Part 2 Of The Guide
Where Should I Start in The Series? (I'll list from top to bottom in terms of priority):
If You Prioritize Visuals: Persona 5, Persona 4 (any version), or Persona 3 OG/FES. P5 obviously looks the best, but P4 and P3 both look great for their age too. Obviously the style in P3/4 isn't cranked up as high as P5, but they've still got style and polish to spare. And P4 is basically a rom hack of P3 so they pretty much look the same.
If You Prioritize Gameplay: Persona 5, Persona 4 Golden, Persona 3 Portable, or Persona 2 (either game). Persona 5 has the most streamlined battle system and the most sophisticated social link system (in the sense of what in game benefits are provided by each social link). Persona 3 Portable and Persona 4 are still very well made, highly addictive games though. P3 pioneered the day system, the social link system, and the foundations of the current battle system. Persona 4 polished a lot of those aspects. They're both phenomenal games and absolutely worth your time. The Persona 2 games are certainly old, but still very fun. They're battle systems are unique and engaging. They are random encounter, but there are items that mitigate that. P2 also has the most complex negotiation system, in which all characters and all combinations of characters have multiple options for interacting with enemies. P2 also has super unique and interesting mechanics, like the rumor system, in which because rumors become true in the word, you can have different people spread rumors that will influence the world in helpful ways. You can even customize the rumors, like, "this weapon shop has high prices but high quality items". Persona 2 also has the unique food system in which you can feed party members before going in to a dungeon and the food will give them certain buffs or advantages. The buffs/advantages vary depending on which restaurant you got it from, which dish you selected, and whether or not a party member like that dish. There are more interesting mechanics unique to P2, but I'll leave it here.
If You Prioritize Characters: Persona 3 Portable (other versions also excel in this department), Persona 2 (both IS and EP), and Persona 4. Persona 3 in my opinion not only has the best main cast in the series, but also one of the best main cast's in gaming history. All members of the party undergo meaningful and interesting character development and end the game as completely different people from when they started. I can say the same things for Persona 2, who's main cast I also love to pieces. P2 is also the only entry with a fully adult cast (in EP). The only thing setting P3P and P2 apart is social links. P3 has them, P2 does not. And the whole "facing your true self/face your shadow" concept that P4 is famous for was actually introduced in Persona 2. While I can say that Persona 3's main protagonist's social links are weaker than those found in P4 or P5, the female protagonist's social links are absolutely some of the best in the series, which is why I recommend playing Portable. P2 does have character interactions, but not full on social links. Persona 4, while I feel has an overall weaker cast than P3 or P2, does have some standout characters that are among the best in the series. It also has great social links. The game's premise also allows for deeper exploration of each character than is found in any other JRPG I've ever played.
If You Prioritize Villains: Persona 5, Persona 3 (all versions), and Persona 2 (both games). I would say on the whole the Persona series strengths do not lie in its villains. Most of the time villains are shrouded in mystery or not as deeply developed as other characters giving them less of an impact. Which is fine, Persona prefers to focus on the main characters rather than the villains, but the games I mentioned do all have great villains. Persona 5 has the most complex and hateable villains in the series. Persona 3 also has complex and hateable antagonists both in the party and out, and it's main villain is very interesting ans sympathetic. To the point that you wish you didn't have to defeat them. Persona 2 just has a lot of crazy, interesting villains. Urban legends, deities, historical figures, cults, and awful principles. It has a good mixture of despicable, hateable villains, cryptic and mysterious villains, and sympathetic, likeable villains.
If You Prioritize Story: Persona 3 Portable (and other versions), Persona 5, Persona 4 (all versions), and Persona 2 (Both Games). Which story you like best is very dependent on your tastes. If you want a more traditional saving the world story with a deeply personal, intimate feeling and a philosophical twist, go for P3. If you want a story of rebellion and exploration of societies injustices, go for P5. If you want a deeply personal story about self discovery and friendship, go for Persona 4. If you want a crazy, bizarre, story that has a lot to say, but also is at its core focused on interpersonal relationships, their importance, and how the change with time, go with P2.
