Time for something a little different: our first Persona Marathon entry!
Persona, if you’re new to the series, is a major subseries/spinoff of Atlus’ long-running demons-and-mythology-attack-the-modern-day themed Shin Megami Tensei series. I’m a big fan of the series, but the games are notoriously difficult, and prior to Persona 1, I’d never actually beaten any of them. Kyle, wanting to get into the famous Persona 3 and 4, agreed that we should intermix the Persona games with our existing Final Fantasy Marathon, playing the games in release order alongside the Final Fantasy games. Since Persona 1 was one of the earliest JRPGs released for the PSX, its remake became our first game from the 32-bit era.
If you want to get into more detail, the Persona series descends from a Japanese-only spinoff of Shin Megami Tensei 1, entitled Shin Megami Tensei: if…, sometimes called “Persona 0.” This peculiar game was presumably named after If…., a British film of loosely similar themes. Persona’s descent from SMT: if… isn’t just a matter of mechanical inference, it’s outright canonically true: the events of SMT: if… prevented the events of SMT1 from happening, creating an alternate timeline where Persona is set (or, at the very least, Persona 1 and 2). Thankfully, you don’t need to know the story of SMT: if…, especially since the connection is little more than a cameo in P1 itself.
Persona 1 was originally brought over to the west as Revelations: Persona for the PSX, one of the PSX’s few RPGs released prior to the game-changing release of FFVII. As such, it has this vague sort of feeling about it like many early 3D games, or pre-Street Fighter II fighting games, as though it didn’t fully know what it was doing but darned if it wasn’t going to try. “Revelations” was the series’ briefly held western name, though it only lasted from Persona 1 to Revelations: The Demon Slayer (JPN: Last Bible) on the GBC, a grand total of two games. For what it’s worth, I like the “Revelations” title, as it has multiple meanings that all work with the series, but “Shin Megami Tensei” is fine too.
The western release of Revelations: Persona featured several considerable changes over the Japanese original, like the removal of a major plot line. As a consequence, it was a big deal for them to re-release the game in its complete form on the PSP, though this version comes with an entirely different soundtrack for better or worse. I’ll talk about the plot line as we go, but the soundtrack is also important to mention. Essentially, Revelations: Persona and its Japanese original were going for a horror vibe for their OST, while Persona 1 PSP attempted to emulate the soundtrack of the modern Persona games. Which soundtrack one prefers may have a lot to do with what sort of game they went in hoping to play. While this is going to be a wishy-washy way to open the critique, I like them both at times, and dislike them both in others, so you’re not going to get any strong opinions out of me when it comes to the music.
Our screenshots today come from ZEROthefirst’s Let’s Play of the PSP release of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona at YouTube!
Persona 1 opens with a quote from the Zhuangzi, which is translated as follows:
Once, I dreamt I was a butterfly.
I forgot myself and knew only my happiness as a butterfly.
Soon, I awoke, and was myself again.
Did I dream that I was a butterfly?
Or do I now dream that I am a man?
Yet there is a distinction between myself and the butterfly.
This is the transformation of the physical.
From here, it cuts to a classroom in St. Hermelin H.S., where it rudely attempts to introduce almost the entire playable cast at once, leaving you to take in eight other faces, names and identities and to see how many you remember five minutes from now. This was so chaotic that Kyle and I had a lot of trouble remembering characters and faces the second they went offscreen, but maybe that’s just us. By the way, like the English translation, I’ll be using first name-last name style when addressing the characters’ names.
The two primary characters in this scene are Hidehiko “Brown” Uesugi and Masao “Mark” Inaba, who take over the conversation basically because they have the loudest mouths. Mark, by the way, is infamous on the internet for having been changed into a black character in the Revelations translation, easily the most overt of that version’s many changes. Brown, meanwhile, is running the show in this opening scene despite technically being an optional character that Kyle and I ignored in favour of someone else. It’s an odd scene to come back to, after you realize the plot is basically being started by Some Nobody We’ve Never Seen Before.
It seems that half the class, represented by Brown, is trying to dare the other half of the class, represented by Mark, into performing a strange, schoolyard ritual to summon something called “Persona,” claiming that “weird stuff will happen.” This is not unlike any of the “Bloody Mary” myths you might hear in the US or Canada. Brown goads Mark into the ritual with a bet, and others chime in on the bet as well, taking one side or another.
On Brown’s side is Yuka Ayase, a girl with dyed blonde hair dressed in the kogal style (that Wikipedia page will tell you more than I ever could) and Eriko “Elly” Kirishima, a refined type whom the Revelations localization made blonde. On Mark’s side are the grumpy, stuck-up Kei Nanjo and the brusque but proactive Yukino Mayuzumi (Ed. whom I later learned represents yanki subculture). In the middle stands the silent player-character, who has no official name in official materials, being simply referred to as “The Boy with the Earring.” But more on our player character’s identity in a moment.
