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.
- “I forgive you on behalf of all your victims!”
- Talking down a suicidal person by daring them to kill themselves
- The abused girl who effectively committed suicide is a selfish whiner who is just as bad as her bullies (I remind you that in the previous game the boy who horrifically tortured his entire school to death is a woobie)
- Characters make a big deal about obtaining guns but start the game carrying axes and zweihanders with no explanation
- The protagonist of If cameos and is canonized as female… so that one of the devs can have his self-insert hook up with her.
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.
The boss theme is a banger, though.