Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Perspective: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 1 & 2 (PS1)

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persona_box Persona2_box innocentsin_box

I’ve only just begun Persona 3 with about five hours under my belt, but already I can tell I’m going to like this game. It’s a massive hybrid of so many genres woven together in a nice JRPG shell that sucks you in and gets you hooked, fast – just one more day, am I right? I’m glad to see that, too, because having just completed both Shin Megami Tensei Persona and Persona 2 (both Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment) I was beginning to fear I was missing something. That’s because by all accounts the first two installments in the Persona series (Persona 2 was split into two games and up until recently Innocent Sin was never technically available in the US) are a dated, rough ride through all of the confines and setbacks of traditional JRPGs along with a steep difficulty and very complex battle system to boot. From the start, both games are a daunting task and none of the remakes update the gameplay at all. In the end I only made it through with step-by-step instructions in a strategy guide, lots of patience, and a little luck. This is not what I signed on for and given the current landscape of this genre it appears that for most gamers the PS1 outings of Persona are caught between two amorphous worlds (much like the characters themselves) when the genre was drastically changing. After somewhere between 150-250 total hours to complete (there is no game clock, I’m completely guessing), a total of five different games, and an incredible hunger to extract the draw of the early iterations of the series I must issue a strong suggestion to bypass Persona’s roots and start with the third title, you’ll be thankful you did.

Establishing the PS1 Iterations

persona_1Persona games are always the story of a group of teenagers caught in a disaster that leads to the end of the world. Demons have fallen upon our world and threaten to end it (this is a common theme in all of the Megami Tensei titles, which revolve around demon summoning). Unlike most teens, this group is special because they can summon strong beings under their control, named “persona,” that can assist them in fighting these demonic forces. Not only that, but the group soon finds that they have transported to an alternative dimension where everything looks the same, but nothing feels or acts like they are used to.

They are unique in comparison to most JRPGs of the late 90s because they take place in the modern day. Almost every other title took place in a fantasy setting or the ever popular neo future or cyberpunk distant future. Despite the familiar setting, the minutia of the world in Persona games has that perfect tweak between reality and game. Along with the modern setting come locations and situations that any gamer can be familiar with including interpersonal relationships, the stress of school, and just trying to be around for your eighteenth birthday. When you’re first introduced to this world, at least in my case, you fall in love with it and settle yourself in for the long journey ahead.

Then the gameplay gets in the way and totally screws everything up. The series’ biggest flaw is that it’s overcomplicated and redundant in spite of itself. There’s a sense of urgency in every task you embark on (and lets not forget the world is coming to an end), so you would think that where to go next and tasks to perform would be clearly explained. Nope, without a guide I wondered around lost for hours before finally deciding that instead of writing down all the information that’s casually conveyed in volumes of dialogue that I could just get simple information like the next location to go to and speed up the process. Not only that, but the battle system is complicated, integrating a grid-based distance system when partaking in turn-based battles. This isn’t a bad thing by itself until you realize all of the options you have in battle with the “try it and see what happens” method clearly being the intended approach. You can battle with your melee weapon (and depending on class or gender of the character you can wield different items), your ranged weapon (always a gun, but again it’s gender and character specific), your persona(s) – each with their own set of moves and leveling moves, your items, the ability to interact with a creature, and to top it all off just about every other non-combative option I’ve ever seen in an RPG. I know some of you that have played Persona 3 and Persona 4 want to jump in and tell me it’s the same – it’s not, you’re wrong, it’s not streamlined at all like it is in the later titles. Most of the time you will get stuck trying to use a weapon that doesn’t have the right range or in an interaction that won’t net any results, which is frustrating because in many battles every decision counts. You can’t just ignore these options either, though, because each enemy has a complex system of what they’re vulnerable to, what they absorb, what they counter, and how they respond. You also need to communicate and interact to get more cards, the currency for which to buy personas, a fact that forced me to start over 10 hours in my first playthrough because I was unaware of. Even with a store bought guide I was overwhelmed just looking at all the charts, graphs, and profiles for the enemies, weapons, and battle system. I don’t know how you guys in the mid 90s did it, but I don’t have time for this.

persona_2

Aside from the complication, the games are severely slow paced and held back by all the worst aspects of JRPGs. Your random battles happen every three steps and in dungeons there are little invisible floors that give out and force you to backtrack through half the thing (with dozens of random battles in tow) in order to re-attempt to get around the gapped floor. The intro to Persona 3 is roughly an hour or two to get going and through your first “dungeon”, which took easily 5-10 hours in the originals. At first you fight all these random battles thinking you’re getting in some serious grinding and leveling nicely for the more tough fights, after which you realize that this is the normal pace of the game and you’ll be doing hundreds (literally) more fights to actually grind. It’s just too much repetition that slows the game’s pace and plot to a crawl. This is especially true in the first game, which I would have given up on long before the end had it not been for the fact that it was portable. Thanks to the fan translation, full use of a guide, and knowledge of the series tropes I went in to Persona 2 much more prepared for what lay ahead. The only repetition that I can speak positively of is the main theme songs. In all of these games you will hear one track replay for your entire adventure, and even though it’s an upbeat J-pop song that has awkward lyrics when translated to English, I loved them all. I can’t explain it, but I’m immediately hooked to all of the various main themes in each game and would gladly listen to them again and again even now.

As for what games I played, these are the games that have released for America (one is a fan translation):

  • Revelations: Persona (PS1), remade as Shin Megami Tensei: Persona (PSP)
  • Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 2 – Innocent Sin (PS1, Japan only, Fan remake available), remade as Persona 2: Innocent Sin (PSP, released in America)
  • Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 2 – Eternal Punishment (PS1, title of game in Japan only, it was released as Persona 2 in the US)

I played a few hours of all of these, but when it came to playing through and completing the game I played Persona on the PSP, Innocent Sin fan remake on a modded PS1, and Eternal Punishment on PS1 (I played the only version we got, the Persona 2 original game). Despite which version you play, the gameplay remains the same, which is the one thing I wanted to have updated.

Final Verdict

innocentsin_3Persona and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 2 are a lost art and those that played them when they first released have fond memories of the games. Unfortunately to the modern gamer there just isn’t enough time and patience to justify returning to the roots of the series. In truth, they all tell the same basic story and Persona 3 is just another re-telling with a modified interface and updated gameplay (exactly like we’ve seen with Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest). It pains me to say it, but if you played Persona 3 or 4 and think that going back to the originals might be a good idea, you won’t find much similarity between the early titles and the modern ones. At the same time there are some people who love nothing more than 100 hours of endless, mindless, grinding and learning every aspect of a game complete with huge flow charts. If this is your idea of fun, then these games and many others like it from the 80s PC world are here for the taking. As for me, it was an experiment that I admit will never happen again. I don’t feel accomplished to having played them, I just feel like I wasted far too much time when I should have just started with Persona 3.

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