Persona Retrospective, Part 01: PERSONA

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Publisher/Developer: Atlus

Original Year of Release: 1996

Also known as: Megami Ibunroku Persona (PS1/PC JP); Revelations: Persona (PS1 US); Shin Megami Tensei: Persona (PSP US/EU)


If, like me, you were introduced to the Persona series via Persona 3, there is a good chance you wondered why you hadn’t heard of these clearly amazing RPGs before. If you happened to live in the PAL region like I did and still do, there’s an even better chance you were completely unfamiliar with the earlier Persona titles because Persona 3 was the first game in the series to even have a PAL release. Fortunately, those of us who missed out on the earlier games could always look them up online on sites such as Hardcore Gaming 101 and see what they were all about, and that is where I learned the story of Persona’s initial release in 1996 — and especially the American localization.

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Japanese PlayStation cover

Before we go into any of that, we should look at the game itself first. If you are used to the gameplay style and general structure of the “modern” Persona games (Persona 3-5), you will find that the original game only bears a superficial resemblance at most to what would come later. Instead of a life simulator with a day-to-day structure complete with going to school and performing other daily routines, Persona is a relatively straightforward JRPG with a heavy focus on first-person dungeon crawling, huge mazelike dungeons and frequent random battles.

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The dungeon navigation was originally quite cumbersome, but was made quicker and smoother in the PSP remake. It’s still not the most enjoyable thing in the world by any means, but at least traversing these dungeons no longer takes forever and your map does a better job helping you get your bearings. 

There are no social links to be found, and the relationships between the main characters are not particularly fleshed out, with most dialogue being optional. You can still have fun with the first Persona game if — and only if — you know what you are getting into, but it should be reiterated that this is practically nothing like the “modern” games. This was a pre-Final Fantasy VII JRPG on the PlayStation, and while the 2009 PSP remake helped smooth over some of the rough edges it’s still very much the same game. As such, a high tolerance for mid-90s jank is highly recommended.

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Persona opens up with a group of Japanese high schoolers goofing off in an empty classroom, playing the “Persona” game which is basically just a version of Bloody Mary. The students all pass out after being confronted with a vision of a crying little girl, and while unconscious they all dream about a golden butterfly. In this dream, they meet up with Philemon who bestows the power of Persona — a reflection of the self that protects the user from hardship — upon them.

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Putting aside the slightly worrying fact they all had the same dream about a butterfly and a creepy masked man, the protagonist and three of his fellow students of St. Hermelin High School decide to head over to the local hospital to meet with Maki Sonomura, a chronically ill classmate who has been bed-ridden for quite some time. You don’t have to head to the hospital immediately, and in fact it’s a good idea to talk to everyone around the school and town because by doing so you can unlock a semi-hidden party member for later.

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Room 302? Isn’t that the room from Silent Hill 4? No wonder weird things are happening around here.

During the visit to the hospital, some unknown event causes the building’s architecture to shift dramatically and zombies to start walking around the hallways, attacking everything in their path. Don’t you just hate when that happens?

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The graphics in Persona are certainly dated (not that they were state of the art in the first place), but I think the lo-fi aesthetic kind of works. The way all the rooms seem to be suspended in the middle of some sort of fog really adds to the atmosphere, giving the game a dreamlike quality.

The party awaken to their Personas and fight their way through the warped hospital, only to find out the whole town of Mikage-cho is going to hell. They eventually manage to locate Maki’s mother, an engineer working for the SEBEC energy company. She tells the party that the culprit behind the strange events is the head of SEBEC’s Mikage branch, Takahisa Kandori. After Maki’s mother is brought back to St. Hermelin (which is somehow safe from demons), the game gives you a choice: Do you want to pursue Kandori and stop SEBEC from doing whatever the hell caused all this nonsense, or will you investigate the mysterious incidents from years ago that are supposedly linked to the play known as the Snow Queen? You know, the play they’re rehearsing at the school right now?

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The overworld navigation is one of the most improved parts of the PSP remake. In the original game, you’d move (incredibly slowly) around this utterly hideous low-poly map and it was just unpleasant.

