I knew it. I freakin’ knew it. I suppose some part of me has known it all along. I’ve got something that makes me different. Something that makes me unique. And no, it’s not my incredible good looks. Although that does fit the bill, too. I’ve got a power, something no one else has. Right now, I’m just not sure what to do with it. Maybe I’ll be a superhero, using it to make the world a better place. Then again, I don’t think there’s much call for a superhero with the power to make developers release more games by writing huge amounts of words about a series.
Don’t give my that look. Once might have been a coincidence. Yes, you could easily write off the fact that I started writing a retrospective series about Saints Row, only for Saints Row IV to release, as mere happenstance. Twice, though, that creates a pattern. The very month I posted my introduction for the Persona Retrospective, Atlus announced the next games in the series. Not just one game, either. Four new Persona games, all as a result of me putting my powers to good use. World, you are welcome.
Of course, that does mean that I actually need to retrospect these games, for the magic to work. Which should be easy enough. The Persona series is one of my absolute favorites. All the games in the series are strong, except for… the first… one… euuuuuuuuuugh.
Now I’m not sure it’s worth it.
Some background information here. I wasn’t kidding when I said the Persona series is special to me. Years ago, I was just about ready to give up on JRPGs altogether, when I found my way to Persona 4. I was blown away by it, falling in love with its world and characters, finding myself completely immersed in its strategic gameplay several steps above what most JRPGs were offering, and being incredibly drawn in by the games characters. I love that game so much, I’d marry it if US law would let me. Those bigots. That game still remains the best JRPG I’ve played, and has a strong position as one of my favorite games. Working backwards from there was a joy as well. Persona 3 had its odd gameplay choices, but the story and characterization were both very strong and the game itself was quite fun to play. Persona 2 showed me an odd style of gameplay I never would have thought worked, but they actually managed to make a great offering out of it.
Then came Revelations: Persona, which managed to insult me on a personal level.
And no, it wasn’t the bad translation that did it. It wasn’t the old school design, the weird experimentations, or the excuse plot, although those certainly didn’t help. No, I can trace the piece that enraged me so much back to one specific moment.
Even if you play it bereft of context, the game’s still not very good. The dungeon design is horrible, the gameplay is overcomplicated, and the whole experience just shows a weird lack of thought. Still, I was firmly a Persona fan by the time I reached this game, so I was determined to stick it out and fully experience where the series got its roots. I did this for 30+ hours, finally reaching the final dungeon. The way dungeons were designed, you only ever got a save point/refresh station at the start. I had made use of those, then took my trek towards the final boss. I spent hours doing so, navigating the maze, the enemies, the various hazards, and managed to make it to the last floor. Just before I reached the boss, however, I was attacked by a new group of enemies. A group that quickly wiped out my party, save for my main character. Every enemy in this game has strengths and weaknesses, and those are a complete mystery until you’ve beaten them once. Fearful that any of my attacks could be reflected and kill me, I attempted to run. And failed. I tried again. And failed. I kept trying to run for seriously fifteen minutes, to no avail. My resistances were set up to where none of the enemies could damage me. However, not knowing what attacks they might reflect, I couldn’t safely strike out myself, without possibly ending my own life inadvertently. So I kept trying to run, but it wouldn’t let me go, no matter what I did. Finally, I tried casting a spell. Of course, it reflected and killed me in one blow. Back to the loading screen for me. Of course, with the way the game’s set up, the last save point was at the start of the dungeon, three to four hours earlier. All that work, all that time, wasted because the game refused to let me run and did not point more than one save point in that hours-long dungeon.
I immediately threw that game back on the shelf and never touched it for years. Not even after it got rereleased for the PSP. Not even when people tried to tell me it was a lot more lenient with the save points. Even when I had the PSP remake bought for me, I still never bother playing more than a token amount of it.
Eventually, I stopped being so bitter and gave it an honest try again. Still, some resentment lingers to this day.
So hey, there’s a note to start a good retrospective on, huh?
Man, JRPGs of this vintage are kind of an odd bag, aren’t they? Released in the dawn of the 32/64 bit era, console developers on these games had more tools than they every had before, and Final Fantasy VII hadn’t yet set the standard the genre would largely adhere to for years to come. The few JRPGs released in late ’95 through early ’97, the likes of Suikoden, Vandal Hearts, and our own Persona, all show signs of a great amount of genre experimentation but also quite a few missteps as developers explored the new boundaries of the medium.
Persona may have had a bit more foundation than others of the time, however, being built on the foundations of previous games in the Shin Megami Tensei series. Specifically, Persona seems to take a lot from Shin Megami Tensei If…, making heavy use of the high school setting established in the previous game and building its central mechanic around If…’s Guardian Spirit system, where a monster’s spirit would augment your stats and teach you abilities. I’ve heard it said the Atlus was seeking to use the first Persona game as a means of introducing the Shin Megami Tensei series to a wider audience, and that seems to play out with many of the changes in respect to previous SMT games. While they did make some… unusual gameplay choices, some of the biggest experiments in the game seems to be simply trying to implement traditional JRPG elements to the classic SMT formula. The most drastic change is that, rather than having your party made up of a devil summoner, his human partner, and a crew of ever-changing demonic mons, your group is now simply a bunch of humans who remain static throughout the game. The plot, well, it’s not exactly approaching War and Peace in game form, but it’s still a lot more prominent then in past MegaTens and involve a lot more of your characters, in fitting with the direction the genre was heading at the time. And moreover, this was the first game in the series to give you an isometric perspective we’ve come to know from countless SNES games. It wasn’t a prominent feature, you still had the traditional SMT first person perspective whenever you were going through dungeons, but it was still a significant concession to the standard JRPG model.
Persona was released to the western world in two forms. The first, just a few weeks after its Japanese release, came out as Revelations: Persona. It’s become well-known for a lot of things. It’s the second game in the Shin Megami Tensei series to be exported from Japan, after the Virtual Boy’s Jack Bros. It, of course, spawned one of the world’s most popular JRPG sub-series. But no matter how much acclaim this game gets, it will always be most infamous for its horrible, nonsensical, brain-burstingly bad localization. See, Atlus was a completely different company back then, and for some reason had the idea that they were going to start bringing the Shin Megami Tensei series stateside as the completely Americanized Revelations series. Most references to the story taking place in Japan were removed, with your characters redesigned and given western-friendly names, the setting shifted from a Japanese burg to an everyday American city, and, bizarrely, several of the Personae and demons given names that just don’t make sense. Additionally, they cut back on the number of random encounters and boosted the experience points gained, to make the game easier, and removed an alternate path through the game entirely, which I assume was done to finish it in time to closely follow the release of the Japanese version. The second version of the game, 2009’s remake simply titled Persona, adheres to the original much more closely, keeping the Japanese setting, names, and designs. It also provides a lot of changes to the game’s presentation, swapping the moody background music of the original for J-poppy tunes the series has started to identify with and switching the dated FMV movies and in-game scenes with some sharp cel-shaded cutscenes. They even restored the original difficulty and brought back the alternate route through the game. One major change they did bring in the new version, however, is the addition of several save points in most of the game’s dungeons. Even the final dungeon that caused me so much rage years ago now has a save point on almost every floor. And if you’re playing the new without ever playing the old, let me tell you that you had better be thankful for that.
So, I think it goes without saying that, for the purposes of this retrospective, I was playing through the PSP remake of the game. It didn’t change so much that I think it’s going to matter in this, but if you’re curious, that’s what I’m going to be basing the opinions herein on.
The Ground Floor
You remember all those stupid little folk games you played at parties when you were a kid? Say ‘Bloody Mary’ into a mirror in a dark room three times, and she appears to stab your face off. Fold a bit of paper just the right way, and you can use it to tell the future. Have a group of people chant the right things, and they can lift a person with just the strength of their fingers. Persona opens to a pretty similar theme, with a group of high schoolers who are supposed to be setting up for the school festival instead goofing off and playing the ‘Persona Game’, where, if you have four people walk from corner to corner in a room, you’ll supposedly see your future self. Where Persona takes a huge deviation from reality, though, is that this game actually works. Not quite in the way the participants expect, though. Instead of showing them who they’re going to be in the future, the game gives them superpowers. And well… I guarantee you’ve read worse superhero origin stories.
Turns out they need those superpowers, though. It’s not long after they play the game that demons enter the town, completely overrunning the local police and leaving the entire town a war zone, save solely for St. Hermelin High School, which is the sole safe haven in the entire city. For now. Can five high schoolers cut to the core of the demons’ arrival and set things back to the way they used to be? That’s really up to you to find out.
Luckily, those teenagers aren’t entirely defenseless against the demon horde. Playing the Persona Game has put them in touch with Philemon who has awakened each to their persona, which they draw strength from and can summon in battle to attack their enemies.
