Shin Megami Tensei: Persona - Staff Review  

Revelations on a Unique Dungeon Crawler
by Glenn "7thCircle" Wilson

20-40 Hours
+ Unique battle and leveling systems
+ Interface is quick, clean, and responsive
+ Excellent background music
- Encounter rate is SMT-in-the-90s high
- Combat graphics are atrocious
Click here for scoring definitions 

   Revelations: Persona on the PSX is one of those gem/awful RPGs. Gamers either consider it unplayable or enjoy the uniqueness enough to call it a great game. Of all the games Atlus developed, it is a rather odd pick to be the company's first remake to travel to this side of the world. Whatever it was that led up to Atlus USA releasing Shin Megami Tensei: Persona, Atlus's goal on the project is clear: fix everything gamers hated about the original version and leave the rest alone. It is an unusual yet intuitive way to handle a re-release, and the result is very much what should be expected from an SMT game in many ways. The interface is solid, the battle system is unique, the music is excellent, and the graphics are significantly inferior to what the current technology is capable of. That is to say, a general fan of SMT games will find this worth playing.

   Like any older RPG that came out of Japan, one's love or hate of the battle system will largely determine one's opinion of this game. Not only is the encounter rate high, but there are few safe havens. The streets are flooded with foes, the dungeons are inundated with enemies, and even the happy high school where the game opens gets covered with encounters. If hitting a random battle every two or three seconds sounds irritating, expect to be driven mad quickly. On the other hand, lots of combat is fine if the battle system is fun, and Persona certainly delivers when it comes to combat.

   Anyone accustomed to picking between "Fight" and "Magic" will be blown away by the options here. Each character is equipped with a gun, a medieval weapon such as an axe or a bow, and a persona. Different weapons and guns have various attack ranges and styles, and a persona's skills can be anything from healing abilities to magic attacks to physical strikes to status changing skills. There are four different types of magic, each with four subtypes, yielding a total of sixteen different magic affinities. A persona is likely to have skills for just one or two subtypes, but when each party member can have up to three personas equipped, and there are five party members, the available attacks are quite diverse. Combat takes place on a fixed grid, so melee attack range, gun attack range, and magic that affects a set area all impact which enemies can be targeted by which attacks and which characters. When all foes in the front line are dead, the back row moves forward and into easier attack range.

   While the choices are numerous, combat is not quite as complicated as it sounds. Generally an enemy immune to something important like guns will be weak to many other types of attacks. Most foes are weak to several subtypes of magic — for example, an enemy might repel all elemental attacks including fire, ice, wind, and earth, but then be weak to all force attacks including electricity, nuclear, gravity, and blast. Monsters' strengths and weaknesses can be checked with an easy press of a button, and if the player sets the party in a good formation, any character should be able to do damage to at least one foe. Because skills are tied to the equipped persona rather than the character, the player will experience the whole wide variety of attacks and spells over the course of the game.

Eight subtype weaknesses and no strengths? No problems indeed. Eight subtype weaknesses and no strengths? No problems indeed.

   But even with an engaging battle system, sometimes encounters need to be skipped, and Persona offers one of the coolest, most original alternatives to selecting "Run" in any RPG. While monsters will merrily pound the party into goo, they are often talkative and do not mind shooting the breeze. Any time before or during battle, the party can start a conversation with the enemy. Each character has four different ways of initiating contact with a foe, and a brief summary of the monster's personality is displayed beforehand. If a monster has a happy personality, it might work best to have a party member dance for him. If the foe is haughty, act haughty and it might be amused. The result of each conversation is displayed on the screen via a color-coded chart. Either the scared, eager, happy, or angry tab will fill after each action, and when one of them maxes out, all talking with that demon will end. A fully scared demon might run away. An angry one might get in a cheap blow. A happy one might give the party experience and leave. An eager one will give away a spell card with the demon's name on it, making that type of demon friends with the party for as long as the card is owned.

