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Shin Megami Tensei: Persona

Platform(s): PSP
Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: Atlus U.S.A.
Developer: Atlus
Release Date: Sept. 22, 2009


PSP Review - 'SMT: Persona'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Nov. 18, 2009 @ 4:31 a.m. PST

Atlus U.S.A. is bringing a remake of the first Shin Megami Tensei: Persona to the PSP, featuring a completely redone localization, gameplay enhancements, and content additions never before seen, to North America.

Megami Ibunroku: Persona: Be Your True Mind was originally was translated for the PlayStation 1 under the name Revelations: Persona. An early translation effort from Atlus, the game suffered heavily in translation. Characters and plot elements were drastically changed, entire plotlines were removed, the game underwent a number of changes, and the translation was generally silly and sub-par, even for the time.  While it was a fun enough game for the era, Revelations: Persona has always remained a rather neutered game, and fans of the franchise couldn't help but lament that they never got the full and accurate version, especially after Persona 3 and Persona 4 drew more attention to the franchise. Fortunately, with the re-release of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona for the PSP, English-speaking players finally get a chance to play the original game in the series as it was meant to be played.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona is set in the modern-day Japan. Players are given control of an unnamed schoolboy and his classmates. While playing a strange children's game called "Persona," your main character and his friends fall unconscious and are gifted with the mysterious power of Persona, which is a mystical spirit that represents some facet of a character's personality. This turns out to be a fortunate coincidence, since shortly afterward, their hometown becomes the center of a demon infestation. The only ones who can stand up to demons are Persona users, and it is up to your character and his friends to figure out where the demons are coming from and why they were gifted with the power of Persona. Along the way, they'll discover a mysterious plot involving a local corporation and one of their classmates, a girl who seems to have special powers of her own.

Overall, Persona's plot is rather interesting. It certainly shows its age in places, and more than a few scenes come across rather bland, despite Atlus' excellent translation. Fortunately, the plot is compelling enough to overcome this. While the game is reasonably linear, you'll encounter a number of potential plot variations, which allow you to see different scenes and recruit different characters. There is even a completely different branching plot arc that was removed from the original U.S. release of Revelations Persona; it allows you to see a substantially different, and notably harder, main quest. Persona's only real problem is that it feels dated, especially compared to the other Persona titles released stateside. Since it's a port of an older game, this is completely understandable, but those who are looking for something akin to Persona 3 or Persona 4 may find this one a bit of a step backward. The characters are a bit more clich├ęd and the plot more cookie-cutter, but despite this, it remains a solid experience throughout.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona has a lot more in common with the older Megami Tensei games that were never released in English-speaking countries than any of the modern titles. The majority of your time is spent in a first-person view, similar to the old Wizardry games. You explore dungeons in this view, regardless of whether they're simple schools or mystical ancient towers. Whenever you enter a room inside a dungeon, though, the game will switch to an isometric view, allowing you to wander around, open chests and talk to people. The dungeons are fairly easy to navigate, but there can be some real doozies later in the game. You should be prepared for one heck of a slog once you reach the midway point, especially if you go on some of the harder story paths. This isn't helped by Persona having a high encounter rate. Depending on your luck, you'll be getting into fights pretty often, and it can really wear you down if you're not prepared.

The combat system in Persona is interesting, although it may feel a bit simple compared to the other Megami Tensei titles that are available in the U.S.  Combat is your traditional turn-based RPG style, where the heroes and various demons take turns hitting one another until one side runs out of MP. However, there is a surprising amount of strategy and depth to be found in the game. The combat scenes are set up like two 5 x 5 grids; your team and the enemy's team each take up one of the grids, and you'll be set up in different formations. Depending on where you position your characters, you may find that you're in better or worse shape for certain battles. Keeping your characters away from the front lines will improve their survivability, but it also makes it harder for you to hit enemies.

Each character has a variety of different attacks. They can use medieval weapons like bows, swords and axes for a regular attack; guns with different kinds of bullets; or summon a Persona to cast a magic spell. Depending on where you're positioned, you may find it easier or harder to hit enemies, or you'll find that you're an unfortunate character who's the sole target of a group of powerful foes. Each weapon also has a certain section of the opponent's grid that it can attack. Putting a sword user in the back row might make them better defensively, but they won't be able to use their swords. Position a character in the wrong place, and he might have a hard time hitting foes, even if they're in the front row. You can actually set up a number of different formations that you can switch between at will, allowing you to vary combat tactics depending on the enemy makeup.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona doesn't have the Press Turn system found in other games in the franchise, but that doesn't mean enemy weaknesses are less important. There are a tremendous number of potential strengths and weaknesses for every enemy, ranging from basic elemental weaknesses, like fire and electricity, to more unusual things like nuclear- or gravity-based attacks. Even guns and melee weapons have different types of "elements," and in order to successfully fight enemies, you're going to need to keep a wide stable of combat abilities. Combat can get very difficult if you try to rely on just a few basic attacks, since later-game enemies gain resistance or even immunity to attacks. If you focus too much on a small list of attacks, you may find yourself unable to effectively fight enemies.