While the elements of Jungian Psychology aren’t as prominent in this game as they are in later entries, they’re still the central tenet to the game’s major mechanism. In the world of persona, Carl Jung wasn’t just a prominent psychologist, he was also the first persona user. His experiences with Philemon, the ‘wise old man’ he had identified in several writings as a spirit guide and product of the collective unconscious, as well as the powers he had gained led him to the creation of the field of analytical psychology. Personae are described in analytical psychology as the collection of traits one adopts to leave an impression on others and conceal the parts of the personality they don’t want to show. In this world, this vital part of the personality, this mask people adopt to face the world, can be awakened to a physical form, almost always that of a mythological deity, folkloric figure, or the like. These personae then arise when they’re needed in combat, offering their possessor greater strength, and using their extranormal abilities to attack enemies on behalf of their owner.
Obviously, given the game’s title, personae are pretty much the central pillar of the game. Casting magic, using special abilities, defending against spells, all of that relies on the character’s persona to do the heavy lifting, and growing and changing personae are one of the primary means of building up your character as well. There’s a few opportunities in the game for your characters to go into battle without their personae, and they’re pretty much useless in that state, showing why a bunch of high school students are the ones to bear the fate of the city on their shoulders. It’s this element of Jungian psychology that plays such a major part in both the gameplay and the plot that enables anyone to stand up against the demons arrayed against them.
It was really hard to appreciate at the time this first came out, given that this was one of the first games in the series the western world saw, but Persona’s gameplay is oddly composed of elements both old to the series and new to the genre in general, creating a weird, not entirely balanced mix. This is a game that was using the structure of the Shin Megami Tensei series thus far to try a lot of new things. This game came at a point where Atlus seems to have been trying out a lot of new things, putting together quite a few games experimenting with and developing the traditional MegaTen gameplay, all in different directions. Not all the new gameplay features worked well here, and quite a few were completely abandoned after the game was done, but it still makes for a mix that’s pretty interesting to analyze, if not to play.
Let’s start with talking about the old, before we get to the new. Early MegaTen games are… quite a bit different than what you’d expect from the JRPG genre. In fact, they draw far more inspiration from Western CRPGs like Wizardry and Might and Magic than they do from their JRPG contemporaries like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Persona had replaced a lot of that with more traditional JRPG elements, but they still maintain the firstperson viewpoint when exploring, and the absolute focus on diving through multi-layered dungeons to the exclusion of almost everything else the series had thus far. The game also maintains the series tradition of having all human characters armed with both melee weapons and guns, with each having different attack traits that can be chosen between on the fly in the midst of battles. And, of course, it wouldn’t be an SMT if you didn’t have a wide variety of mythological, legendary, and folklorish figures aiding you in battle, although how exactly they do that is quite a bit different than in previous incarnations. Gameplay still marks the traditional JRPG turn-based combat/dungeon exploration distinction. And demon negotiation, forging partnerships with your enemies, still plays a large role in gaining power and advancing through the game. Oh, and also, they still keep track of lunar phases as time passes by, although that has less of an effect here than it does in other games.
One of the biggest changes to the series, in fact one of the major things that distinguishes the Persona sub-series from the mainline SMT one, is in the party composition. Usually, you’ve got one or two human party members, who can wield both swords and guns, use items, and who may or may not be able to cast spells. The rest of your party is made up of slowly developing demons, the mons you collect throughout the game. For the first time, your party in Persona is made up completely of human characters, with all that entails.
You get a party of five characters this game, some of whom are mandatory and some of whom you’ll get to choose between. Every addition to your party is permanent, so the first five characters you pick up when given the choice are the only ones you’ll get. Characters differ primarily in the type of equipment they can use (which determines their attack traits), the persona they can equip, and their stat growth. You get free choice with how the main character gains stats as he levels, but everyone else has their progression set in stone.
It may seem like your party would be pretty inflexible, being composed of five characters you can never change. And there is some truth to that. However, you do get a fair amount of much needed variety through your characters’ abilities to swap personae. Which leads us into…
Ah yes, the main crux of the game. A persona is the force of the public aspects of one of your character’s personality made manifest as a diety, figure of legend, or other cultural being. Once awakened, these personae can be summoned for a brief moment into the physical realm, where they can launch an attack, use magic, or otherwise support their possessors. Personae work a bit differently here than veterans of the latest two Persona games may remember. Unlike the latest playable characters, everyone in your party in the first Persona received their abilities directly from Philemon, giving them a lesser version of the Wild Card trait. Basically, everyone can hold up to three personae at a time, and can switch between them at will.
Of course, they can’t use personae as freely as the protagonists of the most recent games. Both your characters and each individual character has a tarot arcana assigned to them, and characters can only use the personae their arcana is compatible with. You can have varying degrees of compatibility too, so characters aren’t always going to be able to get full benefit out of the personae they can equip.
Oftentimes, your characters will live or die based on the personae they have equipped, even if they never call them out in battle. Personae grant their possessor a number of passive benefits. The most obvious of which is the resistances and weaknesses they grant. Damage resistance and weakness plays a much larger role in this game than it does in most other JRPGs, and each personae you can equip has their own list of attacks they can and can’t handle. All personae are resistant in some way to some types of damage, whether that be by reducing the amount of damage they take from elemental attacks, being healed by physics-based magic, or reflecting physical attacks entirely, just to name a few. Most personae are also extra vulnerable to certain types of attacks, taking significantly more damage whenever hit. Managing your weaknesses and resistances is possibly the most important factor in managing your personae and can be a larger consideration than anything else. In fact, in this runthrough, I ended up beating the strongest boss in the game with mostly low-level personae, largely because they happened to be immune to her most powerful attacks.
Personae also have a separate array of stats, and if their stats are higher than the character using them, they’ll supplement that character’s statistics. If, for example, your main character has really low vitality, but has a personae with high vitality equipped, the MC will effectively get a few points added to his vitality score. How many points exactly depends on how good their compatibility is and how much the persona’s grown.
Magic power and magic defense also comes entirely from your persona. So while you do definitely have your designated caster characters, that’s only because they tend to have higher affinity with the types of personae that have better magic power. There’s no way a character can affect their magic ability through personal growth, beyond changing personae entirely. If you happen to be caught without a persona equipped, you’ve got an effective magic defense of zero and even the dinkiest little spell will instantly kill you. This applies to the gameworld as well; early on, the police are trying to fight back against the invading demons and being torn to shreds. As they don’t have personae, they don’t have any ability to resist magic, so you get a nice bit of gameplay-story integration there.
Ah, yes. Can’t have a JRPG without some good fights, right? You’ll probably be spending more time than anything else mired waist-deep in the game’s combat engine. Combat in Persona is pretty similar to some classic works you may have played before. You’ve got your team of five arrayed against the enemy squad, and you put in everyone’s commands at the start of the turn. Once you’ve finished telling them what to do, both you and the enemy go into action, executing their acts in an order determined by each character’s and enemy’s agility. Eliminate someone’s HP, and they’re out of the fight. Sounds simple enough, right? Yeah, except for one thing. It’s all grid-based.
Both you and your enemy have a five-by-five grid to place your characters onto. Each type of attack strikes a different range of squares. For example, axe attacks can hit any one enemy within a w-shape in front of the attacker, one handed swords strike within the first two rows, bows have great range and spread but can’t hit anything close to their wielder, rifles can strike most anywhere, etc. Most spells don’t have any limitation to where they can hit, and some of the stronger spells may even hit other enemies clustered near their target. You always need someone in the frontline, and if your entire first row gets taken out, your full formation moves forward until you’ve filled it again. If you don’t have any enemies in range, you can’t attack and your only choices are to defend, spend a turn moving to a different position, or cast something that supports your teammates. The system as a whole tends to lead to a lot of wasted turns, with characters becoming useless after they’ve taken care of the enemies directly in front of them. I never really found it as more than a mild annoyance, but for a lot of players, this is the biggest flaw of an already tattered game, so your mileage will definitely vary here. In any case, it’s certainly an unnecessary addition that doesn’t add much to the game while causing a lot of problems, but with an experimental game like this one, stuff like this is kind of expected.
One experimentation that worked out a lot better is the greater importance of weaknesses and resistances in combat. In fact, if you’ve played any recent SMT games, you probably know proper utilization of weaknesses and resistances to be one of the biggest factors in mastery of the game. While it doesn’t play quite as large a factor here, I believe this is where that system got it’s start, and is probably Persona’s biggest contribution to the mainline franchise as a whole. It functions pretty much as you’d expect: hit an enemy with something they’re weak to and you do extra damage, while if you use an attack an enemy’s strong against, you’ll find the amount of pain inflicted reduced, the attack healing your enemy, or your own blows flying back at your face. Not exactly breaking new ground there. What is innovative, however, is how absolutely omnipresent it is. Every single thing, from your enemies, to the bosses, to even your own characters, is resistant to at least a few types of attacks and, aside from a very few rare persona, weak to a few others. And absolutely every type of attack is affected by this system. Unlike in later games, there’s no Almighty element that’s unaffected. You have enemies who can absorb any type of magic, enemies who are weak to swords but strong against whips, personae who might reflect status spells but be weak to instant kill attacks, etc. Taking advantage of this weaknesses and resistances is often one of the biggest components of victory, and it makes a perfect compliment to the game’s system of switching persona, and thus your character’s own sets of resistances. As I stated earlier, this system’s affect on gameplay is so powerful that I used mostly mid-level personae to turn the strongest boss in the game into a complete joke purely by taking advantage of my available resistances. The impact this system has on gameplay cannot be understated.