Going after Kandori and SEBEC is the game’s main quest, and as such it’s far simpler to get started on the SEBEC path than the Snow Queen quest. The latter requires certain conditions to be met, mainly finding the Snow Queen mask which is central to that quest’s plot. Once you choose one of the paths, you’ll be following that for the rest of the game, so it isn’t possible to complete both the SEBEC and Snow Queen quests on a single playthrough. The events of both quests are actually canon, so they are supposed to take place concurrently even if in-game you can only go through one path at a time. Both paths also have good and bad endings, depending on your dialog choices.

Whichever path you choose, expect a lot of fighting. I mean a lot. Random battles pop up at such a frequency that it can get infuriating when you’re just trying to find your way to the next floor or save point, although at least there are some items you can use to ward off weak enemies. The combat system itself is of course turn-based, but both the party and the enemies are actually on a grid and can change their positions once per turn. Positioning your characters doesn’t really serve that much of a purpose once you’ve managed to get them roughly where you want them to be (this can be done in the menu between battles) — sure, you won’t necessarily be able to hit an enemy if you’re on the wrong side of it, but trying to move in combat will take that character’s entire turn and isn’t recommended unless you really can’t hit anything.

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A typical battle scene. You may notice the majority of the screenshots in this article are from the first hour of the game, but that certainly does not mean I did not play the game past that. I played through most of the SEBEC path, but as that was on the PlayStation TV I could not record my gameplay due to HDCP. I initially started playing the game on a PSP emulator to make it easier to grab screenshots, but I had some annoying emulation glitches so I switched over to the PSTV.

As you’d expect, the party members and their Personas have their strengths and weaknesses, with different weapons (there are several types of both melee and ranged weapons, and guns on top of that) and elemental affinities. Party members can actually equip multiple Personas in this game and Persona 2, although this comes with certain limitations: if the character’s arcana is completely mismatched with the Persona’s, that character simply can’t equip that Persona or has such minimal affinity with it that it’s not worth using.

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In Persona, characters and their Personas gain experience based on their performance in combat. Hitting weaknesses and dealing critical hits (which doesn’t give you any extra turns in this game) is especially important. Of course, this means that sometimes a character barely gets any EXP unless you go out of your way to make sure they do the majority of the attacking. This is not a great system, and the sequels did away with it. And yes, my character is named after Shinsuke Nakamura. If I don’t know or like the official name of the protagonist in a Megami Tensei game, I usually name him after a Japanese pro wrestler.

While making your way through the lengthy and labyrinthine dungeons (which often have gimmicks such as teleporters and trap floors), on certain floors you may come across a store, a healing spring (both of which should be self-explanatory, although I should probably mention that the healing springs run by Trish the fairy are ridiculously expensive to use), or the Velvet Room.

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The Velvet Room and its proprietor Igor make their first appearances here and handle Persona fusions just like in the later games. Igor’s role here is more detached from the plot than it has been in the modern games where he basically takes over Philemon’s job, guiding the protagonist on his path. Here, you just give him spell cards so he can combine them into new Personas. Spell cards are obtained from enemies through negotiation, and negotiating with the demons here is about as irritating as it is in the mainline Megami Tensei games.

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You knew this line would appear somewhere in this article.

Here, at least, the demons have visible moods that can be affected by different negotiation methods, although figuring out each demon’s preferences and reactions does require a bit of the old trial and error. Once you do figure them out, you can make use of the reactions to your advantage — convincing certain enemies to leave the battle can be the difference between victory and reloading your last save from 45 minutes ago. Just try not to piss them off, because that can go incredibly poorly for you especially if you happen to be fighting enemies that use lots of status effects.

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Here’s that save point you visited 45 minutes ago.

