Once we finally caved and went to the hospital, we were given Maki’s room number and spotted Yamaoka stalking Nanjo from a distance. Yamaoka asked Sorrow not to tattle on him, and we went on into the hospital ourselves. This was a strange place to come back to in our SQQ run, as it’s essentially the last new ordinary building you’ll enter in either storyline! This makes it feel very strange. In fact, it was probably more “realistic” than any other building in the game. The game’s dungeons are laid out in an incredibly hostile way, ala Wizardry, while the malls and (to a lesser extent) the school are laid out for easy video game accessibility. Meanwhile, the hospital was structured like a real-world building, making optimal use of all its space, and that made it feel weird!
We made our way to Maki’s room, and learned that she was a very sick young woman who had been trapped in here for quite some time (the childish toys to one side were a testament to that) and that Mark may very well be her only friend (in fact, he seems to have a crush on her). Maki talked briefly about what was going on in her life, mentioning a dream with a “nice man,” presumably Philemon, but who can say? We also learned that Maki’s mother worked for SEBEC and that they’re not on good terms. Unfortunately, the meeting was cut short when Maki suffered some sort of attack, forcing her to be brought to the ICU. The quartet waited outside the ICU for her procedure to complete, only for the whole town to be caught in some sort of earthquake. After the quake, Mark ran to the ICU to see if Maki was all right, only for the automatic doors to open to… a blank wall.
The group was then called down the hall by a scream, and arrived in a waiting room to find that monsters had appeared, and Yamaoka had been injured by them. A nurse explained that several dead patients had suddenly revived as zombies and attacked her. Yamaoka had been attacked trying to save the survivors. He had been gravely injured in the processes, and Nanjo broke out of his calm demeanour and into a rage. The rest of the party followed him into battle, and the first combat of the game began… sort of.
First thing to say about combat is that Mark is carrying a battle axe. I don’t know where the hell he got it, but here it is! Most of the party is unarmed, but Mark is carrying a Two-Handed Axe – not just in appearance, but in the equipment menu and everything! Is Mark the kind of person who carries a battle axe with him at all times? Who knows!
The reason for this odd bit of equipment lies in Persona 1’s unusual battle system. Rather than a traditional, abstracted RPG battle system, Persona 1 uses a grid that’s half dedicated to your party and half to the opponent. At first it might resemble a traditional tactics/strategy game, but don’t be confused, as your characters generally do not move from their starting positions (you have to give them their starting positions in the pause menu). Each attack and spell in the game has its own special attack zone, and by defeating enemies, you force the rest of their forces to automatically move forward so that some enemies are always within melee range (and vice versa for yourself). While it’s easy enough to position your characters in good, permanent slots to take advantage of their weapons (the major concession being that they have to stand at least one square apart), you had better make sure that you do, because moving characters around is a gigantic chore, especially because the game overwrites your old party layout whenever someone moves. You get three slots to save character formations, but they’re a slow to set up since the game has to load combat mode whenever you so much as glance at them in the menu. What a mess. If anything could have used some efficiency tweaks, it was this.
This returns us to Mark and his back-pocket battle axe. While Nanjo and Sorrow are unarmed at this point in the game, being unarmed leaves them with a similar attack pattern to the blades they’ll use later in the game. Axes, on the other hand, use a completely different attack pattern, vaguely “horn-shaped,” and the developers must have decided it was more important that Mark have this attack pattern from the get-go than to have it change the moment he picked up a weapon. Yukino is in a similar position: she’s already armed with her preferred “throwing razor” weapons. These are an area attack missile weapon, and it wouldn’t make sense for her to change slots once she gets equipped. The reason I didn’t critique her having weapons is because a) she seems like the kind of person who would, and b) a razor or even a bunch of razors is easier to conceal on one’s person than a two-handed axe. That all said, I wish they had given Mark some sort of shitty axe substitute rather than a Two-Handed Axe. Once Sorrow and Nanjo start to find “swords,” they’ll actually be using mops. Surely they could have given Mark some kind of… I don’t know… lead pipe picked up off the ground, and just given it an axe’s attack pattern, right? Yukino could even be armed with pins for starters, something innocuous. Or even better: just give Mark an axe’s attack pattern even when unarmed? That wouldn’t work for Yukino, but it still seems better than this.
The fight begins with one of the zombies attacking your lead, only to be curiously interrupted as a spirit rises from Sorrow and attacks the zombie. More spirits arise from the other party members, introducing our first Personas, and also the signature phrase they use when they first appear, which in this version reads: “Thou art I… and I am thou… From the sea of they soul, I cometh… I shall lend you my strength…” Sorrow’s starting Persona is Seimen Kongou, from Hindu and Buddhist lore. Mark’s Persona is Ogun, from Yoruba lore. Yukino’s Persona is Vesta, from Greek myth, and Nanjo’s Aizen Myouou is from Buddhism. The Personas win the battle for you.
