In an era where JRPGs were still a genre of D&D motifs and high-fantasy as far as western gamers were concerned, the elusive Shin Megami Tensei franchise was decidedly a departure from what was considered normal. Even more so, when Final Fantasy VII had yet to popularize the genre, one of the few games in the series at the time to leave its native walls was undeniable set up from the get-go to be an overlooked oddity of near-Earthbound proportions. That game is Relevations: Persona, which most of you may recognize as the original episode of the Persona subseries (you know, those colorful teenagers summoning spirits from their inner psyches to fight demons, with that cute bear and the evil TV or whatever). Although nothing new in Japan, the original Persona game was absolutely in a league of its own for unfamiliar North Americans, breaking the usual fantasy tropes in favor of a modern, surreal setting and story. No one really cared to realize at the time, but the series rise in global popularity at the end of the noughties put the spotlight on this forgotten gem brighter than ever, and looking back there’s still really nothing like it.
But even more overlooked than the game itself, as you probably have guessed, is its very own soundtrack. However, don’t expect it to be a triumph in the same way that Final Fantasy VI was a few years prior – emotionally vast, grandiose and legendary this soundtrack is not. In fact, what makes the original Persona title such a feast for the ears is its sheer deviance from such a formula. This is a soundtrack more concerned with making a moody, eccentric atmosphere, to appropriately suit the accompanying adventure’s twisted, surreal world. One part insidiously dark and one part awkwardly stylish, Persona’s music is an exercise in bizarreness – much like the game and series it is employed under – and truly a one-of-a-kind piece of music that the era so rarely brings to the table.
Abandoning almost all traces of JRPG tradition at the time, Persona opts for a modernized sound. Everything from the guitar-driven boss music, to the largely electronic dungeon themes, to the mystifying ambient tracks all gamble with the genre’s blueprint and cash in on it immensely. The overall mood may not be as expansive as a game such as Final Fantasy, but the depth is certainly there, and the actual genres of music utilized here are of a respectable level of variety – more on that in a bit. Best of all – though this trait might be an acquired taste for some – is how the game’s repetitive nature has a tendency to draw the player into a hypnotic state, even in the heat of a strategic battle, and if only the actual amount of listening time wasn’t so dominated by the main battle theme, the soundtrack could easily have the same effect on the player.
With the Playstation being the premier audio experience in the fifth console generation, Persona as a somewhat early title for the platform proves to be of good quality sound-wise, even better than the juggernaut soundtrack of Final Fantasy VII a year later (though not from a compositional standpoint), and it explores this rich sound quality quite thoroughly. Perhaps the most impressive tracks in this regard are the game’s various dungeon themes – typically electronic in nature, you can find at play several styles you wouldn’t expect to hear axing demons on your way to a level-up, most notably IDM and electronic hip-hop.Climbing the corporate Sebec building on your way to thwart the game’s antagonist is made a high-energy affair with a layered song that builds up in tension and lets loose in a dare-I-say Machinedrum fashion, loaded with repeated piano loops and misty undercurrents – but unfortunately, this climax is not very often reached by the player, due to the song starting over from the beginning ever time the player enters battle. This problem plagues all the excellent dungeon themes in the game, relegating the player to little further than the first few seconds of the track, unless they stay out of battles for a few minutes.
Fortunately, not all of the game’s best songs are affected by this. In fact, though the dungeon themes are the most “full” and dynamic songs in the game, there are an assortment of non-dungeon songs that prove to be quite formidable themselves. These tracks appear during the game’s story sequences and appear in some of the game’s less-interrupted areas, such as shops and in town. The shop tracks in particular are especially strange: a weirdly upbeat steel drum track accompanies the gun shop, while the clothing store – ran by a fashionable man in a gas mask – dons an amusingly generic background shopping muzak tune that present-day vaprowave aficionados would go gaga over. Best of all is the pharmacy, which has a quirky Japanese man singing what’s allegedly the names of the items you can buy in the store over a pathetic-sounding recorder to create a bizarre, yet somewhat catchy shopping jingle. Though these tracks are appealing – both because they’re so weird and because they’re quite good in their weirdness – the Velvet Room theme is the tour-de-force of them all. Replete with opera vocals and melodramatic piano, as fans of Persona 3 and 4 can already tell you, it’s a standout in the series, befitting the Velvet Room’s mysterious, dream-like nature.
Individually these tracks are competent, but it’s the overall package that makes Persona’s soundtrack one deserving of the hidden gem status attributed to it – because between the lines of all these goofy jingles and psychedelic mystique is a feeling that goes so much deeper than the gimmicks and the “cutting edge” ideas present here. Above all, Persona, both as a game and as a piece of music, is awkward and almost confusing to analyze, because it’s so blemished by its growing pains and lack of having a true niche beyond the decade from which it was released. It’s crooked, but it’s different. It doesn’t just try to be different either – there’s a lot of obvious, but unsuccessful pandering to western culture in the North American translation of Persona, and even when it seems to be generic, its inability to achieve true normalcy keeps even the mundane shit really really off, in the best way possible.
“Electric Brain Travel”