Shin Megami Tensei Review, all Three Parts

I wrote this in 3 parts over at ThePortableGamer, and I’m reposting it here so put it all together, and maybe get some of your thoughts on the piece and the game, from a more “brainy” perspective. 🙂 As you’ll see, this is a game I really wanted to play and like. What has your experience with it been like? Feel free to comment when you’ve had a chance to play it, of course. 🙂 I also want to open the discussion to the idea of pre-release hype and how it affects us as reviewers, consumers, and ultimately gamers.

THE REVIEW:

Game: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona
Publisher: Atlus
Platform/Price: PSP / $39.99
Pros: Delicious storyline, honors the original Japanese version, excellent music and soundtrack
Cons: Isometric viewpoint controls strangely, difficulty ramp and learning curve is steep, ultimately a slog

In this first of hopefully weekly preview posts about Persona for PSP, I want to take you inside the game to help you get a sense of what it is that I find interesting, annoying, and ultimately fascinating about this ground-up remake of a classic game from the days of old (in gaming culture, that’s in the late 90s).

But first, some history.

Persona for the PSP is a remake of Revelations: Persona. Note the use of the word ‘remake’ and not the use of the word ‘port.’ This will become important later. Revelations: Persona was released for the Playstation in 1996, and saw a version make its way to the PC in 1999. The North American localization of this title saw many changes in characters and settings, to suggest that it took place in a more Western nation than Japan. Revelations: Persona was the first in the Persona series, which was a spin-off of the Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner series, which was itself a spin off of the original Megami Tensei series based on a book series called the Digital Devil Story. Perhaps to clarify this a bit, or to add to the confusion, Atlus has re-named the release for the PSP as Shin Megami Tensei: Persona.

The new game has been recreated for the PSP. Not ported, but created anew from the ground up. Cut scenes are newly animated and voiced, the resolution is now the native PSP resolution at 480×27, and the soundtrack, released on two CDs with every launch copy, is completely redone by the game’s director, Shoji Meguro. The title track is completely new, as well, and is well worth the listen, as it contains musical elements from throughout the game.

I just started playing this much-anticipated portable game. Let me tell you, it’s pretty fascinating. And complex. And not your typical JRPG. As with Class of Heroes, Atlus has taken the honest route: delivered a true-to-form classic RPG and brought it to life for modern audiences. This is not a hand-holder of a game.

It begins with a fully amazing intro movie, with a main song so full of j-Pop goodness, your head might asplode. Here it is in all it’s internet video glory:

Can you dig it? I figured you could. This does set the stage for what is proving to be a mind bender of a game. There are 5 characters I’m playing right now, all high school students. For some reason, the town has been taken over by demons. It’s hinted that the corporation in town is responsible, bu I’m only at the beginning of that story arc. I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

personapsp_screens_17The dialogue is what you’d expect for a Japanese RPG starring high school kids, but it’s fairly tolerable. The battles have so much strategy and options in them, I know I’m just scratching the surface. You can hit them with weapons, shoot them with guns, guard against them, use your Persona skill (magic spirit power), guard, run away, and talk to the demons. Yes, I said talk to them. If you talk to them, you’ll try to match the type of responses you can give to the type of demon. A happy demon may enjoy a song, for instance, while a timid demon may do better with some taunting or bossing around. Don’t piss them off, though, or the battle will get that much harder. There’s a much-appreciated “Skip animations” setting that can be accessed with teh Start key. It makes battles go much faster, though, so I don’t use it as often, yet, as I may in later stages.

The “dungeons” are really buildings and corridors, from hospitals to schools, and the save system is accessed by talking to lovely purple trees arranged around town and in buildings. As you move from place to place, you may hit a random battle; it’s like going between towns in the early Final Fantasy games.

All in all, this game has its hooks in me, and I’m dying to keep playing it. Next week, I’ll give an update on how it’s going for me, as well as let you in on the different systems around demons, like cards, fusion, and creating new Persona skills to battle with.

Until then, make sure you go visit the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona website and grab some wallpapers for your PSP, some video for your computer, and read up on the characters and story. I need to get back to my PSP, though, so I’ll say goodbye for now.

Well, it’s come to my attention that I have all of one week to play as much of this game as I can and give a thorough and well-reasoned review. So, I’d like to focus on a couple of things here in the second and last installment of my preview of this fascinating and unlike-many-other-games-I’ve-played PSP title, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona.

