With the recent release of Persona 5 and the rave reviews it’s been getting, I imagine a lot of people are considering dipping their toes into the Persona series for the first time, and likely wondering where a good place to start will be. Well, I’m here to help you answer that. It depends a bit on what exactly your desires are and what consoles you own, so I’ll try to break it down as best as I can.
But if you want to skip to the conclusion right now, here’s my answer: Start with Persona 3 if possible. It’s basically where the modern iteration of the series starts, and it has great availability compared to other games in the series. If you have a PS2 or PS3, go with the FES version. If you have a Vita or PSP, go with the Portable version. If you have both, you’ll have to decide whether you prefer the extra story arc at the end of FES or the female protagonist option in Portable (which isn’t just a cosmetic option, but includes various different story elements).
If you want a deeper discussion, then read on.
Update: And be sure to read the comments as well, for a lot of good points. A lot of people seem to find the quality of life improvements in P3 Portable worth the sacrifices of cutscenes and the extra chapter from FES, so that’s worth keeping in mind in the final balance if you have a PSP or Vita.
The first thing to know about Persona is that it’s actually a spin-off of Atlus’s primary RPG series, Shin Megami Tensei. It shares some mythological elements with it, the general setup of a modern world with demons you can engage in battle with and against, and many demon and spell names. It exists in a different universe from most SMT games though, where instead of demons being summonable companions, they exist as Persona - alternate selves that can be conjured for brief assistance in battle. Additionally, while SMT was known for its harsh difficulty (it’s basically to Final Fantasy what Dark Souls is to Zelda), Persona eased off a bit on the difficulty to make the games more accessible.
The specific launching point for the Persona franchise actually didn’t even have “Persona” in the title, and it was never released outside of Japan, and so it’s often forgotten in the series history. This game was Shin Megami Tensei if…, released in Japan in 1994. The game was itself a spin-off from the main SMT series, based on the premise of “What if a school were suddenly transported into the demon realm?” It was here that the concept of Persona was first introduced, although not by name quite yet.
SMT if… was followed up by SMT: Persona (also known by a few other names in different regions and releases) in 1996, continuing in the same universe (as evidenced by the main character of SMT if… showing up) but following its own story. Unfortunately, the original translation was… Well, let’s just say it would be a compliment to call it “awful.” It’s thankfully been retranslated since then for the PSP and PSN releases, and so those are the versions you’d want to play if you go back to it.
In 1999, Persona received a sequel in Persona 2: Innocent Sin, and then its follow-up Persona 2: Eternal Punishment. These games were much more tightly tied to Persona than Persona was to if…, with certain characters from Persona joining your party once again in both games.
The two Persona 2 games are tightly connected, and one would get the most out of the story by playing both, but it’s not necessary. In fact, only EP was originally released outside of Japan, and so many people had no choice but to play it first. The problem here was that IS prominently featured Nazis as enemies, up to and including Adolf Hitler himself, which was considered too sensitive outside of Japan. Eventually, when it received an updated re-release for PSP, the swastikas were swapped out for Iron Crosses, Hitler was put in a trenchcoat and never referred to by name, and it was finally released outside of Japan.
Up through this point, the Persona series followed a pretty standard JRPG formula, (aside from the modern-day Japan setting as opposed to the standard medieval European setting popularized by Dragon Quest). You’d progress through a dungeon (usually based on something you might find in real life, like a hospital, school, museum, etc.), fight a boss at the end, and have some story developments. Then you would exit to the city at the end where you could go to shops, engage in a few optional events, and progress the story in a few ways. Then repeat, upping the stakes each time until the fate of the world is on the line.
The dungeons in these games were generally nothing special, so this isn’t a series for people who love dungeon-crawling. Rather, it’s the story (particularly for Persona 2, but I won’t get into spoilers here) that’s the selling point of these games.