Unfortunately, though, in what seems to be a running theme with this game, the weakness system here suffers from a lot of overcomplication. There’s just way too many attack types to keep track of. After you defeat an enemy type once, you do get access to a ready list of that enemies strengths and weaknesses, but even that’s not completely reliable, because it sometimes literally does not have enough space to list all the attack types that may abnormally effect that enemy. Just sticking with magic, you’ve got fire, ice, wind and earth elements, which are sometimes grouped into the Elemental magics, then electric, nuclear, gravity and blast elements, which are grouped into the Physical magics, then expel, miracle, curse, and death, making 12 magic types in all. On top of that, you’ve got each individual weapon type getting its own attack type, on top of the tech and rush physical attack types, and your status effects. And not only that, but your weapon may not necessarily match the attack type bearing its name. I’ve had plenty of times where an enemy was weak to guns, but because of the specific traits of the weapons I was using, they were not weak to a single bullet I fired. It’s just all way too much to keep track of, and it’s no surprise that later games in the series pared down this system, while still maintaining its importance.
There’s an odd balance in this game between magical and physical attacks. By which I mean, with all else being equal, magical attacks outclass physical attacks until you get towards the end of the game, at which time your 2 or 3 powerhouse characters will finally build up their muscle enough to just be able to match it. Magic just has better range, does more damage, and can possibly hit more enemies at once. Moreover, the game assigns experience points based on the amount a character contributed in battle, so a character with strong spells that hits groups of enemies is going to zoom past the rest in levels. That’s not to say that physical attacks aren’t going to be useful; there are some enemies that resist magic or are weak to physical attacks, and physical attacks are often able to inflict status effects on top of damage. However, the backbone of your offense is likely to be based more in magic than in anything else.
Demon negotiation is a classic feature of the MegaTen series; communicating with your enemies to sway them to your side and gain their power. In Persona, of course, you don’t fight alongside demons, but negotiating with them is still absolutely vital towards completing the game. See, in order to make new personae, you need spell cards, a piece of a demon’s soul. The only way to get those cards is to get a demon interested enough to give it to you.
At any point in combat, your party can stop briefly to fraternize with the enemy. Your party members will then use a variety of conversational techniques, each of which will raise one of the demon’s emotions. Positive reactions will raise a demon’s interest, happiness, or fear, while negative reactions will raise their anger. Once you max out an emotion… well, something will happen. Something usually does, when you get a body so worked up. Your goal is normally to max out their Eager stat, at which point they’ll be willing to give you a spell card or item and end the battle, but if you’re so inclined, you can make them freeze up or run by scaring the hell out of them, or skip a couple turns by making them happy. Piss them off, however, and they might incapacitate one of your characters for a few turns, or the whole enemy party might get a free move.
Demons can have any combination of up to four from a pool of eight personality traits. Each of your characters has four negotiation techniques they can use. The end result of each technique, what emotion it heightens, depends on both the demon’s combination of personality traits as well as what phase of the moon it happens to be at the moment. Yes, seriously. Personality traits aren’t really consistent when used in combination, either. For examples, Mark’s ability to dance crazy might work great on a demon who’s joyful. A demon who’s both joyful and foolish, however, just gets frustrated with Mark’s poor form. Unless you’ve got the kind of computer-enhance brain that can memorize how all twenty negotiation techniques available to you impact all available personality combinations in the myriad phases of the moon, demon negotiation really just ends up being a lot of trial and error over the game.
As much as I love the Megami Tensei franchise, even I have to admit that the level design in these games tops out at merely average. And I am not exaggerating when I say that I believe Persona has the worst dungeon design of the entire franchise. They still use the same design philosophy of having really chaotic mazes, just like the NES and SNES entries did, while excising a lot of the bullhonkey unfair player-hating elements, such as teleporter mazes, traps you can’t see until you’ve stepped into them, and twenty enemy encounters waiting beyond every door. At the same time, they’ve taken out any sense of coherence the dungeons had. The layout just doesn’t make sense. Paths through the game’s areas are entirely random, with branching paths that go nowhere. And worst of all, the design is just so incredibly dull.
Here, take a look at this picture:
Right, that’s not really a dungeon, but this game is really poorly documented on the internet, so that’s the best I could steal. Anyways, that’s what you’re going to be looking at 90% of the time you’re out of battle. Navigation is all first person, just like a classic CRPG. And just like a classic CRPG, the walls are made of the blandest texture copy-pasted over and over again, and your dungeons are all mazes. The end result is that the view rarely shows you anything interesting or important, and all your attention is going to be focused on the little minimap in the corner, there.
And the mazes are just irritating. Here’s a typical map.
It’s like the level designer just drew a random line between point A and point B, then had some random squiggles shooting off of it. Probably more than anything else, more than the overcomplications, more than the bizarre design choices, it’s the level design that really turns me off of playing this game. Exploring dungeons is a chore, when it really shouldn’t be.
So here’s something interesting Persona does. You know how some games have branching paths? Make a decision at one point, and it leads to one of two levels or areas or quests or whatever, where you get to take one but the other’s locked off until your next playthrough, then the paths come back together for another decision? Persona has something like that. Except it’s really a whole other game you choose between.
You start out the game at school, then go to the hospital, then demons attack, and you head back to the school. At that point, you’ve got a choice of paths to take. If you do the sensible thing and go rescue your friend who never made it back from trying to go get guns, you’ll find yourself on what’s known as the SEBEC route, wherein you and your party quest to find the source of the demons plaguing the city and save the day. What a hero you are! If, instead, you somehow forget about the demonic attack and decide to go look for an old theatre mask because there’s obviously no better use for your time, you’ll end up on the Snow Queen Quest, wherein the school gets taken over by a cursed spirit residing in the mask and you have to save your teacher.
The SEBEC route is pretty much what you’d expect from the game. It’s got dungeons, towns, something like plot, varied gameplay, traditional JRPG goodness. The Snow Queen Quest, on the other hand, is challenge mode. There’s barely any plot, only one place to get supplies, only a single save point in the entire area, and just floor upon floor of dungeons. You’ve got three towers you’ve got to get through, each with some sort of gimmick, and each with some sort of time limit. Then, at the end of it, the toughest boss in the game. This part of the game is not fun. It doesn’t even try to be fun. There’s no player convenience, no concessions for good times, no joy to be had here. Only pain, and endurance. And if you happen to find enjoyment in that, well, the game begrudges you for it. Friends don’t let friends play the Snow Queen Quest. I’ve done it twice, and that’s well more than enough for a lifetime.
That isn’t to say the Snow Queen Quest is entirely meritless. For one, it’s oddly similar to the basic concept behind Persona 3, where your school transforms into a dungeon tower and you have to reach the top to destroy the night queen before she ends all of humanity. It also has it’s own set of characters. If you want to learn more about your classmates, are interested in seeing whose personae happens to be a giant penis demon, or want to see more of Yuriko outside of her playable time in the intro stages, you’ll find what you’re looking for here. And yeah, I guess if you happen to really love the Persona dungeon and combat system and want more challenge out of it, you’ll find what you’re looking for here. Otherwise, though, just not good times.
You can sometimes tell what a game’s designers truly value by what roles they put in the credits before the lead designer/chief planner/all around head honcho. For Persona, at least in the PSP version, it’s art director Kazuma Kaneko and sound designer Shoji Meguro getting top billing. Both are very prominent and important figures behind the MegaTen series, true, but more than that, it shows how important both the visual design and audio composition are to the design team behind this game. Doesn’t mean the game really looks or sounds good, mind, just that looks and sounds are important to them.
Graphically… well, the game came out on the Playstation 1, which was never really much of a graphical powerhouse. And trust me, we’re not breaking new ground on the system’s graphical capabilities here. But you know what? Limited graphics don’t have to be a bad thing. It’s all about the art style! Great art is great art, and can shine through any poor graphics. Just… not here. Character design is decent, and the game does display some interesting use of FMV before Final Fantasy VII appeared and showed the world how it’s done, but other than that, the visual design is just lacking. It’s not so much bad as it is really reserved and conservative. Dungeons, monsters, backgrounds… pretty much everything aside from the main characters is very simplistic and bland in presentation, as if the design team was just putting the bare minimum of effort into their visuals. And really, that lack of effort is what drags everything down, moreso than the limited graphical fidelity. And it’s all so dark. It does make for some striking contrast for your characters, the light gray figures standing out against a dark world, but most things other than your characters just kind of run together.
