Revelations: Persona, released in late 1996, was one of the earliest RPGs to come out for the Playstation. Part of the popular Megami Tensei series in Japan, Persona was the first of the series to be translated and brought to North America. The game has been out for several years now, and still remains a fun and challenging RPG - though the game's age is starting to show.
"I dreamt I was a butterfly."
The game begins with a group of high school students talking at school. As most students tend to be, the group is bored, and decides to play a game known as Persona - to summon spirits. They are successful, and the spirit of a little girl appears, striking several of the students with lightning. When they awaken, they visit the hospital to be examined and to visit a friend of theirs, Mary. Once at the hospital, all hell breaks loose - and the journey begins. Demons roam the town, buildings mysteriously rearrange themselves, and the mysterious Sebec Corporation has barricaded their property after months of rumors they had been conducting odd experiments. Just what has happened to this small town?
The plot is very satisfying, and rather unlike those in most other RPGs. While the typical "chase the villain" and "uncover the truth" aspects are present, there are many sub-plots present, and the whole game is very philosophical in nature. The questions posed by the game are thought provoking and give the game a feel that is very unlike the norm. It's very refreshing to see a game with a unique setting taking advantage of it, and Atlus succeeded admirably in that respect.
There are about a dozen main characters in the game, and they all are interesting. As the game revolves around a group of high school kids, their viewpoints are interesting, and different than many RPG characters'. There is a central core of 4 characters - the main character, Mary, Nate, and Mark - and a fifth character can be recruited from 4 possible choices. While it's disappointing that there's a lack of real control over who you can have in your party, having 4 guaranteed characters allows for more definitive interactions between them - particularly since there are some definite personality and ideological conflicts within the group. Each character falls into some sort of stereotype, but advances beyond it during the course of the game.
There are two main endings: the "good" and "bad" endings. Your actions in the early part of the game dictate whether or not you'll have access to the "good" ending, which actually unlocks the final third of the game. Furthermore, the ending is slightly customized depending on your choice of the fifth party member, but it's nothing major.
"I couldn't tell I was dreaming."
The graphics are a highly mixed bag. The fact that Persona appeared so early in the Playstation's life span is evident from the town map, which features very primitive polygon houses, roads, and people. Despite the map, the rest of the game is good, graphically, for the era. The dungeons, which are viewed from a first-person perspective, have decent textures (which, unfortunately, are repeated very often). In battle, the characters, monsters, and Persona are animated very well, with monsters having mostly unique animations (despite some cases of palette-swapping).
There are a few CG animations, which are sometimes interspersed with flat portraits of characters and monsters. The contrast between the styles is interesting, and both are nice to look at.
"But when I woke, I was I and not a butterfly."
The music is quite good overall. The dungeon themes are typically ambient and spooky, as are many miscellaneous songs. The battle themes are more upbeat, and the character themes reflect the personalities of each. While not a soundtrack that one would likely listen to outside of the game, it fits the atmosphere perfectly.
Sound effects are good as well. Each person has several sayings that they yell when summoning Persona and attacking, helping to flesh out the characters (though they're not always in the proper context - it's amusing hearing Mary yell "Die!" when casting a heal spell). The spells have unique sounds, and an ice shower sounds much like you'd expect it to. Each character's gun has a distinct sound, from Mark's shotgun blast to the main character's sub-machine gun. While lacking a huge amount of variety, Persona does well with what it has.
"Was I dreaming that I was the butterfly, or was the butterfly dreaming that it was me?"
Persona features some major innovation, particularly in the battles.
One important feature is negotiation - most demons can be negotiated with. Each character has a variety of actions that they can take (the main character can sing, Alana can flirt, Nate can yell, etc). Moreover, enemies may demand items or life energy, and may ask characters questions (with wrong answers angering the demons). Each demon has four types of emotion - anger, joy, fear, and interest. Performing a variety of actions, and answering each demon's questions and demands can alter their emotional state. Results vary - a scared demon may flee the battle. Angry demons can get extra attacks, or intimidate a character into inaction. Most importantly, interested demons can either give the party items, or Spell Cards.