   There is a lack of absolutes in that description because demon negotiations are affected by the constantly changing moon phase. What makes a demon angry today might make it scared tomorrow. It adds a high level of randomness to negotiations, giving them a fun, carefree feel. For a genre largely grounded in cold repetition, the negotiations feel like a lighthearted, marginally predictable series of trial and error tests made amusing by the silly dialogue featured in the interactions. The best rewards come from maxing out a demon's eagerness and happiness, with some other odd things occurring if a demon is both happy and scared, or scared and angry, and so on.

   The fusion system in Persona is very similar to the ones in recent Shin Megami Tensei games. Two spell cards, which can only be obtained via negotiations in battle, are combined to create a persona. A newly created persona starts at level one with only one skill. As abilities are used, it gains ranks and new skills. The skill progression is set for each persona and displayed to the player before the fusion takes place. It takes a significant amount of time to max out a persona's rank, but the benefits are a powerful skill to use right away, and a gift for the party when the persona is eventually deleted. There are some advanced strategies related to the compatibility of certain cards, special skills that kick in when a character has low HP, and super strong personas which can only be created with rare items. A lazy player can mostly ignore these features, but serious number crunchers and completionists will be delighted by them.

Buy the game to see the second, and only other, frame of animation. Buy the game to see the second, and only other, frame of animation.

   The game's interface, once its most serious flaw, is unremarkable and clean in the remake. Dungeons are first person, tile-based mazes, and a clear, uncluttered automap makes getting lost impossible. Holding down a button allows the party to sprint through the dungeon even faster, but with random encounters happening so frequently, it does not speed up gameplay too much. The best way to speed up the game is to turn off battle animations, which are slow and ugly. Grafted straight from the PSX version, each persona, demon, and party member is a 2D sprite with only a couple awkward frames of animation. Atlus claims to have "refined" the graphics in the remake, and while they certainly are touched up from the PSX version, it is not much of an improvement at all. Everything is identifiable at all times, which is more than can be said for many PSX games, but that is about the only compliment the graphics are due.

   Persona is light on story, emphasizing the combat, dungeon crawling, and setting over actual speeches. What's there is interesting, philosophical, and well-written, but it is not nearly as deep as most SMT games. The characters themselves are very one-dimensional, especially relative to the fantastic character development in Persona 3 and 4. The demon negotiations are where Atlus USA shows its expected humor and creative flair while the party members themselves, though believable as high school students who do not get along too well, are heavily stereotyped and boring. The game has multiple endings and paths, including the Snow Queen plotline that replaces 90% of the game with a lengthy dungeon crawl. Getting the good ending or the Snow Queen quest will require the use of a walkthrough, but this does provide one of the RPG world's better excuses to replay a game.

   While Atlus's top brass might have wanted the remake to only address interface flaws, when the composer is also hired as the remake's director, certain consequences are bound to happen, such as a vastly altered, extremely good soundtrack. Meguro uses a large variety of music in Persona ranging from the vocal-heavy battle theme to a certain boss's absolutely goofy combat music to haunting atmospheric pieces to standard, upbeat tunes. It might not be his greatest work ever, but music appreciation is so subjective that someone could make such a claim and there would be no real argument against it. The only knock is that the vocals in the battle theme are looped too frequently and can get tiresome. Sound effects in the game are unfortunately lacking and might also be copied straight from the PSX version, and there is no voice acting outside of the few anime cutscenes and battle yells.

   Shin Megami Tensei: Persona was so different and unique when it first came out that it still feels like a fresh experience today. The way characters and personas are rewarded experience points based on their combat actions, the way demons are equipped and determine character skills in a manner Final Fantasy VIII wishes it had copied better, and the strange hybrid of a first person dungeon crawler and a JRPG make this one odd duck even by today's standards. Don't like how a battle is going? Just convince the monster to give you experience points and go away. Is one of the party members lagging behind in level? Have him deal the most damage in combat for a while so he gains the most experience. The strategies employed in this game go way outside the standard JRPG box. If anything drags the gameplay down, it would be the obscene encounter rate, and fans of Persona 3 and 4 should be forewarned that Persona 1 has very little in common with those games in terms of gameplay — among many other things, there are no simulation mechanics. But taken as a dungeon crawler-JRPG hybrid, this is certainly an enjoyable game.

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