Go Back to Freshman Year
Those of you that are familiar with the series from Persona 3 or 4 will immediately feel pretty comfortable in the world of St. Hermelin High School. At the start of the game, you and a group of students are goofing around, and performing a summoning ceremony. Much to everyone's surprise, it works, and soon the world is turned upside down and demons are running around on the loose. Of course, it's up to you to find out what happened, and to stop it.
Gameplay is very typical classic JRPG. You walk around an overworld map, traveling to various location around the city. In this mode, you are essentially looking at a google maps image of the city, and your party is represented by a white triangle. When you get to one of the various locations, the game switches to a 3D first person perspective as you explore the "dungeons", shops, casinos, save rooms, and the Persona-staple Velvet Rooms. When combat occurs, you switch to a classic isometric perspective with grid-based movement and turn-based, menu-driven content. Much like every other JRPG made in the early 90's.
Combat can be a bit dull, and the battles happen FAR too often thanks to the never ending random encounters that seem to occur every 10-15 steps you take. It only takes about 5 minutes of wandering around before you realize how much you hate random encounters. Sadly, these happen both on the overworld map AND the dungeons, so you never escape it unless you are in one of the shopping malls. There are a few unique aspects to the combat engine, however. Characters (your party generally has 5 members at any given time) have a melee attack, a gun that they can use for ranged attacks, and up to three different Personae, who are essentially the magic system in the universe. A large part of the game, much like every game in the series, is exploiting the elemental weakness of your enemy, while trying not to let your own weakness be your downfall. Your strengths and weaknesses are directly affected by the Persona you are currently equipping, and balancing these throughout your party is by far the best way to win battles. Melee and guns are generally secondary skills in this world.
Combat is not your only means of dealing with your foes, thankfully. SMT : Persona has a conversation system (removed from later iterations of the series) that allows you to engage the demons in a little bit of banter before you start your battles. Every demon has personality traits, like moody, joyful, foolish, etc.. and each member of your party has four actions unique to them. One person might be able to bribe, pontificate, lie or dance, while another might be able to seduce, cringe, sing or plead. By selecting one of these, you sway the demons emotions toward angry, scared, happy or eager. Get them angry enough, and they will attack without warning, if they get scared they might run away (saving you the chore of battle)(and who knew demons could be such pussies that a little bit of pontificating would frighten them). Your best bet is to get them eager, whereby they will offer you money, items, or a spell card. These spell cards can be taken to the Velvet Room to fuse more powerful Personae for your party. In practice, you can use this system to avoid many of the battles, but it is sort of a moot point since the negotiations can take as long as the fight would, and you don't get any experience. You do get some humorous dialog options this way though.
When you aren't in combat, which isn't too often, there really isn't much going on. You can visit the stores to upgrade your armor and weapons or stock up on healing and buffing items, you can play the casino games to win more armor, weapons and items, and every once in a while talk to someone to advance the story. Then there are the Velvet Rooms. These are scattered throughout the town and the dungeons, and you will get to know them well. This is where you can take the spell cards you negotiated out of the demons, and create new Personae that are far more powerful than the ones you start with. Anyone familiar with the SMT series will recognize the compendium of Personae you can create, although the roster is quite a bit smaller than in the newer games. The game helpfully lists every fusion you can create with your current card collection, and a big part of the game is deciding which fusion will give you the best stats and spells for your party. Often times different cards will fuse into the same persona, but the base cards will affect what spells are available after the fusion. Thus you might be able to make a Jack Frost who can cast Ice Spells, debuff enemies and do a spin kick, but another combination of spell cards might make a Jack Frost who can cast Ice Spells, Wind Spells, and increase the magic of your party. Your ultimate goal is to create a balance of Personae throughout your party that can attack any weakness in the game.
As I said, anyone familiar to the Persona series will see a lot that they recognize in SMT : Persona. However, there is also quite a bit missing. First and foremost, the entire social aspect of the game is gone. There are no S.Links to raise, no classes to go to, no charm to build, no need to study every night. You can't choose when to enter dungeons, you can't really select your party. It's just combat with the occasional cutscene. Unfortunately, the story isn't as compelling as in later games, and your fellow students tend to be fairly annoying when they do talk. Considering how heavily character interaction plays into later installments, it can be a bit of a rude surprise to find out it doesn't exist at all in Persona. I often found myself wishing I could hang out with Junpei and talk about girls or listen to the gourmet king expound on his manly prowess. Instead I'm stuck traveling with the same 4 clowns who do nothing but complain.
Apart from the social aspect, the dungeon crawling also has some drastic differences. Gone is the free-roaming 3D movement, with monsters roaming around for you to avoid or attack as you please. Persona's first person dungeons harken back to Bard's Tale or early Ultimas, where pushing left or right turns you 90 degrees and you press up to move one square forward. Combine that with the fact that almost all battles are random unavoidable affairs, and you seriously want to pull your hair out, especially since the dungeons tend to be mazes with lots of dead ends and backtracking, and the encounter rate is sky high. The game does feature a "fast" mode that greatly shortens the animations in combat, but you will still spend 5 minutes or more on encounters, especially early on.
The graphics are what you'd expect from a PS1 era game. Clearly they have been enhanced a bit for this port, but it doesn't matter too much because the sprites are very tiny, even for a PSP. Dungeons feature dull repetitive textures that are entirely forgettable. The music, however, is fantastic, generally lending great atmosphere to the game, despite some of the songs getting a bit repetitive after awhile. It is a pleasant mix of ambiance music with decent J-Pop thrown in during battles. It is important to note that while the game will be available on both a UMD, and direct download (a week later), the UMD version comes with the soundtrack on 2 CD's.
Persona historians (do these exist?) will be happy to know that the game features not only a bad and a good ending (and the good one adds several hours of gameplay to the game) but it also features the Snow Queen quest, which was removed from the North American version of the original. Essentially an entirely different game that branches off from the main story right at the start, it is very comparable to The Answer in Persona 3:FES, both in terms of difficulty and its heavy focus on combat.
So, should you play this game? If you are into the Persona series, then almost definitely. It's a fantastic trip back to the roots of the series. If you are into SNES and early PSX JRPGs, it's probably an even better bet you will enjoy the game. For anyone else, there isn't a whole lot here that will grab your attention and pique your interest. The game tends to be plodding and frustrating when you realize it will take you 30 minutes to travel one floor of the dungeon because you'll get into 10 unavoidable fights. I would estimate I spent 30 hours on my playthrough, although it's impossible to say because the game has a quirk where the game clock still runs when the PSP is in sleep mode, so it said I had played for 420 hours when I finished. I'd love to say that was 30 hours well spent, but the reality is it was about 10 hours of fun, and 20 hours of frustration, backtracking and tedious repetitive combat. Sadly, Persona without the social aspect really isn't that compelling.