With the release of Star Ocean: First Departure and Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, the PSP is quickly turned into the system of choice for cult favorite adventure games. Not to be outdone, Atlus has stepped up with a remake of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona, a little played PlayStation-era role-playing game. With its unique story and modern-day settings, there's a lot to like in this remade Persona. But at the same time there are more than a few quirks I wish could have been addressed in the thirteen years since its original release.
Persona has always been one of those role-playing games I've always intended to go back and play, but never seemed to find the time. I remember seeing it in magazines, but then hearing the negative press about the poor localization and all-around butchering of the story. These stories (and the fact that companies all around the world didn't stop making games for me to play) kept me from experiencing an enthralling world full of likeable characters and wicked evil.
Persona tells the story of a group of St. Hermelin High School students who one day discover that they have a rare power that lets them summon powerful "Personas". Soon enough the kids find themselves embroiled in a convoluted story that involves the head of the SEBEC Corporation inventing a machine that allows people to go from one dimension to another. Unfortunately everything gets out of hand and the entire town starts to change. In other words, it's the storyline of Fringe combined with turn-based combat and teenagers.
All joking aside, the game's set-up is strong and I'm a sucker for role-playing games set in the present day. Like most Japanese role-playing games, the pacing is slow towards the beginning, stringing you along with hints and suggestions. But soon enough you'll have full control over your team, allowing you to buy new weapons, customize characters and create brand new personas.
The personas in question work like magic spells. You summon your big, mean-looking persona and they attack in all kinds of devastating ways. Early on everybody is given their own persona, but soon enough you'll be able to craft new summons that are more your style. On top of having large characters shoot out of your body, you can attack with both a traditional weapon (sword, knife, bow and arrows, etc.) and a gun. The whole thing goes down in a turn-based battle to the death, where each side goes back and forth choosing attacks, using items and summoning their personas.
Like the characters in the game, there's more to Persona than what meets the eye. At first it looks like just another turn-based adventure where you have to put up with random encounters. But look deeper, because there's actually more than one way to win a battle. You can go in, swords out and guns-a-blazing, that will certainly get the job done. But maybe you can work out your problems in a conversation. Have you ever thought about coming to an understanding without worrying about blood splatter?
Although simple to learn and understand, the concept was so foreign to me that at first I didn't know what to do. Here was a game that was actually wanting me to use my words, that's such a rare occurrence in a marketplace filled with attack first, ask questions later. The idea is that you choose a stand hoping that one of your opponents will see eye to eye. You'll find that some unruly monsters are susceptible to sarcasm, while some of the women ghouls are easily flattered. Although it may seem useless at first, you'll quickly discover that you can earn items and money from these negotiations, as well as scaring off the more timid bad guys.
As I played deep into this 40+ hour adventure, I found myself approaching each battle a little differently. This isn't one of those games where I would just mash the "X" button until everybody on the screen is dead; I actually planned out my strategy beforehand. Sometimes I just needed to level up, so I ran around the haunted corridors and had the computer play for me automatically. Other times I made sure to negotiate with the baddies. This freedom really opened up the combat, something that is rare for such copied formula.The game takes place entirely within a small part of urban real estate. You move around a large over world much like you would in Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, only instead of caves and castles it's a police station and an abandoned factory. On top of the overhead map, there are a lot of different buildings and areas you can explore. Generally when you enter a building the game switches to a rather jarring first-person perspective. This perspective change reminded me of the original Phantasy Star on the Sega Master System and a lot of the early generation PC role-playing games.
When you're not in the first-person perspective, you will find yourself exploring rooms and talking to people from a isometric overhead angle. From a visual point of view this is all good, but it doesn't translate well to the D-pad. To walk in the direction you want to go you will need to use the diagonal buttons, which isn't where the PSP excels. I found it easier to use the analog stick to control the character, but even that is fraught with problems. I really wish that Atlus would have addressed some of the control issues when recreating it for this handheld system.
As I mentioned before, this PSP version of Persona has been enhanced in almost every way. I was happy to see that all of the names have been preserved, the script has been rewritten to better reflect the original Japanese story, they added back in much that was edited out of the original American release and there are a great deal of good looking (and sounding) cinema scenes. On top of all of the much-needed changes, the game also adds a lot of new content, including more dungeons, items and puzzles. One of the additions (the Snow Queen scenario) has the potential to literally change the course of the game, something that will make some adventurers want to play through it a second time.
Unfortunately there's one thing that didn't get much of a make-over: The visuals! While the game has been altered to take advantage of the PSP's widescreen display, it's impossible to ignore the outdated graphics. All of the characters are small and kind of look the same, while the world is full of repeating textures and weird scaling issues. That's not to say the graphics are bad, but they don't represent the level of detail that has gone into upgrading every other element of this game. I would hate to see people turned away from this amazing game simply because the graphics look like they're from 1996.
Once you get to know these characters and get wrapped up into their plight you will forget all about the dated visuals. This is a game that takes no time getting going, offering a speedy pace right from the get-go. Within minutes of starting the game you'll have a mystery to solve and somebody to talk to, which is more than I can say for many recent RPGs I've played through (I'm looking at you The Last Remnant). But just because the story zips right along, that doesn't mean you'll always know what you're doing and where you're going. I found myself constantly confused as to what my next objective was. Thankfully I was able to work my way through, but it's not always clear what you're supposed to be doing.
Playing Persona now makes me sad. Oh sure, it's an amazing role-playing game that should be played by just about every adventure-loving gamer, but why did it take so long to do properly in the U.S.? Had the American arm of Atlus simply followed this playbook thirteen years ago, Persona would have been a household name by now. But instead they neutered what turns out to be one of the most original and inventive role-playing games I've ever played. I'm happy that I finally have a chance to play this incredible game (on a system that is perfect for this type of experience), I only wish everybody involved could have gotten it right from the get-go. Still, as apologies go, Shin Megami Tensei: Person for the PSP is a damn good one.