The PSP remake adds some snazzy new cutscenes that turn all that on its ear. They’re bright and vibrant, and the cel-shaded characters look very sharp. Unfortunately, those are few and far between. Other than the cutscenes, the remake keeps the graphics about the same as they were in the PS1 addition.
Shoji Meguro seems to be the main composer for the SMT series, and Revelations: Persona was where he got his start in the industry as one of four of the game’s composers. His work on the Persona series has become well-regarded for it’s J-Pop style and catchy tunes. Any fan of the series picking up the Playstation original is going to be very surprised. In fact, you can easily check out the differences in audio style between then and now by comparing the opening movies between the two versions of the first game. You can find the Playstation version here, and the PSP version here. Like night and day, right? The original version’s opening is dark, moody, and clearly and definitely gives you a sense of the dour environment of this game, and the sense of doom that carries through so much of it. However, for all the work it does in setting the tone, the song itself is absolutely forgettable. On the other hand, the PSP version is light, poppy, and after hearing it a few times it will drill its way into your head. Does the tone it sets really fit the game though? Not really. The two versions have completely different soundtracks, both of which fit the mold set by their opening tunes. Revelations: Persona’s soundtrack is very moody, focuses entirely on setting a tone, yet is barely on this side of listenable. Persona PSP’s soundtrack, in isolation, has much better music, but it’s not very environmental. Which you prefer is really up to you.
Hey, let’s get into the story behind the game, shall we? The story starts with you and your friends gaining superpowers by playing a stupid kid’s game and having to fend off demons that are suddenly attacking your town, then splits into two from there.
In the main storyline, you and your friends progress through the newly dangerous town in increments. First, it’s about retreating to your school, which is one of the few places in town that’s managed to erect a competent defense against the demon onslaught. Then, you go out to rescue your friends who were trying to get some better armaments. It progresses like so, until you guys find out that SEBEC, a locally based corporation, and one of its shadowy executives, might have something to do with it. Tracking down your leads there, you find a strange machine, one that transports you and that executive to a town that is an exact replica of your own except that everything sucks even more. Quickly figuring that this replica must be where the demons are coming from, you resolve to hunt down that executive and end the demonic assault on your homeland.
Going for the side storyline, you find a mask used in the schools annual theatre production of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, and give it to one of your teachers, who was part of the school’s drama club when she was a student. Unfortunately, it turns out the mask was cursed, as everyone told you while you were hunting it down but you were dumb enough to unleash it anyway. Seems the mask has a habit of convincing those wearing it in the play to just kill themselves, and the school had been hiding it for good reason. Good job breaking it out, hero. The mask completely possesses your teacher and plans to use her to plunge the world into the Eternal Night, which I’m still not sure entirely what that is, but it’s probably not good. The Snow Queen summons three of her previous victims and freezes the school over, trapping everyone inside and forming a bunch of towers out of it. It’s up to you and your party to fight through those towers, beat the previous victims, and collect the pieces of a magic mirror that will force the spirit in the mask out of your teacher, all before she manages to bring the Eternal Night to the world.
Revelations: Persona came out at a time before most RPGs really focused on storytelling, and as such, both plotlines are about as shallow as a puddle in the desert. The SEBEC quest is where most of the plot work takes place, and it still barely goes any further than providing small context for the next dungeon. Most of the character work is centered around one of your PCs, with the rest of your cast just the supporting crew. Oddly enough, it’s the Snow Queen Quest, which eschews almost all plot progression in favor of its seemingly eternal dungeons, that gives you more of a glimpse into what your characters are like, plot-wise.
Although I must say, for all that the plot is mostly there as justification for gameplay and little more, the developers did leave open some nice opportunities for characterization. You can talk to each member of your party at any shop, treasure room, boss area, and other such locations, and they’ll always have something different to say depending on where you are and what’s been happening recently. It doesn’t give them a whole lot of depth, but these idle conversations do help to round out what was going to be almost entirely flat characters.
A lot of RPGs have you traveling the world, seeing all sorts of vibrant locations and tackling enemies across the globe. They give you epic quests, and their settings are of an epic scale to match. One of the trademarks of the Megaten series, though, is that they pack a conflict of the same, grand scale into a much more intimate setting. You’re usually dealing with world-ending cataclysms and reforming after apocalypses while traveling through only a single city or region. Persona is no different.
In this game, you might command the powers of the gods, you might trek for miles, you might hop across dimensions, but you never leave your hometown of Mikage-cho/Lunarvale. In fact, that’s one of the first things the demon’s do; erect barriers to keep everyone inside. So you couldn’t leave even if you tried! The base town is pretty generic, and doesn’t really have a whole lot of character. Because of the ‘cho’ suffix, we know it’s not city-sized, but it still seems to have a goodly population. It’s got a few shopping malls, has enough of a base to serve as corporate headquarters of at least one organization, carries a bit of industry, and presumably is somewhere near Sumaru City, the setting of the next game in the series. Revelations: Persona has the worst of it, really. In their zest to try and convince us that this game totally didn’t take place in Japan, the localizers ended up removing some of the few aspects that made the city feel unique as they transformed the setting into the westernized Lunarvale.
The base town might be pretty bland, but once you get to the alternate Mikage-cho/Lunarvale, the game finally starts trying to compensate for its earlier faults. Formed in response to the nihilistic wishes of a mentally ill girl, the alternate town may not be a pleasant place to live, but it’s certainly not lacking for character. It largely reflects your hometown from a year prior, as that girl remembers it before getting stuck in a hospital, with three major differences. The town is cut in half with a rock wall, the town is absolutely packed with aggressive demons, and there are no police or other public services to help. This seems to have created an environment where people exist in isolated groups, not venturing out much beyond their home or group. It’s oppressive, dismal, and fits the tone of the Shin Megami Tensei series perfectly. It’s otherworldy locales and self-absorbed citizenry certainly give the game’s setting a bit of character the real-world version was lacking.
So, hey, if you’ve been following along with the Saints Row retrospectives I’ve been doing, you know that I do definitely love talking about characters. This is the section where I pretty much just lay it all out, meaning we are completely weapons free on spoilers from this point on. Just figured I’d give that warning, before we head on.
Persona definitely has a greater focus on its characters than previous games in the SMT series, something more in-line with RPGs in the SNES era. That is to say, there’s a focus on characters at all. Previously, characters were mostly cyphers, with a few notable exceptions, but the plot focus was always on the world itself, on large, faceless organizations, and on an ever revolving cast of gods and demons. Persona is one of the first games in the series that really brings things down to a human level. Unfortunately, most characters are still massively shallow by most standards, but this was still an important move, as it allowed for the absolutely intense character focus of more modern games in the subseries.
So, what do you say we go through and take a more in-depth look at who we’re working with here, eh?
TEAM FANTASTIC VICTORY
Some JRPGs have your main cast of player characters as a group of True Companions. Others have you as destined partners, best friends, great comrades, or the like. In Persona, on the other hand, your team is just a group of schoolmates at St. Hermelin High School who happened to have played the same superpowers-granting childrens game. While you all know each other, most of you don’t start out as being particularly close, and some of you just flat-out can’t get along. You all do, however, have a common goal, and that is what keeps you united as you pursue your, well, fantastic victory.
MAGNUM “MAX” HAMMER
Here’s you! As with nearly all games in the Persona series, you have the option to name yourself, so you could technically pick any lesser name you wished, although I don’t really know why you’d want to. You’re the silent protagonist of this game. While later games in the series handle the silent protagonist thing very well, actually giving your character a lot of voice, your protagonist here is a pretty typical example of the form. You never speak, your character model doesn’t have much in the way of animation, so whatever personality your character has is going to come entirely from your imagination. Personally, I’ve got a great appreciation for the traditional silent protagonist, but I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. In any event, your character’s complete inability to express himself does seem to relegate him to a supporting protagonist’s role in both storylines, being the point of view character in a plot that focuses on someone else.
Most all of your playable characters were altered for the Revelations: Persona release. Some fared better than others. Your main character had his hair color changed, his skin lightened, and his earring removed, because the localizers apparently thought it’d be easier for the western world to relate to a protagonist that looked like a total goober.
Known as the ‘Boy with an Earring’ in the original incarnation or the ‘Boy with Red Hair” in the westernized version, your main character serves as the leader of your team. You never get any dialog directly showing the point, but it’s implied that the protagonist is quite emotionally balanced and skilled at managing the differing emotions, goals, and pursuits of your various party members and keeping them focused on your common goals.
