Review: Persona 4 (PS2)

Persona 4
Genre: RPG
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: 12/08/08


The Shin Megami Tensei franchise, despite being a fairly strong franchise in Japan, has had to play catch-up in the US over the past few years. Our market was denied the SNES games entirely, and several franchises (Soul Hackers, for example.) have never found their way to our market in any form. The very first Megaten game to come to the US was, amusingly enough, Persona, one of about a hundred spin-offs from the core games. After that game and its sequel (Eternal Punishment, one half of a pair of sequels made for the game, the other being Japan-only Innocent Sin) did decent numbers stateside, Atlus saw fit to try their hand at bringing other Megaten titles to the US, and over the past several years, we’ve been exposed to such gems as Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga 1 & 2, Devil Summoner, Demi-Kids (Though the less said about that, the better), and finally, Persona 3 and its expansion pack, FES. This hasn’t been a slow year for Atlus in the Megaten department either, as SMT: Imagine entered beta testing for its US launch, and we’ve received Persona 4 (Which is more or less the sixth release in the series at this point, but whatever) this month, to boot.

Now, Persona 3 was something of a radical departure from the normal Persona formula, and something of a departure from the normal Megaten style as well, and not everyone found it to be the mostly-enjoyable game many of us did. This is certainly a fair opinion of the product. While P3 was generally quite good, it also had a few notable flaws that kept it from becoming the game it really wanted to be. The good news for those who were on the edge of their seats wondering if Persona 4 would be an improvement or a rehash is that yes, Persona 4 is an improved product in most every way, and the end result is a game that is largely better than its predecessor in almost all respects. The bad news is that it still isn’t quite where it wants to be, and while that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game by any possible definition, it’s really not quite where it needs or wants to be just yet.

Anyone who’s played Persona 2: Eternal Punishment and Persona 3 should find parts the storyline of Persona 4 vaguely familiar: there’s a string of weird serial killings going on that are being committed by a bizarre, unidentified killer, who throws his victims into an alternate dimension, where their repressed selves kill them. The police are baffled, the killer seems nigh-unstoppable, and it falls to a ragtag group of teenage kids and their talking clown bear… thing to stop the killer, as they are the only ones with the power to do so. Now, admittedly this sounds bizarre (As well it should), but the core plot is about a good deal more than clown bears and serial killers. In Persona 3, the concept of the game focused mostly on defining humanity and the concept of death by way of trying to save the world and fix the mistakes of others. Persona 4 continues this tradition of dealing with heavy concepts being intertwined with basic storylines by integrating the ideas of self discovery and dealing with one’s inner demons into the whole Scooby Doo concept of the game (the game really kind of is a bizarre Japanese take on Scooby Doo for about the first twenty to thirty hours, complete with the lazy slacker and the talking animal). By and large, Persona 4 is surprisingly successful in this endeavor. The story is written well, the characters are rather endearing, and the whole experience generally feels, well, right from a storyline perspective. Characters, both minor or major, are easy to find yourself caring about. As such, the story does some very interesting things throughout while presenting some very interesting moral questions and observations that are enjoyable and add a lot to the experience. Also, the mystery of who’s REALLY behind the murders in town is a surprising one that doesn’t really let up until nearly the end of the game. It’s rare to see a game that features so many twists and turns come together so well and yet still remain so surprising from start to finish.

There are a few notable plot issues, though they don’t really detract from the experience. The biggest of the lot is that the game essentially mashes elements from Persona 2 and Persona 3 together. There are times where fans of both of those games will stop and think, “Haven’t I seen that before?”, mainly because they have. Rumors play a big part in this game, as they did in Persona 2 (though their roles are different). Confronting your inner demons was also a fairly big focus in Persona 2, as it is here. The whole, “Teddie wants to be a real person” gimmick is more than a little similar to Aigis and her need to understand what she was while yearning to be real. Hell, the game even does the, “Start with a character who can sense things, then replace them later with a BETTER character who can sense things, whereupon said former character who senses things becomes a combat participant” plot point that Persona 3 did with Mitsuru and Fuuka. I’m not saying that you can’t re-use plot gimmicks when you think they’ll be worthwhile, but YOU DID SOME OF THIS STUFF ONE GAME AGO. Release something in-between games if you need to do that, seriously.

Also, for those who are wondering, no, Atlus hasn’t gotten off of the good-bad ending kick as of yet. (I.E., “Ending the game in a way where there’s a payoff, but it’s depressing and/or unsatisfying.”) Persona 4’s ending, while nowhere near as depressing as the prior game’s ending, is still something of a downer. Those who are bothered by this sort of thing will probably have a problem with that, so, that’s the only warning you get. Again, this isn’t a BAD thing so much as it is, well, unsatisfying. Nocturne at least offered the player the option of how they wanted to do things; Persona 4 simply offers two bad endings, one okay ending, and one mostly good ending, but none of them are unilaterally good, This latter is happier than the others, but still kind of annoying in a, “This is my payoff for a one hundred hour game” kind of way. Again, this isn’t BAD, and it doesn’t really hurt the score any, but it really needs to be noted for those out there who prefer their endings happy and their characters fulfilled.

