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tehlvler avatar 12:24 AM on 03.30.2008  (server time)
Megami Tensei Retrospective: Persona

Megami Ibunroku Persona

Persona 3 is considered, by many gaming magazines and websites, to be the best RPG of 2007. However, Persona hasn't always been such an acclaimed series. The first Persona game was more of a sleeper hit, especially in North America. It came a long way before becoming an extremely successful franchise.

Megami Ibunroku Persona, released on the PlayStation in 1996, was the first game of the series. For its time, it had a really interesting story. Some elements of it might feel generic nowadays, but compared to most RPG, it's a really imaginative story. The game starts off with a high school student playing, with his classmates, a silly game called Persona. During the game, the shadow of a little girl appears and then they lose consciousness.

During that time, they all do the same dream about butterflies and a masked man named Philemon. This masked man explains to them that their identity is shaped by numerous selves living inside of them. Those selves, called Persona, can be summoned to fight during battles.

After waking up from that bizarre dream, things start to get really weird in the city. While visiting Maki, their hospitalized friend, demons starts spawning everywhere, causing a great chaos. Armed with their Persona, guns and swords, the group of high school kids wanders around the city to try to figure out what's going on. During their journey, they find out that the problems are somehow linked to a corporation named Sebec, and to Maki's mother who's working there. As the story progresses, the main characters gain some kind of maturity and gradually start to understand more about their own selves, which is an important aspect of the Persona series.

Another essential part of the Persona series is the tarot card system. Unlike other Megaten games, when you communicate with demons, instead of trying to recruit them, you have to convince them to give you tarot cards. Then, you can fuse those cards to create new personas. To do so, you have to go to a bizarre blue room that only persona users can see; The Velvet Room. In that room, you'll meet Igor, an interesting character that looks like the Penguin from Batman. Igor and his Velvet Room will return in every single Persona games. He is some kind of trademark for the series.

The tarot card system is quite interesting, but there is one big problem. When you create a persona, you have to level him up in order to unlock its strongest attacks. Maxing up a persona takes forever, so when I found personas that I liked, I never felt like changing them for newer personas because I didn't wanted to do the grinding again. As a consequence, I've played 90% of the game with the same personas.

You may wonder why I didn't want to grind to get super badass personas. Well, the main reason is because the battle system is absolutely terrible. The designers of that game seemed to have tried to create a really complex battle system, but those complex elements only made the battles more tedious. Your characters are placed on a grid, and every weapon, spell, or gun has an attack range. According to your weapons and personas equipped, you have to place your characters on the correct spot to be able to attack the enemy. People who like chess or turn-based strategy games might like this concept, but personally, I thought it was just annoying. Since when can I only shoot people in front of me with a pistol? I've never seen a short range gun beforec

However, there is an even more annoying part of the battle system. After a battle, depending on how well they did during the battle, each character get a different amount of experience points. This means that, in order to level your characters equally, you cannot just spam your best spell to kill the enemies in one shot every battles. You have to make every character useful. However, you can easily abuse this system by making your useless characters cast healing of buffing spells. Even if everybody is already fully healed or buffed, the caster will still gain tons of experience.

If you ever thought that Final Fantasy VIII battles were painfully long because of the summons, it's because you never played Persona. I think I've never seen such slow battles before in any other RPG. They are so slow that, most of the time, thanks to the auto-battle mode, I was studying or doing my homeworks during battles. I was enjoying the fact that I could do something productive while playing a videogame, but again, this only proves the fact that the battle system sucks.

As for the graphics, you can judge by yourself by watching the screenshots. They are kind of a mixed bag. Since during the mid 90's 3D was the new big thing, they filled this game with CG videos. For 1996, those CG scenes look pretty decent but Philemon, the masked man seen in the main characters' dreams, moves like a character from the old Thunderbirds TV show. If I had seen those scenes when the game was released, my head would have exploded, but now, they just look funny. It's always amazing to see how much 3D evolved over the past 10 years.

The actual gameplay is a mix of different kinds of graphics. The overworld is in third person bird view. The level of details is pretty high for a PSOne game, but there are no textures at all. In dungeons' corridors, the view is in first person. This time, everything has textures, but there are fewer polygons. Except 2 or 3 switches in the entire game, those corridors are completely empty, so if you see a corridor on your map leading to nowhere, don't bother exploring it. When you enter a room, the view turns into third person isometric 2D. Those rooms are highly detailed have beautiful art style. I wish the entire game was in that view.

During conversations, character portraits are displayed. Those portraits are nice, but they don't have that clean professional finish that characterize modern Megaten games. I realize I'm just nitpicking there. For a first generation PSOne game, the graphics are pretty good.

Besides the annoying battle system, thanks to a nice story, great ambient music, and decent 32 bit graphics, this game is quite enjoyable. Depending on the choices that you make during the game, the ending can change. You have to make the most morally correct choices to get the best ending.

Your last party member will also vary depending on the choices you make. If you do a lot of complicated stuff, you can even get a secret character. I think it's impossible to get that character without using a walkthrough. He's one of the strongest and most badass characters of the game, so it's worth going through all the efforts to get him.

In the Japanese version, you can even do the incredibly hard Snow Queen quest, which is not just an optional quest, but a completely different storyline. For some reason, this quest was removed from the North American version. Maybe it was due to its difficulty or time constraints.

I think they went a bit too far into the localization of that game. They altered most of the portraits, and even changed one of the main characters into an African American. Instead of wasting time into details like that, they should have spent more time into writing a decent translation. I've never played the North American version, but I've heard that the translation is so bad that sometimes it's difficult to figure out what's going on. It's kinda sad that the first Megami Tensei game released in North America was butchered to this point.

Even if I'm a huge fan of the Persona series, it's difficult for me to recommend playing the first one. The fact is that the other Persona games are so much better, so I'd rather recommend those. All the problems of this game have been corrected in its sequels. However, I have to give some respect to the first Persona. If this game was never released, we would never have seen Persona 3, one of my favorite games of all time. I can't wait for Persona 4!

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