Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona

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As I have said in the past, one of the great things about the PSP (and also the DS) is that it gives me a ‘window into the console world’ as a non-console gamer. There are many great console games that I have missed through the years and have finally been able to experience through handheld game systems, such as the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series. Another is the Persona series, which I have just started to remedy with the release of the original game on the PSP. One interesting thing with these classic ports is that you know that the ‘game is good’ but because of the vagaries of time and advances of games themselves, it is hard to know if what lands on the handheld will be a good game. Understand? Probably not, so read on!

Persona was a PS1 game released in 1996, but apparently the series has been a ‘slow-burner’ in North America, not getting much mainstream attention until later games in the series. The series has always been popular in Japan, but apparently much of the disregard for the Persona franchise stateside has to do with the sorry state of release for the original: characters were changed, quests were eliminated, mythologies were lost, and so on. Evidently the game suffered through genericide before release, which actually makes it pretty amazing that subsequent games ever saw a North American release.

Fortunately all has been restored in this lovingly handled Atlus re-porting of the original game. And while there are some issues, Atlus made all of the right choices in bringing Persona to the PSP, making it a game with flaws that I highly recommend.

Make no mistake – this is a 13-year old game, and looks every bit that old. I have heard that things have been tweaked to look better, but this is still a port of an old PS1 game, which is obvious throughout. There is plenty of variety in the settings you will travel through and inside dungeons, yet within each area there is a dreadful sameness that brings a tedium to exploration at times. Actually, it wouldn’t be so bad without the endless stream of random encounters.

Random encounters have largely fallen out of favor, but for many years every console RPG featured a few set battles mixed with seemingly billions of random encounters that provided ‘filler’ as you explored the world. Striking a balance between story, exploration and combat is very tricky, but Persona definitely falls on the ‘heavy’ side of the scale. It has taken me years to build up a tolerance for random encounters, and I’m much better about handling them now, but more than once they got to me and I put the game away for a day before returning.

Combat itself is handled generally by summoning your personae and having them battle enemies. It is a simple enough thing, and by itself can be tedious… but often fighting isn’t the best or only approach. In an interesting feature, you can often speak to your enemies during battle, and depending on which character you use and which of their skills you employ, the results can be quite different. You can gain interest with monsters, for example, which will grant you their Spell Card, gaining you favor with that enemy type and also working towards unlocking new content.

But the looks aren’t the main draw, nor is the combat. Persona struck a nerve with gamers for the interesting characters, intricate storylines, and multiple endings impacted by your gameplay throughout. There are two main storylines, one of which (the Snow Queen) was cut in the original North American release, which are very different in their tone, focus and difficulty. Both stories are worth pursuing – but be prepared to spend many hours on each. The Snow Queen quest isn’t something you simply choose off a menu – you need to work to unlock it, and pursuing it means not going through the standard main quest. I estimate that working through both stories in Persona took me over 80 hours, and there is plenty more to see and do if you want to see both the good and bad endings!

Persona for the PSP isn’t going to win any awards – the graphics are dated and ugly, the random encounter rate too high, and the combat itself can be tedious. But the positives – mainly in terms of teens who are not stereotypical, angsty JRPG characters, and a wonderful depth and variety in the story – outweigh those things. It is a game that I spent tons of hours playing, and don’t regret at all. It isn’t necessarily something I would recommend to everyone – you need to be able to deal with the random battles, for one. But for all fans of classic console JRPGs, if you missed out on Persona before this is definitely the version to get!

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Pros:
+ Fully restored to the original Japanese release
+ Typical Atlus high quality standards
+ Ability to partition what is AI controlled and what you control
+ Tons of content and detail

Cons:
– Graphics look old and ugly
– Too many random encounters

Game Info:
Platform: PSP (available on UMD and PSN)
Publisher: Atlus USA
Developer: Atlus Co.
Release Date: UMD – 9/22/09, PSN – 10/1/09
Genre: RPG
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!