Review: Where being a teenager is apparently quite dangerous
By RPG standards, the Persona franchise exploded onto the scene in 2007 when Persona 3 released, taking advantage of the lack of competition on the PlayStation 2. 2008's follow-up Persona 4 earned even greater appeal and notoriety, and suddenly, what was a sub-franchise within the greater Shin Megami Tensei universe became the cornerstone of it. Using the newfound popularity to its advantage, Atlus has gone backwards in time and revisited what was an obscure pre-Final Fantasy VII PlayStation title ? Revelations: Persona. Rebranded with the Shin Megami Tensei name, Persona for PSP is a second chance for a game that was bogged down by many of the problems typical of localization in the Dark Ages. Updated graphics, spruced up visuals, a redone soundtrack... and most importantly, a vastly improved script and access to part of the game that, instead of being localized properly, was completely cut off from the player unless you had a cheat device, and even that led to a series of errors and terrors. Though this game is a far cry from the modern Persona games, it's still an interesting and mostly fun look at the origins of the Persona franchise.
Persona follows the exploits of a band of teenagers who are out to save their city from demons and stuff. You know, the usual high school activity. Beginning at St. Hermelin High School, the party is playing a kids game called ?Persona?, when suddenly all hell breaks loose and they're all knocked unconscious. When they awake they wind up actually getting Personas to help them fight demons and shadows that have taken over the city of Lunarvale. Responsibility for this disaster is pointed towards the sinister SEBEC corporation, and the goal of the party is to ultimately shut them down and return things to normal, or at least that's how things seem. In addition, one can actually splinter away from this core quest to tackle an even tougher challenge, that being the Snow Queen. In the original game, it was hidden away from the US release, but Atlus has translated it fully this time around, and even veterans of the original game will find something new to play. The Snow Queen is more difficult than the main game, thus it's something for expert players only, making it a good choice if you wish to replay it.
Persona has a lot in common with the old Megami Tensei and early Shin Megami Tensei games in terms of style. Exploration of dungeons is completely first-person, and all the dungeons are very maze-like; it's not odd to see long hallways that lead to nothing in office buildings, for example. Whoever designed the place is an idiot, yeah. Controlling your character through these places can be an exercise in annoyance, but at least in a turn-based RPG it's not a game killer. Speaking of, battles take place in a three-quarter overhead space, with up to five party members at a time engaging. It's actually a grid-based system; some characters can reach places others can't unless they use magic. It offers a nice bit of strategy for taking down enemies instead of just randomly attacking stuff. For the PSP version, the option to cut down on the battle animations comes in handy; these games had long, drawn out attacks and it's the same here by default, but they can be shut down to make battles much faster, a good idea for a portable game. The downer is these random battles are far too frequent in classic Megaten style, so the bulk of any dungeon crawling is a constant series of battles.
The big key to Persona is, well...Personas. Unlike Persona 3 or 4, where you can earn Persona cards in shuffles, the only way to earn them is through negotiation, which means engaging enemies in the thrilling game of talking. By figuring out their tendencies by having all the characters use their own quirks in various ways (Mark busted a move!), you can begin wooing them your way, and long as you're careful to not mess it up, you'll be able to acquire their spell card. You can't use the spell card right away, but you can acquire them. To use them, you have to visit the Velvet Room, home of Igor...but no Margaret. Bummer. Anyway, going to that long-nosed fellow lets you equip the spell cards ? tied to specific characters ? or fuse two together to make an even more powerful Persona. If you've played the newer games, this is pretty familiar, as it's been retooled to be more like it. At least, it is compared to Persona 2 which was even more complicated. In addition to the Velvet Room, you can visit the shopping areas within the town to buy medicine, weapons, armor, and the like, as well as hit up the casino. Oh the horror, underage kids gambling!
What has to be kept in mind is while the Persona remake was obviously designed around going after the new fans earned with Persona 3 and 4, the game has very little in common with them. There's no day-to-day high school life, just a typical city-to-dungeon progression. Thus, no social links, no life simulation aspects, no homework. In fact, Persona feels really old even in 2009; as it's not a complete remake, it still carries the hallmarks of the days before cinematic RPGs, which can be a good thing or a bad thing. The remake was rebalanced to make things a little easier compared to the original PS1 release, as it only gets really difficult towards the end of the game. But the slow pace, few moments of story, a plodding battle system (if you don't speed them up), maze-like dungeons that have no real rhyme or reason to their design, and the lack of many extras (aside from the Snow Queen) are the kinds of things that probably most appeal to old-school Japanese RPG players who miss those days. Modern players will appreciate the lack of dragons, knights, and castles (it was insanely unique even back in 1996), as the city universe is interesting and even the dungeons are not the typical underground caverns but instead schools, offices, and zombie police departments. Oh yeah, zombie police.
Though Persona is a remake/enhanced port, the game is not top-notch visually. Sure, it's nice they brought back the original character designs and portraits after ?westernizing? the original game, but the character sprites are small, and sometimes it's hard to figure out who is who. The enemies are the same, but in some kind of miracle, you can point out characters that appeared in the PS2 era Shin Megami games. Dungeons are...ugh. Repetitive terrain with hallways that lead to nothing is one thing, but they tend to all look alike. Having a map is nice, but it only raises things from ?infuriating? to ?obnoxious? as you traverse them. At least the animated cutscenes are very nice, but they're rare occurrences, like the anime scenes in the newer games. One thing that did get a huge remake is the soundtrack, which sounds a lot more like the modern games, especially Persona 3 which had a more urban, poppy soundtrack. There's little voice acting; mostly the battles have random chants of ?Persona!? when attacking. However in an improvement over the Japanese version, the animated cutscenes are fully voiced, which are done nicely.