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Shin Megami Tensei: Persona
By Marcus Way
Nov 6, 2009,
7 :20 am
Atlus’ Revelations: Persona, like many of their titles, has fared well throughout the years. Not only has the Persona series flourished, but the original has also managed to become more popular and appreciated over time, fetching a high price on online auction sites. For fans that jumped on board the series with the third release on the PlayStation 2, which would be quite a few of you, catching up with the first two PlayStation One entries has been a bit difficult. Patience has its rewards, and now those who did without can also see how it all started with this revamped re-release of the original, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona. A relocalized script, gameplay enhancements, and realignment back to the Japanese release make this the truest domestic representation of the original to date.
Persona opens up with a group of high school students daring each other to take part in a game called Persona. Their brief fling with the occult sends them into a dream world where a masked man by the name of Philemon, proclaimed dweller between consciousness and unconsciousness, unlocks in them the ability to conjure the manifestations of their inner selves, their personas. The group awakes inside of St. Hermelin High’s infirmary, located within the city of Lunarvale, and shortly thereafter realizes that something isn’t quite right. Not only can they summon personas, which take the form of vespers above their bodies, but the town is changing as well. A portal created by the SEBEC Corporation has opened up a rift to an alternate dimension that is slowly changing the town, and is also being used as a gateway for demons to invade our world. With Lunarvale under siege, the crew ventures out to uncover the bizarre mystery behind the portal and their newfound powers.
The story is a bit more convoluted than the brief summary, but the freshly relocalized script and newly added animated cutscenes, featuring some lovely graphics and solid voice work, do a great job in fleshing everything out. Aside from increased clarity, the revamped text also realigns the North American version to bring it closer to the original release’s story and world. The setting is decidedly mid 1990s – love the outfits – but the overhauled dialogue and description text have moved the setting back to Japan and characters, such as Mark, have been brought over without their previous alterations (e.g. changed from Asian to African American). The story is particularly interesting, more so than many role-playing titles, and the refinements add a much more natural tone and pace.
Sharing the bill with the students are their personas. The personas, or masks, possess magical powers and level alongside the students. Your character is the only one whose experience points can be allocated to one of the core attributes – strength, dexterity, etc. – with the other students having their points auto assigned and the personas automatically gaining new powers. The automated leveling works well, with the computer making sound choices for the characters; and I found just enough freedom of customization in the managing of my character’s attributes. But to expand your repertoire of spells, you’re going to have to acquire additional personas, and that is going to require a little wheeling and dealing.
A fairly novel concept at the time, and one that remains so today, Persona features the ability to negotiate with enemies in addition to engaging them in combat. Utilizing a rudimentary emotion-based response system, you talk with the demons to either try to coax them into helping out or scare them off before they become enraged. A small diagram indicates whether the demons are angry, happy, scared, or eager. Each character has four approaches, ranging from being sarcastic to trying to pick them up, and enemies can become too angry to talk, flattered, scared, or friendly enough to give a spell card. Spell cards are essential because it is only by combining two of them that you are able to create a new persona. Just as you can intimidate the enemy, however, they can do the same to you, with either affected side suffering adverse side effects. The system has remained largely the same in subsequent Shin Megami titles, though dropped in Persona 3, and is still an interesting and entertaining twist.
Not all problems can be solved with words. When the enemy gets too mouthy or belligerent, you can break out the axe or sword or sniper rifle or sub machinegun. Another unique feature of Persona’s combat is that the game has medieval melee weapons alongside contemporary firearms. The type of weapon used is crucial as some weapons can be downright useless against certain opponents: flying creatures, for example, are susceptible to firearms while other enemies can reflect the rounds back, damaging the shooter. Other creatures can absorb, brush off, or effectively dodge against persona-based attacks, so something along the lines of a sword to the gut might be the best way to deal with them. Since combat is grid-based, which means that different attacks affect different grids on the battlefield, often in patterns, the formation of your party becomes important; a character’s powerful attack isn’t useful if it isn’t hitting anything. Fortunately, formations can be switched during combat by choosing one of three predefined options, set up prior to combat. From placement to approach, there is a wide array of strategic options.
And to get any enjoyment out of Persona, you had better enjoy and take full advantage of those options. If grinding or a high encounter rate in general isn’t something you’re fond of, then the only thing you will find here is a quick way to go insane. On top of the incredibly high encounter rate is a remastered soundtrack that features fully vocalized songs that are at once catchy and maddening; you will hear the same songs over and over, with no way to turn them off save for turning all of the sound off. Fans of the PlayStation 2 releases might also be a little disappointed to find out that there are no Social Links, either, as those weren’t introduced until later in the series. Yet it won’t be the music, the dated graphics, or the simpler mechanics that turn people away, it will be the amount of encounters. Imagine having to talk to or fight against a handful of demons every few feet, no matter where you go: your destination is right there, just a few feet away, but it could take a good ten minutes to get to due to having to wade through the awaiting hordes.
The encounter rate is high on the world map as well. You will spend much of your time walking around the sealed city, traveling down the main streets to locals that act as dungeons. It’s a bit of a perspective bonanza while you adventure as the view will shift from over-the-top while in the city to isometric during combat to first-person while in dungeons. Just to get anywhere, though, even while on the city streets, you can expect multiple stops. To the best of my knowledge, the encounter rate is actually higher than the first North American release, another change to get it back in line with the original. But Atlus has also added a few features to help to alleviate the tediousness, such as three difficulty modes, an option to skip animations, the ability to run within any perspective, and an auto battle mode. Just know, regardless of where you are, you are never safe.
Those who own the 1996 release will find it hard to go back. Not only has the retooled script and added cutscenes made the game much more approachable and engaging, but the various additions and tweaks have really enhanced the experience. The core design itself is old, and there is no getting around that, but a lot has been done to make it as painless as possible. For example, the party’s health is now displayed on screen while walking in the dungeons – a small but important addition. There are also the smaller changes that make this a much more authentic outing, such as the reinsertion of yen as the in-game currency. There are also numerous gameplay additions, including puzzles, dungeon floors, and most notably the Snow Queen scenario that is unlocked after you deviate from the main storyline. About the only change I can foresee some not liking is the music, as the original soundtrack was less poppy and more hard synth; although it would’ve been nice had both soundtracks been used. For fans, this is a must; however, for a newcomer, it will be more of an acquired taste.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona, despite its increase in popularity, remains a title with niche appeal. While I certainly enjoyed my time with it, there are many that will be turned off by a number of items, be it the dated graphics, revamped soundtrack, aged mechanics, or high encounter rate. Persona has many aspects found in older PC titles, including the first-person dungeon and grueling encounter rate, that still hold a lot of appeal but maybe not so much for those weaned on the later releases. While many of the touchups have helped, the game’s age does show, but the combat remains satisfying and the story engaging enough to warrant a strong recommendation. Just be prepared to grind.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)
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