女神異聞録ペルソナ (Megami Ibunroku Persona: Be Your True Mind)
Japanese Release: September 20, 1996
Retail Price: ¥6,800
US Release: 1996
Retail Price: $49.99
In Japan, Megami Ibunroku Persona: Be Your True Mind was released as a spin-off of the main Shin Megami Tensei series. Many ideas from the main series were brought over to this title including a heavy reliance on demons, conversation with those demons, a focus on Japanese locales, moon cycles, first person dungeons and the overworld map. However, in terms of storyline and flow, the titles differ rather strongly. Due to my lack of Japanese knowledge, however, the names in this section of the site will be based on the US version that was released afterwards.
The interesting thing about this title at the time of its release was how different it was from the general, RPG norm. It didn't focus on warriors and wizards, a foreign, medieval setting or an evil threatening an entire world. The characters, at heart, were normal students in a normal town. Of course, this town gets twisted and the characters inadvertently gain incredible powers, but it certainly was not another Final Fantasy.
In terms of gameplay, the title held onto much of its SMT roots. Players could still converse with demons, albeit in a different way. Conversation, as a whole, is deeper. It doesn't revolve simply around giving the demons money or items to their hearts content as much as it involves invoking certain emotions out of them. If you are able to interest a demon or make it happy, you're obviously going to get something far nicer out of it than if you frighten or anger it. Demons could no longer directly join your cause, but they still hold the important purpose of helping you out with items, money or, most imporantly, Spell Cards. Spell Cards can be fused at the Velvet Room. Depending on their level, demon group, the phase of the moon and which card you place first the fusion can result with different Personas. However, your characters must have a P-Level that is high enough to summon the stronger Personas.
The overworld is displayed with flat-shaded polygons and consists only of Lunarvale. Through the entirety of the game a force field of sorts keeps you from leaving the town. Luckily, the town itself is rather large compared to what people are used to in other console RPGs and takes a decent amount of time to visit from end to end. Upon entering these buildings you are presented with dungeons in a first person format. As you wander around maze-like corridors you'll come across various rooms you can enter. These smaller rooms are pre-rendered and contain various NPCs to speak with, items and save points. Your own team members will also be here and you can speak with them to get hints on what to do next as well as their general thoughts on issues at hand.
While in these dungeons and on the overworld map you can be attacked by demons. The battle system within Persona is turn based and relies on very specific choices from the player. Each character can carry a general weapon such as an axe or blade as well as a projectile weapon such as a gun. In addition to attacking with these weapons they can summon their Personas, use items they happen to be carrying or attempt to speak with the demons they've encountered. Demons are weak and strong to certain types of attacks, but your placement (which can be adjusted in the options) and their placement on the battle field is also of importance. Certain attacks do not reach the back row, for example, which can be both a benefit and a detriment.
In terms of overall presentation, Persona wasn't really going to win any awards upon its release and it certainly has not aged well. The graphics are largely simplistic in both craft and animation. Many of the character and enemies lose the qualities of Kaneko's original designs thanks to the small sprite work, but they are still identifiable. The dungeons themselves flow well because they consist of polygons, but they are generally uninteresting and poorly textured. The gameplay is also interspersed with short FMV sequences, but these two are largely poorly animated and designed. How much of an effect this has on the player really is up to their own preferences. Beyond the graphics the game does manage to do a lot of things well.
Sound fares much better overall. While the English voices aren't exactly great, they aren't commonplace enough to be a major issue. However, Philemon, who has the largest speaking role in the game (although it still is small compared to other games), is beyond bad and almost painful to listen to. The music and general sound effects have remained completely intact on their way over from Japan. Each character has a variety of samples which helps break up some of the possible monotony. The music itself is Japanese rock and pop-esque and, while subject to personal opinion, is largely very good and contains some really strong dungeon themes.
The main thing that brought this game down for many players was the English localization. Names were heavily translated and many bear no resemblance to their Japanese originals. The main issue here is that despite all changes to the game to remove us from Japan the game contains such oddities as Shinto Shrines and Japanese song lyrics. Mark was changed into a young African American character for the release, which would not have been a major issue if it wasn't for his largely stereotypical dialogue. Various other characters were edited slightly. The translation itself had random references to American television shows and concepts, removed most mythological references for the demons and Personas and was generally just poorly written. The title was also obviously changed to Revelations: Persona and was marketed as the "first in the Revelations series". The only other game that was released under this was Revelations: Demon Slayer, a title that had absolutely nothing to do with Persona and was instead a localized version of yet another spin-off, Megami Tensei Gaiden: Last Bible.
Atlus USA also toned down the difficulty of the game with various statistical changes. Enemies appear less often in the English version, have less Hit Points and give more Experience. Prices for various items are apparently even lower than a Yen to US Dollar conversion would require. Whether or not this is a problem largely depends on the player and his or her interest in higher levels of challenge. Regardless, Persona still remained one of the more difficult RPGs out there around the time of its release.
In addition to all of this, an entire quest was removed from the game. It involves the legend of the Snow Queen, told by Ms. Smith to your characters. She somehow has access to the mask of the Snow Queen, which transforms the school into an icy fortress and Ms. Smith into a version of the Snow Queen herself.. The dungeon still exists in the title but is completely unaccessible by normal means. One can access it through some Game Shark/Pro Action Replay codes, but all of the dialogue within the area is complete a mess of mixed Japanese and English. The general accepted excuse for its removal was simply that Atlus was trying to release the game in time for Christmas sales and decided to leave it out. Unfortunately release dates don't make much of a difference if you don't make a decent attempt to advertise your title. As such, Persona was largely forgotten by consumers. Today your best bet for finding a copy of this title is on eBay. As of this writing complete sets go for around $25 to $40 on average.