Shin Megami Tensei: Persona
US: 22 Sep 2009
Re-releases such as Shin Megami Tensei: Persona often have many reasons for reappearing after years in the wilderness. It might be to make a quick cash-in, to further establish a brand and grow its audience, to build hype for an upcoming new release, and finally, for many such as myself who missed out the first time, to play catch up. As I was only eleven at the time of the original release on the PSX (nearly 13 years ago), Revelations Persona (as it was known then) completely passed me by. That and the fact that it was never released in the UK doesn’t exactly help.
The Persona series is one of my favourites and hands down representative of the very best RPGs available on the PS2. Its mixture of a contemporary setting, real life themes and problems, believable characters, sharp, funny, intelligent, and thought provoking dialogue, a dark, brooding gothic atmosphere, the genre mash-up of its soundtrack, and unapologetically weird “Japanese-ness” could teach SquareEnix a thing or two. As a result, I have always wanted to see how things began. Sadly though, my expectations about experiencing all things Persona have been let down by this port.
Of primary interest for me was discovering just how much Atlus had made changes for the original American localization. Changing the primary protagonist from a distinctly Japanese figure to a more westernized character (or for that matter changing another character from Japanese to African American and even going so far as to retool his language as a form of Ebonics), changing names to acceptable American variants, replacing yen with dollars, all of these changes suggested an erasure of any and all Japanese references where possible.
Despite these careful emendations to make the game “palatable” to a Western public at the same time, they equipped the cast of characters, American teens in this instance, with guns such as 9mms, AK-47s, shotguns, rifles, and the like. Had this been a higher profile release, I’m sure that this less than politically correct element of the game wouldn’t have slipped under the radar of critics of games. Regardless, seeing a series so strongly associated with Japan and its culture hidden under a blanket of Americanisms harkens back to the days of Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic/Super Mario Bros. 2. However, it’s also depressing that the West was viewed as being so narrow-minded that it would be assumed that Western players might refuse to play a game with Japanese names. Thankfully, then the original Japanese localization remains intact for the new version.
Being a port of a JRPG from the mid-1990s that was primarily geared towards Japanese gamers new to the PSX era, who, thus, might still find old school RPGs addictive, contemporary players should not be expecting any Persona 3- and 4-levels of user friendliness. Its structure is unashamedly rigid. Random encounters, check. First person dungeon crawling, check. Getting lost in long winded, annoying mazes, a big fat resounding check.
As a result of retaining some of these old school design elements (especially point of view), dungeon delving seems detached from the rest of the game as interaction with NPCs and battles are all viewed from a third person perspective. Movement throughout the dungeons is both awkward, due to the lack of true fps movement (i.e. no strafing or looking up and down), and disorientating. Matters aren’t helped by the constant random battles, which often leave you confused afterwards as you completely forget your original orientation.
Movement in the third person is hardly ideal either due to a strict grid like structure hampering your every step. So, the player’s party is left unable to leave a room, to interact with the environment or to even chat with an NPC unless placed in the correct grid. The fiddly PSP nub only exaggerates the problem further.
The battle system works in much the same way, turn-based tactics served up on a grid. This system involves close attacks with swords and axes, long range attacks using guns, and magic attacks carried out by each individual party member’s persona. However, unless an enemy is in a grid which is within your attack range, your character is pretty much useless. Being able to move around the grid would have resolved this issue, but alas, no such luck.
There are a few nice touches though in this design that differs from contemporary iterations of the series, such as being able to communicate with the demons that you’re battling in the hope of collecting new cards to create even more powerful persona or even getting a tactical advantage in battle as a result of these interactions. But seen in retrospect, a Persona title stripped of its highly acclaimed social link gameplay (as seen in parts 3 and 4) is a soulless, characterless, frustrating, and (quite frankly) often boring experience.
The main differences with the original are purely cosmetic: new FMVs, a new soundtrack, an option of choosing difficulty levels, easier to navigate UI, a supposedly tweaked encounter rate and dungeon design with an all new localization (which is nowhere near the quality of later series entrants). These updates are all well and good, but the gameplay has remained firmly in the PSX era and for players like myself that are accustomed to newer RPG design that may not go far in winning us over to this “updated” version of the game. A modern overhaul would have obviously been too time consuming and expensive, meaning that this port is purely for those who still live 1996.
It is fascinating to see the origins of Persona, the foundations being built for what would eventually become a masterpiece in game narrative and storytelling. The genesis of the ideas and themes that would go on to define the series are evident, yet nowhere near maturity. It is also a welcome reminder of just how far game development has evolved over the last 13 years. But as the old saying goes, “It’s not where you start. It’s where you finish”.