While they are separate games, the two most recent entries in the Persona series for the Shin Megami Tensei multiverse, Persona 3 and Persona 4, are connected enough that I feel they're best discussed together. The link for Persona 3 goes to the FES extended play version; and the link for Persona 4 goes to the soon-to-be-released Persona 4 Golden, which is also an expanded version.
I actually played a small amount of the first Persona game way back when, but I couldn't play through enough of it at the time to get into it. However, I was curious enough about the series to take a chance and get Persona 3 when it came out.
It was the right choice – as was getting the sequel. Both games rate very near the top of my "Favorite CRPG" list.
In both games, the basic concept is very similar: terrible, dark Things stalk our world that for one reason or another are unseen by most of the populace… although the effect of their depredations does affect people more and more as time goes on. Against these monstrosities, called Shadows, a very few lucky – or unlucky – young people are possessed of the ability to see and battle them, using the power called simply "Persona" – to call forth from within their souls a representation of strength that has the mystical force to confront even the powerful Shadows.
The basic concept and imagery in both games is deeply psychological; the concept of a "shadow" is a Jungian idea, given more popular exposure in popular culture in Billy Joel's song "The Stranger": "We all have a face/That we hide away forever/And we take them out and show ourselves/When everyone has gone/Some are satin, some are steel/Some are silk, and some are leather/They're the faces of the Stranger/But we love to try them on." Tarot card images and Kabbalistic imagery abound, and references to other parts of legend from around the world all have significance.
In both games, the protagonist is a young man just entering a given school for the first time, who somehow finds himself involved in events of supernatural importance – mediated or observed, somehow, by a mysterious long-nosed man named Igor and his right hand assistant, a beautiful and equally mysterious woman. The game also takes place over exactly one school year, day by day, which means that the game has a real-world pressure involved that is sometimes annoyingly absent from other CRPGs; the most commonly cited example being Final Fantasy VII,with the ability of the player to raise and breed Chocobos for game months, while the in-game mission indicates that you have no more than five days before the spell Meteor shatters the planet. That doesn't happen in either Persona game. If you waste time not attending to important aspects of the game, you will be in for a world of hurt… or you may just lose.
The games also give the player – in North America, anyway – a glimpse into a world that's both very familiar and quite alien, the world of the Japanese High School. Superficially similar to those here in the USA, there are a lot of differences that range from subtle to blatant.
The world is fun to explore, actually. Both games do have limited "sandboxes" – you can only go to a relatively small number of set destinations, rather than wander through a large mapped area like, say, Fallout 3. However, the fact that you have limited time – marked out by particular sets of events – keep you from being able to get terribly bored by these limitations, as things change enough over your school year to provide you with new things to see and do.
Probably the single greatest appeal of both games, however, is that it is a game of relationships. The interrelationships of the characters – from the primary to the very tertiary – can have a significant effect on the way things go in the game. Moreover, the games have significant replay value because it's impossible to go through all the personal sidequests in one game; you have to, for example, choose which clubs you join, and usually each club will have its own side story.
In the world of Persona, you have to balance the time spent fighting monsters with time studying, time interacting with people, and even time working. Both Persona games take place in worlds in which you can't just go fight the monsters and forget about your regular life; you have to live your life, and in fact it's crucial that you achieve certain things in your life to really succeed well.
There are, of course, a few minuses, aside from the ones that stem from the basic limitations of the format. The combat system takes a bit of getting used to, and like may CRPG combat approaches can become pretty repetitious after a while. There are also a couple of places where you must pick the exactly correct set of dialogue responses in order to get the "good" ending for the game, and that can be pretty much a "Guide Dang It" moment, since there are usually several reasonable responses given how you might interpret the characters in the game. I only got the Good Ending for Persona 4 after looking up the hints online. And the music is… mostly sort of just there. A couple of worthwhile tracks but nothing like some of the great videogame soundtracks.
The social interaction makes the game; you come to know people, often quite a few people, and care about them. They confide in you, tell you truths they've hidden, ask you for advice or help, and this makes the world ALIVE in a way very few RPG games manage to pull off. Oblivion and Skyrim, for all the awesome beauty of their worlds and lushness of production and scripting work, just can't involve me the same way because I can't engage people on conversations much past, "Oh, I lost my sword in this temple, could you get it for me?" In Persona, I might occasionally play with a little girl whose parents don't understand her, and figure out how to get her parents to listen to her problems, or help an old man and woman deal with the loss of their son, or take one of my teammates out on a date – or several dates.
I recommend both of these games highly. Enter a world almost like our own and live there for a while… as you take the chance to save it.