Revelations: Persona is Atlus’ first RPG to appear on the Sony PlayStation. Part of the Megami Tensei series in Japan; Persona is a unique role-playing game with many innovative features and strong Japanese influences. A game of complexity and dark themes, Persona has become an underground legend in North America and one of the most underrated games ever. Its sequel is underway and many fans of the first are hoping it will also appear over here.
“Not your everyday high school.”
The worlds of light and darkness have collided, and it isn’t safe in the city of Lunarvale anymore. Mysterious men in suits roam the streets; machines squeal from somewhere underground and the spirit of a little girl dressed in black is haunting the company of Sebec. The president of Sebec is Guido Sardenia, and it is rumored that he is the power behind these disturbing changes.
You are a fairly popular student at St. Hermelin, the local high school. You and your friends have discovered a new game called Persona. Like a Ouija board, it is a ritual to summon spirits of the undead. While the game has never worked before, it is still thrilling to think that it might. One day while playing between classes, something unusual happens. A ghostly image of a little girl in white appears after playing the game and cries for help. Before your senses register the bizarre scene, you and three of your friends are struck by a mysterious stroke of lightning. You awaken after a strange dream in the school infirmary, completely unharmed. You and your friends try to explain away the event and the strange dream that all of you shared. Little do you know that this is only the beginning of what could be the end of everything. The darkness is soon to be set free and only you and your friends can stop it and save those you hold dearest.
Persona’s story is extremely original and has a wealth of depth. The characters are interesting and easy to get attached to. They all fall into the usual stereotypes of high school kids such as snob, princess or rebel. This style works for a group of high school kids because it is in high school where we learn to be less of an individual and more of a statistic. The wonderful part of the character development is that we get to see the characters move beyond these categories into a maturity that is forced onto them. They get the chance to find themselves by being faced with mortality, and the chance to see something beyond the surface in their comrades. All the hardships of high school life are found to be shared hardships, and true friendships can be formed with this understanding. It’s only this togetherness that can save them all.
The plot also features a number of twists and powerful moments that will grab you emotionally if you let them. While the main plot twist is somewhat predictable, the way it is handled makes it very strong. The only real fault in the story besides the occasional unanswered question is the translation. It is clear that this is an early effort by Atlus whose latest translations have been some of the best in the business. Persona has some very troublesome localization difficulties created by the very strong Japanese influences in the game. Trying to localize the large amount of Japanese slang is a monumental task and some glaring errors are left over. It only really hampers the game during negotiations with demons, which is a key to the game play. The actual intention of some dialogue can be confusing, but trial and error will work out eventually. There are also a number of guides on the net that can help with demon negotiations.
Overall, I found Persona’s story to be riveting and highly original. There are 5 possible endings, with two major endings. It will remind you of high school if you’ve graduated or are still going. The themes can hit very close to home and it is a story that most of us can relate to on some level. The characters stay with you long after it is over and you will find yourself caring for them more than you do in most games. They aren’t super heroes or warriors, just high school kids placed in a situation beyond their control. It is their actions alone that are heroic, and their bonds with each other that make them special. This makes the game a very personal experience.
The graphics in Persona can be separated into three separate categories, as well as three different levels of quality. There are the overhead 3D walking scenes of the cityscape, the pseudo 3D first-person corridor dungeon sequences and the 2D story and battle scenes.
The overhead 3D scenes are made up of plain polygons and are rather uninspired. They are mainly for getting from one part of the city to another and providing a proper number of random encounters along the way. They look pretty much like a Lego City made of all white blocks, with the occasional color added to important buildings and green trees. Early in the game there is also some traffic in the streets. All are made up of simple, large polygons.
Your party is represented on this field by a green polygonal shape that looks and spins like a top. This is by far the weakest part of the game graphically, but it serves its function. A simple 3D map of the entire city can be brought up at this time, which can be rotated, raised and lowered so you’ll never have to worry about getting lost.