Gameplay-wise, your hero can be quite a powerhouse. He’s the only character for whom you have complete control over his development, choosing where his stats go at each level up, so you can mold him to fit your needs and desires exactly. Both his single-handed swords and his sub-machine guns are powerful weapons, and lend him well to a role in your front line. The Emperor Arcana he’s attuned to, as well as those it’s compatible with, encompasses a lot of personae strong both physically and magically. You really couldn’t ask for more out of a main character. His starting persona is Seimen Kongou, a buddhist diety who protects against disease, and is ultimate persona is the Egyptian king of the gods, Amon Ra.
And obviously, he’s a required party member on both the SEBEC and Snow Queen routes. You wouldn’t be trying to remove yourself from the party after all, right?
Maki is a physically and mentally ill girl, who, though seemingly popular, is rather brusk and abrasive to those outside her immediate social circle, and has a rather dour outlook on life. Maki is a healthy young woman, who is very bright and vivacious in both her dealings with those around her and with the world as a whole.
Yeah, it’s a little complicated. I mentioned above that the game’s main character is only a supporting protagonist, there to provide a viewpoint into another character’s story. Maki is the one it’s really all about, at least in the SEBEC route. In the beginning of the game, Maki is a hospital-bound student, who has suffered from poor health and dementia since childhood. Her illnesses, and the amount of time she has to spend stuck in medical facilities, has made her both depressed and nihilistic. She enjoys what time she gets to spend in school, but it seems her various issues makes her a little hard to be around. She seems to deal with that in two ways; through pouring herself into her art, and through mentally escaping into her ‘ideal world’. In her imagination, she’s happy, healthy, and well-liked by all her peers. However, her dark tendencies come into play, too, and her imaginary world is filled with demons, and generally not a pleasant place to live in.
Independently, the Saeki Electronics and Biological Energy Corporation (SEBEC) corporation activates the DEVA System, a machine with the power to create another dimension. They’re thinking that it’s going to cleave to one of their executive’s mental worlds, but rather, it picks up on Maki’s, and makes her imagination a reality. Twisting the hospital she’s staying in, the DEVA System drags her into her ideal world and seems to fracture her personality into a few separate beings.
Soon after, Maki appears to your party again. She doesn’t remember being in the hospital, doesn’t remember a lot of things that have been happening in town over the past year, and in general seems a lot more cheery and friendly than the Maki you remember. As it turns out, the Maki who joins your party, the Maki who fights to set things right, is the original Maki’s idealized, imaginary version of herself, escaped into the real world along with the demons. This is the personae the real Maki seeks to have, to use Jungian terms, or her ideal superego, in Freudian.
A large part of the plot revolves around party member Maki coming to terms with the nature of her existence, and bringing the real Maki back to reality. In fact, the Makis of various forms are by far the most important characters of the SEBEC quest. In all, Maki is a party member, a guide, an obstacle, and the final boss. Your party quests through all the challenges the world has to offer, helping the ideal Maki, as well as two other fractures of her psyche, come to terms before finally discovering the original completely overtaken by her nihilism. Upon defeating Pandora, her manifestation in that dismal mood, you’re able to draw her back to the real world, destroying everything in her ideal mindspace, including the party member Maki. Once back in the real side of things, though, Maki’s ordeals seem to have given her strength, and she seems to lead a relatively normal life from here on out.
We know Maki’s a part of the art club, and get to meet a few of her friends over the course of the story. Given her skill with the bow, at least the idealized version of her is probably a member of the archery club as well. Party member Maki definitely has feelings for the protagonist. No word on whether the real one does or not, though.
The Priestess arcana, as well as those compatible with it, lend itself well to spells of all sorts, so it’s very likely that Maki’s going to be one of your main casters. Her persona will often carry healing spells as well, so she’ll probably be your main healer, too. Her bow is not exactly powerful, but it does often do a good job inflicting status effects on your enemy. It requires a lot of distance to use, though. Her gun, a dinky pistol, is absolutely useless, lacking both power and range. I think I fired it exactly once in my playthrough here. Unless you’re really committed to some odd choices, you’ll likely just stick her in the back row and leave her there the whole game, as that’s really where she’s best suited. Her starting persona is Maso, a Chinese goddess who protects fishers and sailors from the dangers of the ocean. Her ultimate persona is Verdandi, one of the three Norns who decide people’s fates in Norse mythology.
Obviously, she’s a required party member in the SEBEC route. She’s almost completely absent from the Snow Queen Quest, although an incarnation of her will show up to merge with the antagonist in the final battle of that route.
KEI NANJO/NATE TRINITY
Nanjo is your traditional stuck-up rich kid. He’s the heir of a big business conglomerate, dreams of becoming the ‘number one man in Japan’ whatever the hell that means, and seems to consider himself above a lot of your peers, at least at the start of the game. As is quickly revealed, his parents don’t really spend a whole lot of time with him, leaving their butler to do most of the parenting.
Kei is one of the few characters to actually have a distinct character arc, which he goes through pretty much entirely in the game’s prologue. He seems to resent being stuck with all his peers at first, as they check into the hospital just before the attack hits, and definitely is embarrassed of the attentions of his father figure/butler, Yamaoka. Unfortunately, Yamaoka is one of the first casualties of the demonic assault, which does serve to galvanize Nanjo towards ending the demonic menace for the rest of the game.
Nanjo is definitely one of the smarter members of your party, and probably it’s most shrewd. He’s very goal oriented, and always advocates the most direct path towards reaching your objectives. At one point, he goes so far as to detect a trap, but allow you to fall for it anyways because it puts you in a direct line to your target. He’s also always the one recommending you just let innocent people die, when the option comes up, and at least once where there seems to be no real reason to do so. He also taunts one of your main antagonists into continuing to fight when the antagonist had already given up. A bit of trouble, that one. On the other hand, he has a strong habit of figuring out plot points before anyone else.
Combat-wise, Nanjo is… ultimately, not all that useful. His persona tend to lack the magical power to make much of a mark on your enemies, and his stats don’t lend him well to damage output either. He uses two-handed swords, which have a good range, but don’t really deal much in the way of damage. He focuses largely on defense, which really helps him to take a hit, but with the way experience in this game works, his low attack power means he’ll be lagging behind in levels as well. And I don’t know if it’s just the way I was playing, but I had much more of a problem with his persona’s weaknesses than I had with any other character. His one saving grace is that he can use rifles, the best firearms in the game. With fantastic range and good damage, you’ll probably be using his gun attacks more often than anything else. With his diverse armaments, you can put him most anywhere and still get use out of him, although he’ll serve you best in the middle or front lines.
Nanjo’s starting persona is Aizen Myouou, who’s also known as Ragaraja, the Buddhist deity who channels lustful energy and sexual thoughts towards spiritual enlightenment. Yeah. Try not to think about that too much. His ultimate persona is the butler, Yamaoka, signifying just who much of those values and teachings Nanjo’s learned from him. Kei’s mandatory on the SEBEC route, because you need someone to represent the stupid side of those ethical questions. He’s an optional party member in the Snow Queen Quest.
MASAO “MARK” INABA/MARK
Look at him, up there. Look at all that information I’ve given you so far. You’d think Mark would be the perfect character for the localizers. Everyone already calls him by a westernized name, and with that hat, you can’t really tell he has Asiatic coloration. You wouldn’t think the localizers would have to do anything at all to make him seem like a proper western character. He’s perfect already, right?
Yeah, that’s what I thought, too. But apparently we’re wrong! You know what you need to do to make this guy really fit in with the western world? You need to make him black.
And honestly, I don’t think the localizers were being racial or anything with that, they were probably just trying to add a bit of diversity, but Mark’s change comes with a lot of unfortunate implications, not least of which is the rather infamous password to get into school.
You kind of have to wonder about the decision to make the two people of color in your party the two juvenile delinquents. Not only that, but Mark’s dialogue is peppered with the kind of black slang you’d expect from a writer who only knows about black people because they show up on TV every once in a while. Luckily, the PSP remake reverts Mark back into his original design, avoiding the slight discomfort the original may cause.
So, you can tell a bit about some of your characters by what gear they start the game with. For example, you and Nanjo begin the game entirely unprepared, and thus, empty handed. Yukino, a reformed Yanki we’ll be meeting in a bit, has some razor blades on her, which according to my knowledge of Japanese culture gleaned entirely from Battle Royale, is totally a thing Japanese female student toughs carry. In any case, it’s not completely unreasonable for her to have those. Elly meets up with you coming from school, and has one of the fencing club’s sabers on her. Mark, on the other hand, apparently brought a big honking battle axe to school. Nobody even questions it, either. Demons attack, and there he is, axe in hand. Kid’s got troubles.
You don’t get a whole lot of background on Mark, but from what you do know about him, he’s a bit of a trouble maker. Even beyond the whole axes at school thing. He’s got a bit of artistic talent, but funnels that mostly towards tagging and graffiti. He’s also fairly well-known around the local casinos and other shady joints. However, at the same time, he’s probably one of the most morally-guided of your team. Whereas Nanjo always advocates the most direct paths to your goals, no matter the cost, Mark always supports going out of your way to do the least harm to people. This leads to the two of them butting heads fairly often. Even outside of the game’s various moral choices, Mark and Nanjo really don’t get along. Mark’s a free spirit, easily excitable, and always says the first thing on his mind. Naturally, he’s not going to gel with cold, reserved, and uptight Nanjo.
