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Shin Megami Tensei: Persona
Platform: PSP
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Atlus
Genre: Traditional RPG
Format: UMD
Released: US 09/22/09
Japan 04/29/09
Official Site: English Site



Editor's Choice Award
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Scorecard
Graphics: 87%
Sound: 90%
Gameplay: 90%
Control: 91%
Story: 92%
Overall: 91%
Reviews Grading Scale
 
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Elly, why do hot dogs come in packages of ten but hot dog rolls come in packages of eight?
 
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New anime cutscenes punctuate key plot points.
 
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The overland has received a lovely visual upgrade.
 
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Battles can be quite involved.
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Neal Chandran
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona
09/01/09
Neal Chandran

Megami Ibunroku Persona a.k.a. Revelations: Persona was a very strange yet fun RPG for the Sony Playstation. I happened upon the game by accident, and although I had some trouble getting into it at first, I grew to love it and its parent series Megami Tensei. U.S. audiences are probably familiar with the game's notorious localization that went beyond clumsily written dialogue. The setting was changed from Anytown, Japan (Mikage-cho) to Anytown, USA (Lunarvale). Key references to various world mythologies were pretty much whitewashed. The characters were given different hair colors, complexion colors, and names to be more American, the most notable being Masao "Mark" Inaba's alteration from a Japanese street punk kid in a knit cap to an African-American boy with a baseball cap. But the change that made American gamers really cry foul was the dummying out of an alternate storyline branch called the Snow Queen Quest.

Cut now to the Persona remake for the PSP. The localization is beautifully written to Atlus's current lofty standards and maintains its Japanese-ness, Mark is not black, and the Snow Queen Quest is fully intact, complete with fire-breathing phallus monster and everything. The prerendered overland map is a gorgeous upgrade from the simplistic polygons of before, the environments sport a higher resolution, and there are new anime-style cutscenes at key points in the game with voice acting. Atlus also tweaked the gameplay to include more frequent save points, a quick save feature, and more informative and ergonomic menus. Shoji Meguro composed new music as well, in the Persona 3/4 style, but much of the music remains the same as before albeit with fresh arrangements. In short, this is Persona how it was meant to be localized.

For many fans, everything I have said up to now is all they need to know before going out and buying a copy of Persona PSP. But for the readers who would like a more detailed treatise, please read on.

The story is what drew me to Persona back in the late 1990s. Despite its localization foibles, I was enthralled by the darkly twisted storyline featuring ordinary, modern-day high school kids involved in extraordinary circumstances. I enjoyed the occult underpinnings and the idea of using words rather than swords to make deals with demons to share in their dark powers. Themes such as abandonment and even suicide were explored more introspectively than in other RPGs I had played, such as Final Fantasy VI where those themes first hit many gamers like a sucker punch. I could tell that Persona was not an "innocent" RPG. It was not "safe" like Chrono Trigger. This was something else entirely, and I loved it.

I also loved the characters. Most JRPGs featured teenage protagonists, but the protagonists in Persona felt more like real teenagers that I would have known in high school. The characters also dealt with modern day issues that I could relate to, such as the cool kid putting on a front to hide his insecurities, the preppy kid and punk kid learning to get along despite their differences, the girl who feels unwanted by her corporate slave mother, and many more. Thanks to the upgraded localization, everything I loved about the story I now love even more. Older fans will definitely get the warm fuzzies at nods to the old localization such as "Mark danced crazy" which is Persona's equivalent of "You spoony bard!"

Persona has two story branches: Sebec and the Snow Queen Quest, both of which involve a lot of dungeon crawling. The Sebec branch is the main storyline that most players will undertake. The Sebec storyline is wider in scope than the Snow Queen Quest, and contains a pretty introspective storyline based around a variety of themes. Not only are there themes of the occult, Jungian psychology, and commonly reported content from nightmares (i.e. being lost in familiar places), but also more human themes such as coming to terms with one's inner demons. The journey takes our teenage heroes on a rather sinister and often morose quest through not only the dark side of Mikage-cho and the bowels of the Sebec corporation and its twisted CEO Takahisa Kandori (formerly Guido Sardenia), but also through the dark recesses of an ailing girl's soul.

The Sebec storyline has multiple endings depending on the character chosen early on in the game as the fifth and final party member and on a series of questions posed to the main character late in the game. If even one question is answered incorrectly, the game will play out en route to the bad ending. A single playthrough to the bad ending can take around 50 hours, but a single playthrough to the good ending can take an additional 10-15 hours, leading to an ultimately more satisfying experience.

