Thursday, April 28, 2011

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona (video game)

Platform: PSP
Developer: Atlus
Genre: RPG
ESRB Rating: T
Release Date: September 22nd, 2009

Can we all agree that the Playstation era was a bitchin' time for RPG's? Seems like that system had a truckload of classics in the genre. Many of them hold up pretty well to this day, despite now antiquated graphics*.

Today, I'm going to talk about one that hasn't aged gracefully; this game's the equivalent of a hundred year old man who's nothing but skin and bones kept alive through an IV drip and an oxygen mask.

The story is that you're a group of students at a local high school. In this school rumors about gaining magical powers by circling a room are apparently taken at face value, so you find yourself goaded into doing this by the class jerkoff. Shockingly, it works and each student finds themselves with a "Persona", or basically some spirit thing that gives them abilities and determines their strengths and weaknesses.

Because this is clearly not something to be overly concerned with, they then proceed to a hospital to check on a friend. Then demons invade because what the hell else were you going to use your Persona for, cooking? Clearly, this must be stopped, so off you go to find some baddies to stomp.

This PSP port is billed as a remake, but the truth is that it's really more of an upgrade. When I think remake, I think rebuilt from the ground up. When you look at screenshots of the original and this, however, it's obvious that little has really changed. The graphics are essentially the same - even the neat first person dungeon crawling view has it's early Playstation pixelation intact - the gameplay hasn't really changed - which is the real shame - and the music seems the same. That's... a lot of things left as is for a "remake".

So what has changed? The script, mostly; while I haven't played the original localization, what I've seen makes it clear the new translation is leagues ahead of it. There's less Americanization as well. Hell, they even kept Mark as a goofy white graffiti artist instead of randomly changing his race. There's an entirely separate quest line available that was never localized in the original edition. Cut scenes were apparently touched up too, switched over to more of a cel shaded look - they still look like really bad early CG animation with a new coat of paint though.

The graphics are... well, dated. The isometric view for rooms with NPC's and battle scenes look alright for their age, but the first person dungeon crawling definitely retains that old "early Playstation" look. Oh, have I mentioned the cutscenes? I really do not get why, if they were serious about the "remake" aspect, they didn't give it a facelift or redo this stuff entirely. Say what you want about Square, but if this was one of their projects the visuals would have been rebuilt from the ground up.

The gameplay is where this old game just falls apart. It's clear the developers were going for something different with this game, but clearly forgot that different doesn't necessarily mean good. Each character has different weapons and skills, all of which have attack ranges. You place your characters anywhere on a grid on your side. Neat idea, but far from practical; if a character doesn't have an enemy in range of any of his attacks, he's going to sit there like a doofus unless you waste a turn switching the positions up.

The result is a combat system that feels boring. Mix with the fact that this is one of those "two or three steps before a random encounter" games and you've got a recipe for trouble. The battle system wears out its welcome before the halfway mark. I'm usually not averse to level grinding, but games like this make the process extremely tedious.

Speaking of leveling, that's another problem. This game went with the lovely idea of having experience for each party member depend on how much damage they've done. You probably know where I'm going with this. Eventually, a party member is going to lag behind the others in level pretty significantly. This party member is usually Mark, who sucks. So they end up being little more than canon fodder for a turn or two. This is not the best leveling system I've ever encountered.

Oh, there's the phases of the moon thing, too. As you play the game, it cycles through the different phases. In theory, this is supposed to give different advantages and disadvantages depending on the phase. In practice, it does little of value. Aside from giving you a bit of a head start on negotiations with the monsters during a certain phase, it really doesn't affect the game much at all, or at least not in a way that's very apparent, making it a worthless feature.

It's not all bad though; occasionally there's a good idea hidden in the rough. In this game, you're able to contact your enemies and try to befriend them, with the rewards ranging from spell cards used to conjure up new personas to items. Each characters has different ways of interacting with monsters and not all of them will appreciate the same responses. Obviously, if you fail, there are drawbacks, but it adds an interesting wrinkle. Why not just talk your way out of a situation from time to time, right?

I also liked the fact that, depending on your choices, you can basically pick your fifth party member. Unfortunately, you can't mix and match your party with the available options - otherwise, Mark would be the first to go given his general uselessness - but the option is nice to have and was still relatively novel in RPG's back in '96. It just didn't happen very often - in the RPG's people actually played, at least - barring a notable exception or two.

A lot of other mechanics are kind of confusing, though. The game does allow you to have guided creation of personas, but manual is like an odd puzzle without a clear solution. You really don't know what will affect what and the possibility of creating fusion accidents is frustrating. There are so many variables involved with it that even the basic instructions given to you don't help much, leaving guided fusion as the preferable option.

Mechanics like this seem to come with the expectation that you were probably going to drop a twenty on a strategy guide - remember those days? - to help you grasp it. Even with free game FAQs readily available online, I still don't care for needlessly obtuse things like this. The kind of guesswork required by things like the manual fusion of this game is not the fun kind.

Sounds a bit iffy as well. The voiceovers are pretty iffy for an upgrade made about a year ago - I assume they didn't bother redubbing - and sometimes some of the music can get a bit grating. Usually video game music is fantastic and easy to listen to over and over again. This game uses some ambient scores with plenty of j-pop. Listening to a battle song over and over every time you have a random battle is much easier when there aren't vocals.

The Score: 6 out of 10

I'm afraid I can't really recommend it. I'm interested in some of the ideas put forth here, so I'll be back for the sequels, but this game doesn't really stand the test of time. Why Atlus didn't just go the full remake route, I haven't a clue, because this game has aged badly. It's very easy to find yourself bored around the halfway mark. It's probably only worth it if you're a die-hard Persona fan; otherwise it's a relic that was probably better left buried.

* Antiquated is my way of being nice. Seriously, I cannot believe the crap we used to think was stunning back in the late nineties. Back then 3D models were the new, shiny thing, so it was a big step forward, but good lord do some of those games look like ass. I suppose time's affected my opinion on this though; I'm used to the HD era, which is a stark contrast to the blockiness of early 3D modeled games. They just don't hold up like 2D sprites do, but back then it was an exciting new frontier. Ah well.

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