Shin Megami Tensei: Persona – Staff Review

The early PSOne game Revelations: Persona is widely considered to be the victim of one of the biggest localization hack jobs of all time. Besides a lackluster translation filled with poorly conceived attempts at mythological nomenclature, the localization team saw fit to fiddle with the game’s balance, alter character art in order to make the cast appear more western, and even remove whole sections of the game for no readily apparent reason. And so when a PSP port-slash-remake was announced, there was a great sigh of relief in the Western Hemisphere. And, thankfully, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona does indeed improve vastly on the localization of the original game. Unfortunately, with a poorly executed plot, badly balanced combat system, and a mishmash of aesthetic elements, the game lying hidden underneath the piles of meddling heaped on Revelations: Persona isn’t exactly a diamond in the rough.

The game begins with a small group of high school kids playing at a Bloody Mary-style summoning ritual called, ironically enough, Persona. After the ritual succeeds, knocking the group unconscious, they are visited by a mysterious figure who calls himself Philemon. Philemon grants the group the ability to use Personas, a power which is quickly in great demand as their hometown is suddenly and mysteriously walled off from the rest of the world by a strange glowing curtain. They’ll have to contend with corrupt corporations, an alternate world, and a couple of creepy little girls in order to save their hometown.

Persona PSP's automap is extremely useful, but the dungeons still think you're flying blind.
Persona PSP’s automap is extremely useful, but the dungeons still think you’re flying blind.

The overarching plot deals mostly with themes of duality, which is an odd choice for the Shin Megami Tensei series, which usually brands its characters with various levels of moral ambiguity. Given that the game deals with the idea of another self, though, it’s an understandable choice. Unfortunately, the concept is handled a little ham-fistedly, with a rather obvious conflict of good versus evil undermining the more subtle characterization often brought by shades of grey. The events of the story tend to feel a little forced, and the relative lack of character development is a bit of an issue. On the whole, the story isn’t terrible, but neither is it particularly subtle, and it tends to wield the huge blunt axe of moralizing a bit too much.

The combat system is an unusual combination of the turn-based, elementally focused combat that the Shin Megami Tensei series is known for, with the placement and area of effect attacks of a TRPG. Battle itself takes place on a grid, which is divided into the player’s half and the enemy’s half, with the area of effects of attacks stretching into the other side’s field of battle. The player can set up formations before battle and switch between them in combat, and modify those formations manually during combat.

A big problem with the focus on elemental weaknesses is that the Analyze feature doesn’t handle the huge variety of elementals present in Persona PSP very well, to the point where the feature is so inaccurate that it’s frequently misleading. For example, in one of the dungeons midway through the game, there are several monsters which the Analyze feature will say are weak against gunfire. However, what it neglects to mention is that different kinds of guns are in fact different elementals unto themselves, leaving the player to fumble around trying to figure out which of the four Gun types Analyze was actually referring to. Now, on the one hand, providing a reference without giving the player a gold-plated neon pointing finger from God isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but given that Analyze gives direct answers to most elemental weaknesses, the occasional inaccuracy stands out more as an error than an intentional design choice.

Persona PSP‘s biggest balance problem isn’t the inaccurate Analyze feature, however, but rather the way in which it distributes experience points. In a nutshell, characters are awarded EXP based on how much damage they deal in combat. Besides the fact that this makes it exceptionally difficult to use any defensively-minded Persona without falling behind in levels, this setup makes it practically inevitable that one character will become absurdly overleveled while the rest of the party suffers from EXP starvation. This is thanks in large part to the game’s focus on elemental properties, since equipping one character with a Persona that is particularly effective for an area means they’ll be getting the lion’s share of EXP from that area. Now, a player could simply equip lower leveled characters with especially effective Persona for each area, basically dictating who gets the most EXP from an area, but this requires intimate knowledge of each area before going in. Players going through the game for the first time are likely to get stuck with one or two Supermen, backed up by three Lois Lanes.

Perhaps in an attempt to update the somewhat outdated aesthetic elements of Revelations: Persona, Persona PSP mixes in new visuals and music with the decidedly old-school style of the original game. Visually, the majority of these additions are in the form of new cel shaded cutscenes, as well as a new opening sequence and menu design. These new elements tend heavily towards the pop art style of the more recent Persona games, which causes a bit of a visual disconnect. For example, combat still plays out on the isometric battlefield of the original, complete with cheesily distorting background image and somewhat muddy sprites. However, the battle result screen, where players are awarded EXP, money, and items, is a crisp contrasting mix of black and grey stars. There is a constant clash between the sleek design of the new visual elements with the confused, muddy design of the original game, leading to an inconsistent overall visual style.

A lot of this inconsistency is also present in Persona PSP‘s soundtrack. Like the visual style, the soundtrack takes elements of the original game and mixes it with newer elements, which are designed more with the modern pop art sensibilities of Persona 3 and 4 in mind. And again, like the visual style, the more modern elements clash rather badly with the original ones. Revelations: Persona had a rather traditional soundtrack, focusing largely on deep, foreboding orchestral music, making it very easy to tell which songs are new and which are old. Taken individually, the pieces of music that make up the soundtrack are quite good, solidly composed and effective in backing up their scenes. However, going from area to area can be rather jarring, with the heavy pop guitar of the overworld theme giving way to a strings-and-organ dungeon theme.

Monster and character design tend to be a bit more simplistic than normal SMT fodder.
Monster and character design tend to be a bit more simplistic than normal SMT fodder.

Persona PSP‘s final time to complete can vary pretty wildly. The game offers three different endings; the good ending is available by answering certain personality questions about 20 hours into the game correctly, an odd requirement for a game in the Shin Megami Tensei line. Answering them incorrectly will get you the bad ending, which presents a bit of a poser; these personality questions are between 5 and 10 hours back from the point where the game can potentially end. It’s very easy to unintentionally get the bad ending and have to replay most or even all of the game in order to rectify your error. The third ending, on the other hand, is an odd bird. About midway through the game, the player has the chance to start an extremely lengthy side quest called the Snow Queen quest, which offers its own plot, cast of characters, and ending. This side quest will be new to the vast majority of gamers, since it was inexplicably removed from Revelations: Persona. It’s also significantly more difficult than the normal path through the game, and a bit longer as well. Where a run through the normal plot would take between thirty and forty hours, the Snow Queen path takes about fifty to sixty.

In the end, the localization debacle of Revelations: Persona may be one of the biggest ironies in all of gaming. The localization team, faced with a poorly balanced and often confusing game set in a country that would seem so far alien to players of the time as to be impossible to relate to, set out to repair the balance and make the game more easily accessible for western gamers; in short, to improve the product they were given. However, by fiddling with the encounter and EXP rates rather than the means by which EXP is doled out, they managed to make the game less balanced rather than more, and by retooling the characters to appear more western without altering the setting, they managed to pierce suspension of disbelief far more than the original Japanese setting would have done. However, without any meddling from third parties, Persona PSP reveals itself as a poorly constructed mish-mash of elements without any solid guiding principles. With a poorly conceived and executed combat system, a clumsily written story, and a fractured art style, Persona PSP‘s far more faithful take on the game is ultimately just as unsatisfying as the first version we received.

This game was played to completion using a publisher-provided review copy.

One Comment

  1. Der Jermeister:

    Good review. Pretty much sums up my experience with the original.

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