After Persona 2, the series went on a hiatus until 2006, when Persona 3 was released. P3 marked a big departure from the series prior to it, both in story and gameplay. Storywise, there was no indication at all it even took place in the same universe as the previous games, and in fact it was implied that Innocent Sin might have been fictional within the universe of P3 (the eventual updated re-release of Eternal Punishment though would attempt to bridge the gap between it and P3).
Update: According to a comment here by Liquid-X, the implication that P2 was fictional was actually added in the localization, and wasn’t in the original Japanese.
Persona 3 also reworked the gameplay formula. Instead of the traditional town-dungeon-repeat setup used by the series up to this point, P3 turned the game flow into a time-management section with occasional dungeon crawling breaks. The game was set up over most of a year. Every day (if no special events took place), you would have a free time slot in the afternoon and evening to choose what to do. You could shop for equipment and supplies without time passing, but almost anything else significant would use up a time slot, and once it was gone, it was gone. No going back - the clock ticked ever forward, bringing you ever closer to events on certain dates that would challenge your preparedness.
In your free time, you could choose between working on your relationships with other characters in the game (called “Social Links”), working on your social stats, which were needed to unlock certain Social Links, or going into the game’s one, big, randomly-generated dungeon, Tartarus. Working on your social links would help you out in combat indirectly, by providing a boost to any new Persona you crafted depending on the strength of the related link, and maxing out a link would unlock certain high-level Persona for use.
You didn’t have complete freedom to do whatever you wanted at any time, though. Most Social Links were only available on certain days of the week, and only during day or evening, and you can only go into the dungeon in the evening, so you have to plan your time carefully. The difficulty here was perhaps tuned up a bit too high though, as it’s effectively impossible to max out all Social Links in a single playthrough if you didn’t know about how future events would play out.
The unique take on JRPG mechanics was a hit. P3 received an updated re-release the following year, Persona 3: FES, which added a couple social links, some new Persona to summon, and an extra chapter set after the end of the game (with only dungeon-crawling, and no time management aspect). It also later received a port to the PSP, which lacked the extra chapter at the end but instead had the option for a female protagonist, who had some social links with different characters, plus some other story additions.
In 2008, P3 was followed up with Persona 4. P4 existed in the same universe as P3, but with no real story connections (save a few cameos), and it used the same gameplay formula, polished up a bit. Social links with your teammates had more perks beyond just boosting your Persona, and dungeons were given some designed components rather than being completely random. This time around, the story was based around solving a murder mystery, and the game would actually end early if the player couldn’t figure out the culprit at a certain point.
P4 later received an updated port for the PS Vita, Persona 4 Golden, which added a couple new social links (including a significant new character) and an extra dungeon.
The combined popularity of P3 and P4 resulted in a ton of spinoffs featuring the characters from both: Two fighting games, Persona 4: Arena and Persona 4: Arena Ultimax (both of which also featured the Persona 3 cast), a dancing game, Persona 4: Dancing all Night, and a dungeon-crawler, Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth. And yes, all of these are canon, even Dancing all Night.
Of these, Persona Q is the most worth discussing here. It’s essentially a Persona-skinned version of another Atlus RPG series, Etrian Odyssey. It’s a massive crossover of the full P3 and P4 casts, along with a couple new characters, with a focus on exploring vast, complicated dungeons. There’s no time management component here, just a menu-based town system to rest and restock between expeditions, so it’s the dungeons that sell the game here; they’re by far the best designed in the series (with only Persona 5’s coming anywhere close).
Finally, after an eight-year wait since P4, Persona 5 was released in 2016 (delayed to 2017 outside of Japan). It follows in the formula of P3 and P4, further polished up. This time the primary story dungeons are fully designed, and the encouragement toward stealth makes exploring them much more interesting. The story isn’t linked to any previous games, though a few references make it clear that it does take place in the same universe as P3 and P4.
So, to sum things up here. The series had a huge shift in story and mechanics starting with P3, making it effectively a different series from prior. All of P3, P4, and P5 have independent stories, so any is fine to start with, but you might have the best experience if you start earlier, so you can experience the steadily evolving gameplay mechanics.