Visually, Persona 4 looks a little better than its predecessor, though not much. The character models and town environments look nice, as they did in the previous game, and they have their own interesting personality that differentiates them enough from Persona 3 to make them memorable instead of repetitive. The dungeons have been given a massive overhaul, and each looks different from the last. This helps to keep the game feeling fresh in comparison to the prior game, which was more or less hacking your way up one large tower that looked more or less identical throughout the game. The game also features a hazy fog effect in the dungeons that actually adds to the personality of the game environments (The fog is a big part of the overall storyline.). The spell effects and such also look quite nice, and feature less frame rate issues than they did in the prior game. Persona 4 isn’t the most visually impressive PS2 title on the market, but it looks good, all in all.

Aurally, Persona 4 is easily as awesome as the prior game. The game music is once again an eclectic mix of rock, pop and industrial tunes, with the odd tune thrown in that completely changes aural direction (Dance techno, for instance), which not only matches the theme of the environment it’s used in, but also sells the experience more than one would think. The voice acting is also mostly top-notch, and the performances for the core cast in particular are fantastic, though the supporting cast members aren’t bad either. The exception to this is Margaret, the assistant of Igor in The Velvet Room. She sounds bored out of her goddamn mind throughout all of her lines, and should probably have been recast with someone who actually wanted to be there. The sound effects are fit the game nicely, though they’re very similar, if not outright identical, to those from Persona 3. As such they aren’t particularly impressive in comparison to the voice work and music, but they’re still pretty good.

The gameplay of Persona 4 is pretty simple at its core, though once you scratch the surface all sorts of complexities come flying out. Most of your time will be divided between wandering around the city of Inaba, talking to the populace to glean information and upgrades, or hacking your way through monster-filled dungeons which earns you money and experience points to upgrade your characters. Combat and navigation are a breeze, and combat is purely turn-based. This means if you’ve navigated a menu in your life, you’ll have no problem navigating the combat here. Combat itself works as most RPG fans would expect: you’re given a team of allies to fight alongside against teams of monsters, and each goes in order from first to last until everyone’s gone, which starts the turns over again. All of the standard elemental concepts games have been doing forever are here as well. Each monster and character has different degrees of ability in fire, ice, wind, lightning, light, dark, and strikes that dictate their ability to resist these attacks or take additional damage from them as the situation dictates. There are also different stats such as Strength, Magic, Endurance, Agility, and Luck which dictate the character’s base abilities to take and give damage. Again, none of this should be surprising to fans of the genre, and most folks should grasp all of this fairly quickly.

Where the game begins to come into its own is with the actual Personas themselves. Your characters come equipped with Personas when they join your team, each of which has their own specific abilities and elemental resistances/weaknesses, making them vauable or useless as the situation dictates. Your main character is not hampered by such restrictions, however, as he can summon any Persona you can fuse. This allows him to essentially be the party Swiss Army Leader, changing his functionality as needed in the heat of battle. This gives you the ability to not only change up your tactics as needed, but also allows you to plan ahead for whatever boss encounters you might face. Your allies will see their Personas level up as they do, which keeps things uniform as far as they’re concerned. The protagonist’s Personas level up at a much slower rate, which means a Persona that was impressive five levels ago is now lagging behind. That’s where The Velvet Room comes in. The Velvet Room is essentially a Persona science lab of sorts, as it allows you to fuse your Personas together to make brand new models as needed. This is where you’ll end up getting most of your Personas from, as fused Personas are more powerful than those you acquire otherwise. Fusing Personas is a tricky endeavor at first, as you have to take into account the levels of the Personas being fused as well as their Arcanum Sign (Think of this as their “type”, more or less.) in order to have an idea of what the resulting Persona will be. There’s also the consideration of HOW you would fuse them together, as you’re offered a few different options (Some build basic Personas, while others are meant for special Personas that can only be built a certain way.). This allows you all sorts of interesting ways to create the ultimate internal killing machine. Your allies are more or less attached to the Personas they earn when they first come into their own, which is done for storyline purposes (These Persona are supposed to be the embodiment of their “true self”, while your character really doesn’t have a “true” self, since, well, he’s you), however, meaning that you have to also pay attention to who you select for battle before you go out into the Shadow Realm; exploiting enemy weaknesses allows for extra turns, added damage, and the ability to dog-pile on the enemy for massive damage, but enemies can exploit your weaknesses all the same, so it helps to pay attention to what you need to stay alive in battle.