The pseudo 3D, first-person corridor mazes are similar to the classic Phantasy Star or the early Might and Magic games. The corridors are simple 2D bitmaps formed into a square to give the effect of moving through a corridor. The bitmaps are scrolled away and a new one scrolled in to give the effect of movement. This is similar to the method used in Duke Nuke’em 3D, which isn’t “3D” either. The measurements of the squares are constant throughout and only the overall visual appearance of the bitmaps changes with each dungeon. The bitmaps are clean and some of them are rather interesting like the final dungeon or the haunted house, but all of them are far too repetitive. It’s like watching an old Hanna Barbara cartoon with Fred Flintstone driving past the exact same scenery over and over. You get your basic wall and maybe a couple variations every other square, and this is repeated throughout the dungeon. Again, this is adequate but uninspired, and it can really wear on you because some of the mazes are just plain huge with upwards of ten floors to explore.
Where the graphics really shine in Persona, and where they still rise above most games that followed them, is in the 2D story and battle sequences. In the story sequences, characters are represented by nicely rendered 2D sprites. The sprites are very clean and animate nicely with an average of 5 to 6 frames of animation for walking sequences. Backgrounds are also extremely clean though somewhat plain. You won’t find any pixelization in this game, as the graphics are just so smooth. Dialogue is played out with static character portraits that are very nicely drawn. The art director, Kazuma Kaneko, has become one of my favorites. He uses a traditional anime style but not as exaggerated. All of his character designs are very original and the enemy designs are beyond genius. The sheer number of unique and original work put into this game is to be commended. You haven’t seen anything like this over here before and it’s just a shame that so much was cut out from the original.
The battle sequences are just incredible and it’s a shame most people can’t appreciate the amount of quality in them, or that the weakness of other graphical areas detracts from them. Each character in battle has up to 5 different sets of animation with maybe 10 to 15 frames per action. And what is truly amazing is that each opponent in the game, and there are around 60 or 70 different ones, has multiple unique sets of animation with a high number of frames. Atlus truly took advantage of the CD format in creating a visual feast for the player. No other game since that I have played has put this much attention to detail in a game. It would take playing the game three or four times to see every single animation in the game.
The spell animations are equally impressive. Characters use Persona to cast spells and there are approximately 50 Persona available in the game to be created. Each one has a unique look and multiple animations depending on the kind of spell cast. Again, there is just a wealth of visual information within this game. When a Persona is called upon a column of transparent light will form around the player as their clothes begin rippling like they’re in the middle of a wind tunnel. The Persona will rise out of the player in a shimmering, transparent vision to cast their spell. The game uses just about every effect the PlayStation has to offer. The spells themselves are widely varied and can be very spectacular. While not as big or brash as some spells in other games are, the design of them is high quality. I could describe a bunch of them but it’s better to see them for yourself. All I can say is that you will see many things you’ve never seen before or since.
The sound effects in the game are another area that received special attention, and no game can hold a candle to Persona in this department. The sheer amount of effects within the game is extraordinary and all of them use the high quality CD sound to its advantage. In battle, each character has 4 or 5 battle cries with actual voice samples. They also have a number of grunts for when they get hit and some funny sayings like Mark’s, “This sucks!” whenever he runs out of hit points. The really amazing thing is that each enemy has 3 or 4 sets of sounds for their attacks as well. Atlus cut a few corners on this one as some are repeated, but it is still amazing that this is all on one CD and of such high quality. It makes you wonder why many other games haven’t even come close to this with multiple CD’s. The only annoying sound effect is that of your footsteps in the 3D dungeons. After an hour or two of exploring, the clickety clack of shoes on linoleum will begin to drive you batty.
The music is also something you’ve never come across in a game. Let’s just say it would make Trent Reznor jealous, and many may not consider it to even be music. Strong synthesized compositions are combined with all different kinds of sound effects to create a symphony of noise that fits the theme of the game perfectly. In dungeons you will hear banging, screams, and sometimes just someone talking in a barely comprehensible manner. Some lines are almost impossible to make out, adding to the bizarre feel of the game. It can be so intense at times that you should really turn the sound off after exploring the same dungeon for awhile. The noises and voices can just get to you after awhile and eventually you’ll begin to wonder if they’re only coming from the game. Playing this game with a surround sound system might seriously effect your sanity. There are also some more easily recognizable genres in other parts of the game. The battle music is your standard driving rock beat, which can get annoying after a lot of encounters, but isn’t all that bad. There is also a bizarre Japanese pop song that plays in the pharmacy that will make you giggle the first time but will soon drive you as batty as it does the characters in the game. If you begin humming this tune, seek help immediately. There is also the Velvet Room music, which has a short aria and a nice piano composition.