The player is allowed to bet on either side, not that the choice had any impact on the finale. We would know: Marathon rules dictated that we had to pursue the best possible ending, and were aware that Persona 1 decided its best ending based on a number of dialogue choices. As a result, we were super nervous whenever one came up and had to check a walkthrough in every single instance, bringing the game to a complete halt more than a dozen times. This might have been a lot easier if not for our low-to-no spoilers policy, so we have no one but ourselves to blame.
The ritual involved four students completing a circuit about the room in relay while chanting for the “Persona” to come. They started with Ayase and then moved on to Brown, then Mark (who was less than enthusiastic) and last of all Elly. The rest of the students, including the player character, waited in the middle. Nothing happened at first, only for a small girl in white to appear from thin air, dressed in white and clutching a teddy bear. Well, arguably dressed in white. The game cut to a 3D rendered cutscene and showed the girl entirely in ghostly, semi-transparent white, which means her dress colour should have been impossible to work out.
As the girl started to wail for someone to help her, lightning shot out from the school’s lighting and struck the three doubters from earlier (Mark, Nanjo and Yukino), along with the player character no matter their vote. At first this might make things look a little arbitrary, but you later learn that Brown, Ayase and Elly had performed this ritual at a previous date and that’s what makes them different, though nothing so dramatic happened to them at the time! What’s odd is that Yukino will later tell you this about the others as though you already knew it, even though it doesn’t come across in the opening argument!
The cutscene then goes to show a strange vortex made up of what looks like school staircases, surrounded by vague visuals of gears of buildings. A glowing butterfly leads the player on through the vortex, until they arrive in a strange floating platform, where a man wearing a mask greets them as “Philemon, a dweller between consciousness and unconsciousness.” Philemon’s mask is entirely white on one side, though bears a purple imprint of a butterfly wing over the right side. He asks the player if they can complete a “simple test:” to recite their name and nickname.
This leads to the name entry screen, leaving Kyle and I at a complete blank. Normally, it’s Marathon policy to address a character by their canonical name, but the Boy with the Earring has no canonical name! Apparently we had exhausted our ability to name things during FFI, six or seven years earlier, and had never recovered. We eventually gave our character their “proper name” by smushing our names together, but the result was so awful that I cringed every time it showed up. Thankfully, the character’s nickname features more prominently than their proper name. When it came to the nickname, we sat and pondered for a good five minutes before Kyle happened upon a word on his Facebook feed that caught his eye: “Sorrow.” This seemed like a pretty silly nickname at first but it grew on us until the point where it came out naturally. “Let’s change Sorrow’s equipment,” “Oh, Sorrow’s been charmed by the snake-lady.” I bet if someone had walked in on us, they’d have been very confused.
Philemon says that it’s very rare that someone remembers their name in “this domain,” and then asked “Are you aware of the many and varied selves harboured within you?” He explained the central premise of the Persona series in the oblique sort of way that wise mentor figures in video games typically do. Personas represent the “selves” a person projects to the outside world, saying that even their current “self” may simply be one of those masks. He said Sorrow had strong control over his identity and will, implying that that meant control over his Personae, and gave Sorrow the power to summon the “selves” within him, and then returned us to the waking world.
(By the way, the official plural for “Persona” in the series is “Personas,” despite the plural being “personae” in any real-world English context. I might end up alternating between them, sorry about that in advance.)
We woke up in the school infirmary, where the three doubters were discussing the fact that they too had the same dream about Philemon (they never seem to ask you if you did, but since r character doesn’t seem to actually speak, I suppose that’s understandable). Also present was the somewhat creepy nurse, Natsumi Yoshino, and moments later, your teacher Ms. Saeko Takami. Distressed by the incident, Ms. Saeko orders the four of you to the hospital for a full check-up. Nurse Natsumi reminds the students that they have a classmate at the hospital as well, the bedridden Maki Sonomura, who has been stuck there for over a year now as a result of her perpetually undisclosed condition that let the writers do whatever they want with her. Naturally, Ms. Saeko advises that you go visit her while you’re there.
Before leaving, Nurse Natsume draws your attention toward a strange pink tree she has growing in the corner. Much to our surprise, the tree spoke to Sorrow through some sort of psychic contact, identifying itself as the “Agastya Tree” and asking you to inscribe your story on it, aka saving. The name “Agastya” is a reference to a Vedic figure, and I’m personally at a loss to explain his inclusion as part of the save feature. If anyone would care to enlighten me, feel free to do so in the comments. MegaTen throws in historical and mythical figures sometimes randomly and sometimes deliberately, and I can’t say for sure if this is an instance of one or the other.