Fortunately, you have a lot of customization as well. In addition to regular weapons, each character can equip guns with different shells to gain special effects. However, the real customization comes from your Persona. When equipped, a Persona grants specific strengths and weaknesses to that character, and it can be summoned to cast spells of different elemental types. The more you use a Persona, the more powerful it becomes, and eventually you can even trade Persona in for powerful items. You can switch Persona in mid-battle with all your characters, and it's a wise idea to keep a wide and varied stable of Persona on hand to exploit weaknesses.

Getting Persona, however, involves something a little more complex. Killing enemies isn't the only way to win a fight; you can also attempt to contact enemies during battle. When contacting an enemy, you'll play an unusual little mini-game. Each character has a collection of "techniques" that they can use to talk to a demon, including telling jokes, making up stories, threatening the demons or even just dancing. Depending on the technique you use, the demons will either become angry, eager, happy or scared. If you max out one of a demon's emotions, you'll get some sort of effect. Some demons may bribe you with experience or money and run away, while others may get angry and fight harder, or become charmed and turned on their allies.

Your primary goal when contacting demons is to get them to give you a spell card, which can be used to create new Persona by fusing the cards in the Velvet Room. If you want to get powerful Persona, you're going to need a careful collection of spell cards. You can also create special Persona by using rare items scattered throughout the game world or completing certain side-quests. Contacting is a fun mechanic, although it can be a bit hit-or-miss. It's tough to be sure what your moves are doing without spending some time learning each "communication" technique's foibles, and even then, they can feel a bit incoherent. Contact resembles a bizarre version of combat where you sling words at enemies, instead of actually trying to appeal to them. Still, it provides a nice break from the usual combat, especially in tougher areas, and it can be rather amusing sometimes.

Persona's weakest element is easily its graphics. While the entire game has seen a slight overhaul from the original PlayStation version, the changes are mostly minor. The menus and interfaces have been cleaned up a lot, giving a good portion of the game a newer, cleaner look. Unfortunately, the combat graphics are almost unchanged. What little cleaning has been done to them is almost unnoticeable, and as a result, the combat scenes continue to look ridiculously dated. The sprites, animations and special effects are all extremely unimpressive, and even when using the "speed up" function to zoom through the fights, you can't help but notice how bland they are. Everything looks outdated, and the end result is a title that just isn't very fun to watch. However, there a few shining moments that help Persona stand out. A batch of new cut scenes was added to the PSP iteration, and each is a fully animated CG movie. These look great and add a nice sense of atmosphere to some of the more dramatic scenes, and it really improves what would otherwise be unimpressive cut scenes. Fortunately, the weak visuals are aided by a strong soundtrack, which does a lot to set the tone for the game. The battle music can get a little annoying after a while, but that's more a flaw of the high encounter rate than the music itself, and most of the music is top-notch. Those who purchase the physical game instead of the PlayStation Network will even get a free soundtrack to boot, which is a nice bonus.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona is a fun RPG, but compared to other Persona titles, it's rather unexceptional. It's impossible to ignore that the game feel a tad archaic, although it's a testament to the excellent design that despite this, it remains a lot of fun. The branching story line and various character choices add a lot to the game's replay value.  The combat, while more simplistic than the later Shin Megami Tensei titles, rewards careful planning and forethought, and there are plenty of deeper mechanics involved to allow hardcore gamers to customize their experience. However, the title can be punishing at times, due as much to a high encounter rate as to actual difficulty in the game's fights. The only real flaw is that, despite a cleaned-up interface and some very nice cut scenes, Persona just doesn't look very good most of the time. If you can overlook the outdated visuals, you'll find that Shin Megami Tensei: Persona houses a surprisingly deep and interesting set of mechanics and lots of exciting gameplay. It may not be quite as good as its sequels, but Persona is a solid game in its own right, and it's a great purchase for any RPG fan with a PSP.

Score: 8.0/10

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