Like I said in part one, the Persona series is one of a larger franchise by publisher Atlus, originally based on a book written in Japan. The storyline follows a group of teens in a private school, St. Hamelin, in a Tokyo overrun by demons.

As in many RPGs I’ve played, I’ve finally hit the sweet spot. About 3 hours in, my characters are leveled up enough to make short work of the demons they encounter, and only rarely do battles take much longer than a minute or two, even with multiple foes. Battle takes place on an isometric playing field with your team and the demons layed out in opposition, facing each other. Some weapons and Skills are only viable within certain areas on the board, and if your character’s Skill or Weapon reach isn’t able to hit an opponent, you’ll need to just have them Guard or use an item to help the rest of the team.

personapsp_characterart_ellyI’m enjoying two things in the battle system, both just right for a non-hardcore player like myself. One, the Skip ability, is accessed by hitting the Select button and not having to watch all the little Persona and Magic effect animations that can eat up a lot of time in battle. The second feature is my favorite, “Auto.” This allows you to choose how your characters will act during battle, and it’s fairly extensive. You can, for example, have all your characters use guns, or all use weapons, or all guard. You can have it Replay the last actions each character took – a valuable time saver when you’ve figured out the right balance of gun/weapon/Skill usage for a particular set of demons.

Another fine feature is the Analyze option, in which you can check to see what each Demon you are facing is weak against, or what their personality is. Different Demon personalities will react differently to your Contact moves, so choosing the right conversational gambit will depend on your close analysis of each Demon type. One time, I made a certain Demon so happy, that it gave me a special card that I’ll be able to use later to create a new Persona. w00t!

That’s all I want to say now, as my review will be coming out sometime in the next week or so, and I want to spend as much time playing the game, rather than writing about it. While you wait for your pre-order to show up, or the retail version to arrive in stores, make sure you visit the official site. There are videos, music previews, forums, and game info that you won’t find anywhere else. Well, except for here.

I have a motto in life, and that’s this: if you aren’t enjoying what you do on some level, stop doing it. I don’t mean to say that every moment in life should be a box of kittens or all peaches and cream, because we all know that a little adversity and humility go a long way.Most people are more enjoyable to be around if they’ve had to work at getting what they have, where they’re at, and who they’ve become. If it’s all too easy, it’s not enjoyable.

The flip side of that is that when it’s all too hard, life becomes a slog.

I really wanted Persona for PSP to be the perfect combination of difficulty and enjoyment. I wanted it to be just the right mix of challenging and rewarding. Unfortunately, for me, this turned out not to be the case. I’m not panning this game by any means; it’s a quality game on a quality platform, by a quality publisher. I just cannot find in my heart, however, to want to recommend this wholeheardedly to everyone.

As many other Atlus games have shown me, there are a whole lot of games out there that do not conform to my Western-bred, modern video game perspective. I can find enjoyment in hardcore RPGs and in unclassifiable amalgams of games I’ve barely even begun to experience. The first two parts of my look at this game are fairly glowing, and I think that makes sense, coming from where I’m sitting right now: this game starts out with a TON of promise, flash, and bang. It ultimately gets weighted down, however, by it’s old-schoool mechanics and gameplay, which needn’t be a bad thing.

Persona begins amazingly well. When I say begin, I mean the first couple of hours. The intro movie and the beautifully made cut scene movies are of the highest quality I’ve seen to date. The story is well-set up, and mysteries are hinted at that typically entice me to keep playing a game. The music is well done, and there are some certifiable pop-hits among the tracks on the included CD, one that will come with every physical launch copy. Persona releases on UMD today, September 22nd, 2009, and will be downloadable via the PSN Store beginning October 1st. I applaud Atlus for being one of the first full game downloads for the new PSP Store. That alone might be worth the purchase.

Unfortunately, I think more of us purchase games for our consoles that we actively wish to play to completion. Regardless of the statistics showing that most of us do NOT, in fact, finish a majority of the games we buy, I think we all get them with enough starry-eyed fervor that we THINK we will, and I’d like to think that I really only purchase games that I feel will motivate and engage me enough to at least attempt to do so.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona was not that game for me. It may be for you. The whole package is well designed, attractive, and I’m sure a fantastic peek into the franchise’s beginnings. I don’t believe it has enough power, however, as a game in its own right, to be called an unqualified hit. The isometric battle screens and complex menu system to engage in battles are interesting at first, but ultimately become frustrating after a time, as moving battle participants around can be cumbersome, but is often needed. The Persona ability is interesting at first, but really just becomes another menu to navigate, in choosing the right spell to match the weaknesses of the demons being faced. All demons have weaknesses (except those damn Yakuza), and choosing the right attack type and Persona skill is an endlessly rotating kaleidoscope of menu choice making. In the final analysis, though, I feel that the complexity hinders the game play and slows down an already slow process.

