Persona 4 – Staff Review #2

The Shin Megami Tensei series has been around since 1992 and Persona since its 1996 debut on the PlayStation, but it never really took off in North America until the third game. Persona 4 takes up the mantle to build on Persona 3‘s momentum — and does so successfully. Persona 4‘s graphical style and gameplay engine are carry-overs from its predecessor, but the designers have made a number of tweaks and balance changes allowing for less level grinding, better battles, and an enjoyable experience overall that even surpasses Persona 3.

The story begins with a high school student who has been sent to live with his uncle and younger cousin in the countryside while his parents work overseas for a year. No sooner does he arrive, though, than a bizarre series of murders rocks the quiet town of Inaba. The killings take place under the cover of a thick fog, and the police are baffled as to the cause of death. Yet what what is stranger still is that before their deaths, the victims appeared on “The Midnight Channel,” a peculiar program that appears on Inaba TV screens at midnight on rainy evenings. The characters soon find themselves entangled in the mystery when the protagonist discovers he can enter the TV and travel to the fog-enshrouded world on the other side. There, players gain the power of Persona, which allows them to fight the Shadows that inhabit the TV world and seem to be responsible for the deaths. Players soon find themselves charged with discovering who has been killing people by sending them into the TV world —  and rescuing future victims.

Yeah, all the cool kids in Inaba wear glasses. What of it?
Yeah, all the cool kids in Inaba wear glasses. What of it

At its heart, Persona 4 is a mystery. As such, it’s quite a bit lighter than the previous game, but it’s just as polished. While Persona 3 centred around death and the struggle against it, Persona 4 focusses on the elusive nature of truth and self-knowledge. The mystery itself is expertly crafted, full of twists and turns and red herrings. The loose ends are all neatly tied by the end — provided players go the extra mile to obtain the “true” ending. The localization and voice acting are superb. The translators really made the effort to have characters use North-American slang: at one point one of the cast members bemoans his situation as an “epic fail.” The excellent localization and well delivered dialogue make this game a pleasure to listen to — which is good considering the hours and hours of cut scenes it includes.

Though there have been some important tweaks, gameplay will be familiar to veterans of Persona 3. There are two alternating modes of gameplay: dungeon exploration and social simulation. A new dungeon appears in the TV world for every person who is thrown in. The dungeon design in dependant upon the psyche of the victim, so though dungeon floors are randomly generated, each of the dungeons has an individual look, which is a refreshing improvement on the huge Tartarus tower of Persona 3. Like Persona 3, however, there is a time limit; if victims are not rescued by a certain date, they will die and the game will end with the option of restarting a week before the deadline.

Battles are turn-based with a four-member party. Players can attack, use items, and defend, but the main command is “Skill,” which allows players to use physical or magical abilities conferred by their Persona. The main character has the special ability to use multiple Personas, level them up, and then combine them into new and more powerful ones. Using abilities to exploit enemies’ elemental weaknesses is at the heart of Persona 4‘s combat system. When an enemy’s (or a player’s) weakness is struck it will be knocked down until its next turn, and the attacker gets an extra turn. If all enemies are knocked down, players can perform a powerful group attack that will, in most cases, end the battle. Striking a knocked down enemy in its weak element will result in the dizzy status, which will prevent it from getting up on the next turn. This system can be used to great effect in battles but can be equally devastating if enemies strike a player’s weakness, particularly in boss battles. Battles thus require a fair bit of strategising, especially when players are faced with bosses and unfamiliar enemies.

'What are we doing tonight, Yukiko?' 'The same thing we do every night... Try to take over Inaba.'
‘What are we doing tonight, Yukiko?’ ‘The same thing we do every night… Try to take over Inaba.’

The biggest departure from Persona 3 is that players now have direct control over their team members. One can still assign them a command such as “Heal” or “Conserve SP” and let the AI take over, but the ability to control team members dramatically improves the combat experience. Players are no longer forced to rely exclusively on their main character. In the third game, it was very common for the main character’s Skill Points to be wittled away to nothing while other characters still had full bars. In Persona 4, this is no longer the case; players are no longer dependant on their main character to cover the range of elemental attacks to make up for the AI’s shortcomings. This alone puts Persona 4‘s combat system far above Persona 3‘s and reduces the need for level grinding as well.

While dungeon exploration has an important role in Persona 4, it is far less central than in the previous game. The Social Link element of the game frequently takes precedence. During the course of the player’s stay in Inaba, he will meet numerous people — his team members and others — with whom he can form bonds called Social Links which are associated with a particular Arcana and confer bonus experience when the player creates a Persona of that Arcana. These bonds can be levelled up by spending time with the characters during open time slots such as “after school,” or “evening.” Players must balance Social Links with school and life events as well as exploring dungeons and rescuing victims. Players will likely spend more time on Social Links in Persona 4 than in its predecessor. If victims are rescued before the deadline, players cannot re-enter the TV world until the deadline has passed. This can lead to long stretches of Social Link building and the option to re-enter the dungeons during these periods would have been nice for the sake of vareity.  The Social Links themselves are enjoyable and tie in well to the main theme of truth and personal identity.

Haven't your heard? 8-bit is retro now.
Haven’t your heard? 8-bit is retro now.

Persona 4‘s visuals are quite good, as befits a game this late in the PlayStation 2’s life cycle. Character portraits are well done with outfits that change from season to season. The character models themselves do a fair job of conveying characters’ personalities with subtle details such as stance and gestures, all of which shows the care and attention spent on the game’s development. While dungeons in the third game varied only slightly in appearance from strata to strata, each of Persona 4‘s dungeons has a unique design, several of them very surprising and original. While most of the levels within the dungeon — ten or so normally — are similar, the individual look of each dungeon is a breath of fresh air and another improvement over Persona 3.

The soundtrack is solid with a variety of typically upbeat tunes, and as previously mentioned, the voice acting is superb. Menus are all nicely streamlined and allow for smooth gameplay. Difficulty is adjustable, but “Normal” will be enough to give most players a challenge without the need for excessive level-grinding, and boss battles can be particularly challenging. The game can run for 80-100 hours depending on whether one opts to go the extra mile to get the “true ending.” There is also a bad ending that cuts the game drastically short, skipping the final dungeons and leaving players with a brief movie and roll of the credits. After finishing the game, players can also begin a New Game+ that allows certain elements to carried over and presents players with a few extra challenges.

Whether players prefer the  darker story and level grinding of Persona 3 or the who done it and Social Link heavy gameplay of Persona 4 is mostly a matter of taste. There’s no denying, though, that Persona 4 is a wonderfully crafted RPG and that it takes several steps to improve upon its equally excellent predecessor. Persona 4 had a lot to live up to, which it does and more.

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