Persona has been around for over two decades now, and it’s more popular than ever. Sprawling from the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, the main subseries consists of RPGs from the perspectives of high school students, all of whom fight using entities called Personas.
Over the years, especially with the release of Persona 3, the games adopted a calendar-based schedule focused on social outings and activities after the last classroom bell rings each day. It makes for a novel way of experiencing stories that are anywhere from the 60-hour mark to over 100 as you create bonds with characters, strengthening your combat abilities and feeding into your visits to dungeons.
With multiple re-releases, remasters, and spinoffs that run the gamut of genres, ranking them isn’t easy. First of all, doing so leads to the painful realization that some of these games are no longer available to purchase, unless you have older consoles at hand or the willingness to spend hundreds of dollars above MSRP on physical copies. If anything, the list below provides a history lesson on the versatility of the concept behind Persona, and everything that the series has left behind since its conception.
21. Revelations: Persona
Where to play: Your best bet is a PlayStation Classic, which comes pre-downloaded with it
The ground zero for the series we know today. Revelations: Persona was released in Japan and North America for PlayStation 1 in 1996. It provides an obtuse but equally interesting early look at the concept of high schoolers fighting demons after departing from the Shin Megami Tensei mainline. Just keep in mind that it’s a time capsule in every sense. If random encounters and a confusing map aren’t enough to deter you, the characters’ baffling race-swapping and odd translation of the Western release might.
20. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona
Where to play: Unavailable as of July 2, 2021, except from secondhand sellers
While it retains the original’s retro feel, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona revitalizes the first game for the PlayStation Portable in multiple aspects. It includes a better English translation, an easier overworld map to navigate, faster movement while exploring dungeons, and more quality-of-life improvements. Most importantly, it has the Snow Queen quest, a sizable storyline that’s missing in Revelations, and anime cutscenes. The soundtrack is different, too, and more on par with the latter games.
19. Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight
Where to play: PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita
Released in 2018, Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight is a rhythm game spinoff built on the same foundation as Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight. The biggest difference, and flaw, is its original track list. It suffers from the fact that it came out before most of the new soundtracks, lacking a greater and richer variety across the board. Sure, there are DLCs you can buy, including songs from the anime, Persona 5: The Animation, as well as Persona 4 Arena Ultimax and Persona Q. But they also work in Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight, which is a much more rounded package.
18. Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth
Where to play: Unavailable as of March 31, 2023, except from secondhand resellers
If you ever wondered what would happen if the casts of Persona 3 Portable, Persona 4, and Persona 5 all got together in a haunted movie theater, well, that’s Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth in a nutshell. The 2018 release takes the foundation of Q and improves it in the gameplay sense. But it also lacks novelty, and the fan service of the first is further aggravated by having yet another crew in an already crowded setting, leading to less room for meaningful interactions.
17. Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth
Where to play: Unavailable as of March 31, 2023, except from secondhand resellers
The first entry in the series to be developed for a Nintendo console, Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, released on 3DS in 2014, is a mashup developed by the Persona and Etrian Odyssey teams, introduced as a first-person dungeon crawler. The casts of Persona 3 and Persona 4 join forces in a chibi-style depiction, alongside a few new characters. It’s a different yet intriguing crossover that provides more depth for those who loved exploring dungeons in the original games.
16. Persona 4 Arena
Where to play: Xbox consoles via backward compatibility with the 360 version, available for purchase digitally until July
The spinoff era of the Persona series kicked off with a fighting game. Sure, why not? Persona 4 Arena, released in 2012, sees Persona 4’s protagonist returning to Inaba after the events of the story. After some events unfold, both the original cast and some characters from Persona 3 all end up involved in a fighting tournament P-1 Grand Prix. It’s as wacky as it is exhilarating. But there’s a better way to experience it.
15. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax was released on consoles in 2014, serving as a direct sequel to Arena. It has a bigger roster of characters, bringing even more folks from the Persona 3 cast, a robust set of mechanics (such as charging up attacks and being able to choose Shadow types, among others), and a story told in a visual novel style. Keep in mind that the story from Arena is included in the PS4, Switch, and PC versions, and it was originally available as DLC for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions.
14. Persona 4: Dancing All Night
Considering how prevalent music is in every Persona entry, a rhythm game was bound to happen sooner rather than later. In 2015, Persona 4: Dancing All Night kicked off the first of three entries, including both original tracks and some excellent remixes that continue to be in my daily rotation to this day. The story isn’t as memorable, but you need to complete it to unlock the highest difficulty option. Still, if you want an excuse to see the cast again or just love rhythm games, this is a great starting point.