The map system, while omnipresent on the screen, feels constrained and difficult to navigate. Slowing things even more is the random battle instances, happening frequently enough to provoke eye-rolling and heavy sighs, rather than the rush of adrenaline at the prospect of battle. The save system is elegant and can be found in many areas, but the fact that random, annihilating battles can occur just a few steps from a save point is ultimately heart-wrenching.

Again, I really want to rejoice in this game. I just cannot get past the actual game mechanics to fully appreciate the story in all its mysterious glory, and the switch between well-animated cutscene, and difficult-to-navigate isometric perspective on-screen interactions are jarring, as is the switch from and to first person in the hallways and corridors of this game’s dungeons. I would have much rather had my hand held a little through the old school JRPG elements, or had some sort of difficulty-smoothing system in place to not have to slog as hard through many many many battles that really all begin to look and feel the same, I might stick with it a little longer.

Bottom line, if you are a hardcore JRPG fan, and want to challenge yourself to bring your group of characters through this well-made and appealing portable game, or you want to re-experience the joy of the Playstation hit from 1996 with better animation and widescreen graphics, this is the game for you. If you are, however, like me and prefer a less “beat me over the head” sort of approach for your handheld gaming joy, you might want to give this one a pass for now.

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Every Once In A While

TPGPride.png

It’s typically hard for me to brag much about myself and my accomplishments. I have accomplished much, and am proud of my achievements, but I really don’t toot my horn too much.

Today, though, I have to say that I’m exceptionally proud of what we’ve put together over at The Portable Gamer. Not on my own, of course, as it’s a team effort, but I looked at the site tonight and felt genuine pride of ownership, pride of effort, and pride of belonging.

We’ve taken a little nothing bit of cyber data, and turned it into something that supports independent developers and quality, thoughtful reviews and community discussion about portable games. These aren’t your big company, triple a titles coming out for the Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo corporate megacrushes (though we do want to expand our coverage to more of those companies’ portable offerings), but iPhone games, for the most part.

These games are typically created, marketed, and loved by independent developers and small publishing houses. Yes, there are exceptions to that rule, as always. As the platform matures, more and more big names get into the game, so to speak. But it’s still these little one-or-two-person teams that just thrill me to be a part of telling people about.

There’s married couples putting out games, there’s one guy developers who take their spare time at night, away from families and friends, to code and design and build these fantastic little apps. They take us away from our daily routine on the bus or subway, spare us the monotony of the bank line or dentist waiting room. These sometimes quirky, sometimes amateurish, always loveable little games have become special to me, as has the site that we work on to get the word out.

Looking at the site tonight, for example, I see a review about a Curling game, not your typical handheld experience, for sure. I see some witty and well written commentary about SimCity, an EA Mobile title, sure, but a quality game port of a beloved series of games. I see a rhapsodic fugue about LIttle Red Sled, my latest love of a gaming app. What I see there is what I do not see on many of the other app review sites, no matter how polished or ad supported: I see love. I see a free banner ad or two for developers who have become friends, who’ve shared their joy with us. I see the iCasual Report, the brainchild of an ever-enthusiastic and friendly game-app lover from the other side of the country from me, who continues to grow and review, and expand.

Best of all, I see the original vision of what Jason allowed me to participate in last August: a gaming web site that did it differently, from the heart, not just the brain.

And, dammit, I want to continue to see it. I don’t care if the site makes us a little extra cash or someday pays some full time employees (well, I do care, but not to the point of stress): this is and will continue to be a labor of love, conventional wisdom be damned. I refuse to believe that I need to push the site into the square holse of gaming journalism. If I want to rave on about the musical score of a tiny little $2 game, well, by golly, I’m gonna. I believe our readers respond to our passion, joy, and love.

I hope you get a chance to head over to ThePortableGamer.com, spend some time looking at reviews, reading about our Grand Opening giveaways, listening to our fantastically personal and intimate iCasual Report, join in the conversations, and feel the love. Because, trust me, it’s there.