The first instinct is to run. Playing a modern Persona game and encountering one of its most intimidating opponents is rarely something a player plans for. Then again, would Persona’s Reaper be feared as much if he always stayed in the same place? An optional boss that looms large and hits hard is bad at the best of times, but with most games you at least know when you’ll bump into them.
Of the games in the series that I’ve actually played, I’ve encountered Persona’s Reaper in P3 – where he will roam around a floor if you’ve waited too long before advancing (or if you’ve been unlucky with post-battle bonuses in Shuffle Time) – and I later came across him again in P4 – where players who have completed the game at least once gain the option to trigger the Reaper battle after opening certain chests. Both of these actions are very unusual for a typical Persona enemy, and the text heralding the arrival of Persona’s Reaper always surprises a player and – unless they’re deliberately trying to trigger the battle – instils a certain amount of fear. And this is what makes Persona’s Reaper such an interesting character to cover this Halloween. Not only is his name comparable to the Grim Reapers seen in typical horror fiction, but as one of the strongest enemies in the game, those chance encounters keep you on edge when the eerie SFX are heard over the dungeon music – an early warning that you could bump into him soon.
Persona’s Reaper – far from easy
The only time I’ve survived a battle with Persona’s Reaper was in P4 Golden, where he boasts some of the most powerful single-hit and party-wide physical and elemental attacks in the game, can disable the elemental resistances of your allies, buff his elemental attacks and more besides. Even with a full party you’ll be juggling buffs, healing, reviving and trying to actually dealing damage, and since enemies can also exploit elemental weaknesses for extra turns, it’s far from easy. And how fitting is it that such a scarily powerful opponent is styled as the harbinger of death? Even your navigator will announce his arrival with “Be careful – I sense Death!”, and if you’ve encountered him before then you’ll know that the warning shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Persona’s Reaper – an exercise in fear
There’s a point to this retrospective rambling, however. Videogames can so often fall into the trap of taking a spooky character and filling them with fairly unthreatening, ordinary behaviour – and when you start to see this, the spooky stylings feel like little more than a skin. The Persona games I’ve played weren’t really themed around “horror” as such, but Persona’s Reaper succeeds in being a genuine threat that a player will fear. You don’t hear the navigator’s warnings and continue trying to trigger spawns to get more battles and gain experience; you hear the warnings and look for the fastest way out. In P4’s case, the locked warning chest is a genuine “nope” moment in a game more concerned with dungeon crawls than sudden all-encompassing fear.
Persona’s Reaper – the unexpected encounter
It’s likely that Persona’s Reaper is so effective because it’s so unexpected. If you fill a game with zombies and mutants and ghosts and wolves, it’s harder to maintain the element of surprise because the game is so keen to have more and more horrors bursting out of dark corners. Obviously survival horror games have to keep the tension high, but in a light-hearted high-school JRPG you can make Reaper encounters rarer. And when you finally face this enemy with your most powerful attacks and scrape through to victory, you can at last walk through the dungeons with confidence.