Retro Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona

By: Nathan Velliquette

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona for the PSP varies from the original ’96 American release of Revelations: Persona. The ’96 game possesses ridiculous localizations and troubling game mechanics that bog down the game immensely. I guess the localization team decided Americans couldn’t handle the idea of there being other countries outside of their own. It is safe to say that our gaming society now is more receptive to foreign entities than they were thirteen years before SMT:P’s release so that they can experience SMT:P in its original Japanese glory.

 I have a hard time seeing how the early Persona series spawned such a large following in the states. The game lacks standard features that make most RPGs more entertaining and effective. As you play through this game, taking only a couple steps will usually instigate a random encounter. This perpetually turns dungeons into tedious and frustrating gauntlets that end with an even less satisfying boss battle. This is thanks to a lack of quality storytelling that I was lead to believe Atlus is so well known for. So as you play through this gauntlet, waiting for more exposition and explanation, you receive a few quick shallow remarks from party members in random rooms mid-dungeon where Atlus decided to give you the opportunity to speak with them. Why not take those opportunities to develop their personalities? Sure, you get a few lengthy scenes of dialogue but the story is relatively bland and thin-layered.

 A couple of high school students partake in a Japanese version of saying Bloody Mary three times in a dark bathroom. Upon doing so, they unlock spirits called Personas that represent their deeper emotions and accidentally fill Japan with angry demons. Or so it seems. Turns out there is an all evil corporation behind these sudden demonic appearances and the students must stop it with their new found powers! Sadly, what could have turned out to be a set of interesting characters turns out to be a bunch of flat archetypes that add nothing to the game. Oh well.

The combat system saves SMT:P from being a total borefest. Being able to change up characters’ skill sets by swapping out Personas mid-battle adds a level of complexity that you don’t find too often. It feels similar to Pokemon. Also during combat, selecting “contact” gives the player the ability to talk to their enemy in an attempt to intimidate or appeal to them. Each enemy has four emotions shown in the top left corner of the screen: angry, eager, happy and scared. Depending on the demon’s personality type, the player must select the correct action from one of their party members to evoke their desired reaction from it. If they fail, the demon becomes angry and in retaliation will potentially affect the player negatively. What keeps this interesting is that every demon type has its own unique set of personalities which with any number of combinations. Because of this, the player must consider them all together in order to pick the correct action. If the player succeeds, the demon can respond in various different levels of rewards. This feature gives the game a quirky option to what would have been a daunting experience. The insults hurled between demons and party members during Contact sequences can be pretty funny in such a bleak and agitating world.

I feel it is necessary to mention Persona creation even if I personally don’t believe it’s worth the effort unless you are a collection bug. It is a complex and involved system that requires you to acquire ‘Spell Cards’ from demons that you successfully “contact.” Not only does this ward them off when encountered later, but allows the player to use a combination of any two spell cards to create a new Persona. Using various consumable items to alter stats and spells, no two Persona will be the same. This mechanic is very important to progress further into the game but ultimately becomes a sort of item equipping process that makes a character’s Persona do more damage. Interestingly however, each Persona has its own set of attacks so a player must swap one set for another so they can lose vital moves that their initial party formation had established. Sadly, this makes combat all the more aggravating.

And speaking of aggravating, the soundtrack only helps accent the sensation. At first, the remastered soundtrack seems new and refreshing due to its inclusion of vocals. But SMT:P has taught me how important it is to leave out vocals in your primary tracks. What was memorable for “One Winged Angel” is downright annoying for the combat and overworld music. Maybe it’s the fact that there are only three main tracks, but it also could be due to the composer Shōji Meguro’s style choice. Rather than having situation appropriate music, he opts for the J-Pop tracks that made Persona 3 so popular. This problem only escalated this player’s negative feelings towards the experience. If there weren’t so many random battles or the need to traverse the same overworld constantly, the music wouldn’t get old so quickly.

SMT:P is disappointing on many levels, especially in retrospect. The vast knowledge invested in various religious mythologies that are manifested into the game are lost thanks to the lack of detail in characters. On top of that, there is not much reward in any of the player’s endeavors. I appreciate difficult games, but this one doesn’t exactly throw you a bone unless you invested countless hours into it. These many issues make the game easily passable. Luckily, for those who feel like they would miss out on story by not playing a series in order, you can relax. Other than similar thematic ideas, there is only a small continuity which seems more like fan service than anything else. If only we could merge Revelations: Persona’s superior soundtrack with SMT: Persona and tune down its random encounter rates. In that case, I might’ve been able to look past the weaker story and characters because then I wouldn’t feel like I was working rather than playing a game.

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