Endurance Run: Origins
The GiantBomb community should be intimately familiar with the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series. Most of us know by now that Persona 3 and 4 were superb RPGs that featured socially relevant characters and deep, involving combat. But what about the lesser-known original games for the PSX? Atlus has answered the call and taken advantage of Persona's current popularity by re-releasing the very first Persona for the PSP.
Luckily, most of what made the third and fourth entries in the series great is present in some form in this remake. The most notable similarity is the dark and moody story. In typical Persona form, the dialouge is sharp and quirky (when you first meet a certain teacher, the game comments out of the blue that "she doesn't appear to be a very good cook.") As is typical of Atlus' RPGs, the plot will take dozens of hours to unfold and will reward patience with intriguing developments. As a typical Japanese schoolboy, you and your friends must master the art of summoning Personas. A Persona, just to be clear, is a type of demon that lives inside everyone and represents the different sides of their personalities. You and your party must exploit the different strengths of numerous Personas to thwart a conspiracy and save the world from being overrun by demons.
Of course, stopping the spread of a demonic plague is easier said than done. In order to stem the tides, you must trek through numerous dungeons and destroy hundreds of demons. While Persona has an over world map similar to the third and fourth entries, it feels much more archaic due to a few questionable design choices. Instead of walking through the town in third person like you did in Persona 3 and 4, the town in the original is presented as a map. You control a red arrow on the map, moving it manually down streets and alleys until you reach your destination. The whole presentation of the over world town map is strange and not very attractive, but it's manageable. When you actually enter buildings, though, the game will switch out to an isometric viewpoint, from which your character controls oddly. Thankfully, it is possible to change the movement options in the pause menu to make them feel more natural. The numerous viewpoints from which Persona is presented make it feel a bit disjointed, though.
Once you make it to your destination, you will typically be thrust into a maze-like dungeon. Unlike the over world action, dungeon crawling takes place from a first person perspective. While this initially seemed odd, navigating the dungeons using the D-Pad soon became second nature. The fast and intuitive nature of first person movement is countered by numerous dead ends and random encounters. These elements make the dungeons feel like a grind after a while, and it can get boring. The battles themselves are surprisingly complex, but after you figure out an enemy's weaknesses you'll start to get bored of fighting them over and over while looking for a way out of the dungeon.
Even if fighting can get repetitive, the combat system is deep enough to carry Persona pretty far. Most enemies are weak to a certain element. Others are weak against physical attacks, and still others will succumb easily to gunfire. That's right; each character in Persona carries a gun in addition to their weapon and armor. Different types of ammo can be equipped, giving attack or status bonuses. Anyway, finding and exploiting the weaknesses of each enemy makes up the core of the combat system. Eventually, though, your stock Personas will be too weak to take on the challenging enemies found in the dungeons. This is where the negotiation system comes in. Each enemy has a distinct personality, just like each of your party members. It is possible to converse with demons and convince them to join up with you. This system takes the place of the social linking found in later games, which is sadly absent here. Unfortunately, the negotiations are less enjoyable than social linking. Figuring out which actions or phrases will make a demon eager to join up with you can feel kind of random sometimes, leading to a lot of trial and error. Even if you screw up the negotiation, it is still possible to inflict status effects such as Happiness or Charm on the demons, leaving them vulnerable to your attacks. It is also possible to piss them off, making them charge. The negotiation system is interesting in theory, and it does feel rewarding when you do nab a demon. Sometimes, though, you won't know if you won the enemy over through skill or just luck. Either way, negotiations add an interesting element to combat that is absent in most other RPGs.
Forming a new Persona isn't as simple as getting your grubby hands on its spell card through negotiation, though. As always, it is necessary to visit Igor in the Velvet Room to fuse a Persona. This is easily the most interesting aspect of the game. By combining several spell cards, it is possible to create powerful new Personas with awesome skills. Items can also be added to the fusions, which will often add a few new moves to the Persona's repertoire, but will sometimes change which Persona is created entirely. Any fan of the Endurance Run knows that it is possible to spend an obscene amount of time fusing Personas in the Velvet Room, and this is most definitely the case with the original Persona, too.
Even after you're done fusing your Personas, there is still more customization necessary to be successful. Combat takes place on a grid, and each character and Persona has a unique attack range on that grid. It therefore becomes necessary to reposition your characters on the grid in the pause menu to make sure that each of them can cover as much ground on the enemy's side of the grid as possible. This system adds yet another layer of depth to the combat.
Persona's graphical presentation is the very definition of a mixed bag. The sprites used during the isometric segments are technically okay looking, although they animate very stiffly. The 3D graphics used in the dungeons look pretty nice on the PSP's screen, even though there have been far better looking 3D games on the system. Considering that this was originally a PSX game, the dungeons look pretty nice, but the character sprites still could have been better. The artistic direction is a bit of an acquired taste, also. Upon booting the game up it seemed hideous, but after a few hours it became clear that the artwork certainly has its merits. Overall, it's much less stylized than later entries in the series. Once you come to terms with this sad fact, you will find that the graphical presentation still has some old-school charm. All of those complaints go out the window during the gorgeous pre-rendered cutscenes, though. Fully voiced and wonderfully animated, these cutscenes are rare treats that reward your patience with good bits of storytelling.
Unlike the graphical presentation, which was inconsistent in its updates, the audio has been totally revamped. The same composer who worked on the last two Persona games reworked the score, and the results are generally very good. The battle theme isn't exactly intense, but you will find yourself humming along regardless. The fact that new copies of the game ship with a two disc soundtrack is very nice. Voiceovers, while rare, are also very well done.
Persona is sort of a difficult game to review. On the one hand, the combat and fusion options are complex, the story is interesting, and the prerendered cutscenes look amazing. On the other hand, the frequent random encounters can spoil the fun of battle, obtaining a demon's spell card can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack, and the numerous viewpoints from which the game is presented make it feel disjointed. If you're an old-school RPG enthusiast who doesn't mind frequent random battles, Persona is worth picking up. Otherwise, you might want to rent the game before committing. Persona has many merits, but it can also try your patience.