Shin Megami Tensei: Persona

I’ve heard a lot of good things about the Persona series over the years, so as part of my foray into the Shin Megami Tensei franchise I decided to try it out. I, of course, started with the first one. (To head off the inevitable question, it was the PSP version, since I heard the PSX localization was a disaster.) I had some hopeful expectations going in given the series’ popularity and my own positive feelings towards its predecessor If.

This was a mistake. Persona 1 is a grindy, tedious mess of a game with a plot that’s morally bankrupt when it’s not totally incoherent.

To begin with: In case you’re not familiar, the premise of the game is that the various gods and demons of SMT are also aspects of peoples’ souls, and properly attuned people can manifest them to use magic and supernatural abilities. These are the titular Personae. (This is accompanied by some philosophizing about how the Personae are reflective of the different selves and masks people use in different situations, which is a cool idea that is only followed up on by one character.)

The game immediately butchers this interesting concept by merging it with with the mons mechanics from the rest of the franchise: you unlock new Personae not through personal growth or character choices but by fusing them from demons, and Personae act like equipment that can be freely passed around between characters. So no, they’re clearly not intractable pieces of peoples’ personal souls, they’re just supernatural symbiotes that can bond with anyone. This is so at odds with the stated lore I genuinely want to ask what on Earth was going on in the dev room. Did the gameplay and story teams never once communicate with each other?

(And even if we ignore them being interchangeable, there are so many logistical questions here — the Personae aren’t just different versions of the same person, they are specifically mythological figures, which, what? You could make a case that certain people metaphorically vibe with certain figures, but it’s not clear that’s what’s going on — it sounds like the actual gods are literally part of these people, which is very confusing on a theological level, especially when they’re gods the characters didn’t even know about.)

This is all just dizzying to keep track of — there are some restrictions on which characters can use what Personae, but they’re seemingly arbitrary and don’t narrow the options down nearly enough. Every character has a “Persona” level separate from their character level (I’m still not entirely sure what that does), which is different from each individual Persona’s “rank”, which you raise by using their abilities and unlocks new abilities at higher levels. It just ends up incredibly tedious to constantly juggle Personae to find out which ones I need to rank up vs. which ones are useful for the current dungeon, which isn’t helped by there being way, way too many elements and affinities. This focus on the Personae also results in the specific characters feeling interchangeable, which seems backwards when the Personae are supposedly extensions of their unique personalities.

Unrelatedly but still noteworthy: The game uses a grid-based tactics-like map for its battles, but in a really weird way. You can’t move characters freely, only switch between a few party configurations you configure outside of battle, and characters’ attack ranges are limited by their choice of weapon and certain skills. What’s annoying is that the attack range is limited in two dimensions, so e.g. a character on the left side can only hit enemies that are also on the left side, forcing them to twiddle their thumbs if that side of the battlefield is clear. Fortunately magic has unlimited range and MP isn’t really a concern so I just spammed that, but it’s still a really bizarre design choice.

To cap it all off, the game is incredibly grindy, even for a jRPG. You need to use each Persona literally dozens of times to max out their rank, on top of having to grind spell cards with the wildly unpredictable negotiation mechanic to make more Personae. Dungeons are way too long (with the same boring first-person tunnel view as previous games), and I swear the encounter rate is way higher than it ever was in the mainline SMT games. At least there’s an autobattle feature, because the devs knew their game was so terrible people would want to opt out of the core gameplay!

So I tapped out around the… third? dungeon I think (the Black Market) and just watched the cutscenes on YouTube, where I discovered the writing is not much better than the gameplay.

Greatest hits:

The plot itself reads like something scraped off the floor of a SyFy writers’ room. Something something sci-fi tech accesses other dimensions, somehow this is used to treat a sick girl’s illness, somehow this results in said girl becoming God. I can generously assume there was some version of the plot that made sense in the writers’ heads, but that did not make it onto the page in the slightest. Maki is sad she’s confined to a hospital bed, therefore she wants to destroy the entire world? Why??? What is the Deva System, why does Maki have a special connection to it, how is it treating her sickness? What does any of this have to do with Pandora’s Box? The plot point of bringing a fantasy object into the real world to use its powers was clever, but that was it.

There is one genuinely interesting twist that actually fits the stated themes: One of the player characters is eventually revealed to actually be a persona herself, the idealized version of who the person wants to be, and the villains are also personae of the same person, representing how she feels at her worst. This is immediately turned into a farce by the idealized persona having a mental breakdown over the revelation and insistently denying it’s even possible, even though that is the premise of the entire story and everyone has been manifesting Personae this entire time.

At least the female character designs weren’t super sexualized this time around, and by and large looked like actual schoolchildren; though as we all know, that won’t last long.

