Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Review

Revelations: Persona is a PS1 JRPG released in 1996, and a hallmark of the poor localization changes that JRPGs tended to suffer from when they hit western shores. With various changes such as different character names, cut content, skin and hair color alterations—the most famous of which is the transformation of Masao “Mark” Inaba into a dark skinned high schooler—and more. Luckily this review is of the 2009 PSP port, SMT: Persona, which stays true to the source material by retaining the original looks and names of the cast. It also re-implements the Snow Queen Route which was removed from the PS1 version for reasons mostly unknown, along with various aesthetic and quality of life changes.

Some of the characters you’ll meet on the journey

Plot and Exploration:

In Persona 1 you play as a silent, unnamed boy (with his earring being a defining feature), who is a student of St. Hermelin High School. After playing the Persona game—a game where 4 people stand at the corners of a room chanting “Persona, Persona, come to me” in a similar fashion to an occult ritual—you and your group of friends all faint. Dreaming of a strange man named Philemon, he explains the collective unconscious and gives you a Persona, the physical manifestation of your personality and psyche. After going to the hospital for a check up, and also to meet a classmate—Maki Sonomura—who has been hospitalized for a year, complications arise. Strange phenomena begin to occur, with zombies and demons appearing within the hospital walls. Defending yourselves with your Persona, you and your team of Persona Users begin to work towards fighting off the demon invasion and the ones responsible for it.

The plot of Persona 1 is very compelling, and I found myself unable to stop playing at times, eagerly wanting to see the next part of the story and how the characters would respond. The writing for the main characters, antagonists and side characters serves to flesh them out all the way from the beginning to the end of the game, as long as you take the time to listen. There are none of the social links that have become a staple of the series in this entry, but I feel like the lack of them enables all the characters to have a more organic personality growth, since they don’t need to wait for direct player interaction. The ideals of the antagonists were never too far-fetched or unbelievable, and oftentimes I found myself wondering if I would do the same in their situation. Another feature that had sadly not made its debut in this entry was having a daily life aspect where you could attend classes, increase Social Stats and generally live the life of a normal highschooler, opting instead to go from Point A to Point B with no detours along the way. This linearity can make the city of Mikage-Cho feel a bit empty at times, and is a glimpse into the game’s age when compared to the later entries in the series. 

The city of Mikage-Cho

Combat:

The game’s combat takes place on a grid where you position your party members to effectively get the most out of their Persona’s skills. The way Persona and Persona skills work is quite different from current generation Persona games. For one, the SP cost is not determined by the spell itself, but by the Persona that uses it. Thus, a pixie could theoretically cast Maragidyne for a measly 4 SP. Inversely, this also means that some demons may have too high a cost for various low level skills, such as a single casting of Dia being 20 SP. 

The other unfamiliar aspect of combat is attack ranges, where various attacks have different ranges, such as a machine gun only being able to hit enemies in a column in front of the character that uses them. This may have been cutting edge back in 1996, but in this current day and age, the system, while manageable, makes me feel like I haven’t positioned the party as optimally as I could have. I would see various attacks get wasted as they spilled outside the grid. Combat can feel slow and repetitive a lot of the time. Occasionally, I found myself inputting the commands and starting the action phase, then going to get myself a cup of water and coming back to see the same turn still playing out.

The battle screen. Get used to it, because you’ll see it a lot

While I personally had no problems with the encounter rates in dungeons, the overworld is a different story entirely. Count yourself lucky if you try walking to another dungeon and don’t get jumped by an enemy every five seconds. Initially, the normal battle music is very peppy and energetic, but after twenty back-to-back encounters you realize that a lot of the PSP’s tracks loop very quickly, with the once-uplifting song beginning to grate the ears. While I didn’t want to put the game down, sometimes it felt like I was being told to by the game itself.

When you aren’t being bombarded by legions of demons, you’re probably fusing some new Persona in the Velvet Room. In this game, when you successfully negotiate with a demon they do not join your demon roster, but instead give you a spell card that acts as fusion fodder for the Velvet Room. Demon fusion is very technical, with some of the most optimal fusions being locked behind the current moon phase, which demon is the first option, which demon is the second option, the demons’ tribes, the demons’ races, etc. If you don’t have the courage or time to learn everything there is to know about demon fusion, there is the option of guided fusion, which does most of the heavy lifting for you. I found the option of guided fusion quite useful in the later stages of the game, as it helped me get good results much faster than I’d be able to on my own.

Welcome to the Velvet Room

Criticism:

Now I come to my main complaint for Persona 1 as a whole: how obtuse and nonsensical some of the requirements for certain story outcomes and positive scenarios are. Some of them are as simple as picking the “good” dialogue option, but others were clearly made just so Atlus could sell a strategy guide along with the game. This arbitrary complexity honestly detracts from the experience for me, because the things that you can miss are undoubtedly some of the best parts of the game, and to make people jump hoops for them isn’t very fun.

The only concrete source of info when the game released was this strategy guide

Conclusion:

Overall, when I look back at Persona 1, I have memories both fond and painful. I won’t call it a flawless masterpiece, but it is certainly a diamond in the rough that is worth your time and will not leave you disappointed, whether you’re new to the genre or a knowledgeable veteran. 

I give Shin Megami Tensei: Persona an 8.5/10, and ask that you try it out for yourself. It may just surprise you.

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