Navigating dungeons is done from a third-person, behind-the-back perspective, which allows you to rotate the map to see your surroundings as needed. You can see items and enemies in the world as you run around, so you can choose to grab items and avoid combat (or sneak-attack enemies) as you see fit. Unlike Persona 3, which featured one gigantic tower for your team to climb that essentially looked the same every floor, Persona 4‘s combat environments are divided up into different dungeons. Each of these are themed around whatever person you are trying to save from inside of it. This doesn’t change the gameplay elements, but it does help to keep things fresh. You’re also given an overhead map to look over as you move through the dungeons. This lets you see where you’re going and where you’ve been. As you progress, your support character Rise will show treasures and enemies on the map, which is also helpful for planning out how to navigate. You’ll have to play through each dungeon once to kill the main boss and save whoever is trapped there. Afterwards you’ll also be able to play through them when ever you want to more powerful bosses and farm for money, since Persona 4 no longer features a system where the characters become exhausted from fighting in the dungeons, which was a big complaint with the prior game. The lottery system from the previous game that appears at the end of some battles HAS returned. This time though, it’s a good bit different. Instead of drawing random items, Personas and such, you instead are offered blank cards, penalty cards which effectively negate the battle you just fought, or one or more Personas to try and draw. There is also the potential to draw an additional Arcanum card afterward that will either impart a bonus or an ailment, depending on whether it lands normal or reversed.

Outside of the combat, there are also a ton of things to do in the game, most of which revolve around your Social Links, personal skills, and other novelties. Many of the characters you meet, including your own allies, forge Social Links with your character relative to their Arcanum. These links allow you to improve your ability to summon Persona of said ally’s Arcanum, essentially allowing for experience point boosts upon summoning them. Maxing out a Social Link will allow you to summon the highest level Persona from that Arcanum, which makes paying attention to these links worth the effort, as these Persona are amongst the best in the game. However, in another improvement over Persona 3, improving the Social Link ranks of your party members also conveys additional benefits beyond simply upgrading your Social Link rank, including allowing your party members to cure status ailments, survive death blows, upgrade their Personas, and even follow-up attacks that can do all sorts of neat things, from dizzying foes to hitting all enemies to killing an enemy outright. Chie’s Galactic Punt, which is easily the most hilarious attack in the game, as it affects mid-bosses, the most useful to boot.

Upgrading your Social Links will take more planning and consideration in Persona 4, however, because the weather now plays a hand in whether or not you’ll be able to meet up with some of them. Rainy days are, for most people, days to spend indoors hiding from the weather. This means that few, if any, Social Links will be available on these days. While this DOES give you ample opportunities to go inside the TV and crawl through dungeons, since you are now stuck doing your exploration during the day instead of at night as in the prior game, it also means you’ll need to plan out when you’re going to work on Social Links carefully to get them all. There are also five personal stats to work on: Knowledge, Courage, Expression, Diligence, and Understanding. Each of these will open up new conversation options throughout the game, open up new Social Links, and improve how others see you, which makes them worth upgrading as needed.

The main game is about eighty to one hundred hours long (No, really.), depending on the things you do and the choices you make. With four endings to unlock, you might well think that’s enough for the game, but apparently Atlus thought otherwise. You can also play through the standard New Game Plus, which allows you to carry over your Persona Compendium (Where your Persona are registered when you create and improve them.), personal skills, and money, among other things, into a new game. Aside from allowing you to fuse new Personas and fight some hidden foes, this also allows you to play through several new conversation paths with your Social Links and answer questions you lacked the personal skills to answer the first time around. If that wasn’t enough, the game also features enemies who only appear on rainy days, items that can be sold to the town blacksmith to make new and unique items, quests to take on, a fishing mini-game to play around with, and a whole bunch of other things. There’s also a shout-out or ten to Persona 3 for those who are fans of that game. For fans and newbies alike, Persona 4 features a ton of content to play around with and a whole lot of novelty, and that makes the game well worth checking out on top of the solid story and strong gameplay.

That said, Persona 4 feels like a yellow coat of paint and some house repair on the old frame of Persona 3. Yes, the game does a lot of new things, and yes, many of the changes like being able to control all of your characters, (which was something you could already do in Persona and both sequels, but was removed from Persona 3 for philosophical reasons) are for the better, but that doesn’t mean the game feels incredibly familiar in comparison to the prior game. The combat gameplay is, in many respects, virtually identical to the prior game. Most of the major mechanics are lifted from that game in their entirety. That these mechanics are fleshed out, developed, repaired, and generally polished up is a fabulous thing, but they’re still the same mechanics, in most cases, from the last game. If you purchased both Persona 3 and the FES expansion pack, it may be hard to accept buying yet ANOTHER hundred hour game that plays like the last two. It also bears noting that some of the enemy designs are carried over from one game to the next. While this isn’t a huge problem, it is a problem nonetheless.