The boss theme is a banger, though.

11 Comments

  1. Anon-kun says:

    This review is just… I don’t even know where to start from.

    Sorry, but your understanding of the Persona system is fundamentally flawed.

    As you mention yourself in your review, Personas are masks. Think of the mask’s association with theater and playing a role, something which the series also comments on. Some roles can be played by multiple actors with different degrees of success, while others are created with one specific actor in mind so it’s impossible for anyone else to perform them, and some actors are completely incompatible with certain types of role.

    Anyone can perform the role of Ankou, but Reiji is by far the actor most suited to it. Maki and Yukino can perform the role well enough, while everyone else technically can but they’re bad at it. (Reiji has Best affinity with Ankou, Maki and Yukino are Good, and everyone else is Bad).

    The role of Susanoo is exclusive to Mark. It is intrinsically tied to his soul, tailor-made with Mark in mind, and no one else can perform it. No one can perform the role of *Mark’s* Susanoo other than Mark himself, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to perform the role of *a* Susanoo… but it’ll never be *Mark’s* Susanoo. This is why Initial and Ultimate Personas, which are intrinsically tied to a character and exclusive to them, all have unique designs. There have been three different people in the series with Susanoo as their unique Persona, all of them with *unique and different designs*.

    Another bit of important element of the series is the Carl Jung’s Collective Consciousness… or rather the series’ interpretation of it. As explained by Philemon himself, “humans are infused with divine love, and capable of demonic cruelty” which is why Personas take on the appearance and names of gods and demons and whatnot, even those the user is not familiar with since all minds are subconsciously connected. These are *not* the same as the real gods and demons, something that is explicitly pointed out in a sidequest in the second game and, again, Susanoo is not the only example of multiple characters having the same Persona but with an unique design for each. Or a Persona that was previously exclusive to a character reappearing in another game now with a different design… because *they’re not that character’s Persona*.

    I used roles and actors as a way to explain it, but think of character-exclusive Personas as representation of an aspect of a character’s unique soul, but the “interchangeable” Personas represent aspects that are common to different people, which is why they use the “generic” designs rather than unique.

    You also complain that Personas are not acquired by personal growth or character choices… but they are? The items needed to fuse the Ultimate Personas (the strongest character-exclusive Personas in the game) are obtained depending on the number of moral choices made by the protagonist throughout the game. It runs into the problem of it being centered around the protagonist instead of everyone else, I’ll admit.

    The “Persona Level” is indeed bullshit, I’ll give you that. Basically, you have your character level that lets you level up and gain stats, and a Persona Level that dictates what level of Persona you can equip. So if your character level is 50 but your Persona Level is 45, you can at most equip a level 45 Persona. This was indeed a bad decision which is why Persona 2 onwards got rid of it.

    “You can’t move characters freely, only switch between a few party configurations you configure outside of battle”… this is literally untrue? You can freely move characters in the grid during battle.

    The reason the encounter rate is higher than usual is because of reused code from the original game. The formula that determines if an encounter will happen is tied to the CPU speed, and the PSP’s CPU is much more faster than the PS1’s… which is exactly why they added Estoma to the game, which wasn’t present in the original. And why they made it possible to give Estoma to literally any Persona that doesn’t need an item to be fused as soon as you gain access to the Velvet Room.

    I won’t debate your complaints in the “greatest hits” section because you’re totally correct in your criticisms.

    Your interpretation of the plot however is… either literally wrong or complains about perfectly reasonable stuff?

    Maki is a sickly girl who made up a paradise in her mind where she’s healthy and everything is perfect to cope with her situation. At the same time, SEBEC is working on a machine that has the power to change reality, and the machine linked itself to Maki’s brainwaves by mere happenstance, manifesting Maki’s paradise as an alternate reality. Once the plot of the game starts, she gets hooked directly to the machine, which is doubling as life support for her since she literally had a health crisis and was rushed to the ICU before the starting incident. Pandora is the *part* of Maki who’s most bitter about her situation and wants to watch the world burn. Once she finds out the truth, the ideal Maki has an existential crisis about her situation because of course you’d be in denial if someone just said you and the world you live in are a lie, proof notwithstanding. You also say “insistently denying” as if that’s an on-going element after the revelation even though it literally only lasts one scene and less than ten lines of dialogue.

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    1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

      Re: Persona lore, that’s incredibly and unnecessarily convoluted. I could see it if they just removed the gods-and-demons layer and outright named them by personality archetypes or theater roles, but just… how do we “play the role of” the Egyptian sun god or the Norse thunder god in our lives? That’s not a line of metaphor that makes any sense to me. It’s too many layers of abstraction.

