I was a little late to the Persona party. Persona 3 and 4 were arguably my favorite games in 2007 and 2008, and Atlus' other MegaTen titles, Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga, weren't too shabby either. Rarely do I take the time to invest myself in a 60+ hour RPG, but I never had little trouble dropping endless hours into completing a MegaTen game. Still, from Nocturne to Persona 4, I had been stepping up and playing what was, essentially, a procedural refinement of an existing formula. The context and characters change, but the staples, (demon collecting and/or negotiation, hard as hell difficulty, turn based battles, a dark, occasionally unsettling, and purely Japanese narrative) were always neatly in place; it was MegaTen, man.
But with the Persona's enhanced port to PSP, I would be skipping out of the amenities of modern gaming and taking a trip back to proverbially ancient JRPG design. Persona was the first U.S. entry into the now cult-favorite of MegaTen series, but 1996 was a long time ago, and well before Final Fantasy VII cracked JRPG's open for the mainstream. While I lack the rose tinted glasses of nostalgia, the litany of additions and improvements in the PSP version were poised to extend a hand to my trip back in time. Not unlike a significant portion of the intended audience, this review will be written from the perspective of someone new to the original, but quite familiar with the modern incarnations of the series.
I Dreamt I was a Butterfly…
Right off the bat, the setting breathed air of familiarity. A bunch of high school kids in modern day Japan were fiddling around with some self referential Persona game. In typical lighthearted and slightly nonsense fashion, the kids are knocked out and, upon waking up, find themselves with the ability to wield "Personas," which is a fancy way to explain their newfound magic powers. Their recent skills arrive with convenience, because the outside world appears to be experiencing something not unlike a time shifting judgment day.
Unlike Persona 3 and 4, which often featured intense and extended in game cinematics to convey the narrative, Persona is short and sweet when it chooses to tell its story. It's a bit disappointing to engage a seemingly bare bones tale when you're used to a narrative as nuanced and full of personality as in 3 and 4, but it gets the job done despite it's brevity. Coincidence heavy, sometimes events happen too fast or without reason, and you'll wish for a bit more explanation, but it hits the MegaTen checklist of mature plot points as it easily eschews most JRPG narrative conventions. It's also worth noting that Persona lacks the dating sim/social aspects of its newer counterparts, which cuts down on the character development considerably.
A delightful surprise, and one of the appreciated miracles of a remake, is the completely relocalized dialogue. While the original Persona was something of a racist tragedy, this version comes with Atlus' newfound reputation as the best in the biz at localizing games. Characters speak with a modern tongue, often with a reasonable amount of snark and wit that successfully injects personality into almost every instance (come on, when someone calls you "the douchiest douche to ever douche" in the middle of a demon plague, you gotta smile). Some of the NPC chatter is by the book (and I wish I didn't have to re-experience it all without a skip option should I enter the same room twice), but the main cast is colorful and differentiated.
While the narrative dialogue is a little on the light side, the intense amount of mid battle chatter does its best to make up for any perceived shortcomings. Like 3 and 4, different spell cards for more personae can be acquired through rather unconventional means. Instead of matching games or memorization puzzles, persona acquisition falls more in line with the series roots; demon negotiation. Last seen in Nocturne, every battle grants the option to contact a demon and try and negotiate with it for items, its spell card, or simply just to mess around. Each demon has inherent personality quirks (thankfully listed in the in-game menu), and each character is bestowed with a handful of dialogue options to try and adhere to a particular demon's personality. Some demons like to be insulted, others like jokes, a couple request items or money, and a few might delve into slightly more perverse categories. The newly added gauges to tell you how you're doing are helpful and it's nice to have some guidance in negotiation, but in the end it still usually comes down to instances trial and error. In any case, if you play your cards right (and have a high enough level), you can win spell cards with which to forge new persona in the velvet room.
Yes, the velvet room and Igor once again (or for the first time, I guess) act as your guide to persona fusion. Located off the simple world map or at the base room of dungeons, the velvet room is easily your main time sink. Here you'll battle your spell cards for the right to use your personas, and then figure out which of your characters are most compatible with each character. It's easy to get obsessed with collecting spell cards to create bigger and better persona, which is often necessary when you're juggling around multiple persona (who only get experience when used in a battle).
Speaking of battles, though still turn based, they're deciding less fast paced than their modern counterparts. Using your spells (of which there is a much wider variety) to exploit an enemy's particular weakness is still paramount to speeding through battles, but their also augmented with a few minor quirks. Weapons, be it melee or guns, are also available for physical attacks, but range also has to be calculated. Characters can be placed in the front or back row, and some, depending on the range of their spell or weapon, can only attack enemies in adjacent positions. Experience is dependent on a characters activity in battle, with the most effective characters always getting the lion's share of exp. Outside of demon negotiation; the battle mechanics are fairly standard.
…but when I woke, I was I
New to the PSP version are several revisions to the interface. Worth their weight in gold, all of the changes are designed to help streamline the combat heavy game. A replay feature mimes whatever series of attacks you just selected, and another, more individuated character setup is available if you really want to go hands off on your trudge through dungeons. By far the most appreciated addition is the option to skip through the animations of your personas, which typically cuts the battle time in half. With visuals dating a decade ago and an encounter rate as high as Persona's, skipping through the fluff quickly becomes a welcomed option.
While the facelift to the battle system allowed me to enjoy a few benefits of modern game design, I'm afraid the same couldn't be said for the dungeon layouts. The world map is fine and, while newly created, highly reminiscent of past MegaTen games, but the actual dungeons harkens back to the days when everything seemed like a multiple roomed maze. They're presented in first person view, which is initially jaunting and honestly quite original, but actual navigation quickly becomes a pain in the neck. A mini-map is present and the zoomed out map is nice, but most dungeons turn into a switch throwing crapshoot of picking a direction and hoping you're not going to hit a dead end. I'm sure this will lead to more battles and higher levels, but it can't escape the growing feelings of monotony I got while combing through Persona's dungeons. The newly added run button is nice and the art is quite good, but it couldn't stop me from getting bored and wishing I could advance the narrative. It's permissible here because of its status as a cult classic, but those who may not have an affinity for archaic game design, dungeon crawlers, (or JRPG's in general) may quickly lose favor with Persona.
By far the most appreciated addition is the rearranged and, in most cases, completely redone soundtrack. More than any other element, hearing Shoji Meguro compositions and Yumi Kawamura voice guide me through battles (along with the main theme and a few other tracks) went hand in hand with my enjoyment of the game. I absolutely adored Kawamura's work in Persona 3, and the familiarity that came with her voice was, by far, my favorite part of the revamped package. The rest of the soundtrack is no slouch either, but with the lack of characterization in the game, it fails to make a personal touch. The visual package looks dated and doesn't ooze as much Japanese culture as the more recent counterparts, but it's hardly an eye sore. Walking around isometric, almost grid based rooms takes some getting used to, and the low resolution sprites feel painfully dated, but the true widescreen presentation is a plus and, like all relics, the shortcomings are fine once you accept it for what it was.