The Snow Queen Quest is an alternate story branch that was dummied out of the original U.S. Playstation release, but is now here in full force. A specific set of events must be completed early on in the game in order to open up the Snow Queen Quest. This branch is narrower in scope than the Sebec storyline, but no less cool and still very lengthy. The main premise of the Snow Queen Quest is based around the school's most enduring urban legend, which goes a little something like this: There is an old fable about two young lovers, a broken magic mirror, and the vengeful Snow Queen. The school sometimes put on a play based on this story and legend has it that whoever played the Snow Queen and wore the Snow Queen's mask died a horrible death. Most people wrote it off as coincidence, but there are others who still believe that the mask is cursed, and thus it is in storage where no one is supposed to find it. Of course, the main character being the curious sort finds it through some major snooping around and unwittingly brings this urban legend to life. The cursed mask then claims Saeko Takami (formerly Ms. Smith), the protagonists' homeroom teacher, as a sacrifice based on her past involvement with the Snow Queen play when she herself was a student at the school. The school becomes an icy prison with no chance of escape, unless the heroes successfully complete the Snow Queen's dungeon-crawling challenge. The Snow Queen Quest is even more driven by dungeon crawling than the Sebec quest, but the plot elements are intense and quite introspective. Like the Sebec quest, the Snow Queen Quest also has multiple endings based on key decisions made throughout the journey.

The buzz about the Snow Queen Quest sporting a high level of difficulty is completely true. Even on the easiest of the game's three selectable difficulty levels, the Snow Queen Quest will still challenge players. The main task for the party is to traverse a series of lengthy towers to find the 12 shards of a magic mirror that can save their teacher and the school from an icy demise. Each tower must be scaled, all the hidden mirror shards in it found, and its guardian defeated before the in-tower clock strikes 12. There are also no Agastya Trees (save points) within the towers, so players will need to get friendly with the quicksave. In the original release, there were no Agastya Trees in the towers either; only "quick save" save points.

To tighten the vice even more, once the party enters a tower, he cannot exit until the guardian has been defeated, and once the guardian has been defeated, the tower cannot be re-entered. Therefore, everything that needs to be done in the dungeon must be done in one shot. Do not worry, though; as towers are cleared, areas of a dungeon called Devil's Peak open up so players have a place to grind. The first tower starts out easy enough, but subsequent towers throw even more hurt at players. The Thanatos Tower for example is quite merciless, especially when it seals away personas, and players have to recover them on top of scaling the tower, defeating the guardian, and finding the mirror shards within the time limit. Therefore, the Megami Tensei staple of skillfully using every single gameplay tactic available for survival applies tenfold here. Obviously, the Sebec branch is a lot easier but it too is no cakewalk and has its share of challenging dungeons.

The interface and mechanics are very intricate, and with so many systems and subsystems to keep track of, the brand new, more informative, and more ergonomic menus are wonderful. There are some other upgrades from the original Persona, but the systems are still old-school Megami Tensei with a few twists. One cool aspect is that characters can equip both a melee weapon and a firearm. I quite like the idea of characters holding both a firearm and a melee weapon, and this is the only Persona game where characters can do this. In addition to multiple weapon types, there is a staggering array of spells and skills that characters can use. Later Persona games have really pared down the usable spells/skills, so players will notice the additional elemental and non-elemental spells as well as many more status effects, such as "guilty" where a character cannot use weapons. Another key aspect of battle is the quasi-SRPG grid where players must create and use various formations since many skills have a limited effective range. With firearms for example, a pistol has a far different range and hit rate than a machine gun. These aspects add layers of strategy to all battle situations, and players will find themselves micromanaging their characters and strategies a lot more than they do in later Persona games.

But fighting does not solve all problems. Although fighting battles to earn experience is important, it is also important to use communication skills as well. Chatting with demons has always been my favorite aspect of older Megami Tensei games so it felt good to do this again. Each character has four ways to communicate with demons and each affects a demon's feelings of happiness, fear, interest, and/or anger toward that character differently. Interest is the key feeling here, because an interested demon will grant you its Spell Card. Spell Cards not only grant you favor with that kind of enemy, but are the key to unlocking new personas in the Velvet Room.