“To find the answer.”
The game play in Persona gave the genre a much-needed boost in the innovation department. Battles are fought out in the same menu based system, but the complexity of it is beyond anything else in the genre. I’ll try to keep it basic or else I’ll be writing forever.
The first part of battle is positioning. You have 5 characters maximum and they can be laid out however you wish on a grid. Where you place them depends on the range of their weapons and how important their physical attack can be. Remember that the enemy is also on a similar grid and you have range limitations. A character on the far right won’t be able to attack characters on the far left. This can effect experience points as well as victory in battle. The same groups of enemies will stick with the same formations so you can adjust accordingly. You can save up to 8 formations on a memory card and change them at will in battle. Just remember that changing form will cost you an attacking turn.
There are three kinds of attacks available. One is your sword attack. This is your basic physical attack and is effected by your strength. Second is the gun attack. Each character can equip a gun and a type of ammo. Ammo has different strengths and ranges, as well as secondary effects on the enemy like paralysis or sleep. Finally you have the Persona with up to 8 different magic spells. Most spells can be cast from any position and will effect a certain number of foes. But Personas can also attack physically, and range will effect whether these attacks can be made. There is so much to consider that Persona is as much a strategy RPG as it is a traditional one.
Personas are created only at the Velvet Room. There are a ton of different Personas to make and a number of factors that effect their creation. To create a Persona you need to get spell cards from monsters. When you reach a random encounter, you can choose to “contact” one of your enemies. When you do this you get a list of the enemies personality traits like weak, grumpy or snobbish. After you pick the monster whose card you want, you’re given a set of 4 kinds of approaches to take for each character. The kind of approach you take depends on the enemy personality. If you can raise the enemy’s interest, you can get their spell card. After getting at least two cards you can go to the Velvet Room and create a Persona. Each enemy spell card has a specific alignment like Holy Light or Elemental, and they also roam in specific clans of monsters. Compatibility is important in creating a good Persona. I know it sounds complicated but you can have the computer do most of the work and you just pick the persona you like best that is compatible with a character. You can also add found items to the mix to create rare Personas. The possibilities are enormous, but there are plenty of good FAQ’s to walk you through it.
The mazes are some of the most complex ever made and I had a ball exploring them. Atlus was very kind to include an auto- mapping feature that can be easily called up with the L2 button and show where you have and haven’t explored. There are a number of traps in the mazes as well as blacked out areas where you’ll have to get through on feel alone. If you’re a fan of dungeon crawling and maze solving you’ll love these sections despite the bland graphics, but those who don’t like hours of exploration should stay far, far away.
Keep in mind that I’ve only scratched the surface of the game play. There are a ton of tiny details that you will have to discover on your own. The menu’s can be quite complicated and many things aren’t easily explained. Not even the manual does an adequate job of fully explaining everything. There’s nothing omitted that will ruin the game and prevent you from beating it, but you will have to try numerous things that you normally wouldn’t to get the most out of it. It’s the kind of game that you can never truly finish in just one play.
There is a casino mini-game that lets you exchange money for tokens to play slots, poker, blackjack etc. Win enough tokens and you can exchange them for rare weapons and items. The games are all fun to play and you might find yourself spending hours in the casino.
The game is quite challenging and it’s easy to lose if you aren’t giving your attention to the enemy. Every opponent has specific strengths and weaknesses. You can see these with the “analyze” option after fighting them once or getting their spell card. The game is very well balanced even though the encounter rate was altered from the original version.
There is a ton of replay value to the game with the casino, different Personas and the 4 different supporting characters you can take on your quest with you.
Persona is an achievement in dedicated game design. It has set standards that no one has yet to surpass, but is too often criticized for its minor weaknesses and lack of obvious eye candy. My only real fault with it is that we received an incomplete version of the game. An entire side-quest was left out because it was considered too difficult for the average US game player. In one sense I want to be offended by this, but when I look at the reception the game received and the unknowledgeable criticisms, perhaps they are right. I’m strongly looking forward to the sequel, which was recently announced, but I have serious doubts I’ll see it here. I guess we’re just not ready for games like this that don’t sugarcoat game play or focus on making pretty polygons or FMV. Persona will always be one of my favorite games ever, an extremely underrated game and a game that deserves much more respect than it has received.