Which brings us quite nicely to the difficulty. Persona is not a massively hard game by Megami Tensei standards, and usually you’ll do fine as long as you’re paying attention and have some healing items on hand just in case. Sometimes, you may have bad luck with the random number generator, but most of the time it’s not too difficult. There are, however, some enemies that will absolutely ruin your day. The Moh Shuvuus in the SEBEC building are notorious for doing a silly amount of damage with their self-destruct move — even a single one of those attacks is a near instant kill on multiple party members, and only the RNG’s whims can save you from a wipe if more than one Moh Shuvuu explodes in your face. Other enemies use their status effect spells with frightful efficiency, potentially crippling your entire party while you can do nothing but watch in horror and hope one of your guys manages to shrug it off and maybe take out one of the enemies before getting status’d again. You can try escaping, but that always takes a full turn which is more than enough time to get wrecked by the enemy.

As I mentioned at the start of this article, the North American PlayStation release of Revelations: Persona is rather infamous due to its localization. Speaking of Revelations, I feel the need to share this quote from the Megami Tensei Wiki because I was very confused when I read it:

It’s possible Atlus USA overlooked the significance of such a title [as Revelations] when choosing it; the demographics to which this title would appeal would not be interested in Megami Tensei games, and vice versa.

Apparently, whoever wrote that thought “Revelations” would only appeal to fundamentalist Christians or something. Did that person ever listen to any of the roughly seventeen billion heavy metal songs inspired by the Book of Revelations and all the crazy shit in it? Even the box art of Revelations: Persona looks like a metal album cover!

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Revelations? Ah, this must be a sequel to Bible Adventures!

But I digress. Persona was the first title being released under the Revelations brand (the only other one would be the Game Boy Color game Revelations: The Demon Slayer, originally Megami Tensei Gaiden: Last Bible), and Atlus put quite a bit of effort into localizing the game. Atlus wasn’t sure if the very Japanese setting and cast of Megami Ibunroku Persona would appeal to western audiences, so they decided to Americanize everything they could about the game. The town of Mikage-cho became Lunarvale, yens became dollars, and the cast got name changes and makeovers. In addition, the frequency of random encounters was decreased and EXP rewards boosted, although money drops weren’t.

Some Japanese elements still remained, such as the shrine and the Satomi Tadashi Pharmacy’s jingle (an irritatingly catchy tune in which a Japanese man sings about the effects of various healing items), but by all intents and purposes the game was now supposedly taking place in an American city, with American characters.

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In case you were wondering, yes, this line got changed in the remake.

You can’t blame Atlus for not putting in the effort when it came to this localization. Unfortunately, they may have been putting in a little too much effort because they ended up running out of time during the process. As a result, the entire Snow Queen questline was removed from the American release, as there was simply not enough time to localize the whole thing at that point. I’ve heard the difficulty of the Snow Queen quest may also have played a part in its removal, but the looming deadline certainly did not help matters. In any event, now that we’ve learned how things changed between the Japanese and American releases, it’s time to take a look at…

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THE CAST

Persona’s main cast does not have the same amount of characterization as those in the later games, but I figured the characters still deserve some sort of description here. Of course, I’ll also show off the differences between the original and Revelations versions.

Protagonist

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Arcana: Emperor

Personas: Seimen Kongou, Amen Ra

Weapon: One-handed sword, SMG

The silent main character is only known as “Boy with Pierced Ear” in the Japanese version, although various adaptations have given him proper names such as Naoya “Naorin” Toudou in the manga. Since he doesn’t speak outside a couple of dialog choices, not much is known about him other than that he’s a second-year student at St. Hermelin. His Personas have a variety of elemental and status spells.

For the Revelations: Persona release, his hair was shortened and recolored red, and his earring was also removed for whatever reason.

Maki Sonomura/Mary

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Arcana: Priestess

Personas: Maso, Verdandi

Weapons: Bow, Handgun

Maki has been frail and sickly her entire life, and at the beginning of the game she has been in the Mikage Hospital for a year. As Maki once again escapes into the “ideal” world she has created in her mind, her thoughts somehow get linked to SEBEC’s DEVA System (a reality-altering thingamajig). Following this event, reality is warped to resemble her “ideal” world as SEBEC’s Kandori kidnaps her and connects her mind into the DEVA System for his own evil purposes (he wants to become “God Kandori”, or “Super Guido” in Revelations).

