After discovering the series by way of spin off game Persona 4: Arena, a rough introduction to its RPG roots by Persona 3 Portable, and finally warming up to it through Persona 4: Golden, a PSN sale for some weeks ago finally convinced me to try and visit the series roots, in the form of the Persona and Persona 2 PSP remakes. Having finished the later (recommended as a stepping stone before dealing with the original installment archaic gameplay design), wanted to share some thoughts about it, and maybe push somebody still in doubt into giving it try (as once I was!). No spoilers this time!
First things first: if you are expecting Social Links and high school life shenanigans, prepare to be disappointed. While the main characters are senior years, and the story indeed kicks off in between classes, this installment focuses completely on solving the mysteries happening through the city, in a linear, dungeon-scene-world map sequence. However, this also makes it keep a better sense of urgency, and skips situations of having to “wait a few days” for something to happen in order to continue dealing with the main plot, which goes like this…
In Sumaru City (ominously shaped in the form of the Ying-Yang symbol), strange occurrences start to occur with increasing frequency, as if rumors were becoming true one after the other. Moving statues? Bathroom ghosts? The black market? All of them suddenly real. The most popular one at the moment being that, by calling your own cell phone number, a shady figure who goes by the name of Joker will make your dreams become true. But at what cost?
In contrast to the next games in the series, in which the threat at hand was only known by the main characters, this time the whole city is aware of the fact, and plays a big part of the plot in it’s resolution. The journey also takes the characters through many normal, daily life places (museums, clubs, stadiums, etc,) in which supernatural happenings are taking place, instead of otherworldly planes. You even get your equipment from shopping malls and can go gambling at the casino!
The combat system is very classic style, with a simple turn system: elemental weaknesses only deal extra damage and there are no extra turns, knockdowns or All-Out attacks, while all characters are free to change Personas (instead of only the main character). There is no Shuffle Time, instead, demons can be “contacted” to convince them to give summoning cards, by the way of answering their questions accordingly, or choosing the correct option from a list of conversation topics, according to their personality (talking about the meaning of life with an intelligent demon or cracking a joke for a naive one). These summoning cards can be used on the series staple Velvet Room, where its usual resident Igor will use them to call forth new Personae for the party to use. No cute assistant this time, though.
Differences with later installments aside, the gameplay is solid and the graphical style is also really cool, using a mix of sprite work and 3D for the buildings, with some of the later Personae (like Hades) and enemies looking really awesome, along with clean, big conversations portraits which convey easily identified moods. The music lacks J-Pop vocals, and sticks to a more traditional sound style, but the battlethemes are really good and don’t get as tiring as later ones (I’m looking at you, Mass Destruction >.>;). You can also save anywhere, anytime, which helps a lot on the later dungeons.
However, it’s necessary to talk about the ugly parts: this being an older game, some design choices take a toll on the fun factor, in definitively non-ignorable ways. The main offender is the absolutely atrocious random encounter rate, which completely rips the flow of the game and can get Vita (or PSP) throwing levels, as enemies appear every 6 or 8 steps in later dungeons. Combat animations, while very detailed, take a long time and feature strange pauses, which can make battles take a long time. Luckily, there is the option to turn them off, and an auto-battle setting, but these contribute to make it feel even more archaic. Personally, I turned animations off for random battles and on again for boss battles. Menus (in and out of battle) are a little clunky, with many confirmation prompts thrown about unnecessarily. In all, it takes a special kind of patience to get through the game, so have that in mind before buying.
With this being said, I think these faults are worth dealing with, as the plot and characters are very interesting (Eikichi is very effective and likeable in his role as the joke character, unlike Junpei…), and the setting makes for a great change of pace from the other ones, as references to real world rumors and legends are plentiful, and even have a profound impact on the plot! What seems really out of place at times, has a perfect explanation later on, and makes everything click nicely at the end. If you liked Persona 4 or 3, or are a fan of urban fantasy styled RPG’s, it’s well worth a shot, just have in mind that it is an old game, and that it is best played in short bursts (like, say, waiting for the bus or in between classes). Thanks for reading!