These Spell Cards are key to the game, because they can be fused into different Persona. By visiting one of the game's Velvet Rooms, cards can be fused into different Persona, with varying strengths and weaknesses. Items can also be used during the fusion to give the Persona - and thus the party - new abilities or strengths. Not all Persona can be used by all characters, which enables party balance. As Persona are used, they become more powerful, giving their hosts boosts to statistics, and gain new powers. Level 8 Persona can be deleted for various items, which means that it may be wise to use an otherwise weak Persona to gain a powerful item later.
Range is another consideration. The characters can be set up in various spaces on a 5 by 5 grid. It is difficult to determine where to put each person because the weapon and gun ranges - as well as some Persona attacks - vary. What may be a great position for one character can be bad for others, as they may not be able to hit everything in the battlefield. It's a strategic consideration that can make things more challenging, and while it can be annoying having characters sit idle because they can't do anything, it's a nice feature nonetheless - enemies are under the same range constraints, after all.
There's also some variation in party attacks. Different weapons not only feature different bonuses, but also different numbers of attacks. Some weapons will strike an enemy several times, but may do less damage per strike. Guns in particular are subject to these limitations, as some weapons simply fire more times than others. It's another factor to consider when outfitting your party.
The battles are interesting because of these various innovations. Battle parties can be comprised of several different demon types, and negotiations can be attempted with all (or none) of them. Not only are the standard weaknesses and strengths typically associated with elements in RPGs present, but enemies can also be weak against magic, against physical attack, or strong against guns. Fortunately, enemies you have defeated or have Spell Cards for have their pertinent information stored in a list, which can be accessed during battle - no need to scan enemies or guess as to their weaknesses. With enemies weak against various things, and strong (or reflective) against others, thought must be placed into each character's actions - a single reflected attack can change the course of battle. There's no super-attack that will wipe out everything, and care must be taken to remain strong, yet expand growth with new Persona and weaponry. It's a very fine balance that works very well.
"Even if there's a difference between the butterfly and I, the distinction isn't absolute."
There are some weaknesses in the game, though.
Save spots are few and far between. This problem is compounded by two other problems - very high encounter rate, and the huge dungeons. There are a lot of battles, and many take at least 2-3 minutes to go through. Combine this with dungeons that are as many as ten floors large, and it's quite normal to go several hours between saves.
This also leads to a lot of tension, because these very same save spots are towards the beginning of dungeons - and it's impossible to get back to them without retracing your steps (and spending even more time fighting). There were many cases where I was highly stressed out because I knew that if I died fighting a boss, I'd have to go through the entire dungeon again. It's not a good thing.
Buying items can be annoying, because there's no way of telling which pieces of equipment can be used by each character. Money is very scarce, and it's very annoying when you lose a few hundred dollars buying equipment that can't be used.
Experience is allocated based on how much a person does in combat, but it can be a self-perpetuating cycle. Characters who become more powerful are capable of using more powerful Persona, and are then able to do more in battle - earning them even more experience. Short of spending time exclusively using a few lower-level characters, there's very little that can be done about it - in the end, I had a 15 level discrepancy between my strongest and weakest characters.
Finally, the Snow Queen quest was cut from the North American version of the game, apparently because it was too difficult. It's a shame, because more Persona would have been great - the Snow Queen quest apparently runs about a third of the overall length of the game, and features a character that was sadly neglected during the main quest.
"And there is no relationship of cause and effect."
In the end, Persona is notable for its depth of gameplay and unique plot. The slow pacing of the game may turn many gamers off. There are a lot of factors that must be taken into consideration, making Persona much more complex than most RPGs. It's not even a particularly long game, unless you make a point of leveling up to use some of the more powerful Persona.
While Persona is an old game, it's certainly worth checking out, and it's a unique alternative to most RPGs on the market. It's just a shame that other Megami Tensei games (such as Soul Hackers) haven't made their way stateside, as it's an RPG series that hasn't gotten the credit it deserves.
"Congito ergo sum."