In the process, Maki’s personality splits into three parts: the “ideal”, healthy Maki who joins the party, and two little girls named Mai and Aki who represent her innocent and malevolent aspects respectively. Maki is by far the most important character in the SEBEC storyline, with all of the events revolving around her in some way.

Maki’s bow is invaluable for attacking groups. As she is a female character in a 1996 JRPG she is also the group’s main healer, while also dabbling in fire and ice spells.

Aside from the name change to Mary and the lighter brown hair, she remains much the same in the localization. Mai and Aki were renamed to Mae and Maggie.

Masao “Mark” Inaba/Mark

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Revelations

Arcana: Chariot

Personas: Ogun, Susano-o

Weapons: Axe, Shotgun

Masao, or Mark as he prefers to be called by his friends, is the spoiled son of Inaba Dry Cleaning’s owners. He’s a bit of a class clown and a troublemaker by choice, earning himself the police’s attention with his graffiti artwork, but he is also very earnest and protective of those he cares about (especially Maki, who he has a rather obvious crush on and visits at the hospital regularly). He constantly bickers with the overly pompous Nanjo.

Mark’s Personas have a wide variety of attacks, making him a decent all-round damage dealer. He is also the character who received the most drastic makeover in the localization, being changed into an African-American boy to diversify the cast. The localization also brought us the classic “Mark danced crazy!” line, for whatever that’s worth.

Kei Nanjo/Nate Trinity

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Arcana: Hierophant

Personas: Aizen Myouou, Yamaoka

Weapons: Two-handed sword, Rifle

Kei Nanjo is the heir to the Nanjo Group’s fortune and desires to be the #1 Man of Japan (check out that scarf). Due to his upbringing, he usually acts superior to the rest of the party and is constantly at odds with Mark in particular. Nanjo is the most intelligent and logical member of the group and manages to figure out Kandori’s evil plan by himself at one point, although he also tends to bring the party’s anger upon himself when displaying his lack of common human empathy.

Nanjo’s Personas specialize in Expel attacks. Yamaoka is actually his butler and father figure, who dies at the start of the game and later becomes a Persona. In a move I bet someone thought was clever, Yamaoka was renamed Alfred in the localization.

Hidehiko “Brown” Uesugi/Brad

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PSP version artwork (he looks pretty much identical in the Revelations release)

Arcana: Justice

Personas: Nemhain, Tyr

Weapons: Spear, TMP Machine Gun

Hardcore Gaming 101’s writeup of this game describes Hidehiko as a “sneering, arrogant bastard” which sounds about right. He’s one of the class clowns along with Mark, but while Mark is a pretty likable and decent person, Hidehiko is just an annoying dick. The only thing of note he does in the game is start the whole Persona game thing, swearing up and down that it works and making a bet with Mark, who wasn’t so convinced.

After ending up in Maki’s “ideal” version of Mikage-cho, Hidehiko and Mark manage to get themselves locked up by zombie policemen, and the party has to go rescue them. However, while Mark has to be taken along for story reasons, you can tell Hidehiko to piss off if you don’t want him as your fifth party member. Since the other choices for that fifth slot are far less awful than Hidehiko, it’s probably better not to take him along. For whatever it’s worth, his Personas specialize in Blast spells.

In case you were wondering why his nickname’s Brown, that has nothing to do with his hair color but in fact refers to a bathroom-related accident in the past. God, Hidehiko sucks.

Eriko “Elly” Kirishima/Ellen

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Arcana: Judgement

Personas: Nike, Michael

Weapons: Rapier, Rifle

Eriko comes from a wealthy family and speaks fluent English, having spent time studying overseas, and her looks and personality make her one of the most popular girls at St. Hermelin High. Eriko is very much into all things occult and supernatural, encouraging Hidehiko while playing the Persona game and reacting enthusiastically to various strange events during the story, and she also displays a rather goofy side to her personality when she first meets with the party after awakening to her Persona (striking comical “heroic” poses with her sword and generally being overly excited about her power, which she initially thinks is unique to her).

