The Persona series has exploded in popularity. Once just a spin-off, now it is a beast of popularity, just as big as the series it spawned from, with tons of numbered releases and spin-offs of its own. They are truly some of the greatest RPGs of all time. But like most long-running and successful JRPG series, the game that started it all has been left in the dust. Most people tell you to avoid it. Atlus themselves ignore it, after putting out the PSP port it’s like it doesn’t even exist (although they did throw us a bone and add some DLC based on the original). But despite all that indifference, I think Persona 1 is a good game and should be experienced.
For one thing, it has an atmosphere that is unlike anything else in the Persona series (except for the duology of Persona 2, which are less popular but still have a better fan base than P1). The easiest way to describe it is it feels like a Shin Megami Tensei game, the mother series of Persona. People often complain that Persona has moved away from being SMT-like and if you play P1 you can easily see why. It’s darker, the world is in danger, demons are rampant, and there is no time for dating and socializing. The seriousness of the world and situation is played up, with very little funny moments.
This difference in atmosphere can perfectly be shown through the difference in how P1 handles the characters getting weapons compared to P3 onwards. In P3 and beyond, it’s taken as pretty much a joke. They acknowledge the ridiculousness of teenagers going to buy weapons to fight demons. And that’s fine, it is a perfectly understandable way to present the situation. But P1’s take on it has stuck with me ever since I played it. The party goes in search of weapons, one of them has heard about somewhere that might have them. It turns out to be a normal store but with a secret black market type of business on the side. There might be a few jokes throughout the exchange, but for the most part, it is taken seriously that they are buying guns to fight off demons that can and will kill them and destroy the world.
And from then on, you fight for your life in a world ravaged by demons, and then come back to shops with secret weapon dealers. There isn’t such a veil on it as in the newer games. The seriousness of what they are doing is always at the center. And that idea, that atmosphere, is prevalent throughout the whole game.
The biggest source of humor in the game, ironically, is in the dialogue with demons. This demon negotiation system disappeared from the Persona games for a while but returned in Persona 5 so most fans know what it is now. But for those of you who don’t: you can talk to pretty much any demon and try to negotiate with it to get it on your side or have them give you an item or money. The demons all have their own personalities, there is some humor in their responses and what choices you are given to say to them, but it has a weird feeling. They did a great job of making the demons feel otherworldly and insane and very dangerous. Even the simplest of creature can be one wrong reply away from turning on you and attacking. This system is still impressive and fun to play around with even today.
Unfortunately… not all of the gameplay side of things is perfect. The biggest problem with the game is that the battles are kind of boring. Especially the normal battles. They pop up way too frequently and the battle animations are agonizingly slow. But, thankfully, the PSP version of the game gives you the option to skip attack animations, a true godsend. That coupled with the redone localization, if you want to get into the first Persona, definitely pick up the PSP version.
Now for what really makes the game shine: the story. What is so interesting about the story is how it is both high stakes and also a personal tale. It starts innocently enough, with some friends playing a fortune telling party game. They are knocked unconscious and the main protagonist is visited by an entity called Philemon, blessing him with the power of “Persona” and a warning that he will soon need this new power. And then all hell breaks loose and demons start attacking the world. The closer you get to see what’s really going on, the bigger the stakes get. And, yet, at the same time, a tinnier tale is being told about the protagonist’s sickly friend Maki. I’ll avoid spoiling it, but as the story moves closer to the end of the world, it focuses in on Maki and her story and the fate of the world become intertwined.
It’s a beautiful balance, I’ve always described it as being poetic. It has a simple structure and simple ideas, but that is because they are true and meaningful. Just because it isn’t the 80-hour epics of the modern Persona games doesn’t mean it is lacking in depth. Heck, while looking up info to write this article, I stumbled across a character analysis, that breaks down every character and why they have the Tarot arcana, Persona, and Zodiac sign that they do.
Hopefully, all of this has convinced you to check it out! If so, I would highly recommend you pick up the PSP version of the game. As I said earlier, it has a way better translation and the ability to speed up battle animations. I could not imagine playing without that. The only drawback of the PSP version is the original soundtrack has been replaced with music done by the composer of the modern Persona games. Which might be a plus for some, but others might be turned off by the pop-based happy music, at odds with the darkness of the rest of the game. Personally, I love that contradiction and I definitely don’t think it is worth giving up the pluses of the PSP version just for the original music. But that’s just me. You should also know going in that there are two paths through the game. It is obvious when the time comes, just be sure to go for the SEBEC first, that is the main story path.
And, finally, one last very important tip: talk to everyone, after every event. I would say maybe 40% of the story is hidden in these non-mandatory conversations. Each time you talk to your party you learn more about what they are thinking, who they are, and more about the main plot as a whole. Do not miss out on these moments.
Do not miss out on this game as a whole. Give it a chance, you might be surprised and walk away with a further appreciation of the series.
Been a fan of video games ever since I opened up a Game Boy with Pokemon Yellow one Christmas far too long ago. I even taught myself to read by playing it! From then on, games and words have always been linked for me. I found that what I really liked about video games (and every other thing I owned) was the stories they held. I’m honored to be here, using my words to talk about the wonderful worlds that games can take us to.