13. Persona 5 Tactica
Just when we thought Atlus was running out of genres for its spinoffs, Persona 5 Tactica comes along as a fusion with tactics-style gameplay. The 2023 release is similar to the XCOM series in nature, but like Strikers, does a decent job of capitalizing on the existing toolsets of the mainline games. Its story carries some mixed messages, and it could use fewer levels to go through, as the enemy variety gets repetitive toward the end. But it’s a bold mashup worth checking out.
12. Persona 4
Where to play: PlayStation 3
Very few people know about the perils of spending too much time in front of the TV as do the townsfolk in Inaba. Persona 4 is centered around the Midnight Channel — an urban legend that claims if you stare at your TV on a rainy night, your soulmate will supposedly appear on the screen. This, as expected, has terrible results, with the TV World being the core of a series of tragic murders in an otherwise peaceful town. Persona 4 is a big leap from Persona 3 in terms of gameplay. Unless you’re a nostalgic person, though, there’s a better version available.
11. Persona 3
Where to play: Unavailable, except from secondhand resellers
The first introduction to the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES) took place in 2008 with the release of the original Persona 3. Persona 3 took the first step to establishing the modern Persona formula, introducing the calendar-based structure and an early look at the combat that newer fans have grown used to. It also has arguably the best pitch for a plot, with the 25th hour of the day summoning a gloomy moon up in the sky and Shadows on the streets for those unlucky enough to experience the horrors.
10. Persona 5
Where to play: PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4
What else is there to say about Persona 5 at this point? The blueprint for what we know as a modern Persona game was released in 2017 in the U.S. It’s a slick experience that takes elements from past entries and refines them in a bold and stylish package. The Phantom Thieves stole everyone’s hearts, while also creating the foundation for the gameplay style, and look, of subsequent entries. The only reason it’s not higher on the list is because, put simply, the original is quite outdated in comparison to its definitive edition.
9. Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight
Where to play: PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita
The best out of the three rhythm games in the series. 2018’s Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight reminds us that the Persona 3 soundtrack continues to be unmatched, and it does so with an array of remixes that only strengthen the ambiance and feel of the originals. It’s punchy, stylish, and exhilarating to play and replay until you get a full combo in every song.
8. Persona 5 Strikers
A spinoff in nature and a story sequel to Persona 5, 2021’s Persona 5 Strikers has the Phantom Thieves reuniting once more for a road trip. It’s also a musou game akin to Dynasty Warriors, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, and so on. It’s a rendition of Persona 5 on a smaller scale, but the combat offers a surprising amount of depth, capitalizing on the use of Personas in a hack-and-slash fashion.
7. Persona 3 Reload
From its conception, it was clear that Persona 3 Reload wasn’t aiming to be the definitive version, with the absence of both The Answer epilogue from FES and the female protagonist route from Portable. It also borrows from Persona 5 Royal quite extensively, refining its presentation and adding plethora of quality-of-life updates. In essence, the 2024 release is a retelling of the original Persona 3 story in the style of Persona 5.
It makes for an approachable entry, with some welcoming additions, like extra activities to partake in after school and tweaks to its combat. But if you’re curious about the original renditions, especially to experience firsthand the main appeals of Persona 3 that didn’t make it into the remake, you’ll have some choices to make.
6. Persona 2: Eternal Punishment
Where to play: PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita
The second entry in the duology, Persona 2: Eternal Punishment saw an official release for PlayStation 1 in 2000. So, yes, it did come out before Persona 2: Innocent Sin was ported. Combat remains largely the same, although with some refinements and a higher difficulty. Its strength is in the way it acts as a direct sequel to the story with multiple returning characters, as well as being the first Persona game to feature a female protagonist in Maya Amano. The PlayStation Portable version wasn’t officially localized, but there’s a fan translation out there.
5. Persona 2: Innocent Sin
Where to play: PlayStation Vita
Originally released in Japan for PlayStation 1, Persona 2: Innocent Sin didn’t arrive in North America and Europe until 2011. On the outside, it’ll be remembered as an RPG that featured Adolf Hitler, which is reportedly part of the reason why it took so long to receive a port overseas.
