The original Shin Megami Tensei: Persona would never have seen a re-release on the PSP if not for the immense critical and financial success of Persona 3, Persona 3: FES and Persona 4. Those three games all rank in the top handful of roleplaying games on the PlayStation 2, and it could easily be argued that they are some of the best examples of the genre to ever hit retail shelves. Unfortunately, if you’re purchasing Persona PSP hoping to find more of what you loved in Atlus’ flagship series, be ready for disappointment.
Persona PSP is a product of the times – the times of 1996, to be exact. The world is navigated either by moving a generic cursor around a static 2D over-world map, walking through single-screen isometric rooms, or trudging through 3D, first-person dungeons one square at a time.
With the exception of those isometric rooms, which are generally item shops or other such locations,there’s the constant danger of being drawn into a random encounter. Many will recall that this trope was pretty common in 90s-era games; only the developers of Persona seemed to really enjoy this mechanism. Feel lucky if you manage to take half a dozen steps without being assaulted by screeching harpies or demons with suggestive crotch appendages.
Unlike the navigation, the combat in Persona PSP is surprisingly ahead of its time. On the one hand, there’s the annoying grid system which forces you to set your party up in a strict formation that best utilizes their attacks. While this does make controlling the combat a slightly more cerebral activity, there will often be battles in which only one or two of your characters can actually successfully hit opponents. On the other hand, you have the “Contact” system through which you can converse with your foes. The options range from Joke, Pontificate, to Dance, and if you choose the correct conversational options the villains can be convinced to leave you alone or give you cash or their demon cards.
Demon cards can be combined to create the series’ titular personas — characters taken from a handful of world mythologies that cast spells or attack on behalf of your characters, while also granting special statistical bonuses. Of course, if your attempts at chatting up the foe fail, there’s the risk of enraging them or giving them certain advantages in battle. It’s a lot like trying to explain to your girlfriend why you’d rather spend time with your friends than watch Sense and Sensibility with her parents: If you say the wrong thing your best move is trying to flee as quickly as possible.
Now, there’s nothing innately wrong with these gameplay mechanisms, but over the last decade we’ve grown to loathe them. Nowadays, games show us where our enemies are so we can choose to avoid them and instead of plodding through narrow 3D corridors, we’re used to exploring lush, fully realized environments. Realizing how archaic the original Persona must seem compared to even the worst modern roleplaying titles, Atlus decided to add a spit-shine to some of the game’s aesthetics and audio.
Specifically, they upgraded the cutscenes. Interspersed throughout the remake are short vignettes that blend the modern Persona style with that of the original game. Now instead of sitting through long blocks of dialogue – though there is still lots of that – you can sit back, drink a cold beverage and watch as your fully animated party members stare slack-jawed at the confusing events taking place around them. Likewise, almost all of the original Persona’s music has been replaced with a score from Shoji Meguro. If that name means nothing to you, just know that he’s the man behind all the fantastic tunes in the original PlayStation 2 Persona games.
Still, all the shiny cutscenes and J-pop in the world can’t cover the fact that Persona PSP is an attempt by Atlus to release a decade old game. There are two distinct groups of people I could see enjoying Persona PSP for what it is: those who lived through 90s-era RPGs and get a nice nostalgia hit from this retread or those willing to overlook the game’s archaic gameplay because they love the setting and characters so much. I fall into that latter camp.
In a world where “RPG” either means “overwrought, angst-ridden Final Fantasy” or “medieval fantasy romp,” it’s nice to be able to spend a few hours roaming a Japanese town with a group of sarcastic teenagers. Like the latter day Persona games, the characters in Persona PSP are all unique and individual and have some of the best dialogue in any Japanese-style roleplaying games before or since. You simply won’t hear jokes about dating animated toilets in Final Fantasy XIV.
In the end, that’s really what this review boils down to: Can you see yourself spending dozens of hours in a world solely because you enjoy its characters, or does the idea of random battles and archaic dungeon crawling turn you off? It works for me, but just barely.
Recommendation: Though not for everyone, the world of Persona PSP is enjoyable. Assuming you can get past the game’s 90s era gameplay.
Bottom Line: Only hardcore Persona fans or masochistic RPG devotees need apply.
Earnest “Nex” Cavalli once asked a girl for her “Demon Card” and was kicked in the groin.