Inside Pulse 12

Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona (Sony PSP)

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Genre: RPG
Release Date: 09/22/09 (retail), 10/01/09 (PSN)

When Revelations: Persona (known as Megami Ibunroku Persona: Be Your True Mind in Japan) was first released, RPGs hadn’t hit their stride with the mainstream audience, and few were familiar with anything pertaining to Japanese pop culture, especially anime. As a result, Americans got a heavily altered version of the game, as an entire route was cut and many names and character appearances were changed to seem more American in hopes of appealing more to an American audience. Some either saw a worthwhile game underneath these changes and what many regard as a subpar and mangled translation or were put off by how different the game played from other games that were out then. For a first timer the Fusion system can be a bit daunting, and first person dungeon crawlers aren’t to everyone’s tastes (and were more the preference of PC gamers ala SSI’s Dungeons and Dragons series when the original Persona came out anyway).

In light of the success of Persona 3 and Persona 4, the first game has been rereleased as an enhanced port for the PSP that aims to be more faithful to the original. Let’s see how time and some polishing have treated the game.

The story begins with the teenage protagonists playing a game of Persona in an attempt to summon a spirit. They get more than they bargained for, as not only does an ethereal girl appear and everyone mysteriously gets knocked unconscious, but the whole town is soon overrun by demons and enclosed in a barrier so no one can leave. From there, things escalate and the story breaks off into two routes that occur concurrently. In one route, the group infiltrates the Sebec building to find out the cause behind the sudden spike in the demon population. The other route, the Snow Queen Quest was excised from the US PSX release, much to the chagrin of many. It deals with an rumor wherein anyone who played the titular role of the play and wears the accompanying mask meets an unpleasant demise. There’s only been one exception, and at first no one knows who it was. Naturally, you find out and then have to save her when the mask decides to rectify this oversight. While the characters and story aren’t quite as deep as the later games (particularly the Persona 2 games), what’s here works well.

For those of you who reviled the translation in the PSX version, it should warm your hearts to know that a completely new translation was done for this game. It takes less liberties with the source material, namely no longer pretending that the game is set in America when the game is rather blatantly Japanese. I’m of two minds about translations in general. On the one hand, I do think translations should stay at least somewhat true to the source material, as otherwise you might as well just make a whole new game. On the other hand, translations without taking context into account tend to turn out poorly, so retaining the spirit of what is being said is just as important as nailing the literal meaning of the words. I’m a bit puzzled as to how “I don’t want brains” was translated to “my face is white” the first time around, but considering either line works in its context, it’s not exactly something pick on too much.

The game’s graphics has received some polishing. The interface is more sleek and resembles the ones in P3 and P4. The animated cutscenes look much nicer than the clunky CGI in the PSX version, and there’s a introductory image for each tower in the Snow Queen Quest before you enter them. All the characters now look like they did in the original, which means Mark is no longer black, the protagonist no longer has red hair, and Nate/Nanjo and Ellen/Eriko aren’t blond. Strangely, I’d gotten used to Mark being black, so it was odd to see him revert back to his original appearance. But then, things are different from how they were in 1996, so there’s less incentive to change him into a black person now, especially considering they’d also have to deal with changing him in the cutscenes.

The in-game graphics, which you see the most by far, are rather lackluster. Of course, considering this is a port of an early PSX game, you can’t really expect mindblowing graphics. The 3-D hallways start to all look the same after a while and aren’t particularly engrossing to look at in the first place. I usually just rely on the minimap on the bottom left corner of the screen to navigate dungeons, which is also helpful for avoiding dead ends. The characters sprites are dull and ruddy, and when attacking in close range, they glide up to the enemy instead of walk or run. The battlefield isn’t much more exciting, consisting of a flat drab field floating in front of a psychedlic background. They’re functional, but are aesthetically utilitarian. Although, thanks to the inclusion of the Snow Queen Quest in this version, the infamous spiky phallic shaped persona protruding from a torso (which could’ve been one of the reasons why the quest was cut from the US PSX version) can be seen in its full “glory”.

The soundtrack has been redone, and while there are still some familiar tunes, they’ve been remixed into the JPop/rock tracks Shoji Meguro is known for, like those heard in later Persona/Shin Megami Tensei titles. This may be jarring for those who were used to the more atmospheric music in the original. I personally liked both soundtracks, but depending on music tastes some might prefer one over the other. The regular battle theme is alright, but it gets repetitive to listen to after a while due to the sheer number of random battles you fight. There was one boss battle where the goofy music initially made me think it was a joke fight – that is, until I noticed that my characters could inflict a normal amount of damage and that they weren’t getting killed in one turn. The voice acting during the cutscenes and in battle ranges from mediocre to good. Some of the battle quotes are amusing, such as Mark’s, “Let’s get funkay!” and Ayase’s, “Here persony!”. Philemon’s new voice suits him better, as in the PSX version he sounded kind of like a grandiose two bit magician, while in this version he sounds more like you’d expect an enigmatic character to sound.

