I am a huge Atlus fan, if people cannot already tell, as I do adore the Shin Megami Tensei series they crank out and try to bleed out. Over the years, many alterations have been made to their games, like Persona 3 by adding in a female lead route, or Persona 4 Golden which adds another character to the mix, as well as other things I will not spoil for those interested. And honestly, I was okay with these changes. Now some people may think I am hypocritical since Marvel vs. Capcom 3 did the same thing with its Ultimate edition. Well, I may just be, but keep in mind, it took years before Atlus decided to suddenly add in new content and put it on the market. Moreover, the Persona 3 and 4 games were on the PS2, and then brought over to the PSP and Vita years later, as opposed Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom, which didn’t even wait for a year to announce it, limited the number of players online, gave them barely anything when the game first came out, and the bundle would cost over $100, even more with DLC characters. Kind of a huge difference there.
The point I am trying to make here is that change to a series can be a huge improvement, and sometimes other people may not be able to see that. Such is the case of Persona for the PSP, a game that improves on the original, but not by much. The original Persona game was released on the Playstation in 1997, with a strange design change to make the game set more in the west, rather than in Japan. The PSP release however changes all of that, using the setting of Japan, original character designs, and giving players the harder difficulty usually set by Atlus. But the real question here is whether or not the original Persona, with some minor alterations, can hold up against Persona 3 and 4. The answer…is no. But can it stand on its own? Maybe. This requires a lot of explanation.
The fact is, Persona for the PSP can be downright frustrating, but underneath all the problems, there is a good game. Unfortunately, not many players may see it. In fact, I barely see it, but I want to like this game. The story for instance is actually interesting, if a bit cliche, but at the same time, it did feel a bit new. You take control of a protagonist and a bunch of high schoolers who find out that they can control demon spirits inside them known as Persona, and in order to find out the mysteries their town holds, as well as the demon that roam about, they must journey, forge more Personas, and defeat the one causing all of this chaos. The great thing about this, is that the true ending expands more on this, adding some twists and interesting psychology regarding a certain character.
Moreover, while the characters aren’t as fleshed out in Persona 3 or 4, they are given detail and personality, and I found myself caring about them. I found myself caring even more, as you can choose your fifth member through certain tasks, and depending on who you pick, it can change the dialogue of the story to reveal more things about it. Even some gameplay mechanics change with that character, as you may want to consider different tactics and Persona, as they have different preferences and weapon choices. Some are even essential to make the strongest Persona available through conversation options.
In way of graphics, the game isn’t stunning or anything of the sort, still retaining a more Playstation look to it, but they have been polished, and the background can change depending on where you do battle at. Character design also tries to take anime approach, though lacks facial changes. The dialogue thankfully does manage to carry the emotion of the characters, even if they don’t speak, save for in combat and cutscenes, the cut-scenes are a highlight to this game, giving it a cel-shaded brightness to it I would have loved to see more of.
In the games dungeons, the design is far more repetitive, and you might get lost, but thankfully the map is extremely helpful. Sadly, it doesn’t detract from it all, and the dungeon design is also confusing. While I raged about Final Fantasy XIII’s “hallway” dungeons for being way too linear, the ones in Persona are erratic, containing paths that lead to dead ends for no other reason than to distract you and wear you out. In some cases, it can make sense, but at other times, it doesn’t. And the monster design overall can range from average to creative, but even that is limited with the graphics it works with. However, dungeon-perspective, save in rooms is based in first-person, and with the music and environments, it does give a creepy vibe to it all that I like, though it wears off quickly thanks to the random battles; more on that later.
And here we eventually see the problem of the game: the gameplay. Now it isn’t unplayable, and honestly, it can be enjoyable. The music of the game manages to give a good feel for combat and slow gameplay, and it’s all turn-based. You start out on a grid, where your characters are assigned positions depending on the formation used. Position placement is important, as each character has a weapon and gun, both of which require a specific position to be able to hit their targets. The same is true for Persona, as some attacks, mainly physically-based ones, require you to be in a certain spot to gain full advantage. However, stacking teammates so close together also warrants danger from multi-hit attacks hitting your team, so careful consideration is needed.
