and only have a mere sixty dollars to your name. Which to get? You’ve come to the right place, my friend. While these two franchises perhaps represent the very pinnacles of their genre, they also could not be more different. Mass Effect: Andromeda is coming out this week with Persona 5 hot on its heels in early April so if you haven’t yet experienced the brilliance that these two franchises have to offer, and are looking to buy in but not willing or able to commit to both. I’m here to help.
Persona and the rest of Atlus’s Shin Megami Tensei franchise that spawned it have historically always, somewhat unfairly, taken a backseat to the blockbuster Final Fantasy series when it comes to Japanese RPGs, but while the latter has floundered somewhat in the last two generations, the former has bided its time with fighting game spin-offs, and absence has made gamers’ hearts grow fonder. PSN ports of the series have given a lot of players a chance to go back and rediscover these gems, and as a result Persona has greatly increased in popularity over the years, even spawning animated film and television adaptations of the last two games. The contemporary setting, compelling themes, unique style, and undeniable charm of the series has put it at the top of many gamers’ most beloved JRPGs list.
By contrast, the Mass Effect trilogy was a worldwide smash right out of the gate last gen. After giving us arguably the best Star Wars game of all time in Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare decided to create their very own space opera franchise out of scratch and did a better job than anybody could have imagined. Taking their penchant for memorable characters and nuanced interactive conversations and switching the core combat to third person shooting rather than the semi-turn-based system they’d leaned on since the Baldur’s Gate days, they took a niche genre and made it palatable to non-RPGers while retaining everything that made their titles great role playing experiences. And as an added bonus, they pushed gaming as a storytelling medium forward by making it a trilogy where your character, their stats, and their decisions from each game carried forward to the others, making each Mass Effect story unique to every gamer.
As different as they are, the two franchises do have one core theme in common: player choice. But even the way this is handled is different. Mass Effect lets you create your own character and steer each conversation while making the big decisions and crafting your character’s moral code based on the way you resolve the situations you find yourself in. Diplomacy or aggression, idealism or pragmatism, and compassion or duty are just some of the choices you have to make, and your character and the way the world around them reacts will change according to those choices. And these choices could be ported to the next game along with your character.
By contrast, Persona puts you in the shoes of an established character with more limited dialogue choices and a visual novel style of storytelling, but gives you endless ways to spend your time while navigating the challenges of high school and supernatural horrors with a limited amount of time to spend so that every choice really matters. While the story has multiple outcomes, the core game becomes about managing your limited time to build the relationships and abilities you want rather than building a character’s legacy through your decisions. Also, each title in the series is a stand alone, so there’s no baggage for players new to the series.
Combatwise, Mass Effect has refined its initially rough shooter mechanics to nearly rival the likes of Gears of War, adding a hefty dose of the sci-fi abilities they pioneered in KOTOR to make for action that is both strategic and visceral. The third game added a highly successful co-op multiplayer component with a community that still remains active over five years later. Truth be told, even if Andromeda was an online only shooter, I’d still buy it just for that aspect. And I’m not one who often does that.
Persona has stuck to the traditional JRPG turn-based approach and remains a shining star in that arena long after Final Fantasy left the premises. The strategic and often unforgiving combat relies heavily on uncovering and exploiting enemy weaknesses with a variety of skills to incapacitate them and get continuous combos that lead to a devastating full-party rushdown. It’s not as action oriented as Mass Effect’s real time gunplay, but it can be just as intense and every lick as satisfying.
But where it deviates most from Mass Effect -and most other RPGs- is in its cerebral themes and psychological symbolism. Most games will simply have a character tell you what they are feeling, but the unique scenarios of Persona are designed not to tell you, but to show you. Each character has their external selves; the face they show the world. But the series’ theme is that within each individual, there lies a shadow self, where their basest dark impulses hide, as well as a Persona, their inner self. For example, in Persona 4 each character had a dungeon essentially set inside of their minds where they did battle with their inner conflicts, things like personal jealousy, sexuality, and gender roles were laid bare and manifested as literal demons to be defeated before each character could come to terms with them. The brilliance of Atlus’s storytelling should not be underestimated.
By comparison, BioWare’s series ramps up the drama like a Star Wars film on steroids. If Persona is a zany but symbolically deep Japanese art film, Mass Effect is an incredible American sci-fi epic with moments that inspire shock, fear, exhilaration, tears, and laughter. What it lacks in abstract symbolism, it more than makes up for by balancing casual relatability with insane epicness. This series is nothing if not a crowdpleaser. Even the harshest naysayers are first in line for their copy whenever a new one comes out, and that says more than any number of complaints about facial animations can.
Both series revolve around character interactions. Mass Effect will have you hunting down each crew member between missions for fully cinematic chats where you can get to know each character as if they were your own family. If you play your cards right, you can even find a little romance. And there’s plenty of time to give everybody attention, so no big rush.
Persona uses the more comic bookish static visual novel style for conversations, but with tons of NPCs around town and school on top of your party members to hang out with and a limited amount of time in each day to get to know them, prioritizing your friendships and potential romances makes them that much more vital. Each major character has their own story that plays out over the course of the game, but how much of it you end up experiencing is up to you. Persona is as much a social and time-management simulator as it is a role playing game, and that’s something else that makes it a unique challenge.
In terms of overall presentation, Persona’s anime stylishness clashes with Mass Effect’s attempts at photorealism. This affords the former a more timeless low budget look whereas the latter will be mocked for every graphical glitch. It’s not easy pushing the boundaries of technology, so Atlus tends to stick to what they know will work for them and focuses instead on a compelling experience for the player. BioWare was at the forefront of innovation last gen, not only with pushing cinematic NPC animations to a new level, but pioneering the ability to transfer a character and their story across multiple games with Mass Effect.
At the end of the day, your inner otaku and art student will likely love you for going with Persona 5. It’s got a relatable modern setting, unique visuals and music, classical RPG combat with some twists, and one of the best storytelling pedigrees in the industry. Mass Effect: Andromeda is designed to light up every inch of your sci-fi fixation and represents the ground floor of a new era for a series that has dominated best series discussions for years. So if you’ve never felt the need to board on this gravy train before, now’s the time.
Obviously, any true RPGer is going to be buying both, but which one you prefer will rely very heavily on you as a person and a gamer. I’ve illustrated some of the many contrasts between the two series, so it really boils down to whether you prefer action or turn-based strategy, stylized visuals or attempted photorealism, stand-alone stories or continuous narratives, innovation or classicism, epicness or artfulness, and so on. Personally, I love all of these things and can’t wait to play either. But which RPG will you be prioritizing this spring?