Shin Megami Tensei: Persona
Translating games has always been a wobbly area of the industry. Ever since Cats first declared “All your base are belong to us!” and Kefka let loose the vitriolic insult “Spoony Bard”, the localization - or as some see it, bastardization - of various Japanese games has been a hot topic amongst gamers. Accurately translating a game word for word is one thing, but sometimes it just isn’t enough. For Shin Megami Tensei: Persona, it definitely wasn’t enough. The game was set in a Japanese city, revolved around many aspects of Japanese youth culture, and moreover, pulled story elements from pieces of Japanese folklore. However, by the time it came to America, not only had a significant story quest been lopped out altogether, but characters had… changed. Physically, even. A girl’s hair color had morphed from black to blonde; the player character had also lost his Asian looks, instead sporting a slightly lighter skin tone. And his friend… well… his Japanese friend just inexplicably became a black stereotype.
It was bad.
Thankfully, though, Atlus has gone back and remastered this classic game. Persona is the first game in the now wildly-popular Shin Megami Tensei spinoff series, featuring a cast of high school students fending off the apocalypse. This original Persona shows its age; while all the basic mechanics are recognizable - dungeon crawling, summoning Personas, and a moon phase system - they’re decidedly more archaic than the ones found in Persona 3 and 4. Is that a bad thing? No, not by any stretch of the imagination; in fact, the old-school presentation fits the handheld perfectly. Dungeons are explored in a first person perspective, filling up the PSP’s screen nicely. Outside of dungeons, the classic sprite graphics are crisp and clear, and poking around the map with an arrow is much more bearable on a handheld than on a console. It’s been more than a decade since the game originally came out, but time seems to have been kind to it.
At least, it has been kind if you’re a fan of classic RPGs. The original game has been preserved as much as possible in this PSP version, and that includes the difficulty. Shin Megami Tensei has a reputation for being brutally difficult, and Persona is no exception. Random encounters in dungeons vary from grunts to big bombers that will tear your party to shreds if you don’t have a proper strategy for taking them down. The battles are strictly turn-based, with a tree of attack and defense types, just like other Shin Megami Tensei games. However, there is one thing that may throw retroactive Persona fans off - positioning. Party members can only attack in a certain arc in front of them, making ganging up on one enemy at a time a bit difficult. Different weapons and Personas also affect the range of these attacks. This is an occasionally frustrating layer of planning that Shin Megami Tensei has since gone without; however, good or bad, it feels fresh here, simply because its so different. Otherwise, Persona feels like a solid, classic RPG.
The presentation is excellent, but it’s definitely muted when compared with the flamboyant art direction Shin Megami Tensei usually takes. Persona doesn’t look anything like the shonen-anime-inspired Persona 3 and 4; nor does it evoke the frightening gothic imagery of Nocturne. Instead, series artist Kazuma Kaneko’s early art is planted firmly in the 90s from whence they came; neither here nor there stylistically but rich in detail. Even with its end-of-the-world scenario and occult plot elements, Persona feels very down to earth. The less outlandish character designs add to this; all in all, the presentation just feels more somber than most other RPGs.
That being said, there is one aspect of this remake that is entirely new - the soundtrack. This will be a point of contention for many Shin Megami Tensei fans: Persona’s soundtrack is more in keeping with Persona 4’s soundtrack than the classic Persona score. What does that mean? In essence, it means Jpop. Lots and lots of Jpop. In a game populated with high school students bumming around a Japanese city, it fits perfectly - the music is very catchy, and it provides an ironic point of contrast for the grim story. However, purists may be a little disappointed with the change. The new music is good, though, and the fact that the game comes with the full two-disc soundtrack as a bonus is a hard fact to argue with. Old-school fans should remember that it could be worse - changing the music is a lot less offensive than say, removing an entire quest and changing everyone’s skin color.
If anything, this release of Persona is a love letter to the fans. The gameplay is so antiquated and complicated that it’ll have a hard time breaking out of a niche market; but still, this version fixes everything that was wrong with what we got with 1996’s Revelations: Persona. The dialogue has been translated properly. The Snow Queen quest line is back. The characters are actually Japanese. There are new cutscenes and a new soundtrack to make everything feel a little more polished. While it probably won’t break out into any new markets or convert new RPG players, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona is a gift for fans of the series. For curious fans of the new Persona games, and people who enjoyed the mangled port for what it was, this PSP edition is a must-play.
Eight out of ten