PERSONA / Atlus / Playstation
For a while, in Japan, the Megami Tensei series was the most popular series of RPGs behind only Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. So why did the West never hear of it? Well, the central theme of most of the Megaten games was an authoritarian version of the Christian God, who was happy killing off "non-believers" en masse with nuclear explosions, fighting against a sort of ultimate libertarian version of Satan, who wanted to create a world with no rules at all and where the strong are free to do as they please with the weak. The games let you side with either, but generally the "correct" path was to attempt to kill off both of them. So you can see why this was a bit of a hard sell for America at the very least.
When the Playstation came out, MegaTen spun off into the Persona series, which drops the whole God/Devil confrontation in favor of a world full of more generic and non-religious demons from another dimension. It retains the core themes and gameplay elements of the MegaTen games, though - you control a party of teens who have the ability to communicate with the demons they fight, and try to convince them to join their cause. Thus, the game became safer for Western release, and we've seen almost the whole Persona series translated and released in English.
And, like all the other MegaTen games, Persona is a stew of great ideas, most of them executed inexplicably poorly. The designers seemed to think that the concepts and the originality of the story and setting were enough on their own, and they could basically just half-ass the actual gameplay and get away with it. Well, they actually did manage to create a cult following for the series, but most of that comes from the much-better-executed later entries in the series. This first one is kind of a clunky mess, but there are certainly things to like about it.
The first major stumbling block for the game is that the English localization is unforgivably abysmal. This produces plenty of mistranslated lulz, but the comedy value can't repair all the damage that is done to the game. The player is left to figure out the confusing negotation and demon-creating sequences for themselves, which are central to gameplay, but they are forced to deal with the extra filter of very poorly translated dialogue that makes the whole thing even more confusing than it already was. For example, in random battles, players can talk to the enemies, and each player character has a suite of dialogue options they can use to try to get the demons interested in them, with the ultimate goal of getting their "Spirit Card", which can later be used to combine with other cards and create new monsters (who act sort of like the Espers in Final Fantasy VI). One has to rely on responses from the demons to get an idea of their mood, but everything is so goofily translated that it usually just turns into complete guesswork as to how to pique a demon's interest. The crap translation also shuttles what was (reportedly) a fairly dark and subtle story in the original Japanese, turning it into a silly festival of Engrish instead that is impossible to take seriously.
The game is also very old-school, and moves at a creeping pace. There are load times every time you change screens, and animations in battle take too long to play out. The overworld map that you use to navigate the city you are stuck in is functional and has a tolerable encounter rate, but it does make you truck around quite a bit. When you enter a building, the game transitions to a 3D dungeon view. This is more tolerable here than it is in most 3D dungeons, as you move pretty fast, and there is a handy HUD map and auto-map that helps keep you oriented. The encounter rates in these dungeons aren't unforgivably high, but the way combat is designed - where characters on one side of the screen can't attack enemies on the opposite side, and most monsters have some sort of immunity to some element or weapon - causes a lot of battles to just drag on for much longer than they should.
Unfortunately, the localization didn't just stop with hacking up the dialogue. A huge optional quest was cut from the original Japanese release of the game, which makes certain portions of the main quest even more confusing. Also, the characters apparently had all the blood drained out of them in a clumsy attempt to make them more palatable to Western gamers (made more bizarre by the fact that the original characters were kind of a generic tan tone that could pass for either Asian or Caucasian). So you have this cast of pale vampires, and a character who was a goofy Japanese jester kid in the original version has been clumsily converted into a stereotypical African-American character for this version (I swear Japan, in absence of actual black people in their culture, gets all their information about American blacks from watching Fresh Prince of Bel-Air).
Despite all this, the game is still mildly lovable, thanks solely to originality and quirk value. It also has decent presentation and pretty good music. Unfortunately, after about ten hours or so of play, the flaws just wear on you too much to make it worthwhile to continue for all but the most hardcore RPGers.
MARK GOT HYPHY
* Digital Devil Database
* Translation of Digital Devil Story, the book series the game series is based on
* Gameplay Video