While we’re talking about saving, I want to complain about the fact that P1 on the PSP doesn’t remember your current save slot! I haven’t seen this kind of sloppy behaviour from a game since FFLII, which I’ll remind you is on the Game Boy. I’m sure this is in other PSP games as well, and shame on all of them. Naturally, I ended up saving over another, unrelated file before our playthrough was done, which is all you can honestly expect from a system like that!
Once you step out the door, you’ll find yourself in the hall and in Megami Tensei’s traditional first-person view. The MegaTen series evolved out of dedicated dungeon crawler games in the vein of Wizardry, and many of its successors keep the system going into the present day, and Persona 1 was one of them. Unlike many of those Wizardry-inspired games, Persona includes an automap, which is very helpful, though it seems to undermine the point of the game’s mazes. In fact, Kyle and I were so baffled at how often Persona ruined its mazes by showing us the dead-ends, that at one point went looking for videos of the original just to be sure the size of the automap hadn’t been changed!
Thankfully, we were now in the era where the developers could make the square labyrinth walls look like actual places like schools, and not grid-paper dungeons from the golden age of D&D. One of these days I’m going to have to have a discussion with the level designer of SMT1 about the integral differences between the attractive 20th century Shinjuku Subnade, a brightly-lit underground shopping mall full of businesses and a location supposedly visited in SMT1, and the beautiful 6th century Basilica Cistern, a literal underground dungeon full of pillars, which appears to have been put in its place.
When you enter rooms in P1, the game skips to an isometric perspective. These scenes are a little tough to control on a D-Pad, with up, down, left and right moving you on diagonals instead of relative to the camera. Atlus at least gave you the option to rotate the controls so that “up” could mean moving either up-left or up-right, but that’s it. If you’d prefer some other control style (like, say, eight-directional movement relative to the camera), well, too bad, so it’s good that you never have to do anything urgent in the isometric rooms. Generally speaking, the entire isometric feature seems poorly implemented and unfinished. To rub that in, consider the fact that there’s barely anything to do in these segments. You can’t investigate anything the various rooms that isn’t a character or chest, and sometimes this missing feature is very obvious: you often see your fellow party-members checking out something in the environment but can’t do so yourself! Generally speaking, all the game’s rooms are just background drawings of no particular consequence and if you ask me, it takes away from the game a huge deal.
The school was absolutely packed with students and staff, many of them given names and portraits. However, many of them aren’t important in the main storyline: rather, they’re important to the storyline that was removed from Revelations, known as “The Snow Queen Quest.” Since Kyle and I (like many others) did the Snow Queen Quest on a second play-through, we’ll skip the interminable introductions and move on with the game we’re currently playing: “The SEBEC Route.” SEBEC was the name of a local, big-name corporation that seemed to have a lot of students bothered, though they rarely explained why. At the same time, other students didn’t seem much harm in the place. It would be up to Kyle and I to make up our own minds as we went into the storyline that bore the company’s name.
A problem with wandering the halls at this point in the game is that almost every conversation with your current party-members includes at least one of them telling you to go on to the hospital. I understand the need to remind the player what they were doing, but I generally want that sort of thing on request. Since your friends are often talking about other things, this doesn’t qualify. As it stands, your trio of so-called friends essentially nag you every step of the way and eventually start to get angry at you for ignoring them! What an awful implementation of what should have been a good idea!
Kyle and I did explore the school from top to bottom just out of our default, narrative urges, but there was one other thing we had our eyes on: Reiji Kido. I’ll explain the detailed mechanics later on, but long story short: after a certain point in the SEBEC story line, your party in this game is going to consist of five members until the end of the game, four mandatory and one decided by your actions. The Snow Queen Quest follows different rules. Reiji Kido is one of those potential fifth characters, but to unlock him you have to jump through a lot of hoops. For the time being, that meant making sure to talk to people about Reiji, and to catch sight of him briefly on the second floor. Kyle and I loved the idea of getting an obscure character like that, but it turns out that we’d have to get Reiji even if we hated him. You see: when we set up the Marathon, we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss any major narrative elements, so the Marathon rules force us to acquire every available character. Since Persona 1 was going to take two storylines, SEBEC and Snow Queen, we looked at the mandatory and optional characters in both storylines and realized that there’s a lot of overlap. In fact, we could play with every character so long as we took Reiji in the SEBEC route (he’s not available in the Snow Queen quest), and every other other potential character into our party during the Snow Queen route. Reiji it is, then!
