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In 2008, the PS2 role-playing game Persona 3 doesn't seem so outlandish; despite what the name eludes to, it is the first of its lineage to appear in Europe and whilst it's obscure RPG heritage suggests there should be an element of risk to the release, it seems almost destined to garner some level of recognition and success thanks to the comfort of having the 'Shin Megami Tensei' name simultaneously acting as a sub-heading and a safety net. Atlus' 1996 PSOne original was never afforded the luxury of a release any further a field than Japan and America however, and a brief play reveals that we probably weren't ready for it anyway.
Playing Persona: Revelations now reveals a remarkably unusual game that can be considered almost unique amongst its peers. Fitting it with a precise description is no mean feat either - an RPG with clear occult undertones, it follows a quintet of high-school kids, as they deal with such heady concepts as alternative dimensions, the raising of the dead, bartering with and bribing enemies, and creating 'Persona' demons to help do your bidding in battle. A lot, then.
Does it play like your average RPG then? No, of course not! In fact, there's a lot that suggests Persona was remarkably progressive in its day, a time before even Final Fantasy VII had hit the market. Rooms, shops and general areas of plot-progression take place in rooms viewed from an oblique third-person perspective, allowing you to talk to others in the area and get advice from your own party members. You can guide a cursor around a dense city that would pass as the equivalent to a traditional RPG's World Map, but the greatest chunk of the game lies in the first-person dungeons - created in the façade of a series of pseudo-3D corridors, it's here that you are susceptible to the games random, turn-based battles.
The early dungeons are structured nicely, employed in an effective manner to link the rooms of early areas such as the school and hospital. With alarming rapidity however the developers throw any logical design blueprints out the window as dungeons descend into totally random maze trawls that are overly long and only serve to drag out time before the next snippet of plot progression. The layouts of such areas as the Haunted House make no sense as you find that there are only three rooms in the entire building yet several miles of corridor to navigate - you end up staring almost exclusively at the map, checking you aren't headed down one of the many dead ends.
It's a shame Persona doesn't play to its strengths more. The rooms and shops are welcome as they help create realistic representations of a city and not your usual fantasy fare. As well as being one of the few games to use the dollar as its currency, Persona also allows you to acquire a quirky mixture of melee weapons such as swords and bows, and modern artillery like AK-47's and shotguns. There's some gambling areas where you can indulge in some dangerously addictive games of poker and blackjack, and to cap it all off, you use giant, talking, purple 'Augustus Trees' as a means of saving your progress. Such environments are also enhanced by your four very different allies, who together form a refreshingly cynical clique that often exchange in amusing banter and anecdotes. More of this would have been welcome, though as the game progresses, the dungeons take precedent and scrutiny turns to the battle-system.
It's pretty daunting at first - fail to place your characters in the right formation and they may not even be able to land a blow, and whilst certain foes prove susceptible to gun shots or magic, others will just as easily deflect or absorb the attacks. The first ten hours or so are one heck of a grind; level-ups occur at a painfully slow rate; your characters seem inadequate and there's the constant threat that, if drawn against a significant number of foes in one battle, you may get wiped out entirely.
Perseverance reveals a system that holds a considerable amount of depth. As well as fighting, communicating with demons is important; impress them and they'll hand you an item or better still, their 'Persona' card, which can be combined with others to create all manner of demons to help do your bidding. It's a great idea, though the process can descend into a frustrating game of trial and error, as the vast majority of your communication options serve only to anger the demons.
Visually, Persona is simple though not unattractive. Whilst dungeon designs are repetitive and character animations minimal, the 3D effects are pretty convincing and the modern settings (particularly the stores that define the malls) are colourfully furnished. It's further assisted by some slick, futuristic-looking menu screens and stylish FMV's.
Arguably Persona's standout element is its soundtrack. Right from the introduction's brilliantly atmospheric opening notes, it barely puts a foot wrong, introducing a stunningly diverse range of musical styles that cover elements of the comedic; operatic; J-Pop; dance; techno and a host of haunting, almost-orchestral tunes that all carry a major resonance. Effects make for a crisp accompaniment and there is some fairly decent (albeit infrequent) voice-acting helping things along too.
Persona will undoubtedly take a long time to complete - upwards of forty hours, though for those that yearn for plenty of storyline, you won't be getting much bang for your buck. The battle system is intelligent, but you get the nagging suspicion (especially in some of the larger, more drawn-out dungeons) that things are creeping along too slowly because of it, and the increasingly lengthy distance between Save points in the second half of the game start to cause some real headaches.
If it could more adequately have balanced the exploration and battle elements, Persona: Revelations may well have become a cult-classic, but as a result of inconsistent design, you find the battle elements coming into their own just as the story-driven parts of the game begin to fizzle out. Both segments can be very good, just rarely at the same time. Persona has to be lauded for its originality, and perhaps it's unfair to assume that everything would have gelled in perfect harmony, though ironically its failure to ensure some of the role-playing basics are done right are what hurts it the most. Good if you're after a challenge, though maybe one that's best left to the fans given the hefty price-tag it carries these days.
Pictures of Persona (PlayStation)
They never had a 'Baby Goods' section in Final Fantasy
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