If you want to go back to the beginning of the series to experience it all, there are enough links between the first three games that it’s worth playing them in order, but it’s not strictly necessary. And if you really want to see the series origins and speak Japanese, you can go all the way back to SMT if….
Of the series spinoffs, the only one which keeps RPG mechanics is Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth. This is worth playing if you’re a fan of dungeon crawling, which is done far better here than in any other Persona game. It features the casts of P3 and P4, and so it’ll be enjoyed better after playing those, but it’s not necessary, since the story here is independent of them.
The other major consideration in where to start is which games you’ll have access to, based on what consoles you have. To start off, every Persona game except for Persona Q (on the Nintendo 3DS) has been on a Sony console or handheld, so you’ll need one of these to play them.
Persona and both versions of Persona 2 were originally released for the original Playstation (except for Innocent Sin outside of Japan), and are also all available for the Playstation Portable in some manner (though Persona hasn’t been made available in Europe for it. It’s not region-locked though, so with some difficulty the North American region should still be possible to obtain). Thanks to backwards-compatibility, the Playstation 2 and early models of the Playstation 3 can also play all of the Playstation versions, and the PS3 and Playstation Vita can also play the digital versions of them.
Persona 3 and Persona 4 were both released on the Playstation 2, with P3 receiving a portable release on the PSP and P4 receiving a portable release on the PS Vita. P3 was also released digitally for the Playstation 3 in North America and Europe, while P4 was only released digitally in North America. Don’t be surprised if P4 ends up available digitally in Europe as well, but in the meantime it’s still possible to obtain with some difficulty via the use of a North American account and a store card purchased online.
(The above paragraph was edited to clarify that P4 is indeed available digitally in North America, but not in Europe.)
Finally, Persona 5 was released on both the PS3 and PS4. At present, there’s no indication it will receive any portable versions, but time will tell.
On top of that, remember that emulation is legal in most places and that the original Playstation is easily emulated on modern computers. If you don’t have any console that can play the first three games but want to try them, this is a possibility. Just remember that downloading the games is still illegal - you’ll have to buy copies yourself to play, and you’ll need a computer that has a disc drive to do so. Playstation 2 emulation is also possible, though a bit more demanding, so depending on your computer it might also be possible to play P3 and P4.
If you’re considering buying a console, then the single console that will give you the best access to the Persona series is an early model Playstation 3, from before backwards compatibility was removed. This will be able to play at least one version of every game in the main series (although only the original Japanese release of Innocent Sin, unfortunately), plus three of the four spin-offs, missing out on only Persona Q.
Putting this all together, what’s my recommendation? It depends a bit on what consoles you have, but my best recommendation will be to start with Persona 3 FES. This is where the current (massively popular) arc of the series started, so this is the best place to start if you want to get into it, and it has good availability on the PS2 and all versions of the PS3, and can be played through emulation on a modern computer if necessary (but reminder: Emulation is legal, but downloading the game isn’t. You’ll have to buy and use your own disk). If you have a PSP, you might want to consider getting P3 Portable instead, if you think you’d prefer the female protagonist option.
If you want to see everything the series has to offer, then I recommend going all the way back to the original Persona, but specifically playing either the PSP re-release or the digital version of it, which have much better translations than the original release.
If you have a Nintendo 3DS and either love dungeon crawling or don’t want to or can’t emulate, then you might want to give Persona Q a shot.
If you have a PS3 or PS4 and just want to dip your toe into the series or want to keep up with current gaming, then Persona 5 is a fine place to start. The only caveat is that if you later go back to earlier games, you’re going to find yourself missing out on a lot of the improvements P5 brought to the table.
Finally... you know you just want to beat up Hitler at least once in life, right? Go play Innocent Sin to get your fix of that. You won’t regret it. Smack those stupid sunglasses off of his face in the name of humanity!