The city map is much more user friendly this time around due to having an overhead view so that you can easily see every place in an area on one screen. In contrast, the blocky grey dominated map in the PSX version have a closer bird’s eye view that pretty much forced you to keep switching from an overhead view to the closer view to figure out how to get to your destination, especially considering most places looked pretty similar. You can sprint on the city map and in dungeons by holding down the O button, though I did find I sometimes had to slow down if I wanted to turn to enter a place, and even then it would get finicky. While that’s easily circumvented, it’s still a little annoying, especially if I was trying to get there with as little random encounters as possible. More save points have been added, though this is more apparent in the Sebec route since you can only save in the ice castle in the Snow Queen Quest route. You can also suspend save anywhere (except in battle or during a story scene, obviously), which is an especially nice feature to have on a portable, though once you load that save it’s gone.

Dungeons are in first person, and navigating them can get confusing at times due to how mazelike the dungeons can get, though the minimap does help a lot in that regard. You recover SP as you walk, which is especially handy at the beginning of the game, but as you progress this will be less helpful due to the amount of SP you use overtaking the rate of recovery while walking. Characters also recover all HP and SP when they level up, which somewhat mitigates long dungeon treks. The moon changes phases as you wander around, and they affect how demons act during negotiations, what latent abilities a Persona may get, how powerful a character afflicted by the Wolf status effect is, the duration of spells like Estoma and Liftma (they’re only active until the next new moon), and so on. When you enter rooms, the view will switch to third person, and you’ll be able to speak to your party members and anyone in the room. A bubble with blue lines will appear over the protagonist’s head whenever you’re near something that can be inspected, but other than that the environments are static, which means you don’t need to go around humping every last pixel in the room lest you miss something.

Characters can equip a weapon, a gun, and ammo for said gun. Each has a different range and cannot hit anything outside of that. For instance, a short range weapon like an axe wouldn’t be able to hit an enemy in the back row. When an entire row is taken out, those in the back row move forward (this applies to both allies and enemies). The EXP system favors those who do more in battle (lands the killing blow, casts more spells, and the like), so you can easily end up with some characters being overlevelled and others trailing behind. Instead of each spell having its own individual SP cost (or HP cost, as in P3 and P4), each Persona has its own SP cost, meaning that casting any spell with a Persona you currently have equipped will cost the same regardless of what it is. With some creative fusing and use of items (more on that in a bit), you could potentially take advantage of this and have a high tier spell at your disposal for a relatively low SP cost. You can press start to skip the battle animations or have characters repeat what they did the previous turn, which makes fights go faster. You can switch personae during battle, but doing so takes up a turn. While each character has a Persona Level that increases with use of Personas in combat (so constantly using weapons or guns equals lower Persona Level), the equipped Personas themselves don’t gain levels. Rather, Persona Level determines what Personas the character can use. Personas do, however, rank up with use, and as they rank up they get stronger and learn more spells. Once they’ve reached the maximum rank, they can be returned for items or retained for further use since they’d be at their strongest (though they won’t rank up any higher).

If you’re feeling diplomatic, you can go for the more pacifistic approach. Which approach will be more effective towards that end depends on the demon’s temperament. For example, a foolish demon may be easily impressed by some bragging or flattery, while a haughty demon might respond well to cringing or crying. Of course, this isn’t universal. Sometimes a demon will respond negatively to something they were previously receptive to, and you’ll have to change your approach accordingly. Obviously, a guide can help streamline the process, but even that doesn’t work 100% of the time. Due to that you might end up maxing the wrong emotion(s). You can max out up to two emotions; once you max out, the demon will no longer be receptive for further negotiation. A demon can be eager, happy, scared, or angry. The emotion you most want to elicit is eagerness, as that will compel the demon to offer you their spell card. Ideally, you’ll want to make them eager and happy, as that would compel the demon to give you both their spell card and an item. If you encounter any demons whose spell card you hold in battle, contacting them will cause them to leave the battle, often after giving you an item, EXP, or money. This is a good way to avoid battles if your party is worse for wear or if you’re not in the mood to fight, as well as a way to acquire more items. You can only hold twelve spell cards at once, and the demon won’t give you its spell card if the party’s average level is below its level. Due to the nature of the negotiation system, conversations will come out choppy, and they can get repetitive, especially if you use the same negotiation method to provoke a certain response.

