Originally released in 1996, Revelations: Persona was a game firmly rooted in two schools of JRPG game design. First, it was a RPG from Japan that was released before the huge sea change that was Final Fantasy VII. It was never a glamorous game, it wasn’t a multi-disc affair held up with overly long cut-scenes. It was poorly translated, with every Japanese element of the game being Americanized, in an effort to apparently make it palatable to Western audiences. It was also rooted in the Atlus RPG philosophy of making grind-filled, long, fairly difficult games. Atlus also likes to make games with many systems layered on top with one another. Their best known series of the time, Shin Megami Tensei was a series that was known for a layered, punishing turn-based combat system, that also involved talking to and recruiting the help of your demon enemies.
Running with many of the mechanical premises of SMT, the new spin-off series, Persona dropped the SMT prefix that was present in the Japanese edition and came to American shores, and seemingly sold kind of okay. The Persona series has since floated itself through the PS1 and PS2 eras of RPG’s, changing and reforming itself the entire way. It all came to a head with the late PS2 title, Persona 4. After riding high on the large popularity bump Persona 4 gave to Atlus, they decided to go ahead and give the people an enhanced remake of the first Persona game, this time on the PSP. This happened in 2009. I finally finished my first step down Persona memory lane the other day, on the Vita. Let’s talk about it for a bit.
The first thing that struck me is the graphics of the game. While using an old, isometric style, the game looks really clean. The sprites look good, and while not having a ton of detail, the backgrounds work to convey where you are well enough. This is a bit different in combat though, where the background is this swirly mess, the graphics most likely being kept to a bare minimum to make sure the game runs smoothly.
The isometric style however leaves once you’re out of safe rooms. The majority of exploration in Persona happens from a first-person perspective. This way of getting about does the job, however all the textures look extremely flat. Every hallway, no matter where you are looks pretty samey, especially when you’re running around in dungeons. It may be a blue wall, or a gray wall, or a brown wall just know you’re going to spend a lot of time looking around at walls, and it won’t be fun.
The dungeon exploration in Persona is easily the worst part about this game. It would be one thing if you had the pleasure of experiencing the flat walls while always moving to your goal. Persona, being an older style of RPG is not that nice. Every damn dungeon is a maze. You will have to pay attention to the minimap while exploring a dungeon, otherwise you will get pointlessly lost. This goes for both natural dungeons like forests, and weirdly enough, buildings that were built by apparently drunk floor planners. It’s frustrating and forces you into way more fights than you necessarily want.
While that is hardly ideal, luckily the battle system is a real strong suit. Now before going into the battle system at length, I just need you to remember; this is an old game. It may have a better coat of paint on it, but this is an old one. Atlus games also tend to be very menu-heavy. A lot of this is very much streamlined by the time Persona 4 rolled around, but this does not get that benefit. Not only can you attack, defend and run, like any standard RPG, but you have a wealth of other options.
Before you initiate combat in this turn-based affair, you also get to choose if you want to cast spells using your Persona, an other-worldly being that represents an emotional extension of your characters, or you can even change your Persona. Each character can hold 3 of the beings. You can also choose to fire your gun instead of doing a normal attack, which is very much a holdover from the base Shin Megami Tensei series, to be seen only in this Persona game.
All of these abilities have ranges based on the weapon of the character, the range of a spell, and their positioning on a grid you set outside of battle. This can lead to many frustrating situations in which a character may not be able to do any action if there are no enemies within their range. Once you get used to the system though, you can minimize this problem with smarter placement than the default.
If you want to do none of this though, there is one final command. You can try to communicate with the enemies in the game, and negotiate with them to various ends. Each enemy has certain traits associated with them, and may be exploited through conversation to either anger, upset, bring joy to or make an enemy eager. Each of your party members have different ways of communicating, and figuring out how to make an enemy eager is actually the ultimate end goal of communication.
An eager enemy is an enemy that wants to give you its spell card. That spell card serves two distinctly important uses. First, it creates a contract with a demon. This contract allows you to force a demon to flee battle if you face it again. Sometimes they will even give you some money, or an item on the way out. More importantly, multiple spell cards can be fused together to make new Personas. Igor makes his first appearance in this game, manning The Velvet Room, ready to help you out as he has in games more recent. The process of making new Personas is just as functional as it is in later games, however, there does not appear to be the Compendium of later titles. This gets rid of some of the Pokemon-like collection aspect, but really if you look at this as the genesis of the Persona system, you really don’t feel like anything is missing; it is simply more utilitarian.
If you’re coming to this game after playing some of the more modern Persona titles first, you’re used to certain things when it comes to character and story. Don’t come to the original Persona looking for that. The story is there, and carries some of the themes of later Persona titles, such as finding out more about yourself. However, this is not given the depth and care that is seen in Persona 3 or 4. The story is more there simply to give you a reason to go to another place to explore and fight, a propellant as opposed to a main feature.
Although the story is not a main feature, there were changes made from the original PS1 version to the story that really needed to be made. As stated earlier, changes were made to make the game more Western-audience friendly. This was done with the subtlety of a Michael Bay movie. The game was essentially white-washed, with the characters’ skin tones made lighter, Yen changed to Dollars, and names changed to sound American. Most offensively, the character Masao, who was changed to Mark, was also made to be a black person speaking in Ebonics.
Luckily all of this was reverted in the PSP remake and this feels like Japan again. This reversion also comes with the second scenario; almost a second game that was taken out of the North American version of Persona on the PS1. Also the music was given an overhaul by music regular, Shoji Meguro, and is simply amazing. I would often find myself keeping a fight going on longer just to hear the battle theme, which is as memorable as anything that would come to Persona 3, 4, and even Persona Q. This is one of those games where it is worth it to grab the soundtrack on Amazon if you can.
Is this game perfect? No. It is an obviously old title that got a facelift in all the places such a game can be changed. But it is a menu heavy, slow affair that is definitely not for everyone. You new patience above all else, a willingness to grind a lot of newer RPG’s try their best to mitigate. It’s a long game, and a tough game that requires forethought to get through even random battles. Simply hammering on the attack option like this is Final Fantasy VII will only serve to get you killed.
If this type of game appeals to you though, it is definitely a game worth playing. It shows a clear through-line of the SMT roots of the series, and where Persona would quickly strike out and stake its own claim in the RPG world. It makes a strong case for itself quickly, and knowing where this series goes, it was certainly nice to see how it started.
Final Score: 4/5