Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona

Platform: PSP/PSP go

Developer: Atlus

Publisher: Atlus

# of Players: 1

Rating: T (Teen)

Official Site

Score: A

Revised back into its original version with the bonus Snow Queen quest and reworked to include new over world maps, anime cut scenes and music, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona is one of the deepest, most cerebral RPGs currently available on the PSP. Atlus went all out with this updated version of the 1996 classic that introduced US audiences to the SMT series, making it accessible to players who came late to the party with Persona 3 and 4 while retaining its distinct visual style and gameplay. New players to the series should absolutely grab this version for its memorable characters and the offbeat mix of dramatic and humorous elements while those gamers who have played the original should also snap up the game, as familiarity absolutely won’t breed discontent.

Trying to properly explain the overall plot of the game isn’t easy, but half the fun of playing the game is discovering what it holds in store for you as you play. After a group of Japanese high school teens plays a silly psycho dramatic game called “Persona”, they all start to manifest unique “demons” that spring forth whenever trouble arises. Trouble does indeed arise very shortly afterward as the entire city is blocked off by a weird force field and hordes of demons great and small pour forth, wreaking havoc all over. You’re initially tasked with discovering where these demons have come from and dealing with them. However, the game spins on its ear a few times throwing twists and trickery your way making for quite a ride once you’re hooked into things.

The densely layered plot is a bit complex and requires paying attention to the important elements while not letting yourself get caught up in some of the goofier dialog or letting yourself get frustrated by the somewhat frequent encounter rate that can send you into battle every few paces. The game is far from another “Hit X and snooze” turn-based affair thanks to its unique conversation options. Persona was the first game I can recall where during battles, you could talk to your enemies (or vice versa) and dance, threaten or bribe them (among many other choices). The communication aspect plays heavily into things, as properly conversed with demons can cough up spell cards that can be fused with other spell cards into more powerful demons.

Trying to explain the complete fusion process in an article in itself, but fans of Persona 3, 4 and Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne will find that the process is quite different than found in the later games. Nevertheless, it’s just a thrill to experiment with dialog choices and find out what makes particular demons tick. Some respond well to jokes or crummy pickup lines, while others hate being condescended or lied to. Stronger demons won’t give you their cards until you’ve leveled up, while some demons will give you items, cash or damage before hoofing it away in a huff. Even more interesting are battles where demons call you out to ask a seemingly silly question, offer to join your cause or just say a few words of wisdom before disappearing from sight.

You’ll do a lot more talking than you do fighting for a while, but if you don’t fight enough, you’ll be beaten to a pulp by tougher bosses and their lackeys in no time flat. The game’s over world and first-person 3D dungeons are packed to the gills with random battles that will butcher the unprepared. Fortunately, the healthy supply of weapons your party will obtain contains plenty of firearms, swords, bows and other fine gear. From my days toiling away in game retail, I can still recall the original game (and its sequel, Persona 2) getting a very small number of parental units hot under the collar for its depiction of teens with guns in a high school setting, but it’s nothing to fret over. Hell, I’d be more concerned if real-life kids could summon actual demons based on different mythologies out of thin air, if you ask me…

Your teammates can equip a handgun, rifle or machine gun and a bladed weapon such as a sword or ax. Successful combat relies on analyzing enemies and discovering their weaknesses at first through trial and error and later, by categorizing demons visually so you can use the proper attacks. Just mashing on the attack key will more often than not get your party killed as attacks are reflected or status effects galore rain down from the heavens. Fortunately, you’ll have a group of guys and gals with mixed weaknesses and resists, so getting wiped out by a group of the same enemy type isn’t an issue unless you’re really low-level and really clueless to the battle system. This more deliberate, tactical approach might turn off the short attention spanners, but anyone who loves to THINK about their next move will love what’s here.

The restored Snow Queen quest is probably the main reason most folks who’ve played the PS One original are interested in the PSP version and it’s well worth the wait. It takes a bit of careful detective work early on in the main game to uncover this side story, but it’s a very tough and satisfying addition to the game that lets you play with new characters and experience a rather intriguing storyline. This quest isn’t as long as the main game, but it’ll keep you dialed in and taking mental notes as it unfolds. You’ll get to see a few characters in a new light as well as deal with some particularly hard enemies, so hitting this section under prepared isn’t a good idea.

Presentation-wise, Revelations: Persona was groundbreaking back in 1996 for its use of multiple playable viewpoints in the game as well as a smooth 3D engine. However, if you’re a graphics hound judging every game you play “by today’s standards”, you probably won’t get what all the fuss was about. I personally love the art in the game (Kaneko Kazuma’s timeless style still impresses) as I feel it adds a great sense of time and place while not relying on the usual fantasy RPG trappings. The modern-day setting is perfect for lots of little in-jokes about convenience store clerks, mall shopping habits, street gangs and other modern aspects. As this game is a “classic”, it’s also important to see the graphics in terms of games made for 1995-1996 audiences rather than slam it for not being “state of the art”. The over world map has been given a nice makeover (it looks a lot more realistic) while interior 3D maps are a perfect fit for the PSP wide screen. Those 3D maps also have the fastest movement you’ll see in a first-person game on the handheld.

Numerous new anime sequences replace the stiff CG work in the original game and it’s here that Kaneko Kazuma’s characters are their most expressive. The majority of these anime scenes are brief, but go a long way in injecting life into the game’s other viewpoints. Atlus didn’t change the isometric art in the room sections all that much, so having animated sequences add to the game’s emotional impact. The poppy new title track and other new or remixed tunes give the game a more modern feel recalling the newer Persona games and hopefully, you’ll be smart enough to buy the deluxe edition for the 2-disc soundtrack. Yeah, yeah, the PSP go is sleek, hot and all that whatnot and if that’s your handheld of choice, you should absolutely buy Persona for your shiny new baby. On the other hand, if you’re not trading up, spending the same amount of loot for the same game with a great bonus is a no-brainer plus cheese. No matter which version you choose Atlus has you covered.

While I have no real complaints about the game, new gamers might find the pacing too slow and the combat mechanics too challenging. The game offers up a ton of help via the manual and in-game menus, but you have to be a reader, not a griper who hates to learn new things to get the most out of what’s here. What was so stellar about Persona back in 1996 was how well it broke the mold of the usual JRPG American gamers were so used to. On the other hand, the PSP version isn’t supposed to break any molds at all. In fact, like any classic game remade or not, it’s more of a sturdy, well-made time capsule now available so new players can see where things began (even though the MegaTen series started a few years earlier on a different console, but that’s another article for another time). Nostalgia can be a wonderful thing, particularly in the case of a franchise that gets so many new fans with each new installment.

In the end, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona is an engrossing, deeply rewarding JRPG experience geared toward gamers who truly care about story in their games and one of the best PSP games this year in my opinion. I’m really hoping Atlus decides to bring out a few other SMT games we missed out on in the future just so gamers who came aboard the series with Persona 3, Persona 3 FES or Persona 4 can see how it has changed to fit the times. Heck, if anything, US audiences really need to get BOTH Persona 2 games in the future, as that’s a tale we originally only saw half of (and it still made for a great game, major changes and all).

Screenshot gallery

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