Igor, the wise master of the Velvet Room, can fuse two Spell Cards and an optional fusion item together to create a new persona. Unlike in Persona 3 and 4 where only the main character could use personas, everyone in this Persona can hold multiple personas and switch between them on the fly. So what are personas? Put simply, personas are the summon spirits used by the characters in the game to wield spells/skills and impart statistical bonuses and defensive resistances. In other words, they are both offensively and defensively vital to survival in the game. This is Megami Tensei after all, games that always require players to think about their defense as well as their offense. Personas earn experience independently of the characters and must be used often to rank up and learn new spells. The amount of experience earned is based on character and persona participation in battle; the less a character or persona participates, the less experience they receive.

In order to gain any experience, however, dungeons must be explored. The serpentine and often very lengthy dungeons are explored in first person. They can sometimes be repetitive and navigation can be difficult, but that is why the automapper is there. Not only does the player need to frequently check the automapper, the moon phase as well. The moon phase affects various gameplay aspects such as encounter rate, demons' willingness to negotiate, and even persona fusions. In other words, players will want to keep their guards up during a full moon.

One complaint people had about the original Playstation release was a severe dearth of save points in the dungeons. Save points occur more frequently this time around (well, in the Sebec quest at least), and the game also includes an auto-save feature. Also occurring more frequently, however, are random encounters. In the original U.S. Playstation release, the random encounter rate was reduced and the amount of spoils earned from battle was increased. Oddly enough, I actually prefer the higher random encounter rate in this version. It gives me more opportunities to chit-chat with demons for Spell Cards and build player and persona levels. In the Sebec branch, I found the dungeon navigation more difficult than the battles, but in the Snow Queen Quest, I found both dungeon navigation and battles pretty hairy.

Speaking of hair, one difference fans will notice is that the character portraits of some playable characters have different hair and even complexion colors. These were altered in the previous U.S. version and now look like the original Japanese versions. The distinct art style of Kazuma Kanenko's character art is quite present here. The rest of the in-game graphics (first-person dungeons with isometric battles and event rooms) look pretty much the same as before, albeit with a much higher resolution. Thanks to higher frame rates, battle animations are much faster than before and there is an option to skip animations entirely. Scrolling through the first-person dungeons is faster and smoother as well, though sometimes movement borders on slippery, especially when the dash button is held.

There are some slick modern upgrades to the graphics as well. The FMV cutscenes from the original have vastly upgraded CG here and they look great. There are also a bunch of brand new anime cutscenes that punctuate the game at key plot points. The brand new opening sequence is quite stunning, has a killer song, and even has nods to the original's opening, but some fans may prefer the more quiet emotional impact of the original's imagery and music. My favorite graphical upgrade is with the overland. Gone is the simplistic, blocky, monochrome grey overland and in its place is a lovely prerendered map like those in later Persona games. Mikage-cho now looks like the homey, small city it is.

The sounds of Mikago-cho are a blend of old and new. Before I get into my assessment of the music, I'll say a couple of words about the voice acting. The all-new cinematic cutscenes interspersed throughout the game are fully voiced and the acting ranges from excellent to so-so. Battle cries are voiced as well, ranging from cool to annoying. The most extensive voice acting comes from the mysterious Philemon, who was the only one with voiced dialogue in the original release. His voice actor back then was all right, but his voice actor now is top notch.

Many of the tunes in the game sound like the original Hidehito Aoki and Kenichi Tsuchiya compositions with crisp new arrangements. There are also some brand new tunes by Shoji Meguro that use modern sonic textures such as the pop-vocals found in the Persona 3 and 4 soundtracks. Although I was initially conscious about not hearing some of the tunes I remembered so well, I soon got over it and allowed the soundtrack to draw me in. By doing so, I found the tastefully streamlined soundtrack to be a happy blend of retro and modern. The classic dungeon themes sound fresh thanks to the new arrangements, and the new battle and boss themes are major improvements over the old ones. I never tired of the new battle theme, which is a big compliment considering how much time I spend in battle. In short, this is a very good soundtrack in which both old and new Persona fans can find something to like.

Persona for the PSP was a killer trip down memory lane with a pair of high-definition rose-colored glasses. The new upgrades made the experience smoother without sacrificing the game's integrity. I was even able to make brand new Persona memories with the Snow Queen Quest. Old school and new school Persona fans should have little to complain about here. Even if some of the music or voice acting is not to your liking, the overall experience is how Revelations: Persona was meant to be. I hope to see Persona 2: Innocent Sin localized in this manner for non-Japanese audiences and a freshening up of Persona 2: Eternal Punishment would rock too. Persona remains my favorite RPG series of the Playstation era, and it was great to not only revisit why I fell so madly in love with Persona and Megami Tensei in the first place, but to completely fall in love all over again.



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