Once you’ve got spell cards in hand, it’s off to the Velvet Room to fuse Personas to unleash in battle. You can only use two spell cards in a fusion, though you can manipulate the results by fiddling with the order the demons are fused, adding items, and coordinating the fusion with the Moon Phase. Adding an item can have effects ranging from stat boosts to teaching another skill to changing what persona will result from the fusion. You can store up to sixteen Personas in the Velvet Room at a time. Each character has different compatibilities with Personas. At the worst compatibility, the character cannot equip the Persona at all, and at best compatibility the Persona may at times defend the character. Personas start at level one and with only one skill. They learn the rest through ranking up. The Fusion system can take a bit of adjusting for the uninitiated, but with practice it should be somewhat easier to use it to yield a Persona with specific skills.

There’s no New Game +, which leaves less incentive to start the game over from scratch, unless you wanted to go through on a different difficulty level. You could, however, keep a save just before the split so that you could play through both routes at once. Each route has a good and a bad ending, and which one you get depends on certain decisions and actions through the game. It’s worth it to see the different endings, though if you see a bad ending first, you’ll likely want to see the good ending. There’s also an additional dungeon in each route that’s unlocked after you beat the game that has been added to this version of the game. Clearing these dungeons will net you a badge, which doesn’t serve much purpose other than as something to show off and collect if you’re the type to want to unlock every last thing in a game.

The dungeon designs and encounter rate have been tweaked, and there’s now three difficulty levels to choose from (once you pick one, you can’t change it unless you start another game). There’s a fair amount of grinding involved, both for levels and for spell cards. Level gains aren’t terribly hard to come by as long as you fight most of the battles, refrain from using Estoma unless you desperately need to, and try to explore as much as possible. As you gain levels, you’ll be able to ply spell cards from stronger enemies with which you can fuse better Personas. You’ll have to strike a balance between killing enemies for EXP (as even when you do get EXP bonuses during negotiations, only the negotiating character benefits from it) so that you don’t get killed in battle in one shot and also sweet talking demons into handing over their spell cards so you have more to work with in the Velvet Room.

It’s not unheard of to be ambushed during a random encounter and have some, if not all, of your characters wiped out in the first turn (such as a demon using the lovely Ambush + Last Resort combination). The good thing is that after battle your allies will be alive with one HP, so you can save your precious expensive revival items. The bad thing, of course, is that you have to get through the battle first. The enemies also tend to yield little money relative to the prices of new equipment. This is especially a problem in the SQQ, as once you enter a tower you can’t leave until you beat the boss there. Considering there’s no other way to earn money (as there are no random encounters in the school’s hallways, for better or worse), you’ll have to manage with what you can scrape together. You could also try your luck at the casino, though you’ll probably need lots of luck there to profit from it. If you have to pick between upgrading weapons or armor, you should probably go with the armor first so your characters can take hits better (you can at least compensate for weaker weapons with Personas).

Even now, there’s not many games that give you the option of trying to talk your way out of a battle. The game introduces some features and themes found in the later games, confronting (especially in P4). While this version has a new coat of paint on it, two new dungeons, and a brand new translation. I often found myself wanting to keep going until after I completed a dungeon, both for the sense of progress and to see what happens next. However, at times I would have to take a break from the game for a bit because there was only so much random battles and running around mazes (even with the minimap) I could take. In that sense, the suspend save feature was a godsend, as I could just set the game aside for a bit, then pick up right where I left off without losing any progress.

Those who started with P3 or P4 will probably have some adjusting to do with this game, as the school setting and fusing personae in the Velvet Room are essentially the only commonalities this game shares with those two. There’s no social links, after-school jobs, or any other such features found in the later two games. People who have played the PSX version would probably enjoy being able to play through the Snow Queen Quest in English, though it might take them a bit to get all the names straight, especially the demon names. Hardcores will like, even relish, the challenge, while those who want to get through the game could pick the relevant difficulty level. Some might find the first person dungeon crawling and the lack of frills present in the later games too old school. The retail version comes with a two disk copy of the soundtrack, which is a rather nice bonus and gives people more incentive to buy the game.

There’s less loading times than there were in the PSX version, which makes the pacing of the game feel less dragging. Although at times there would be this pause after I selected my party’s actions before actual attack animations began, which was odd considering I was playing the PSN version, not the UMD version. Overall, though, this version of the game feels more polished than the PSX version, though it lacks the flash of the later games. The battle and Fusion systems still work well enough, though the contact system feels sparse next to the one in the Persona 2 games.

The Scores
Story: Good
Graphics: Below Average
Sound: Good
Control and Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Enjoyable
Balance: Mediocre
Originality: Good
Addictiveness: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Decent
Miscellaneous: Above Average
FINAL SCORE: Above Average Game

Short Attention Span Summary
If you didn’t get the chance to play Revelations: Persona when it first hit US shores, this would be the version to pick up. Even those who did play the PSX version may still find it worthwhile to pick up this version, even if only for the chance to play through the Snow Queen Quest. While it’s still an enjoyable game in its own right, it’s not the best in the series and might feel somewhat dated next to the later entries in the Persona series. Still, it’s good as a look at where the series started, and those who can look past the dated graphics.