Persona is a series which can be defined as a textbook example of a sleeper hit. When the first title was released back in 1996 for the original PlayStation, few people seemed to jump out of their seats in excitement. Just the year before, Atlus had released the more out-there Shin Megami Tensei: Summoner in Japan only. But Persona was different, as it definitely seemed to try and fit more with Western audience tastes.
Now look at it 27 years later - it's one of the strongest RPG franchises in the world. Who'd have thought! But, with the release of Persona 3 and 4 on Game Pass, is it worth going back to the roots of the series to play the one that started it all?
The mechanics of the original Persona aren't, honestly, hugely different from the latest entry in the main series. They're just, well, a bit more confusing and quite more frustrating. The character design is, also, not entirely far removed from the fifth chapter, but again, not quite as exciting. (You can’t even roleplay as Patrick Bateman!) See where this is going?
Persona 1 just drops you right into the action, so we can definitely say that it does not waste your time... at least, not with story. The game alternates between narrative sequences via isometric view and a first person view for the dungeons. The first locations you'll visit are also particularly exciting: a hospital, a police station, a factory. Is this Persona or a 90s Resident Evil?
Unfortunately, the action that the game hits you over the head with is just not very entertaining. Random battles are a huge pain in the neck, even a tiny step in the wrong direction will probably mean another long drawn-out battle. The world map is also peppered with battles, because of course! I counted five of them, the same four enemies in the same formation, while trying to get a few steps in one single screen. Dear Lord of Personas have mercy!
Also, for some reason, your party is tied down to directional attacks. You can only attack enemies positioned correctly with your selected attack, otherwise the character will have to skip a turn. But, hey, at least monsters are interesting to look at, like cats dancing the hula or mouse tanks. But the battles are relentless. Luckily, you can automate them and skip most animations, which is a great choice since monsters have a tendency to use dancing-related skills. So you're free to leave your PSP or Vita in auto mode while you're washing the dishes or watching the latest episode of Velma. But, is this really what you want to do with your life?
The story is also quite confusing, seemingly skipping on some essential narrative beats. Characters just go to battle against zombies and goblins, barely questioning the nature of the evil threatening the city. The overall narrative is similar to other Persona chapters, but again, with characters having limited personality and missing a lot of the charm and humour (translation also, probably, did not help). Still, hey, this does mean you could finish Persona 1 in approximately twelve hours, opposed to the crushing hundred of Persona 5.
The final nail in the coffin is that the original Persona is just a straightforward RPG, missing the usual "daily life" segments that make each chapter in the series a unique experience. Persona 1 is just going from dungeon to dungeon, with some story bits in between. While it is fair to think the daily life segments amount to a lot of extra effort for little actual in-game use, they do add details and richness to the characters populating the world.
As all fans of the series know, the main character has an important role to play and the relationships they form with others have always been a crucial part of the series. Sorry, did I say always? Not in the first Persona, for sure. But still, you do have an important role to play since, halfway through the game, a "good" or "bad" ending will entirely hinge upon the right answers in a conversation.
Honestly, for all the bad things I mentioned, I don't think the original Persona is a bad game at all. The original Persona traced an important line in the sand for Atlus as a company trying to find a new audience outside of Japan. But, that is not to say that, outside of hardcore completionists of the series, fans of later entries will have a good time with the original.
But it does play and feel very much like a RPG from 1996, having more in common with - let's say - King's Field, than modern Persona series and their dazzling style and deep lore and narrative. Still, that is not to say that Atlus did not try several interesting things already in the first game. While all the seeds of the series were planted, they needed time to bloom into a beautiful garden.
At the same time, this also means Persona 1 can easily be "fixed" for modern audiences. Revamp the art, remove some of the random battles (or make them more easily skippable), perhaps do away with the first person dungeon sequences altogether and you got a pretty solid entry in the series. Atlus, daddy, can we make it happen? Give Persona 1 some... personality back!