After a while, it was time to head out of the school. This is rather easy to do by accident early on, considering the exit is very near the school’s front doors. Oh, true, an exit icon is marked there on the minimap, but the player doesn’t yet know what that symbol means unless they’ve been in the manual. Thankfully you can return to the school if you happen to stumble out, like so many have before you.
Just outside the front gates, we ran into Nanjo’s butler, and older fellow by the name of Yamaoka. He seemed thrilled to see “young master Kei” with friends, which was apparently an irregular sight for Nanjo. Nanjo spelled out his personality by telling the nice old man to hit the road. Delightful, Nanjo. I can tell you’re going to be a lot of fun.
The map in the remake is mechanically inspired by the original world map of SMT1 (and its derivatives). It’s not as involved as a traditional RPG world map, but is very crisp and sensible. You get a wide zoom of the area, your party is represented by a cursor, and you can navigate the major roads on your way to multiple destinations. Later in the game, random encounters can hit you as you move your cursor about the map screen, but right now the town was safe, and the only unnatural thing about it were the artificial “walls” preventing you from leaving the area.
In the original Revelations: Persona, the map was absolute garbage. When I first came across it while checking a video walkthrough for one detail or another, I had to nudge Kyle away from the game just so we could gape at the disaster. They tried to make it 3D, and Atlus, like so many other companies at the time, was not ready for the advent of 3D gaming. While I don’t have any hands-on experience with this mode, a simple glance at YouTube will show that it’s ugly, narrow and s-l-o-w. My pity to everyone who had to put up with it back in the day.
Since it was so much easier for us to explore the map in the PSP version, we made a point of going everywhere but where we were supposed to go. It’s a lot like the “what to do with our new airship” sections from the FF Marathon. There are quite a few places to visit on the map, but it might not be quite as many as you think in the long run, as this four-screen city is the entire game world. Well… sort of. Hold that thought. This one-town structure gives Persona 1 a vague sense of being little more than a traditional, 80s dungeon crawler, which I suppose isn’t surprising given MegaTen’s background as a dungeon crawler!
Most of the sites on the map led to single conversations or cutscenes, like at people’s homes. Here we met a snooty rich woman, some of the casts’ family members, that sort of thing. I should also mention the Mikage Ruins found at the north end of town – I imagine that’s a little unusual in your average metropolis – but other than that, things were fairly tame and urban. Despite the sheer number of scenes available for the explorer, very few of them actually provided gameplay hints, probably because nothing malefic was going on as of yet. As you’re going to see, Persona 1’s premise implies that most of the games’ dungeons outright don’t exist at the start of the game, so it would be pretty hard to give hints about anything paranormal at this point! While this does take the steam out of this brief segment (less than five minutes on the PSP, god knows how much time on the PSX), I feel like the game’s internal logic does justify itself here in P1, but just barely. This kind of empty game world would look like a great, gaping flaw on any other product.
We did get a chance to introduce ourselves to many of the games’ goods and services. The town had two malls (one seemingly designed to mimic the cross-like structure of Kichijoji Mall at the start of SMT1, and presumably shaped in reference to the real-world Tokyo mall). Each features a number of shops and more dialogue options, explored in first person view. Several of the shops were still locked off, such as the mysterious blue doors in both, while others seemed to be generic real-world shops we couldn’t shop at. The only shops truly useful to us at the outset were the shockingly overpriced doctors’ offices (the price would never go up, but was way too high for start-of-game); item shops appearing as pharmacies (complete with elevator music); and lastly the twin casinos.
The casinos are just about what you’d expect with any experience in video game casinos. We’re talking about the Pachinko house prize model: “exchange cash for tokens, and tokens for prizes; feel free to dump your endgame wallet to buy tokens if you can’t win.” The casinos had games of Video Blackjack, Video Poker, slot machines, a dice game (where you bet one what you’ll roll on two dice, roulette style) and lastly a special game called Code Breaker that could only be played with “Metal Cards” found throughout the game. I’m not sure why Code Breaker is treated differently than the other games. Granted, Code Breaker’s not a traditional casino game and it’s more like Mastermind, but its odds aren’t much better than the other games, especially considering you’re going to waste more time playing it than rapidly dealing out hands of poker. Like the other shops, the casinos weren’t trading in very good prizes until the plot gets started, and Kyle and I didn’t pay them much attention during our SEBEC run anyways.
But there was one thing we had to do while we were out here: keep tracking down Reiji Kido. One of the first steps actually starts in a casino, after which you have to bust into an abandoned factory to confront Reiji again. Then, perhaps the hardest step in the process: you have to track down Reiji’s mother and answer two of her yes and no questions correctly, or face instant failure (with no way of knowing you’ve failed!). What a delight!
This retrospective’s screenshots come from ZEROthefirst’s Let’s Play of the PSP release of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona at YouTube.