      You also complain that Personas are not acquired by personal growth or character choices… but they are? The items needed to fuse the Ultimate Personas (the strongest character-exclusive Personas in the game) are obtained depending on the number of moral choices made by the protagonist throughout the game.

      …You’re mad that I’m complaining about how a core mechanic works because there’s a single exception that works completely outside of it? Really? The Ultimate Personas just further demonstrate how nonsensical the standard fused Personas are by showing us how it should have worked for all of them.

      “You can’t move characters freely, only switch between a few party configurations you configure outside of battle”… this is literally untrue? You can freely move characters in the grid during battle.

      News to me. I was only able to find the option to switch between preset configurations. They were smart enough to get rid of it for all future games so I won’t harp on it too much, though.

      The reason the encounter rate is higher than usual is because of reused code from the original game. The formula that determines if an encounter will happen is tied to the CPU speed, and the PSP’s CPU is much more faster than the PS1’s… which is exactly why they added Estoma to the game, which wasn’t present in the original. And why they made it possible to give Estoma to literally any Persona that doesn’t need an item to be fused as soon as you gain access to the Velvet Room.

      I’m not sure what you’re trying to argue here.

      At the same time, SEBEC is working on a machine that has the power to change reality, and the machine linked itself to Maki’s brainwaves by mere happenstance, manifesting Maki’s paradise as an alternate reality. Once the plot of the game starts, she gets hooked directly to the machine, which is doubling as life support for her since she literally had a health crisis and was rushed to the ICU before the starting incident.

      The place where the game explains this is…?

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  2. Anon-kun says:

    “…You’re mad that I’m complaining about how a core mechanic works because there’s a single exception that works completely outside of it? Really? The Ultimate Personas just further demonstrate how nonsensical the standard fused Personas are by showing us how it should have worked for all of them.”

    I’m merely pointing out that the thing you say should happen, does happen, even if it’s an exception. It’s not “nonsensical;” the generic Personas can be summoned by merely using the combined power of two demons to tap into the collective unconscious because they represent shared attributes between multiple people, while summoning a Persona that’s exclusive to a certain character requires a catalyst locked behind personal growth and character choices.

    “I’m not sure what you’re trying to argue here.”

    I wasn’t arguing about anything, really. It’s just an explanation as to why the encounter rate is so high and the fix they used for it. All PSP ports of the PS1-era Persona games suffer from this problem, although both games of the P2 duology already had Estoma back in the PS1, so they didn’t have to add it to the game.

    “The place where the game explains this is…?”

    SETSUKO: The alterations to this town… Kandori’s behind them all… I… was involved in the development of a certain device… It’s the Deva System… It’s engineered to affect reality.

    KANDORI: The trial run of the Deva System succeeded roughly a month ago. But… she was linked to the system even before then. Her wavelength must have synchronized with the system’s.

    Maki being rushed to the ICU after clutching her chest and screaming in pain is shown during a story cutscene at the very beginning. Then later:

    NANJO: From the looks of it, the system is keeping Maki alive… If we destroy it, Maki will most likely die as a result.

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    1. Anon-kun says:

      Oops, this was meant to be a reply, but I posted this as another comment.

    2. St. Elmo's Fire says:

      That dialogue doesn’t answer my questions, which is why any of that is true. Why did Maki, and not the ambitious Kandori or any of the other miserable hospital patients, “synchronize” with the DEVA system? Why and how is it keeping her alive? To say nothing of the fact that this is not foreshadowed at all and comes completely out of left field.

      And again, what does any of this have to do with Pandora’s Box?

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  3. Seed of Bismuth says:

    Ha knew you were going to (not) love Personae obsession with Carl Jung’s “Philosophy”.

    So this isn’t only schadenfreude, you might like Pandora Hearts more then the SMT franchise? Though take that with some salt as the last i played of it was nearly 20 years ago now on the PS2 so who knows.

    1. ? says:

      Do you mean Shadow Hearts? Pandora Hearts is a manga and anime that I can”t find any mention of a video game based on.

      1. Seed of Bismuth says:

        Yeah i meant Shadow Hearts

        1. ? says:

          I have Shadow Hearts Covenant and Shadow Hearts From the New World but I only played the former a bit and it was a quite a while ago and I think I’ve yet to get around to playing the latter at all so far.

  4. Act says:

    This game is literally unplayable and tbh 2 isn’t much better. Haven’t worked up the nerve to try 3 yet, it’s been on my shelf for a while.

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    1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

      Haha, my review of 2 is coming in a few days. It is better, but not by much.

      I have heard 3 is a lot better and introduced a lot of the mechanics the series is known for (similar to SMT3, come to think), so I am cautiously optimistic.

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