I’m aware that this is the second PSP-related article I’ve done in a row. Also note that I’ve used normalized caps for the title. Don’t know what I was thinking in the past; hopefully I can break that habit.
So anyways. Our story tonight – or morning, or afternoon, or whenever – started a little over 13 years ago with an experimental game in a face-meltingly popular RPG franchise. No, I’m not talking about Final Fantasy. It would be another year before Final Fantasy VII would finally convince the suits that American gamers could accept an unadulterated Japanese RPG without their heads imploding.
The game I’m talking about is Megami Ibunroku Persona – Be Your True Mind for PS1. If the word Megami in that title tipped you off, yes, this is a Shin Megami Tensei game we’re talking about here, and if you spotted the word Persona in there as well, you’ve probably figured out that this is the Persona, as in the prequel to the frustratingly Japan-only (but recently fan translated) Persona 2: Innocent Sin, the famous Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, the much-discussed Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and the truly epic Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4.
It’s back. It’s on PSP. And it’s better than ever.
Megami Ibunroku Persona has long been in need of a remake for one simple reason: the version they gave us the first time was unspeakable.
The year was 1996, nearing the end of the dark ages but still very much in them, and Atlus decided to take a risk launching its Shin Megami Tensei franchise in the U.S. under the “Revelations” banner. Megami Ibunroku Persona was chosen to be the flagship title for this ambitious effort, and it was localized and released for the U.S. under the title Revelations: Persona.
At this point it should be noted that there are three things the Shin Megami Tensei series is famous for: copious mythological references, relentless difficulty, and Japanese setting. Atlus made sure to address all three of these issues. The game’s bestiary is an uneven mix of spot-on translations (hey, even a broken clock…), blatant mistakes and just plain nonsense. The encounter rate was reduced and enemies were weakened, while EXP gains were increased. (Curiously, cash gained from battle was unaffected, so money became harder to accumulate.) As for the Japanese setting, they not only Americanized all the character names (with ridiculous results; corrupt corporate executive Takahisa Kandori became “Guido Sardenia”), but they also altered all the character portraits (with equally ridiculous results; none of the resulting hair color/skin tone combinations look even remotely natural, and the token comic relief character becoming the token black character reinforces my belief that no one on the project really knew what they were doing). And for reasons that remain mysterious to this day (the official story is that they were up against deadlines), an entire alternate story branch was rendered inaccessible through normal means.
So Revelations: Persona didn’t singlehandedly transform the mainstream perception of RPGs. In fact, the “stupid Americans” who weren’t supposed to be able to appreciate these games consistently hammered Revelations: Persona on its infamous translation. Fortunately, Atlus learned from its mistakes: their treatment of Megami Tensei Gaiden: Last Bible (a.k.a. Revelations: The Demon Slayer) was much improved over their work on Revelations: Persona, and while Sony vetoed a U.S. release of the sequel, Persona 2: Innocent Sin, Atlus still pulled through with its sequel, Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, and when they finally released a main-line title in the series on U.S. shores, Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne (its title unmodified except for removing the “3”), the franchise was pretty much here to stay. Nowadays, it’s ridiculous to imagine an SMT game not coming stateside.
But Revelations: Persona remained a curious blot on an otherwise impeccable track record. So when Persona for PSP was announced for Japan early this year, they wasted no time in announcing it for the U.S. as – you guessed it – Shin Megami Tensei: Persona.
So what is a Persona, and what does it do?
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona is an RPG set in the modern day, in a town in Japan (not America) called Mikage-cho (not Lunarvale). The story starts off with a guy named Hidehiko “Brown” Uesugi (not Brad), who has talked all his friends (including the main character) into playing a game called…drumroll, please…Persona. Which, in this case, happens to be some urban legend that’s supposed to give you a vision of your future self. After Brown talks his classmates into walking around the classroom chanting “Persona, Persona”, nothing happens, and Brown looks like (even more of) an idiot…until a little girl appears out of nowhere, begging for help, and everyone’s suddenly struck by lightning and passes out.
They each have a vision of a mystery man who calls himself “Philemon” (that’s fee-leh-mohn, not fai-lee-mun) and wake up in the infirmary, whereupon they decide to put the curious dream and the Persona game out of their minds and head to the hospital to visit their friend, Maki Sonomura (not Mary), who has been stuck in the hospital for a year. Maki’s holding up, but she’s in awful shape, and shortly after the protagonists arrive, her condition deteriorates and she’s rushed to the ICU. It’s at this time that things get serious, and the entire town is transformed by forces unknown. The ICU itself vanishes without a trace, the hospital becomes a labyrinth infested with demons, and the protagonists’ powers of Persona – the ability to call upon their inner selves, manifested as beings of myth and folklore – awaken, letting them stand and fight against the invaders from another plane of existence.