Yamaoka sadly dies not long after the battle, leaving the party temporarily alone in the hospital. Thankfully, it’s only a short walk to a doctor that will heal you for free, but you’ll have to dive head-first into proper Persona 1 gameplay if you want to escape. That means setting up your party, getting used to the weird quasi-tactical battle system and its very, very slow animations, and of course, your Personas. At this point in the game, everyone has only one Persona, which simplifies things immensely, as does the fact that no one has any firearms (as in the SMT games, P1 characters can use both melee weapons and firearms, but also like SMT1, you have to earn the latter). You can summon the Personas to cast magic, and unusually, the cost of all the Persona’s spells are identical, based on the Persona, not the spell. This means that a Persona could be able to cast a powerful spell for cheap or a garbage spell for a huge MP drain if you aren’t careful, something to be mindful of. You also have to get your head around the game’s absurd 28-element system, only some of which are actually explained in game. For example, the game will happily announce that an enemy is weak against firearms, without mentioning that there are four kinds of firearms (pistols, rifles, shotguns, submachine guns) and the enemy is only weak to one of them and won’t say which! It’s not a lot of help, and that may be deliberate.
Another feature you’ll want to master is talking to the demons you encounter ala the mainline SMT games. By doing so, you can try to convince them to come over to your side in the form of magic Cards by making them Eager to join you based on the mood graphic that appears in the corner. Careful: it’s just as easy to make them Happy, Angry or Scared as it is to make them Eager, and doing so will end the conversation. Making them anything but Eager risks them continuing the fight – yes, even Happy – or worse, risks them ambushing you or cheap-shotting you with an attack or status effect. If you can get a handle on them, negotiations can really speed up dungeon delving or even grinding (as they sometimes randomly give you whole troves of EXP if you ask them for a “present” instead of a Card), but it’s tricky business and runs the risk of slowing regular character growth you would have gotten through combat.
One other thing to bear in mind is P1’s curious decision to split your character level and your “Persona level,” as well as giving a seperate variable over to each individual Persona’s “rank!” In most SMT games, demons will refuse to join you if your character’s level is too low, but here you have to use your existing Persona to raise your character’s Persona Level, which means the game seems to discourage your use of regular weapons. Rank, meanwhile, gives Personas access to new spells and levels through use.
With that all said and done, there’s not much more to be said about the dungeon, or sadly most Persona 1 dungeons for that matter. The demons had somehow distorted the hospital (and all future dungeons) into a maze to suit their whims, but there’s nothing else remarkable about the hospital dungeon beyond that, and there’s going to be little-to-nothing to say about most of the upcoming dungeons as well!
The party finds themselves at the exit to the hospital, with no sign of Maki or the entire ICU. They also find a nurse trapped under a fallen vending machine. While the game tries to provide a sense of tension here by implying you’re suddenly on the run from the monsters, Kyle and I had done a little grinding before entering the final room in assumption that a boss would come, and so had no sense of time pressure at all. Of course we helped her out.
After we were done helping the nurse, a pair of zombies appeared (a pair, seriously? We’ve fought groups of a half dozen all over the hospital!), as did our friend Elly from school. Utterly nonchalant, Elly pulled out a fencing sabre and decided to fight the zombies. During the battle, her Persona also awoke, gaining her Persona Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. This put Elly into a bit of an egotistical haze for a moment, but that passed, and she told us that the entire town was locked down. For some reason, Elly added that the school seems to be the only safe place in town, but in practice, you’ll find that the malls are perfectly safe as well, so this declaration feels like an arbitrary way to direct you to the school as part of the plot. The nurse, meanwhile, had disappeared, making me wonder if she had ever existed.
Elly joined the party at this point, and also lined us up for another main quest: Maki’s mother had been injured and was hiding out in a nearby shrine. The party decided to split up: Sorrow, Yukino and Elly going to find Maki’s mother, and Mark and Nanjo going to look for weapons. Well, that’s what they said. Kyle and I went gallivanting off in every other direction instead. As you do.
Kyle and I actually missed something in this section: the ghost of a police officer who revealed that the demons had overrun the police station. Our interests were more aligned with the malls. I don’t remember them having anything of interest to sell, and I’m certain the blue doors had yet to unlock. But there was one thing we could work towards: Reiji.
The last (active) step you have to perform while recruiting Reiji sees you outside the SEBEC building, where the corporation has set up a road blockade. God knows on whose authority, they may just be taking advantage of the chaos. Reiji was threatening them, apparently nursing a massive hate-on for the company. After that conversation, everything is set with Reiji so long as you don’t make one further, incredibly easy-to-make mistake.
This retrospective’s screenshots come from ZEROthefirst’s Let’s Play of the PSP release of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona at YouTube.