PSP Review: Shin Megami Tensei – Persona

Persona 3 on PS2 has completely changed the landscape of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise in the West. Surely previous outings such as Nocturne (or known as Lucifer’s Call in some regions) and Digital Devil Saga had created a cult following. But Persona 3 has propelled the series into mainstream attention with a well-written story; option based level grinding on top of a date simulation game. The innovative approach to the franchise with its famous “Evoker” summoning had raised the eye-brows of critics who think turn base RPGs are dead.

Summon your inner persona...

The strength of Shin Megami Tensei, which in Japanese means “the new rebirth of the goddess” is that it does not care about tradition but using similar sets of parameters to create a completely new games with different gameplays and experiences. Unlike Final Fantasy, which seems to be on its end of creativity, Shin Megami Tensei continues to surprise us with different outings from the action based Devil Summoner to the tactics flow of Devil Survivor. So it was a bit surprising that Atlus decided to go back to its roots and release the original Persona on PSP.

The game is in fact something between a re-release and a remake but certainly it is built more specifically for the PSP. The game story revolves around a bunch of high school kids trialling a persona summoning ritual but the end results were far more than what they expected. Originally timelines seemed to have messed up but then the existence of parallel worlds and the distortion of dimensions left the kids fighting their way to survive while trying to make things right again. In order to survive, they will need to summon their inner persona, call upon new ones and negotiate their way through the demonic dimension. Igor, the persona master is their to help them on fusion, but at the end of the day it’s how they master their personas and work together as a team that could help them get out of this mess.

What the heck???!!!

The game plays out as a traditional turn based RPG that I can see a lot of critics shaking their heads. However, as an old game, it is better to play to its strength than messing up with the formula. The turn based battle system turns out to be very strategic. Unlike a lot of other turn based battle systems, you can either fight or negotiate your way out of battles. If you choose to fight, you will have a lot more choices in your fighting style, from striking with weapon, shooting with guns or summoning your persona.

Fighting: the way you can fight varies and you really need to know the weaknesses of your enemies in this game to survive some really tough random battles. Different characters use different weapons and the range and pattern they can attack is weapon dependent. So there will be situations that you can’t fight with your weapon but need to use other options such as guns and skills. Guns are the same with weapons but have wider range and higher hit rate, although the damages are much lower. As for skills they are more flexible but determined by the persona you equipped. Switching persona (you can have 3 equipped at one time) takes up one turn, so you will want to be ready before the battle starts instead of wasting a precious turn to switch over. Also if you get ambushed the attack range and pattern will be affected, thus thorough thoughts are required to create an all round team. If you managed to exploit your enemies’ weakness, you will deal extra damages. However, unlike other games, you do not gain an extra turn in Persona PSP.

Battle time!

Negotiating: if you want to avoid confrontation (especially with tough enemies) you can negotiate your way out of a battle through the Contact option. Different enemies have different “personality” so choosing the right negotiation skill is very important. Luckily your party member of 5 each comes with a different set of skills for this purpose. The aim of negotiation could be getting spell cards to fuse new persona for yourself or get an item, some experience, some money or just to scare the enemy away. However, the road to negotiation is not always easy as in order to get some enemies to join you, you may need to sacrifice some HP or items to show your sincerity. You may think what’s the point then? But once you have an enemy spell card in your pocket, you can avoid them attacking you in the future. This will be extremely useful if there are enemies that always cause lethal status like group charming on your party. Contacting them again after you got their spell card can yield you items, healing or simply them leaving the battle. This kind of advantage can sometimes really help you to get through tough and deadly areas in the game. However, one must note that if the set of enemies left the battle, no experience point (except the ones the enemies said they are giving you) is earned.

Badly negotiated...

Persona PSP has a very complicated development and affiliation system for both your characters and your persona. While both you and your persona level up in battles according to the actions performed, your character does not earn or learn any skills from levelling up. You assign points to your main character like you did in Devil Summoner (the game do that for you for the rest of the cast) but what skills you learn really depends on your persona. All characters come with a set of “best affiliated” persona but if you want to proceed through the game with greater ease, getting new ones are essential. You can get new ones through Igor by fusing them in the Velvet Room but how well your persona will grow depends on its affiliation with you and other characters. Personas with best affiliation with your characters grow faster while those with low affiliation grow a lot slower. Although persona stats grow with levelling up, skills are learnt through ranking up. So the more you use that persona the faster it ranks up. However, using persona involves Skill Points (SP) and later persona will require more skill points for actions as compared to the ones that originally came with the characters. Further, weaknesses and strength (depending their arcane order and type) of your equipped persona will be carried over to your characters, so you do need to think about the enemies and situations before equipping your persona.

Graphics wise, the game is a mix of great and basic graphics. Dungeon exploration is in a first person view with a mini map to help you. The environments are bland and most of the time grainy and uninteresting. When you enter a room it will change to a third persona view in a squarish environment where you can interact with others. The set up of these rooms are basic and repetitive too. The game will look a lot better if it can deploy Persona 3 style of dungeon exploration maps instead of basic first person view environments. On the other hand the anime cut scenes were beautifully made and the great thing is you can watch them again in the movie viewer after you unlocked them.

Mommy I'm bored...can we go home now?

One of the main issues with this game is the over saturation of random battles. While it is compulsory to level up in this kind of game, the frequency of random battles in this game can put a lot of people off. A lot of times, you’ll get a random battle every 4 to 5 steps and if you got ambushed you lost your orientation after the battle. You will then need to check the mini map again to find out which way you are going. The mini maps are helpful only for immediate proximity and you will be visiting the big map that only shows visited areas frequently to find your way out of dungeons. The bland environments in the dungeon certainly didn’t make random battles and dungeon exploration a fun experience either. The game does have a great soundtrack with catchy tunes that attempts to keep your momentum going. However, the great tunes still couldn’t salvage the frustration you built up with the 100th random battle you got into within a space of 20 steps.

Overall Shin Megami Tensei: Persona PSP is a solid game in the franchise and certainly a solid RPG on PSP. However, it is a pity that Atlus did not incorporate a lot of improvements we saw in Persona 3 in this game. It will certainly please a lot of hard core RPG players with its engaging and complicated development and battle system, but it falls short to attract new audiences to the franchise because of its steep learning curve.

Rating: ★★★★★★★½☆☆

About the Author

Level up freak. Level 99 is a norm not a goal. Love my JRPGs and RPGs in general. Also love my platformers and puzzle games. Was addicted to Zoo Keeper, Magnetica, Animal Crossing, Disgaea DS, Dragon Quest IX and White Knight Chronicles. Prefer to spend my time away from gaming as an actor although do have a full time job that keeps my mortgage going. But generally love anything creative. And if anyone tells you gaming is a waste of time, tell them you have great eye, hand and brain coordinations that they will never have!