Persona is Atlus' first ever US PlayStation RPG, and, four years after its release, it still stands out as an admirable achievement, even when compared to flashier and more recent offerings in the genre. Featuring a unique RPG setting, strong depth in its admittedly flawed gameplay, and an excellent atmospheric soundtrack, Persona can legitimately be considered among the elite of first-person dungeon RPGs, ranking with Sega's excellent Shining The Holy Ark and Atlus' own Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers as the best of its kind.
Unlike most RPGs, which lean towards a fantasy medieval or highly futuristic setting, Persona takes place in a modern-day city named Lunarvale. There are differences between our reality and that of Lunarvale; one of these is the fact that the supernatural, although not universally accepted, is believed in much more than in our world. This belief extends all the way to the younger members of the community, including teenaged students, which brings us to the beginning of the game.
In Persona, you play as a student (no default name) who attends Lunarvale's St. Hermelin High School. As the game opens, our protagonist is hanging out with a group of friends, who elect to play a game they call "Persona". In this bizarre game, they attempt to summon some sort of spiritual entity and, hopefully, communicate with it. To date, none of them has ever succeeded in doing this, and the particular attempt that the player is privy to turns out to be no different. However, something strange does happen; the students attempting to summon are all suddenly struck down by lightning.
Waking up in the school nurse's office, our heroes find that they seem to be okay, but the school nurse, fearing that they may have suffered neurological damage, sends them to the hospital across town to get checked out. The students don't object; going to the hospital gives them a chance to visit their friend Mary, who's been hospitalized there for some time. Upon their arrival, they rush to Mary's room to greet her and see how she's been. Mary is thrilled to see her friends and appears almost ready to leave the hospital.
However, in the middle of the conversation, Mary suddenly collapses, and a distant scream is heard. The students rush over to aid the distressed victim, and they find that not only is a nurse under attack by some gruesome demons, the halls of the hospital have been completely rearranged. After helping the nurse and escaping from the now-dangerous hospital, our heroes find out that the entire city of Lunarvale has been sealed by some sort of barrier, and that demons are roaming around everywhere. From there, it's up to them to discover Lunarvale's supernatural secrets as well as just who is behind this mess.
Persona's storyline gets off to an interesting and exciting start, but it loses some steam as it progresses. The unique premise of the game always manages to keep things reasonably fresh, but the event-based portions of the plot fail to rivet the player after the initial few hours of play. In addition, character development is unimpressive. Although most of the major characters show increased depth as the storyline progresses, they behave rather inconsistently, often suddenly engaging in childish arguments with each other at seemingly random times.
The translation isn't particularly stellar in its quality, but it is adequate. Spelling and grammatical errors aren't overtly abundant, but they are noticeably present. The dialogue flow is uneven, especially with respect to characters' responses to each other, but it fortunately doesn't greatly hinder comprehension of the game's storyline.
Disappointing, however, is the amount of change Atlus elected to make the game undergo in an attempt to appeal to a wider American audience. New names were applied to nearly every single major character in the US version of the game, and one character, Mark, even has a different appearance and ethnicity from his equivalent in the original Japanese version of the game.
Persona's innovation extends to its gameplay, too. At a glance, the RPG does use a fair amount of established RPG play mechanics. Battles are turn-based and randomly encountered. In combat, weapons, spells, and items can be used to attack enemies or aid allies. Like Sega's Shining The Holy Ark, the area maps are played from a 3D first-person perspective.
From there, though, Persona ventures into new territory for RPG gameplay. Unlike most RPGs, where playable characters attack with only one type of weapon, the Persona protagonists can each use both a melee weapon and a gun. Also, magic spells aren't cast directly through the characters; instead, Personas, spiritual manifestations of different facets of a character's inner essence, carry out the magic attacks. The more a particular Persona is used, the more powerful it becomes.
In addition, Persona is the first US-released console RPG in recent memory to utilize significant non-combat interaction with enemies. Each playable character in Persona has 4 different negotiation techniques, and successful negotiation with enemies can cause them to flee, be at a disadvantage in combat, or even give you items, money, or spell cards. These spell cards can then be combined to create new Personas; you get different Personas depending on which two spell cards you decide to fuse together and which items you throw into the mix as well. Persona creation is vital to success in this game; having the right Personas makes progress significantly easier.
