On November 4, the first reviews for Shin Megami Tensei V were published. And while a number of those reviews drew ire from a certain segment of the SMT community, one in particular garnered more heat than most. The IGN review for the game scored it a very respectable 8, but some readers were nonetheless quite upset that both the review and IGN’s tweet about the game negatively compared SMT5 to the hugely popular Persona 5, describing it as “Persona without the heart.” Of course, fans getting upset about mild critiques of games that aren’t even out yet is nothing new, but the issue here is somewhat more complicated. It’s not just the critique that stings for some readers, but the fact that the game is being compared to Persona 5 at all. The Persona series originated as spin-offs of the mainline Shin Megami Tensei games, but the former has long since eclipsed its parent series in overall popularity and cultural awareness, a fact which some SMT fans are not dealing with very well.
Persona 5 is arguably the first unambiguously anime-style JRPG that broke into widespread critical acceptance in the English-language gaming world. Discounting ports, spin-offs, and remakes, no previous Persona game had broken the one-million sales benchmark. Multiple outlets such as Kotaku, IGN, GamesRadar, Eurogamer, Verge, and Polygon listed it among their best games of 2017. Between Persona 5 and its updated release, Persona 5: Royal, the game has sold around 4.6 million copies. As a widely embraced JRPG that has an unapologetically bold anime aesthetic that even the Final Fantasy series generally avoids, it’s become the standard against which all other anime JRPGs are judged.
It’s little wonder that P5 is often held up as the standard of anime JRPGs. Persona is a very approachable series for newcomers to the JRPG genre. Kotaku’s EIC spent five years trying to finish a JRPG, and Persona 4 was her first. Persona was the entryway into the JRPG genre for a lot of gamers in the English-speaking world. For IGN reviewer Leana Hafer, the Persona games were her introduction to the SMT series, rather than the other way around:
“I think my perspective would be more relevant to someone who has mostly played Persona games and is new to SMT, because our experiences are similar.” Hafer told Kotaku. “If you’re a major fan of mainline SMT and you absolutely hate Persona, my review is probably not going to be particularly useful to you because we have different tastes.”
A lot of SMT fans seem to feel maligned by the idea that a big bad establishment publication was evaluating the latest entry of the SMT series in comparison to Persona, despite the latter being an offshoot of the former. Except both series were developed by Atlus, which has always been overt about Persona’s connection to SMT. Before Persona 5, the games’ full, official titles bore the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona format. And Persona has never been shy about using the same spells and demons as SMT. Like it or not, both Atlus games occupy space in the SMT extended universe.
There’s one crucial difference, though. And I’m trying to say this as gently as possible for the SMT fans in the back: SMT is a lot more niche than Persona. Compared to P5’s millions of sales, Shin Megami Tensei 4 sold only 600,000 copies. That doesn’t make it any better or worse than the Persona games. It simply means that Persona is a more useful reference point, and it’s not actually a critical slight against your beloved series. Did I enjoy less “mainstream” SMT games such as Devil Survivor and Tokyo Mirage Sessions? Absolutely. Would I choose to bring them up to an audience that has never played an Atlus game? Probably not.
And that’s the fundamental conflict, isn’t it? Who is video game writing for? While I was keeping up with the conversations about SMT5, I noticed that one Persona comparison had escaped the SMT fans’ ire. Siliconera’s review of the game was overwhelmingly well received by SMT players for offering a nuanced, SMT-informed comparison to Persona 3. This is where I realised that SMT fans don’t necessarily hate the Persona games. A lot of these commenters implied that less knowledgeable newcomers to the series shouldn’t be writing about their beloved series for the public. Obviously, that’s complete nonsense. JRPG newcomers deserve to read reviews as much as longtime SMT devotees do.
Some readers want to read game writing that speaks to their own extensive experiences with the SMT series. As a gaming website dedicated to Japanese games, Siliconera is able to fill that niche. And that’s a good thing! A single piece of game criticism can’t be for everyone, and readers should seek out the writing that speaks to who they are as players. I just think it’s a little unreasonable to expect reviewers to be everything to everyone at once.
As a reviewer, I want to ensure that I write about the games I enjoy in a way that can reach new audiences. When I compared a Xuan Yuan Sword game to the Witcher games, I wasn’t slighting XYS. I was connecting the game to an audience who had never heard of its 30-year history (which is also the approximate age of the SMT series). Whatever I have to say about it to the American audience, it doesn’t erase the cultural significance of XYS to Chinese gamers. And whatever a reviewer has to say about Persona 5, it doesn’t affect what the SMT games have meant to its most devoted fans.
Here’s some good news, though: SMT5 isn’t released yet. Audiences still have an opportunity to independently evaluate the game on its own merits. Genshin Impact was superficially compared to Breath of the Wild at launch, but it has since grown into its own reputation. If SMT5 is as groundbreaking as Siliconera’s reviewer believes, then it has the opportunity to revitalize the conversation surrounding the series. That is, if the angry minority of SMT fans don’t completely put off newcomers to the series with arbitrary gatekeeping.