You know who he does gel with, though? Maki. Dude’s got a massive crush on her, to the point that he regularly visits her in the hospital and is the most driven to rescue her when she disappears. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be requited. The first time we see the two of them interacting, she’s frustrated with her life at the hospital and lashing out at him because of it. Then the ideal Maki comes along, who only seems to have eyes for our protagonist, and just like that, Mark’s out of the picture. You have to feel for the guy.
Mark’s definitely your front line man in battle. His stat growths naturally make him a tank, and his weapons require him to be up close to hit. His axes have some massive power to them, although they strike in an odd, w-shaped pattern in front of him that really limits his range. If you really know what you’re doing, you can get your hands on some near-endgame level axes for him and really turn him into a powerhouse character relatively soon after you start the game. His shotgun, however, is mostly a joke. It’s range leaves a lot to be desired, and its power falls far short of other weapons. His persona tend to have some decent spell power to them, and he’s got the stats to take quite a few hits, although magic defense usually falls a little behind. There are two main areas where he comes up short, though. He’s really not given to crowd control, with most of his spells targeting only a single enemy or limited area. And he’s slow. Probably the slowest member of your party. It’s not uncommon for him to be the last one to move in any given round. And because of those two factors, he often tends to fall behind in levels, with your faster characters with group attacks picking up most of the experience points.
It’s worth noting, both Mark’s ability to dance crazy and his flirtatious stares are surprisingly good communication techniques. His starting persona is Ogun, the Yoruba warrior diety and patron of smiths. His ultimate persona is Susano-o, the Shinto troublemaking god of storms and the sea. Mark’s a mandatory member on the SEBEC quest, and presumably spends the whole of the Snow Queen Quest locked up in zombie prison.
And here we have the only character the PS1 localizers didn’t see the need to change. Unfortunately, she’s only in the original western release for the tutorial level, before disappearing to take on the inaccessible Snow Queen side of things. It wasn’t until the PSP release brought that quest back that most western players really got to know her.
Sometime before the start of the game, Yukino was a bit of thug, but was reformed thanks to the efforts of Ms. Saeko, one of your teachers at St. Hermelin. For that, Yukino seems to be incredibly grateful, and now holds a lot of trust and respect from her peers in the school’s student body. So when Ms. Saeko gets taken over by the spirit within the mask of the Snow Queen, Yukino’s first in line to try and make things right, hurtling herself into hordes of demons trying to save her teacher.
Yukino hasn’t entirely shed her yanki ways, as it’s still apparent in her dress and the fact that she still carries hidden weapons. While no longer aggressive to her fellow students, she does seem to be a bit reserved towards them, helping other out without really growing close to people. She’s more than ready to adopt a harsh personality with demons, as most of her communications involved her verbally abusing them.
The others in your group seem to appreciate her for her maturity, and she in turn looks out for others. Beyond that, it’s hard to get a sense for her personality. She’s only there for the Snow Queen Quest, which has a lot less plot than the SEBEC side of things, so unfortunately she doesn’t get developed nearly as much.
Yukino develops quite a bit like Mark, although she trades some strength and defense for a lot more speed. She’s one of the fastest party members you have. Her throwing knives have amazing range, allowing you to get good use out of her anywhere on the field, although they don’t have the power of some other weapons. She uses shotguns, like Mark, and they’re just as bad on her as they are on him. Her persona are fairly middling. They have decent stats, magic, and defense, but don’t really excel in any memorable way. Her starting persona is Vesta, the Roman goddess of hearth and home. Her ultimate persona is Durga, the incarnation of the Hindu goddess Devi, and the goddess of victory over good and evil. She’s a mandatory party member for the first level of the game, then disappears from the SEBEC quest and is mandatory in the Snow Queen Quest once the paths split.
HIDEHIKO “BROWN” UESUGI/BRAD
You probably had one of these guys in at least one of your classes. You remember that kid who had a compulsive need to be at the center of attention? Always cracking jokes without giving the time to think about whether they were funny or not, always doing things differently in an attempt to stand out rather than to actively do well, always trying to be different but only in ways that ensure everyone’s watching them? The one who’s so obsessed with an image that everyone can tell is completely manufactured? Yeah. That’s Brown. Dude seems to be at least a little popular, but my word is he annoying.
Brown’s the class clown, although don’t be fooled by that designation into thinking he’s actually funny. If he can stick a pun or a lame joke into a situation, he will, absolutely regardless of any sort of humor or comedic timing. For the most part he’s there to inject his personal sense of ‘humor’ into any given situation, although he does have times where the situation gets dire enough that he can’t make any jokes about it. They don’t come often enough, though. So obsessed with image is he, that he’ll constantly proclaim himself to be the group’s leader, before getting scared and cowering away from any actual responsibility at the slightest provocation. Once danger’s over, he’s the great conquering hero again. At the very least, he does seem to honestly care about his friends, and will willingly drop the act and get serious to help them out when they’re in danger.
Also, he’s the one who introduced everyone to the Persona Game, so really it’s thanks to him you’re able to fight against the demons in the first place.
Brown’s kind of in an odd place, storywise. He’s an optional character on both quests, but he actually gets a lot more character development on the ‘side’ Snow Queen Quest. There, you get to see how he interacts with his friends, watch his hopes for romance get crushed, and see him break down his facade, showing just how much of it he does purely in an attempt to get people to like him.
Brown’s a bit of an odd duck in combat. He’s flexible enough to do well pretty much anywhere you put him, although his weaponry tends to do best up on the front row. However, while he’s able to deal out large amounts of damage, he doesn’t tend to take hits well, meaning your protagonist, Mark, and probably even Nate are all better choices for the three frontline spots you have. His spear has a really long reach, able to hit all the way across the group of enemies, although it’s spread rapidly declines the further away enemies are from him, to the point that distant enemies must be in exactly the same column. He uses the same sub-machine guns as the protagonist, though, and the power and multiple hits those carry are always appreciated. His personae tend to focus largely on single types of magic and contribute good dexterity and agility, but at the same time have consistent weaknesses to elemental magics. It ends up being a bit frustrating for their inflexibility. Brown’s starting persona is Nemain the Irish fey that confounds enemies in war. His ultimate personae is Tyr, the Norse god of glory in battle.
ERIKO “ELLY” KIRISHIMA/ELLEN
Elly is wealthy, cultured, beautiful, friendly, smart, devoted, and an all-around wonderful person. I bet all the other characters secretly hate her. It’s all jealousy, though, because Elly couldn’t possibly hold any negative feelings for anyone else. Elly has spent most of her life overseas, but came back to St. Hermelin to finish out her schooling and apparently quickly made friends with absolutely everyone there. She’s both your best and bravest member. In fact, when the demons first attack and everyone in town is battening down the hatches, she’s out fighting through demons alone, looking for you to bring you back to safety.
Elly is pretty lighthearted about… well, everything. The only times she really seems to be getting worked up is when she’s excited about some new sight or experience. In spite of all her ‘healthy’ hobbies, Elly’s also a fan of the occult, meaning she’s probably better informed than anyone else in your party about the true nature of the threat you’re all facing and the powers you’re now able to use. Before she joins your party, she has a habit of going out and investigating on her own, and is one of your best sources of direction in the early game. Like Maki, she also bears a crush on the protagonist, because just look at the guy! So smexy. However, she’s a lot better at hiding it, and it’s not actually revealed for another two games.
Elly’s the strongest character in the game. Straight up. Yes, even better than the protagonist. She uses the same one-handed swords as your character, although depending on how you have his stats set up, she may not pack as much of a punch. She also uses rifles, which, as previously established, are the best guns in the game. Her Judgment personae are truly mighty, with powerful spells and healing skills and resistance sets that will truly give trouble against enemy casters. She does tend to have personae that are weak to death spells or physical attacks, but that’s easily remedied by leaving her off the front row. Her strong rifle and magic spells leave her pretty well-versed anywhere out of striking distance. Her starting persona is Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. Her ultimate persona is Michael, the Judeo-Christian/Islamic archangel. She’s an optional character on both routes, and is a strong addition to either party.
Yuka is a friendly and bubbly girl, although her habit of being judgmental and brutally honest has cost her quite a few friends. It also got her attacked by a giant penis demon, once. Yuka’s not a very nice person to those outside her circle of friends, and seems to stick to her various cliques, at least at first. She seems to like your group well enough, though, and doesn’t cause much interpersonal problems should you choose to take her with you. She’s quite fashion-conscious and strongly follows western beauty standards. She’s also dated a lot of men, dumping them before anything significant happened in their relationships, although she’s got more of a reputation as a heartbreaker than is deserved.