If You Prioritize Romance Options: Persona 3 (all versions), Persona 5, Persona 2, and Persona 4. Some people might wonder why I made this section, but I know people wonder about the waifu and husbando prospects, so I made this section. All the games I mentioned have great romance options. Persona 3 is home to my personal best-girl and best-boy, and the rest of the dating options (with one exception) are all wonderful. Persona 5 has a TON of dating options, and I'm a fan of pretty much all of them. Persona 5 also has the most special events that can be triggered by your relationship(s). Persona 2's romances don't impact the game as much as other entries in the series. There's no day system so there's not special events or anything like that. But the quality of the relationships found in Persona 2 are what put it in this category. Persona 2 is also the only game that let's you have a same-sex relationship (which also happens to be the best romance in the game). Persona 4 has fewer romance options than other entries but they're all of great quality.
If You Prioritize Music: That's a toss up. Every Persona game has awesome music. My personal favorite is Persona 3's urban/R&B/HipHop/Rock/Jazz sound. But I also adore Persona 4's infectious j-pop sound, and my favorite video game song ever is from P4. P5 of course has an amazing Jazz/Rock soundtrack. P2 are the only games who's soundtrack wasn't composed by Shoji Meguro but their late 90's/early 2000's acoustic rock/classical/electronica sound is still wonderful and has some real stand out tracks. Persona 1 has the most varied sound track in my opinion with influences that include pop, rock, electronica, classical, and R&B, but is overall very enjoyable. The awesome battle music was the only thing that made P1's horrible battle encounter rate manageable.
If You Prioritize Lore: Persona 1 and Persona 2 (both games). You wouldn't believe it based on the last 3 main entries to the series, but Persona does actually have deep specific lore. There is an entity that grants the players their Personas, there is an entity that is behind the scenes causing trouble in each game, Igor does have a master, there are more Velvet Room attendants besides the blonde siblings, there is someone physically singing in the Velvet Room, all of the Persona games do take place in the same universe, and the series is based on a specific branch of Psychology. What the Velvet Room is, what Igor and the attendents are, who their master is, and why the Velvet Room always changes, all have definitive answers within the series. However, you won't know any of this unless you play Persona 1 and 2. The only games where the series lore, which is continuous and plays a part in every game in the series, are directly mentioned or explained are Persona 1 and Persona 2. Arguably the most important character in the franchise is portrayed as a blue butterfly that sometimes acts as a save point in all games past P2. They never speak, they're never mentioned. So unless you played P1 or P2, you won't understand the implications of their presence in each game. If we're talking connections between each game, that's more apparent. Persona 1 characters appear in P2. P2 characters are given life updates and P1 characters are mentioned in Persona 3. P3 characters appear, P3 art is present, P3 costumes and win poses are unlockable, P3 locations are visited, and P1 and P2 characters are referenced in Persona 4. In Persona 5, P2, P3, and P4 characters/locations/songs/plot points are played, interviewed, mentioned, or seen through still images around the world. So you can get a sense of how each game's stories are interconnected and get some information on how the lives of characters turned out after their games ended.
If You Prioritize Memes/References to Pop Culture: Persona 3, Persona 4, Persona 2, and Persona 5. The Persona series loves to reference other games, anime, and movies. It also loves to create memes. Persona 3 has such classic lines a "Did you see that, Shinji?", "I've Been Waiting For This", and "Adios Asshole", trust me if you play P3 you'll understand why they're memes. Persona 3 has has great digs at real life companies like the in game version of Nestea, "Nastea". It also has random pop culture references like Junpei's win pose being John Travolta's pose from Saturday Night Fever and just all the anime references you could muster. In Persona 4 there's a whole dungeon that references retro games like Dragon Quest and Zelda. Some of Chie's Battle Quotes are direct quotes from Bruce Lee and the movie Kill Bill, she can even wear the yellow suit. There are weapons that are named after books/other artistic works that reference them in their descriptions like the gun Algernon having the description, "an experiment to find happiness". Countless other references to games. The Golden version references a popular P4 Fan Comic. Also JOJO REFERENCES. My god, so many Jojo references. Persona 2 is just chock full of anime references and tropes. (Hella Jojo references.) So many I can't explain them all here. Persona 5 is Lupin the Third: Persona Edition. The protagonist's Persona is literally Arscene Lupin, a party member's Persona is literally Goemon, a character is literally a palette swapped Jigen, another party member gives off strong Fujiko Vibes, they even recreated the iconic rooftop searchlight scene, not to mention that the party are all phantom thieves. There are watchable DVD with puns based on tons of classic TV shows. Characters mention video games, movies, and TV shows by name. Just tons and tons of references in the game.