The game does other annoying things that make it a bit more of a pain than it really should be. Since Persona 3 and the prior two games apparently took place in different worlds, it kind-of sort-of made sense that the most they could do as a nod to the previous games was naming the characters in the MMORPG you played after characters from Persona 2. Persona 3 and Persona 4 however take place in the same universe, and as such, the option to really refer back to the prior game was definitely there. What we’re given is a week-long field trip to the old town, an appearance by a couple of C-List characters, and a few verbal shout-outs to events from the previous game that most players would have most likely forgotten (The Pink Alligator? Really?). Now, I understand that Persona 4 is supposed to be its own story, and that’s fine, but you couldn’t have had one or two characters from the prior game who actually MEANT SOMETHING pop up in some capacity? Akihiko is appearing in the anime based on the new games, so why not cram Junpei in for a cameo or something? Hell, Persona 2: Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment actually featured playable characters from the first game. What was stopping you from doing that? This just seems like wasted potential to play to the fans, considering that the product already feels like a bit of a fan product. Considering you can buy a fan kit containing a T-Shirt and a stuffed Teddie on Amazon.com, I think I’m justified in feeling this way. It’s also annoying that the game really kind of requires you to play through it twice to accomplish many of the things you might want to do, either because you have limited personal stats or limited time management skills. It seems like the game was crammed full to capacity specifically to make it difficult to accomplish everything in one sitting, and while this isn’t a huge complaint for someone who will play through a second time, for someone who wants to get everything they can from one go-through, well, Persona 4 may not be the game for you unless you enjoy flowcharting everything you do.

It’s also worth mentioning that the game offers you an automatic combat option, (Just press Triangle to automate battle), yet it then makes nearly half of the enemies in the game resistant to physical attacks, which essentially removes the entire POINT of such a mechanic. Then again, that’s essentially how Atlus rolls. Given that I was kind of expecting this thing, I can’t really be mad about it. Simply put: Rush Combat is, more than likely, going to end up getting you killed if you’re not paying attention. The game also ends if your character suffers an Instant Death attack or dies in battle, much like in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. As this happens a not-insignificant amount on any difficulty beyond Easy, casual players will also want to be mindful of the fact that the game is a significant challenge. Easy Mode alleviates this somewhat by giving you ten extra chances, assuming you’re not ashamed to play on Easy, of course.

Frankly, complaints against the originality aside, when the biggest complaints you can make about the game amount to, “There’s too much to do” and, “It’s too hard if you don’t want to play on Easy”, frankly, those aren’t really notable complaints. Persona 4 is simply a superior sequel in every single way that counts, from the fantastic storyline to the improved gameplay to the stronger, more developed mechanics and beyond, and everything about the game is bigger and better, without making the game excessively longer. It’s fairly unoriginal in many elements, from the story to the gameplay to the presentation, to be fair, and the game occasionally seems like it wants to do TOO much. It might also be a bit much for casual gamers to latch onto, between the high challenge and the dating simulator elements and all. That said, Persona 4 is pretty fantastic, and it deserves every bit of praise heaped upon it. Even taken as an unoriginal product, it’s still an incredibly enjoyable and entertaining unoriginal product,. Frankly, sometimes all we really want is to be entertained. This does that very well, and is well worth the cash and time you’ll lose to it, if you’re willing to forgive it a little repetition here and there.

Plus, Galactic Punt is totally hilarious. Seriously. Go look it up. The game’s nearly worth buying just for that. No, really.

The Scores:
Story: GREAT
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: CLASSIC
Balance: GOOD
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: CLASSIC
Appeal: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: UNPARALLELED
Final Score: GREAT GAME

Short Attention Span Summary:
If you’re the sort of person who’s looking for something new and different in your RPG experience, Persona 4 is pretty much what the doctor ordered, assuming you haven’t played either Persona 3 or FES. The game is jam-packed with an excellent story, memorable characters, great presentation, and solid gameplay which makes the game hard to pass up if you’re even a casual RPG fan. The game isn’t as original as it could stand to be, as it borrows more than a little from both Persona 2 and Persona 3, and it’s a bit TOO jam-packed with stuff to see and do at times. The game might also be rough for a neophyte RPG player to progress through, since it’s fairly difficult and about a hundred hours long. If you’re looking for a good, long, challenging game that excels in most all respects, however, you’d be foolish to pass Persona 4 up. It’s a whole lot of fun, easily justifies its asking price in both depth and substance, and it’s safe to say you won’t play a game quite like it… well, until Persona 5 comes out, but hopefully that won’t be for a while.

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