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Persona (PlayStation)

72
MobyRank
100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
3.5
MobyScore
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  Oleg Roschin (164863)
Written on  :  Dec 26, 2003
Rating  :  3.8 Stars3.8 Stars3.8 Stars3.8 Stars3.8 Stars

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Summary

Zhuangzi dreams of butchered localizations

The Good

Persona is the starting point of a successful off-shot series of Megami Tensei (or simply "Megaten"), a unique franchise within the realm of a cliche-ridden, conservative genre. Unlike other Japanese RPGs, Shin Megami Tensei didn't choose to glorify simplified Ultima mechanics with "kawaii" aesthetics and hours of cutscenes. Instead, it honestly admitted its derivation from Wizardry and added demon conversation and summoning to the maze crawling.

Persona is somewhat of a compromise between the unusually dark, abstractly shaped Megaten and the more character-driven, accessible mainstream Japanese RPGs. There was always horror in Megaten games, but it was the horror of destruction, of the struggle between godly powers, of human life turned meaningless in front of cosmic disasters. In Persona, a different kind of horror appears - the cozy horror of a small town, of a closed society, of our dark thoughts, of nightmares coming true. While the game ultimately doesn't succeed in creating a convincing horror atmosphere, it deserves praise for deliberately avoiding the cheerful tone of its genre brethren. .

The game preserves many classic gameplay elements of the series. Unlike earlier Megaten games, you can't summon demons here, but you can "equip" a fused demon (called persona) on your characters, changing their parameters, strengths and weaknesses, and making them learn different spells. There are two kinds of weapons for every character - sword and gun, and therefore two types of attack that do different damage to different foes. Your position on the battle field matters, as you can't attack with a sword from a back row, and many spells are restricted to areas. The moon phase that influences the demon behavior is also still there.

While the graphics are rather plain (the isometric locations look quite sad), some of the textures in the dungeons are fairly detailed, and the sound is generally well-done. The exploration of dungeons is accompanied by the echoing sound of footsteps, and most of the times, the music is appropriately eerie and is often nothing else but a bizarre composition of sound effects. For example, the music of Deva Yuga dungeon is composed of voices that feverishly keep repeating strange phrases - perhaps voices of dead people, demons, or angels, who came to warn you?

There is one thing I really like in the infamous English localization, and that is the reduction of random battles. Slow combat speed and enemies popping out after every few steps are a lethal combination.

The Bad

The gameplay of Persona lacks both the refinement of main Shin Megami Tensei titles and the polish of its sequels. It feels more like a somewhat disjointed combination of different concepts than a really satisfying experience. In a way, this is symbolized by the game's choice of perspective: the transition between first-person 3D exploration and isometric battles is jarring, and neither mode is satisfying enough on its own to make it tolerable (unlike Albion, which had a similar problem). Combat is thoroughly unexciting, being slow and unspectacular at the same time - something that single-handedly ruined many a Japanese RPG. There are some strange balance issues with overpowered spells on certain Personae that turn much of the game (even the harder Japanese version) into a cakewalk. Tiresome RPGs often triumph if their difficulty is high enough to challenge our competitive instincts, and easy RPGs can be saved by fast and painless battles. Sadly, Persona takes the worst out of both types.

The English version of the game is sadly known for its weird localization that took unnecessary liberties with the setting, attempting to replace Japan with USA and changing names and backgrounds of all the characters accordingly, going as far as painting a character's face brown to make him African-American. A bigger problem is the quality of the translation, which includes terrible phrases that even the most retarded students of English language wouldn't dare to utter. Spelling errors are common (for example, you often win in battles a stone called amethest). A good translator should possess sufficient knowledge about the contents of the original work. So if said work starts with a Zhuangzi quote, he should not translate the name of that famous Chinese philosopher as Soshi, which is merely the Japanese pronunciation. The localization also removes a side quest that contained a huge optional dungeon and a different ending to the game.

Unfortunately, the writing of the original Japanese version is not that much better. I think Atlus was trying to distance itself from the impersonal, abstract Megaten characterization, which resulted in a cast of characters that seem to be there just to annoy you. They lack complexity and depth, and are too stereotypical and one-sided. They usually behave according to their teenage labels, and it's a pain to drag them around and listen to their conversations. The story itself is also by far less intriguing than in the next installment of the series.

The Bottom Line

Persona is an interesting title that helps infuse Japanese RPGs with much-needed personality and original ideas. But the awkwardness of its design make it lose to the more edgy Megaten predecessors and its own superior sequel.