Should I Play the Spinoffs?
Depends on which spinoff, which main series games you've already played, and what your tastes are.
Persona 4 Arena and Arena Ultimax: Play this if you've already beat Persona 3 and Persona 4. These are both fighting games. Ultimax is a direct sequel to Arena. Both games feature in depth story modes, that crossover the characters of Persona 3 and Persona 4 that takes place after the events of P3 and P4. Both games are canon. The story is good, much better than what you would find in a lot of fighting games but not as good as the main games they are based on. This is due to the fact there's much less time to tell the story, the fact that all plot progression has to be tied to a fight, and that because the big issues of P3 and P4 have already been resolved in their games, there isn't as poignant of a narrative to be had. If you already played P3 and P4 and want more time with the characters, these games are a good way to scratch that itch. The art is beautiful and the fighting itself is very fun and engaging, but also very accessible to newcomers.
Persona Q/PQ2: Play this if you have already beat Persona 3 and Persona 4. PQ is a crossover between P3 and P4, but unlike the Arena games, it takes place during the main games of P3 and P4, so that all of the characters are the same age. The game is canon, though don't worry about the events of PQ affecting the main stories of either P3 or P4. The game is Etrian Odyssey based, borrowing the dungeon crawling, map making, healing, battle foundations, and general difficulty from that series. The games still incorporate series staples like Personas, Persona fusion, the press-turn system, and spells. It also retains individual party member characteristics like Aigis' Orgia Mode. To put it bluntly, this is a fanservice game. The story still has very dark elements like you would normally find in other Persona games, but it's overall tone is much lighter. In general the dialogue is much sillier and character's personalities have been a bit simplified to focus on their most defining features. But, it is a great way to learn more about characters that aren't present for the entire game in their main game, and it's fun to see the casts of P3 and P4 interact with each other. Persona Q 2 was announced fairly recently for the 3DS, all we know right now it that it will feature the cast of Persona 5. Whether or not it will cross over with another game's cast is unknown. But I think it's fairly likely since that was the main draw of the original. It's possible that Atlus will continue to expand the universes of P3 and P4 by including them in PQ2 but it's also possible an older cast like P1 or P2's could get involved.
P4 Dancing All Night/P3 Dancing Moon Night/P5 Dancing Star Night: Play P4DAN if you have played Persona 4. The other games you don't need to have played. P4DAN, and P3DMN/P5DSN are all rhythm games that feature remixed songs from the game's they are based on. In the game party members and some side characters dance to these songs. P4DAN had pretty standard rhythm game controls, but the varying difficulty and great music made it thoroughly enjoyable. P4DAN does have a story, it is another continuation of P4's story and like the other spinoffs it is canon. Also like the other spinoffs the story is not nearly as good as the main games and is chock full of fanservice. This again is natural because the game is shorter and there isn't as much time to fully develop new characters, also because it's pretty difficult to rationalize the premise of P4DAN. I earlier said that you didn't need to play Persona 3 or Persona 5 to play P3DMN or P5DSN, because while those games are largely the same as P4DAN in the sense that they feature remixed tracks from their respective games and have the characters dancing to them, unlike P4DAN they do not have story modes. Whether or not they will have stories at all is unclear based on interviews with the devs, but I can gather based on what I've read that these games will be more focused on style and presentation than serious plot development.
Are There Any Games I Should Hold Off On Playing?
Yes, and that depends on what your tastes are, as well as your threshold for outdated gameplay/visuals.