She’s an optional party member on the SEBEC route, although she’ll force her way onto your party if you hadn’t picked Brown or Elly by the time you meet up with her and haven’t unlocked the secret character yet. She’s a mandatory party member on the Snow Queen Quest, and plays a similar role to Nanjou there, that of an antagonizer to your enemies and a counsel recommending you leave people to their ill-deserved fates. She tends to be significantly more cruel about it, though.
Yuka’s almost useless as a physical attacker. Her whip may be a unique weapon that plenty of enemies are weak to, but she just doesn’t have the stats to do much of anything with it. She also uses pistols which, as previously established, are absolutely worthless. But, as you might expect from someone in the Magician arcana, her personae are powerful casters. She may be the most magically adept character you’ve got in your party, and given the great usefulness of magic attacks in that game, that’s a really solid thing. She’s very well-suited as a mid-range character, raining arcane destruction down on your enemies from a safe distance. Her starting persona is Houri, one of the Islamic spirits, pure and beautiful, who have been renewed in Heaven after life on Earth. Her ultimate persona is Freyr, the Norse god of agriculture and fertility.
And here’s our hidden character of the game. If you’ve done a series of steps that make no sense and give you little clue as to what to do, turn away all other party members, and go through an extra dungeon one warrior short, then you get to convince Reiji to join your team. Back in the day, I can’t imagine he was a whole lot of fun to obtain, but thanks to the magic of the internet, he’s much more accessible now.
Reiji is a transfer student to St. Hermelin who rarely ever comes to class. He’s got a reputation as a gang leader, although he’s never seen spending much time with anyone else. In fact, he’s an absolute loner. His mom even has to ask you to be his friend. In spite of this, he’s pretty popular with the ladies. I don’t know why.
Wait… wait… I think I’m starting to figure it out.
Reiji’s even more single minded than Nanjo. He’s not interested in making friends, enjoying life, or anything else that doesn’t lead directly to his goal. What goal, you ask? Only the bloody murder of Takahisa Kandori, your antagonist through much of the game. Hey, he’s got the Devil arcana for a reason.
As it turns out, Reiji is the half-brother of your adversary. Kandori’s father took Reiji’s mother as a mistress, then abandoned her because she was pregnant. For this, Kandori needs to die. Even though he had nothing to do with it. You know, I’m sure Reiji had a rough life, and there are a lot of reasons to take Kandori down, but still, this is absolutely psychotic. Reiji belongs in either a prison or an asylum.
He does lighten up a bit after Kandori’s taken down, though. It seems your involvement has truly helped him open up, and he starts actually caring about things other than his crusade for revenge. The ultimate fates of his partners and the safety of the living world actually start to matter to him. He sticks with you until you’ve brought Maki back to safety and ended the otherworldly threat, and actually seems to have built a connection with all of you.
The biggest benefit Reiji brings to your party is, surprisingly, not in his combat skills, formidable though they are. It seems that in his spare time, Reiji’s learned a few magic tricks, and those are the best negotiation technique in the game. They almost always get some sort of positive reaction, and as such, eliminate a lot of the risk in communicating with demons. If you’ve pissed them off to the verge of attacking you, just have Reiji show them four tricks, and you’ll at least get some benefit out of talking with them.
In a fight, Reiji is probably your strongest character as far as physical damage output goes, even outclassing Mark. His boxing gloves hit hard and often hit twice, decimating lesser opponents. His rifle is excellent as well, and provide a solid option for when enemies are out of range of his fists. He’s a lot faster than Mark is, but doesn’t quite take a hit as well. Still, he’s a powerful presence to have on your front line. His personae aren’t really much to write home about. They tend to be focused either on physical attacks, for which Reiji’s natural capacities are often much better, and status effects, with a few weak, limited spells. He’s not much of a caster. In other games, this may not hurt him so much, but since magic as a whole is so powerful in Persona, that really cuts down on his usefulness. Additionally, he can’t even use personae belonging to anyone else’s arcana, as most other characters can. Given that most of the game’s personae belong to a character’s arcana, Reiji’s a lot less flexible than most other characters you may choose.
Reiji’s starting persona is Bres, the slaver king of Irish mythology. His ultimate persona is Mot, the Canaanite god of death. Reiji’s an optional character, though very tricky to get, in the SEBEC route. He’s a complete non-entity in the Snow Queen Quest.
One of only two characters to appear in every game in the Persona series, Philemon is who you get the power to manifest your persona from, as well as the mirror you need to rescue your teacher in the Snow Queen Quest. He was first mentioned as Carl Jung’s spirit guide, and still serves to watch over important characters throughout the world. He never gets directly involved in your conflict, merely giving you the power to handle things yourself and occasionally pointing you in the right direction. He does have servants, however, who provide you a bit more direct of help. He only appears in the “rift between the conscious and the unconscious”, and is a manifestation of the positive parts of the collective unconscious, all the potential good of humanity.
Yes, in spite of his sinister appearance, this guy’s on your side. He’s the most prominent of Philemon’s servants, and the only other character to show up in every Persona game. He operates the Velvet Room, a mystical location that only those with the power to change their personae can enter. He’s the one that can transform the spell cards that demons give you into new personae, and turn your old personae into useful items. In this game, he does that by listening to sad stories from the collective unconscious, then using the swell of emotions they provoke to bind the demon’s souls into a persona. So every time you replace your personae, you have to make this guy super sad.
Igor seems to have an appreciation for the arts, and the Velvet Room in this game is set up mostly for him to listen to some opera while not helping you. He’s also a very useful advisor, often giving your various protagonists in whatever game a bit of helpful counsel when they find themselves truly lost. However, he does also bear a habit of withholding information, telling you just what you need to know and no more.
One of the fractured parts of Maki’s personality, Mai takes the form of a little girl clad in white, and is responsible for the creation of half of the ‘ideal’ city. She represents Maki’s innocence and assumedly bears some power because of it, but she’s also incredibly fearful and spends all her time hiding in a gingerbread house in the woods, and so does almost nothing to fight the terrors lurking in the new world.
Maki’s mother. She works for SEBEC, the company behind the DEVA system that manifested Maki’s ideal world, although this doesn’t seem to be related. As Maki’s usually in the hospital and Setsuko spends so much time working, the two of them seem to have grown apart. But no matter how poorly they get along now, love still remains, and comes across in their actions. Setsuko follows you into the ideal world, trying to help save her daughter, and even helps the ideal Maki come to terms with things. When it becomes clear Maki’s danger is clearly over her head, she stays behind to take care of Mai until the manufactured reality comes to an end.
A student at St. Hermelin who had disappeared some time before the game began, with everyone assuming he and his girl had eloped. Turns out, he and his ladyfriend had been lured into the alternate world soon after it had been created. His significant other had been turned by some dark promises, and he had been fighting to redeem her. He doesn’t have a persona, yet he was still able to fight against the demons of the ideal world, a feat not even your police force was able to accomplish. Unfortunately, though, his combat has left him quite wounded, so he’s not much use to you in your struggles.
MS. SAEKO/MS. SMITH
She’s the homeroom teacher to most of your characters, close mentor of Yukino, and popular amongst most of the students at St. Hermelin. She was a student of St. Hermelin herself, and a member of its drama club. She was pursuing the lead role of her school play, the annual production of Hans Christian Anderson’s Snow Queen, but under unclear circumstances either turned down or wasn’t chosen for the part, which instead went to her best friend. Said friend put on the mask of the Snow Queen for the play, which turns out to be cursed, and tragedy ensued.
Several years later, your group finds the mask in the storeroom, and present it to her. She reminisces about it, and ends up idly putting the mask on, not thinking anything would go wrong. Instead, the spirit inside the Snow Queen mask takes over her body, reforms the school into a series of towers, and plunges it into ice. The spirit plans on using her to bring the Eternal Night. It’s up to you and your persona-empowered peers to purge the spirit possessing Ms. Saeko and bring her back safely.
A transfer student to the school, a member of the fencing club, and a former demon summoner. She doesn’t take too much of a role in this game, only giving you a rapier and serving as a damsel in distress for a brief moment, but she’ll be more important later on. She’s also the protagonist of Shin Megami Tensei If…, the game that led into this one.
TAKAHISA KANDORI/GUIDO SARDENIA
Here’s your main adversary throughout most of the SEBEC route. A man in some sort of control over the SEBEC organization, Kandori was fearful of his reliance on others and dreamed of becoming a god to transcend it, and used his resources within the corporation towards achieving that end. Apparently, when you rise far enough up the corporate ladder, people just stop questioning you. SEBEC developed the DEVA system, a machine that can create an alternate world where one’s dreams can come true. When they turned it on, however, rather than creating Kandori’s ideal world, the machine latched onto Maki’s. Kandori just rolled with it, and made sure Maki got sucked into the world before deciding to use it to achieve his goals yet.