The story is definitely one of its highlights, featuring a wild plot with a strong cast that carries a vastly different tone than the one from future crews. Sure, the dated combat might be hard to stomach, but it’s worth the trip down memory lane to witness how different the series was.
It also features a possible romance between two male characters — which hasn’t yet been replicated in the franchise — and has overall stronger queer representation than the rest of the series.
4. Persona 3 FES
Where to play: PlayStation 3
Persona 3 FES is a substantial revision of the original. It polishes up the combat, adds an array of new quests and interactions (like being able to take SEES’ canine member, Koromaru out for a walk, which is important), and tweaks mechanics like the Naganaki Shrine.
Most notable is The Answer, which includes both a new dungeon to plunge into and an epilogue for the story. As it stands, Persona 3 FES represents the complete story, which makes it an easy recommendation. Its biggest flaws are in the lack of quality-of-life updates that Persona 3 Portable brought to the table, and most notably, the lack of a female protagonist to pick. Student Kotone Shiomi has her own dialogue options and even Social Links to pursue, allowing you to get to know the male members of SEES closely. Sure, Persona 3 Reload aims to offer the latter with new social outings involving the cast at large. But it’s a day-and-night difference compared to what Portable offers. In contrast, FES has a better presentation, allowing you to control your character and see the world in close detail.
3. Persona 4 Golden
In 2012, Persona 4 Golden introduced itself as one of the main reasons to get a PlayStation Vita. It first parted ways with its exclusivity in 2020 with a PC port, and has since been remastered for current platforms. It has multiple additions across the board, from Social Links to activities, quests, story events, and plenty of quality-of-life changes. It also introduces Marie, a new character that gives you access to a new dungeon and epilogue, in a similar fashion to Persona 3 FES. As such, if you want to know the true ending of the story, this is the version to play through.
Golden also provides a curious glimpse of some of the mechanics that would later be adopted by Persona 5. Dungeons, for example, are still similar to the ones in Persona 3 in terms of structure, going through floors one by one until you defeat a final boss. But they’re more thematically tailored to characters and story events, in a way that was capitalized on with Palaces in Persona 5.
2. Persona 3 Portable
Persona 3 Portable was originally released on PSP in 2009 in Japan and a year later in North America. Thankfully, it has since been ported with a lite remaster to current platforms. It adds a few more quality-of-life updates to a version known for them — mainly, the ability to manually control your party members in combat. This isn’t just a “Goofy can’t heal me for shit” scenario like in Kingdom Hearts. It’s crucial for a game where using the right skills at the right time to exploit weaknesses is an integral part of enemy encounters.
In contrast with FES, it gets tricky. Portable doesn’t have The Answer, which means that the story is incomplete. It’s also a heavily toned-down version in terms of presentation, feeling more akin to a visual novel as you hover over points of interest in static scenarios as a floating cursor, rather than manually moving your character to talk to people. Yet FES doesn’t have a playable female protagonist with her own Social Links and dialogue options. And your party members rarely heal you.
If you have a preference for FES even with its shortcomings, it’s understandable. But the quality-of-life changes and new protagonist, alongside easier access, make Portable the go-to version for now.
1. Persona 5 Royal
Persona 5 Royal, the definitive version released in the U.S. in 2020, represents the series in its maximum expression. It polishes up combat with an array of welcoming new mechanics, adds more activities to partake in, and most importantly, expands the story to provide the ultimate closure. The new characters and confidants serve as a great complement, banding together toward the end to kick off a new third semester, serving as a hefty epilogue to the original with an enchanting and bittersweet send-off to the Phantom Thieves.
Royal, for better or worse, is the utmost representation of Persona games. It carries over issues of sexism and homophobia, despite attempting to address past mistakes, that the series has been reckoning with for decades now.
It has also become part of what Atlus now considers “the Persona 5 subseries,” which may not come as a surprise. The style and presentation have been a clear inspiration for the likes of Soul Hackers 2, Shin Megami Tensei 5, and Persona 3 Reload. Looking into the future, it’s clear that the influence continues to make itself apparent, with Metaphor: ReFantazio as an upcoming example. Sure, the studio behind it is led by game director Katsura Hashino, who’s been involved with the series since the beginning up until Persona 5. But P-Studio’s jump into the mainstream can be seen everywhere.
If you’re planning to get into the series, Persona 5 Royal is the one to start with. It’s an engrossing look into what Persona games can be, with their unique flaws and triumphs, after all these years.