PSP Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona

Originally released for the PlayStation back in the heady days of 1996 – a time when men wore sweater-vests and Pauly Shore’s Bio-Dome took the box office by storm – Revelations: Persona gained a cult following, but arrived in the US in sloppily-localised form (and never reached Europe at all). The dialogue was a cringe-worthy mess of typo-riddled Engrish, a large chunk of the game was removed and the ethnicity of a notable character was altered from Asian to African-American in an effort to appeal to the Western market.

The series went on to find an infinitely larger fanbase with the release of the sublime Persona 3 and 4, prompting the creative geniuses at Atlus to return to the original game and give it a full-body massage of loving attention, re-releasing it for the PSP with more accurate, faithful and coherant translation. With the addition of spiffy CG cutscenes, new music from the Persona 3 soundtrack team and all the deleted content added back in, Western gamers now have a chance to play the franchise-starter the way it was intended, with an added lick of paint, as it hits the PSP (its first time being released in the UK in any form).

Persona opens with a group of high school students playing a seance-type game called – you guessed it – ‘Persona’. They assume it’s all bunkum and childish urban legends until the phantom of a young girl appears and a handful of the group fall unconscious. Not long after they awake, the dead start to rise and the city is closed off, besieged by demons. Luckily though, the kids woke up with the gift of Persona – an ability that allows them to conjure up powerful manifestations of their inner psyche to aid them in their fight against evil. Together they’ll kick much demonic ass in hopes of finding the root of the undead uprising and save the town from certain doom.

Sadly, the first thing you’ll notice about Shin Megami Tensei: Persona is just how ugly it looks. After a gorgeous new opening title sequence scored by a lovely new track by Persona 3 & 4 songstress Yumi Kawamura, as we creep into the game proper, things become significantly more dated. Like seeing Susan Sarandon in HD, some things just don’t hold up under close modern scrutiny no matter how well they might’ve aged.

Scratch the surface, though, and Persona is much like that sweater your grandmother knits you every Christmas: it might be an eyesore that you hold onto out of a sense of sentimentality or family loyalty, but try that thing on and you’ll find it fits like a glove and keeps you toasty warm through the long winter nights, even if it does itch occasionally. Beyond the murky, dated graphics lies a game that still holds countless hours of quality RPG entertainment and toys with gameplay mechanics that still feel fresh and unique even today.

The majority of Persona is played in a retro RPG style much like the Wizardry games, or Eye of the Beholder; you’ll wander corridors and dungeons from a first-person perspective, able to turn 90 degrees to the left or right or walk forward a quick, hefty step at a time. Entering doors will shift to a more isometric view of the room you’re in, where you can walk around, chat to whoever might be around or open any stray boxes in search of hidden goodies.

Controls are simple and effective, though can be a tad awkward from the overhead isometric view, where pushing left actually moves you diagonally north-west, and so on. Those familiar with the original release will be happy to know that the world map has had an overhaul – no longer an incomprehensible pixel explosion, Atlus have retooled the map into a clear and attractive Google Maps-style system where you walk ‘on rails’ along the streets. Also handy is that your previously-trodden path lights up on the mini-map as you explore buildings, with cute fading footprints appearing on the map as you walk, which cuts down on the chances of getting lost in generic-looking environments.

Unfortunately, unlike Persona 3 and 4, you can’t detect enemies on the map or see them coming – all battles are random, and pop up with alarming, often frustrating frequency. Ever tried to walk through the city centre to get some shopping done, but while you’re on your way with a clear purpose and destination in mind, people will simply stop dead in their tracks in front of you for no reason whatsoever, while salesmen and market researchers swarm you on the street every few seconds like locusts to prevent you from your goal? That’s the frustration you’ll feel as random battles swamp you both on the world map and in dungeons, often only after a couple of steps.

Considering how frequently it pops up, then, it’s helpful that the battle system is one of Persona’s massive strong suits. Familiar to anyone who has played the more recent Persona entries, battles are turn-based affairs all about summoning the Persona of your character and using its unique spells and attacks to exploit the enemy’s elemental weaknesses. You can attack blindly with a versatile range of attacks, of course, but it pays to figure out that, say, an enemy is vulnerable to ice attacks, then use a Persona that can deliver such a spell. Weapons can be equipped alongside your Persona, too, as you carry both a melee weapon and a gun.

Less familiar to Persona 3 and 4 players will be the battle formation system. Each character and attack has a certain range, so characters on the right of the battlefield might not be able to hit enemies to their far left, while certain weapons might only be able to hit near or far enemies, depending on their range. When choosing your character’s attack, a grid will be highlighted on the battlefield to show which enemies fall within your attack range. Changing the formation of your characters becomes an essential way to gain the upper hand in combat, and adds an additional layer of depth and versatility to a great battle system. With your group consisting of a party of five (none of whom are Matthew Fox or Scott Wolf, sadly), there’s always a wide array of weapons and unique skills to work into your strategy, making things that much more diverse and fun.

That’s not all the game has up it’s sleeve, though. Persona 3 and 4 players will notice a couple of obvious absences – the wonderful Social Links system hadn’t been invented yet, and there’s no end-of-battle card shuffle to gain a new Persona. Instead of winning added Personae at the end of fights and forging friendships and sparking romances to strengthen them, you’ll now need to negotiate with the enemy to gain those cards. You can stop at any point in battle to talk to your adversary, with a range of conversational stances, ranging from angry to seductive, all of which can alter the enemy’s status. Patronise an intelligent enemy and you might anger them, bully a timid demon and they may flee from battle, but encounter a playful elf and stare seductively at her and you could sway her affections enough to gain her spell card. It’s a bizarre, yet incredibly fun and brilliantly original system that also doubles as an added escape route from battle.

Stepping past the battle system, you’ll find that Persona holds a fantastic, involving story. While it lacks the charm, heart and character of Persona’s latest iterations, there’s still glimpses of it, with the entertaining option to wander the school, hearing random gossip as you chat to students. The story itself has aged gracefully, proving to be completely engrossing, wonderfully surreal and often creepy, offering up a wealth of alluring mystery and riveting plot to fuel your interest. With a lengthy main quest, a spiffy new translation and the substantial added optional ‘Snow Queen Quest’ adding a huge dose of replay value, it’s more enjoyable than ever to experience.

Unfortunately Shin Megami Tensei: Persona’s retrospective failings are to a large extent a by-product of just how wonderfully the series has evolved since, and after playing the later games, their added perfections, additions and tweaks feel noticeable in their absence here. The dated graphics and punishing amount of random battles can grate, and might mean that it’s a game more suited to hardcore RPG fans and series faithfuls than the casual fans who came on board for Persona 3 and 4. But for those able to look past the game’s less-than-beautiful visuals and difficulty foibles, Persona is an excellent old-school gem, packed with a riveting story, some truly original gameplay elements and a complex, deep and incredibly entertaining battle system. Atlus’ added makeover may not be the full facelift it could have used, but the necessary nips and tucks mean that Western fans of the series are finally getting a great game in its complete and faithful form, and one well worth their time.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona is now available in the UK on PSP, exclusively for download from the PlayStation Network.