Your party twigs onto the fact that Kandori’s behind things pretty quickly, before you even realize there’s an alternate world, in fact. You go and confront him, but don’t get to blast him with all your awesome powers before he escapes into the alternate world. You give chase, but end up losing him pretty quickly.
You don’t see him for a while after that. Once you do find him again, he’s partnered with another part of Maki’s psyche, gotten exactly what he needs to achieve his dreams, and reach everything he’d ever wanted. You were too slow to act, and he had become a god. That includes everything that godhood entails. He had the power of a god, the wisdom of a god, and the perspective of a god. And it was that perspective that really gave him problems. He gained the ability to do nearly anything he could think of, but with it, he also got irresistible, unconquerable ennui. Less than an hour after becoming a god, and his existence had left him so depressed, he saw no point in living and was literally ready to just give up and let you kill him.
At least until Nanjo opened his fat face-hole. After a bit of stupid gloating, Kandori was up for a fight again, but apparently the five of you are stronger than the gods at that point. You beat him, then beat him again, and he’s actually happy to die in the end.
The dark mirror of Mai, Aki is the manifestation of Maki’s more aggressive thoughts and tendencies. She controls the other half of the alternate world, and is able to command demons to do her bidding. Unfortunately, she’s a lot more active than Mai is, and stymies you at several points in the plot. She’s possibly the one causing the demons to attack the real world in the first place, and allies with Kandori, giving him exactly what he wants in the alternate world.
Yosuke’s girlfriend, who’s been missing just as long as he has. She’s Maki’s best friend from middle school, although she seems to be driven by some incredible jealousy towards her sickly comrade. She’s totally self-conscious of the fact that she’s neither as skilled in art nor as popular as Maki is. In fact, she only started dating Yosuke because he was interested in Maki, although they’ve developed true feelings for each other since. In the alternate world, she’s quickly corrupted and swayed by Aki, who gives her a mirror that can grant her wishes at the cost of adding moles to her face and tarnishing her beauty whenever it’s used. She sets herself up as the Harem Queen in a shopping center where everyone is completely devoted to her. Yosuke’s been trying to reach her to break her out of it, but has no luck, at least until you arrive. You have to settle her lingering feelings towards Maki before you can get her back to her senses.
The Crawling Chaos, and Kandori’s persona. He takes over Kandori’s god form the first time you beat up the executive, but falls himself shortly afterward. Doesn’t have a big on-screen roll this game, but Persona 2 does reveal him to be driving a lot of plot from the shadows.
THE SNOW QUEEN
It gets a little complicated here. The Snow Queen Mask holds some sort of remnant of Nyx, the Night Queen from Greek mythology, inside. That remnant speaks to and corrupts whoever’s unlucky enough to put it on, causing some sort of misfortune, usually suicide, to befall them. The most recent time it was worn, back when Ms. Saeko was still a student in the drama club, the remnant had enough power to absorb the soul of Tomomi Fujimori, Ms. Saeko’s former best friend, and holds her within the mask as well. Tomomi’s convinced that Ms. Saeko refused the lead role of the school play because she knew the mask was cursed and just let Tomomi’s eventual fate befall her, and so is more than ready for some good revenge. Herself controlled by the remnant of Nyx, Tomomi possesses Ms. Saeko as soon as she puts on the mask, and uses her body to summon the full incarnation of Nyx and start bringing about the Eternal Night.
The main goal of most of the Snow Queen Quest is to collect the pieces of the Demon Mirror that will free Ms. Saeko from Tomomi’s control and Tomomi from Nyx’s.
A previous victim of the Snow Queen mask. She felt pressured by her parent’s expectations and her being placed in such an important role in the school play, and so listened to the mask and killed herself in an attempt to escape. The Snow Queen resurrects her and sets her guard over one of the towers where you have to find some mirror shards. With the help of her personae, Hypnos, the son of Nyx and personification of sleep, she traps a bunch of the school’s faculty and staff in their dreams. Perhaps owing to her own less than fully-conscious state, Hypnos actually has far more independence than do most personae. She starts to see the error of her ways once Hypnos is defeated, and repents for her past actions.
She was cruel and self-centered in both life and death. She claims to have been bullied and pushed around by everyone around her, but every flashback we see actually shows her doing the bullying. She was promised power by the Snow Queen mask if she killed herself, and true to her word, Nyx grants Michiko her son Nemesis, the Greek personification of vengeance, as a personae. Michiko seems to view absolutely everyone as beneath her, and captures two of your classmates, torturing them to provoke the negative emotions that power up Nemesis. If you show up to fight her quickly, however, your classmates will be filled with nothing but gratitude, actually weakening her with their positive feelings. She feels no remorse for her actions, and dies once more just as wicked as she always was.
She doesn’t seem to have been a troubled teen, not like the other two girls revived by the Snow Queen. Rather, she was incredibly happy with her life. So much so, she couldn’t imagine living through anything else. Unfortunately, time has a way of forcing things to change. She’d have to leave high school, she’d lose her teenage good looks, and everything would be different for her, with time. So she listened to the Snow Queen mask, and killed herself to avoid having to live through anything worse than her situation as it was. When it’s time to try and summon the Night Queen, the Snow Queen brings her back with the personae Thanatos, Nyx’s son and the Greek personification of death. She has the ability to seal your characters’ personae when they die, sending them back to the underworld to retrieve their power. When she’s defeated, she finally understands the error of her choices, but leaves life in peace.
NYX, THE NIGHT QUEEN
One of the first and most powerful of the Greek gods, even Zeus was hesitant to challenge her. But you’re going to have to do so here. While you save Ms. Saeko from the spirit of the Snow Queen, you don’t do so in time to stop her from summoning Nyx, who will bring about the Eternal Night if not banished. Nyx even goes so far as to merge with the negative desires of Maki and Kandori, becoming Queen Ashura, and uses their powers to freeze the world over should you fail to defeat her. Stat-wise, she’s the strongest enemy in the game. All her strength is in her magic, however. You find some way to neutralize her spells, and she’s not actually all that tough. As Persona 3 proves, however, you can’t end her completely. As long as there are people on Earth wishing dark things, she will return.
THE DANGERS OF ESCAPISM
What a large part of the plot is really all about. You can see this most obviously in the SEBEC route, with the very basics of Maki’s backstory. I’ve covered this well enough above, so the the short version: girl has a sucky life due to being stuck in the hospital all the time, so she passes the time by daydreaming and placing herself into a mental world. Said world becomes reality and quickly makes things suck for everyone. That’s really the issue you address in the endgame. It’s not beating Maki’s Pandora form that sets things right, that only gives you the chance to have a talk with her. It’s getting the real Maki ready to fight the troubles of the world that finally delivers everyone into safety.
Beyond just Maki, though, plenty of other adversaries have somewhat less direct connections to the same theme. Lots of your antagonists are driven by trying to escape some fear or other. Kandori is a powerful man, but as a suit, all his power depends on other people. That makes him uncomfortable, so he dreams of become a god to finally take power for himself. Kumi Hirose was driven into the Snow Queen’s influence by trying to escape from the pressures surrounding her. Yuriko Yamamoto allowed herself to be taken over in an attempt to escape the unrelenting march of time. And with all three of those, it’s making them face reality that allows them to truly find peace. No matter how far you go, avoiding your problems only causes problems for everyone else. Only by truly facing your issues can you improve the things around you. Otherwise demons will invade the world and kill everyone. That’s the moral of the story.
That is by far the most extensive breakdown of the original persona that I have ever read haha! But now I want to play the psp version
Yeah, these retrospectives normally run pretty long, but even so, this one still got away from me. I enjoyed writing it, though, so it was all good fun.
I appreciate the effort! 🙂
Thanks! After spending so much time working on this, that is honestly great to hear.
Blimey, what a post! 😀 Very in-depth but totally awesome. Never played this series of games, but now I am inspired to do so!
It’s probably my favorite JRPG series, and the later games especially are definitely worth your time. Persona 4 is one of my favorite games, ever.
Goddamn! I made it! Whew! Took me four reading sessions but it was worth it. Never heard of this game and with such an excellent write-up, now I don’t have to!
Sounds damn fun though. You outdid yourself this time.
Just two words for you – where is Demon Souls?? Or is it Dark Souls. So. Very. Tired.
Heh. I honestly wasn’t expecting people who didn’t already have interest in the game to make it through all that. Hope I was entertaining enough, even to the uninitiated. Thanks for reading!
Dark Souls is coming. Can’t really give you an ETA, because I probably’d make a liar of myself. I’d have it up already, but I spent the past 4 days without going indoors, and that sort of wrecks one’s access to word processors.
I really want to write a detailed impression of this post, but I have hit a snag (see latest post) – so I may necro this thread in a few weeks time with some witty and insightful comments
No problem, there’s no time limit on comments. Looking forward to hearing what you think when you finally get the time 🙂