And to further add complication into the mix, demons and such all have specific weaknesses and strengths, and can be displayed once beaten. Otherwise, it’s a guessing game without the right item or spell. The real problem here is that when you do analyze an enemy, you do not get everything on them. I have run into multiple enemies where I wasn’t given everything, and had spells not work effectively, or even find new weaknesses. This made combat infuriating, and yet in some battles, especially in the last few boss battles, guns were ridiculously effective. Well, at least we can be assured that when demons invade the world, our guns can be very effective! Still, like I said, the game contains a TON of factors to defeat an enemy with every attack, as each one is technically different. This adds more complexity to an already complicated and difficult game.
Experience point gaining is also VERY aggravating, as only those who act in battle/do the most gain the most EXP, leaving most characters under-leveled if balance is not maintained. While it makes more sense in all honesty, it’s a system that just proceeds to drag out the game with grinding. Also, Persona can gain levels and ranks. The more you use them, the more spells will be available, so leveling them up with EXP won’t do anything, save for a boost their initial stats. Characters level up separately from the Persona, and can spend skill points into five different stats.
And as if there weren’t anything else to be put in to frustrate players, the random battle frequency is absurd. The game rarely allows a break, and the salts you can use to repel monsters only works when they are weaker than you. If they are stronger, there is no hope to avoid an encounter, and using escape can be a joke, as it doesn’t always work. I found myself trying to rush the game during the last dungeon because I was tired of it. Even in Final Fantasy IV, one of my favorite games of all time, things did not get so annoying. All the tactical stuff I mentioned also makes fights drag on for quite some time. There is an auto mode as well, but it isn’t reliable for specific attacks, as they won’t position attacks in the same way. But if you are willing to take some damage in some battles, you’ll find yourself using it a lot. You can also speed up battles by skipping battle animations in every fight, and this is very much recommend, otherwise battles will be terribly long.
That’s where the game shows its true colors. You aren’t exactly meant to fight every battle. In fact, you can have a conversation with a demon, and depending on how you handle it, you can get a spell card to fuse more Personas, get items/money/EXP, or even make the demons run away. However, get it too angry, and they may get in a round of combat. This is critical, as not only do you need to be able to acquire stronger Personas, but to also thin out combat if things prove too hard. And while this does seem helpful, it only is if you know how make the right decisions. This takes a lot of trial and error, but the game is nice enough to display the demon’s emotional type when you select. And in order to get a spell card, I actually found out that it is the average level of all your party members that is needed, not the level of the individual, making grinding even more important.
Minigames are also present in this game, but dealing with everything else was a pain, so I’ll end it here with the Persona themselves. In the Velvet Room, our good old friend Igor is present, and by using spell cards gathered from demons, you can fuse Persona. Unlike with Persona 3 and 4, all of your characters can possess more than one, and each have a ranking suited to which type of Persona is best compatible. The better the compatibility, the quicker they’ll learn skills and be suited for combat, while having bad is not a good idea, and worst is just downright unequippable. And you can store away useful Persona to switch out for later use, as each character can have up to three equipped while switching them out in combat, and each one gives different weaknesses and strengths. You can even add items into the mix to gain new skills or boost abilities.
Overall, this game is a mixed bag. On one hand, you do have great music, a good story, and some old school game mechanics. On the other hand, you have gameplay that while fun for the first few hours, will get more frustrating and tiresome in the last few arcs of the game. Make no mistake, this game does lack replayability, aside from accessing a new quest and trying out the other optional characters. Other than that? Nothing much. The game even lacks a new game +, so while after beating the game, you do get access to deeper levels in a dungeon, there really isn’t any point to it all. And I wish I could tell you how much time this game ate up, unfortunately, when kept on standby mode, it still records the time spent in the game.
Make no mistake, even fans of Persona have said it is a very hard game to love and stick with, but it shows how dedicated the fans are. It was frustrating, ungodly irritating even, but I can’t bring myself to hate this game. Persona series was meant to be difficult and challenging to a player, and obviously not meant for the casual gamer, sort of. So, in the end, I can only give Persona for the PSP a 3 out of 5. I certainly don’t want to replay this game, at least not for a very long time, but I can recommend it as a rental. Try it out, and if you like it, good for you! If not, well, at least you didn’t pay full price for it.