So what happens next? Another Maki shows up and joins the party, the team chases Kandori (not Guido) to a parallel world where they get menaced by an evil little girl who looks unnervingly like Maki, they face a jealous self-declared rival of Maki who has given in to delusions of godhood, they find Kandori’s stronghold and it turns out that they have to retrieve the key from a good little girl who looks unnervingly like Maki…and it’s not too long after this that the true nature of the parallel world is revealed (though odds are you’ve figured it out already). And this is all on only one of the two story branches.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona’s localization has been completely overhauled: there are one or two “spoony bard”-style holdovers (”Mark danced crazy!”), but SMT: Persona’s translation is now more in line with their more recent efforts, with meticulously-researched mythological references and a solid English script. (Interestingly, unlike SMT: Persona 3 and 4, there are no Japanese honorifics to be found anywhere in the dialogue.) As hinted at above, the infamous Snow Queen Quest is also finally available to U.S. players: hidden in clever fashion (you won’t even realize there’s a fork in the plot unless you’re persistent in your exploration), it presents a detour from the main storyline that explores some of the otherwise-hidden backstory, as well as a fresh new challenge for those who only think they’ve seen everything the game has to offer.
Megami Ibunroku Persona has always been a more experimental entry in the SMT franchise: it’s a midway point between the original Shin Megami Tensei’s gameplay and the more modern style of the later games. Most of the game is spent in first person perspective: the exceptions would be rooms (shops, treasure chambers and the like), cutscenes and battle sequences, which use an isometric perspective (like Super Mario RPG, if you need a famous contemporary example).
Battle sequences are also somewhat nonstandard: rather than a simple “front rank/back rank” system, your five-man party is positioned on a 5×5 grid, which determines which of your allies can attack which enemies (and also which enemies, on a similar 5×5 grid, can attack which allies). Different characters have different weapons and thus different target areas: melee fighters can only attack targets directly in front of them, a bow-and-arrow can only hit targets at long range, spears and throwing knives have a long but narrow reach, and so forth, meaning that without careful placement, you’ll either be changing positions frequently or wasting turns…but with careful placement, you can maximize your party’s ability to consistently deal damage.
For fans of the main-line series, Personas themselves are a somewhat alien concept: rather than recruiting demons to your side, you create “Personas”, which are basically skill and stat sets wrapped in a convenient mythological figure and equipped to your party members. Fans of the later Persona games will find some of the specifics somewhat alien as well: instead of being awarded Personas through a post-battle minigame as per SMT: Persona 3 and 4, you get spell cards through successful demon negotiation. A spell card is basically a ceasefire contract with a particular demon type: if you try to contact a demon while carrying their spell card, they’ll leave the battle peacefully. The other purpose of spell cards, and the more useful one by far, is that you can take them to Igor in the Velvet Room and let him fuse them into Personas. Unlike the later games, you can’t fuse Personas to make new Personas, and additionally, all the party members can freely swap Personas – though they can only choose from a stock of 3 at a time, and different characters have different affinities which limit what kinds of Persona they can equip.
As per SMT tradition, your answers to several questions posed throughout the game will determine what rewards you will reap towards the end – and, in one particular case, whether you can reach the end at all. A good rule of thumb is to always choose whatever sounds more heroic (though there is one case where you will be prompted to fight a boss: in this event, standing down is the right choice).
The game is still unabashedly retro, but there have been several changes made to the PSP version – beneficial changes, unlike the infamous Revelations: Persona. The game has been made much more playable by speeding up the battle sequences and dungeon exploration, and the interfaces have all been given a nice facelift. Controversially, almost all the music in the game has been replaced with a more modern soundtrack by Shoji Meguro: opinions are mixed, especially over the new battle themes, but I personally give it a stamp of approval. (Especially the new battle themes.) An interrupt save feature has also been added to the game, making the special quicksave-only points in the Snow Queen Quest redundant (and thus removed). Since there is still no way to save permanently in any of the towers, this does not affect the challenge of the game so much as the challenge of sitting in front of your system for 12 hours straight trying to clear each dungeon.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona is not a game that plumbs new territory or redefines the genre – its chance for that has long since passed – but it’s nonetheless a solid RPG that richly deserved a second chance. It easily has just as much story as its more famous sequels; perhaps not as much character development (many of the characters, however memorable, fall into predictable archetypes), but the twists and turns the story takes are on par with the cleverness of the later entries. Nothing is as it seems at first. Of course, depending on how much you read into the game’s intro (which prominently depicts Maki), you’ll be able to figure out the big plot twist well in advance…but there are still plenty of surprises to be had.
The retail and PSN versions are both $39.99: the retail version also includes a complete soundtrack for the game, but if you have a PSP Go, the download version is still well worth the purchase. (And if they sell enough copies, maybe they’ll finally break down and get to work on Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 2 for PSP. Not “Innocent Sin” or “Eternal Punishment”…both. On one UMD. It’d be epic…)