Persona also adds complexity to its battles by making each weapon and many spells limited in their range, thereby placing significant importance on character placement. However, this play mechanic turns out to be ill advised, because the attack ranges of weapons and spells in Persona are way too limited and inflexible. Because it costs the entire party's turn to change the placement of any or all of the playable characters, having to do so is a colossal waste of time. Compounding this problem is the fact that when you are surprised in combat (and therefore fighting with a reversed character formation), you have to go out of your way to change your formation back during or after the battle, or you'll be stuck with it until you do so. The constant formation manipulation turns out to be quite tedious and annoying.
Atlus' first US PlayStation RPG runs into other layout problems as well. The dungeons are overtly convoluted, though the auto-mapping and local mapping features help gamers who don't have the time to investigate every nook and cranny in these labyrinths. The top-down world map is on strict rails, and it is slow and tedious to traverse. It doesn't help that for most of the game, random battles are encountered there, too. Also, there are too few save points in the game; at times, you literally have to go for hours between saves, which is both inconvenient and frustrating.
Like its layout, Persona's execution is a bit of a mixed bag. On the plus side, the difficulty balance is excellent, and the encounter rate is just about ideal. However, the RPG plays decidedly on the slow side, due mostly to the fact that commands, from battle orders to menu access, are executed very slowly, with no apparent way to speed any of them up. The game's frequent and lengthy load times compound this problem.
Overall, Persona is quite strong in its control. In the 3D area maps, your party moves responsively in 4 directions and does so at a good pace, though it is somewhat apparent that movement is tile-based. In individual rooms within dungeons, the control scheme is isometric, but the responsiveness is similarly commendable in spite of some collision detection issues. The menus take some time to get used to, but they're ultimately very organized and easy to navigate.
Where Persona's control falters is in the overhead world map. As mentioned before, the 4-directional movement is on strict rails, and it is both unresponsive and blatantly tile-based. It's also annoyingly slow, and the collision detection with background structures is way off.
Persona's greatest weakness lies in its visual presentation. The graphics in the game are generally serviceable, but nothing about them makes them stand out. In terms of area maps, nearly all 3D first-person RPGs are quite lackluster in their backgrounds, and Persona is no exception to the rule. The battles take place on a dull tile base (though the swirling backdrops look nice), and characters and enemies alike are small and relatively lacking in detail. Their animation leaves quite a bit to be desired, too; it's both sparse and lacking in fluidity. In addition, the spell effects are on the weak side. The Personas all use some lighting effects, but their animation is choppy.
The overhead top-down world map fares even worse. The level of detail and coloration here is atrocious; even most 16-bit graphics make it look bad. In addition, the green stick figure icon that represents the protagonists makes me feel like I'm playing the board game Life.
The CG movies scattered throughout the game are also unimpressive, ranking among the worst yet seen in the PlayStation era of RPGs. The movies are grainy, animate poorly, and aren't directed particularly well, making them quite boring to watch. The game's character art is drawn in a relatively fresh style, but it certainly doesn't stand out in its appeal like that of subsequent Persona games.
Fortunately, Persona fares much better with its sound. The sound effects are all full and robust, but the true strength of the sound department is the voice acting. Persona is the first game that I've ever played where I really enjoyed the battle cries in English. Although the characters sound a bit older than they are supposed to be, their well-written lines are delivered with conviction and panache, and the echo that the cries carry emphasizes their fury. To this day, Persona's English battle cries remain unsurpassed.
Persona also features an excellent soundtrack. The score is a good mix of atmospheric, moody themes and dance-driven beats, and it carries solid melodies throughout. Most impressive are the hard rock-based boss themes, which are really intense and feature some brilliant melodies.
In spite of some significant gameplay and visual weaknesses, Persona is one of the best 3D first-person RPGs available, and it offers a fresh and innovative experience for RPG fans who want a change of pace from the fantasy settings of the bulk of RPGs in existence. As long as you're willing to spend some time getting to know it, this one's recommended.