If You Dislike Retro/Dated Visuals: I would say hold off on P1 and P2 if that's the case. I think it's easier to enjoy them despite their looks if you already have an appreciation of the series and are playing them to learn more about them. Now, Persona 1 just straight up looks old. It lacks polish and style in general, and the character designs very clearly show their age. But it does have a sort of PS1 charm that's hard to find and might inspire a sense of nostalgia. I think P2 despite also being originally developled for the PS1 look much better than P1. The game overall is much more stylish, the sprites are better made and animated, the environments and maps are all well crafted and interesting, the character designs are more timeless in my opinion, and the UI is sleek. But it certainly looks old. So if you aren't in to that, you might not like it.
If You Dislike Dated Mechanics/GamePlay: Then you might not enjoy P1, P2, or the vanilla and FES versions of P3. P1 is a fairly traditional JRPG, not much sets it apart from other games of the day then its positioning system that I'll discuss more of later. P1 also uses a first person dungeon crawler format which isn't very common these days. Overall a lot of systems, traversal, item/equipment management, progression, random encounters, and battle are pretty outdated and that can be a drag. Persona 2 I think feels significantly less outdated. It's battle system is really engaging, travelling in the overworld is generally easy and quick, and it's unique mechanics like the rumor system and the food system feel fresh. But it does have some issues that come standard with games of that era. It does have random battle which are not popular, it's negotiation system while fun to play around with since it has so many options, it also very confusing for that reason. Without a guide it's almost impossible to navigate negotiations with any level of success. And because getting new Personas is tied to negotiation (you need to get cards from enemies which you can exchange for new Personas) and the Persona fusion system in and of itself is also very confusing, it can be difficult to fully optimize your party. Luckily the negotiations and Persona fusion are not necessary or ever that beneficial to completing the game. On my first playthrough I beat the game without ever changing my Persona. I didn't even know you could until I read a guide. Also the game has perspective issues. The game is played with a 2D isometric perspective, but not all areas have the same orientation which can make walking around and interacting with objects a bit of a challenge at times. The vanilla and FES versions of Persona 3 Portable only makes this list because you cannot control the party members in battle. They are the only Persona games where you can't control the other party members in battle. This is luckily changed in Persona 3 Portable, the version you should play, in which you have full control over the party. The other reason Persona 3 makes it on to this category, and Portable is not exempt from this, is that there is one big dungeon, with many floors, rather than multiple dungeons. The floors are randomly generated and there's over 200 of them. Each block of floors has it's own aesthetic and it's own version of the music, but it can certainly get old for some players.
If You Dislike Heavy or Dark Themes/Loss of Life/Hard Philosophy In Games: I would say that you might not like Persona if that's the case. Every game has varying levels of darkness, but, they all do touch on very heavy themes and most of them feature significant loss of life. In Persona 3, 4, and 5, there is the day system. And because the stories are stretched out over a whole year or many months rather than one big quest that might have taken place over the course of days or hours, the overall tone of those games is lighter. Not every day in those games if spent fighting monsters or saving the world, so naturally a lot of the game is lighter in tone. But there are some aspects of the games that could be distressing to people with past trauma or who are struggling with similar issues, so I've written these warnings for aspects of the game that might be upsetting. I'm sure I missed something, because it's been a while since I've played most of these games, but I hope you can get the general idea. Also, by nature of the warnings there will be some spoilers.
-Persona 1: Deceased characters, character deaths, self sacrifice, and discussion of the pre/afterlife and the nature of man.
-Persona 2 (both): Loss of life, bullying, significant character death, historical imagery, text, and themes that may be upsetting, discussion of racial prejudice in modern times, references to historical racism and genocide, facing and discussing significant character flaws, cults, and discussion of pre/afterlife.
-Persona 3 (all versions): Personal tragedy, dysfunctional/abusive family relationships, significant character death, significant character injury, self harm, personal sacrifice, and discussion/themes of mortality.
-Persona 4 (all versions): Character death, dysfunctional family relationships, discussion of sexual identity, discussion of gender identity, discussion of sexism in the workforce/in general, homophobia, facing/discussing major character flaws and insecurities, self sacrifice, depression, suicidal character, discussion of the nature of man, themes of revenge, themes of moral obligation, significant character injury/illness, and significant character death.