Eriko’s Personas come with a number of different skills. The most useful ones, however, are the buffs to defense and attack.

Yuka Ayase/Alana

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PSP version artwork (Ayase is another character who looks pretty much identical between the different versions)

Arcana: Magician

Personas: Houri, Frey

Weapons: Whip, Handgun

Ayase is a rather stereotypical “suntanned, bleached-blonde kogal”, basically the Japanese equivalent of a valley girl (indeed, her speech patterns were translated into valley girl slang in the western releases) who has a tendency to act immaturely when something displeases her. She’s an optional party member in the SEBEC questline, although she’ll automatically join up if you didn’t fulfill the conditions to unlock the hidden party member and turned everyone else down.

However, Ayase is in fact one of the two mandatory party members on the Snow Queen path, so if you don’t care for her you’re out of luck there. Her Personas primarily use fire and earth spells.

Reiji Kido/Chris

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Arcana: Devil, Death

Personas: Bres, Mot

Weapons: Fists, Assault Rifle

Reiji is a transfer student who rarely shows up at school, preferring instead to wander the streets and get into trouble. Reiji has a vendetta against Kandori, which is explained if he is chosen as the fifth party member. However, in order to even be able to recruit Reiji in the first place, you must meet certain conditions (mainly by talking to certain NPCs) early in the game, long before you actually meet him. Therefore, it’s easy to miss him completely, and since you won’t get to recruit him until you’re well into the game you’ll also have to play through quite a chunk of the SEBEC path with only four party members.

If you do manage to recruit him, Reiji is arguably the best optional party member as he can successfully negotiate with nearly all of the randomly encountered demons. His compatibility with Personas is somewhat lacking, though. Speaking of Personas, his specialize in Death and status spells. For some reason, Bres and Mot are Personas of different arcanas, Devil and Death respectively.

Yukino Mayuzumi/Yuki

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Arcana: Empress

Personas: Vesta, Durga

Weapons: Razorblades, Double-barreled shotgun

Yukino used to be a delinquent, but her teacher Saeko Takami managed to set her back on the right path and rescued her from a life of crime. Yukino still looks and occasionally talks tough, but is nonetheless a trusted and respected member of the St. Hermelin student body. She accompanies the party to the hospital in the beginning of the game, but once they return to the school she leaves and can’t be recruited again on the SEBEC story path.

Yukino gets her time to shine in the Snow Queen questline, where she is the other mandatory party member along with Ayase. She witnesses Ms. Saeko being possessed by the mask of the Snow Queen, and feels it is her duty to save the teacher who once saved her. Yukino’s Personas have well-balanced skills and stats.

Obviously, since Yukino only really appears in the Snow Queen path, she barely shows up in Revelations: Persona. In that release she is also the character that changed the least, as the only difference to the Japanese version is the slight shortening of her name.

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If you want to play Persona today, the PSP version is absolutely the way to go, no question about it. It is simply the most polished and readily available version of the game, so there is really no reason to hunt down an original PlayStation copy at all unless you really want to see the ridiculous localization. Well, I suppose there is one possible reason: the music. The PSP version features a redone soundtrack, with some of the original tracks remixed and others replaced with songs that more closely resemble the J-pop style of the Persona 3 and 4 soundtracks.

While the replacement songs aren’t necessarily bad, most of them don’t really fit the surreal, dreamlike atmosphere of Persona. Not nearly as well as the original tracks, anyway — the dark electronic sound of the old battle theme is really rather wonderful, and the new track just doesn’t compare at all. Of course, I would say the gameplay improvements more than make up for the loss of the original music here.

In general, Persona has the distinct feel of a rough first draft to it. The story, what there is anyway, is quite good and the atmosphere is fantastic, but to enjoy it you have to slog through some fairly frustrating dungeon crawling with so many random battles that fatigue is likely to set in fairly early on. There are interesting ideas in the combat and leveling systems, but none of them quite fit together here. Now, if only there was a sequel that polished the gameplay a little bit and put more emphasis on the writing and characterization…

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