Revelations: Persona

What'll you do?  Set Jack Frost on me?  Let him ice up your heart so it stops hurting?
Jack Frost vs. the Agents

   Almost immediately upon the release of the first console RPGs, the form became codified. The games must be set in a fantastical world, which the hero must explore thoroughly. The culmination of the quest is the hero's defeat of an outside evil which threatens the land. Said hero has two ways of dealing with the enemy: melee weapons and magic (or whatever "special ability" the game includes in place of sorcery). Though some games introduced variations on these themes, it took Atlus' Revelations: Persona to break the mold open.

   The game starts off with nothing more fantastical than a bunch of teens hanging out after school at St. Hermelin High. They fool around and pretend to call on supernatural beings, only to be shocked when it actually works and a little girl in white appears, crying. They black out and get sent to the hospital upon waking, for tests. While visiting a sick friend, though, the hospital starts to shake, and suddenly the whole world has shifted. Zombies are on the loose in the ICU and none of the hallways lead to where they used to. It's the first tremor of an earthquake that eventually swallows up the whole town of Lunarvale.

 Don't you feel like you're observing your own life all the time, as though it was just a movie?
It's like America. Everything's a film.

   And Lunarvale is where you stay. It's a nice change of pace, and it also helps to make the world a bit more real. Towns in most RPGs, if they're important, have maybe 20 or 30 residents and 10 buildings, and usually seem more like tiny settlements rather than world capitals. The streets of Lunarvale, on the other hand, are the entire world map in Persona. Rather than exploring caves and castles, you'll fight your way through the city's haunted police stations and twisted corporate offices. And instead of visiting the kindly village shopkeeper to stock up on your potions and armor, you'll visit the mall clothing store to get outfitted in the latest haute couture or take a trip to the corner pharmacy for some over-the-counter drugs.

   By no means does the game limit itself to real life for inspiration, though. The gallery of monsters and demons you'll fight is a veritable Who's Who of mythological creatures, and the plot relies heavily on alternate universes. Everything ties into the game's central conceit, which is that within every human being is a host of other personalities and identities, which your party members will learn to call on to gain otherworldly powers.

It's dancing shoes at dawn.
Dance? Why should your dancing entertain us?

   Of course, it's a little more complicated than that in the game. Each Persona rises in level up to 8; they gain levels as you use them more often. The higher a Persona's level, the more spells it knows. You can switch Personae between party members, so long as the party member has the required P-Level to use it, but each member can use only one Persona at a time, so you'll need to plan well. While you're planning, you should also take into account each Persona's strengths and weaknesses. Equipping a Persona does more than grant spells; it also changes a party member's stats and makes them vulnerable to or strong against certain types of attacks.

   Personae aren't just lying around, though. To make any other than the ones your party members begin with, you'll need to fuse Spell Cards. Combining two Spell Cards in the Persona workshop called the Velvet Room will make a new Persona, depending on a dizzyingly complex number of factors: the current phase of the moon, the enemy group of each card, which card you chose first, the experience level of each card, and on and on. To complicate matters even further, you can't just buy the cards.

 It's like you took everything that ever was or will be and put it in a bottle inside itself.
Magic Mirror

   The only way to find Spell Cards, in fact, is to engage in one of the strangest and most standout features of Persona: negotiation. Rather than bludgeon your enemies with axes, pump them full of lead, or burn them magically to a crisp, you can opt for peace talks. You can choose to have any of your party members represent you in the negotiation, and each member has four conversational gambits to use. The enemy might react to the discussion with either Fear, Anger, Happiness, or Interest. When any of those four bars fill to their maximum, the discussions are over. If you've angered the enemy, it may get a free turn; if you've scared it, it may just run away. But if you manage to fill its Interest gauge, and you're at the right experience level, it just might give you a Spell Card.

   Such complexity and depth in the battle system may well be the reason that the game doesn't look better. In all fairness, it was released in 1996 during the very early stages of the PlayStation's lifespan. Surely, though, the team could have done better than the low-polygon, flat-shaded overworld and the cubist, poorly textured, first-person dungeons. The prerendered backgrounds are usually also rather sad-looking, three years later, when a competent graphics team can produce the same effect in realtime. The character designs by Kazuma Kaneko are unique and well-done, but most of that quality is lost on the small, featureless sprites.

Royal Monsters

   Fortunately, the music and sound more than makes up for the dated graphics. Voice acting is sparse and well-employed; the characters just don't say enough for the relative goodness or badness of the voices to sink in. (Though Philemon's monologues are nothing if not cringe-worthy.) The music is also uniformly excellent, with some of the best dungeon themes ever in an RPG. Most of it adheres to a simple formula of a tightly crafted dance track with random ambient samples thrown in (especially cool are the snippets of conversation in the Deva Yuga theme), but it works in the context of the game.

   In the end, though, the strongest aspect of Revelations: Persona may be its focus on a single theme in the storyline. Questions of identity and personality permeate the game, from the way it handles magic to the reason for the strange occurrences in Lunarvale. Its single greatest achievement may the way it recognizes that not all threats come from without, and that even the best people can be capable of the most bitter hatred and fear. Because of the way it handles the storyline, and because of all the nonstandard gameplay aspects, Persona was largely misunderstood on release. Time, though, has shown it to be one of the highlights of the PlayStation's RPG library, and anyone looking for something different than the norm could do no worse than to give it a try.

Retrospective by Nich Maragos, GIA.
Revelations: Persona
Developer Atlus R&D1
Publisher Atlus
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium CD-ROM (1)
Platform Sony PlayStation
Released  11.96
Walkthrough, Persona Rankings List
324 screenshots, 131 "Analyze" screenshots
Character designs
American and Japanese box art