Persona 5: Sexual harrassment, mentions of sexual assault, physical and emotional abuse, general abuse of power, negligence on the part of adults, themes of societal injustice, references to the sale/transportation/use of illegal drugs, mental illness, suicidal characters, personal identity crisis, significant character death, references to murder, and references to alcoholism.
If You Dislike Bizarre or Off The Wall Stories: To be honest all of the Persona games have their crazy moments. But I think P3, 4, and 5, are pretty grounded in reality as far as JRPG's go. Persona 1 has 2 story routes, both are pretty strange. Persona 2 though, is extremely bizarre. I don't want to spoil it but, there are deities, cults, aliens, and notorious historical figures involved.
If You Dislike Slow Starts: Unfortunately P3, P4, and P5 all have very slow starts to their games. This is just because there's a lot about the world you have to set up, but I assure that if you can get past them a great game is waiting. Persona 1 and Persona 2 both have stories that jump almost directly in to the action though. I think in some ways this can be a weakness because while you are playing the game sooner, you're also having to stop for exposition more frequently. Or at times a lack of exposition can lead to confusion about gameplay and the story.
Avoid This Game In General: Persona 1. I'm sorry, but this game is bad. It just is. I wouldn't recommend playing it unless you've beat all the other games and just want to say you've beat them all, otherwise it's better just to watch a let's play. The original localization is downright terrible. They tried to completely wipe the game of all references to Japanese culture which involved weird translations, name changes, and changing character's ethnicities (in a way that wasn't always tasteful). Overall it's just bad. There is a newer localization that's truer to the original game, but it has it's own issues. The battle system is confusing as hell. It's hard to make sure you're picking the right actions for each turn, it's hard to tell which character you're controlling, the positioning system is interesting but poorly implemented. Characters have attack ranges, which is fine, but what enemies they can attack depends on where they're standing on the battlefield. Also fine. Except that the positioning changes randomly. You can make your own formations, but it's hard to save them properly, and harder to actually use them in battle. P1 also had negotiations, and while they aren't as complicated as Persona 2's, they are still very frustrating. The game also has random encounter battles, which isn't good but not inherently awful, except for the fact that the encounter rate was cranked up to 100000% in the PSP re release so that you quite literally cannot take a step without triggering a battle. Which is unfortunate because the PSP version is the one with the decent localization. I don't know why they did this, but in an attempt to balance the game with it's encounter rate, prices for items were raised significantly, but the amount of money and experience dropped was either not changed or lowered depending on the difficulty. This lead to many players being unable to purchase necessary items and equipment and being chronically under leveled to the point that the game is virtually unplayable. Overall this game is a nightmare to play to everyone except for those who just desire a real painful challenge.
Here's Some Gameplay Cips/Trailers For Each Game:
Persona 1 (PSP)
Persona 2: Innocent Sin (PSP)
Persona 2:Eternal Punishment (PS1)
Persona 3 (PS2)
Persona 3: Portable (PSP)
Persona 4: Golden (Vita)
Persona 5 (PS3/4)
Here's the Opening Cinematics For All The Games. (I think they might help you choose which game to start with.)
My Personal Favorites
Overall: 1. Shinjiro, 2. Mitsuru, 3. Junpei 4. Kanji, 5. Naoto.
From Persona 2: Yukino, Maya, Ginko, Tatsuya, Jun, Ekichi, Katsuya, Baofu.
From Persona 3: Fuuka, Korormaru, Aigis, Hidetoshi, The Kitamura's, Rio, Saori, Koromaru, Bebe, Pharos, Akihiko, Junpei, Misturu, and Shinjiro.
From Persona 4: Margaret, Marie, Ayane, Kou, Daisuke, Rise, Chie, Naoto, and Kanji.
From Persona 5: Makoto, Yusuke, Futaba, Takemi, Iwai, Sojiro, Ryuji, Hifumi, and Kawakami.
Soundtracks: Persona 3 and Persona 4 with the slight edge to P3.
Overall Game: Persona 3 Portable
And that concludes my entirely too long but simultaneously much too short, guide to Persona. I hope this helps some people figure out which game they want to start with or which one they want to play next.