Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (PS2) – Review

cover Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 from Atlus is a JRPG based on very traditional, turn-based combat combined with dating simulation-like elements that doesn’t, at first, vary much from its predecessor, Persona 3.  However, as you start to get into the game, you’ll notice several improvement on the already successful formula that make the game much more enjoyable and management, with possibly a slight reduction in its difficulty as a result.  Regardless of that, the game is very easy to get into and is definitely one to try if you are on the fence about JRPGs; the characters and story are quite well done, as well as the presentation, and the game promised a hefty dose of playtime but presented in a manner that can make it more distillable to the end user.  It is a definite must-have title for any RPG fan in the first place.

Story: A+

Persona 4 focuses on the events of the unnamed Protagonist moving to the quiet small town of Inaba to live with his uncle and niece while attending high school for the year.  Shortly after his arrival, two bizarre murders occur in the town, but the Protagonist and his friends from school learn that the murders are tied in with the "Midnight Channel", an alternate world that lies behind every television set filled with Shadows; someone had thrown the victims into the Channel and let their Shadows kill them there.  The Protagonist and his friends take up the case on their own, working with a friendly Shadow calling himself Teddie to track down and fight the Shadows of other victims before they are killed, and to slowly work out who the murderer is.

persona4-4-480

The story is quite well done, as it does throw a few tricks and turns in the murder investigations and keeps you guessing near the end.  The characters are fabulous, feeling like real high-school student with real but not stereotypical problems, such as facing their social and sexual identity or determining if they want fame and fortune or a simple life with strong friendships.  Most of the game is told with in-game cutscenes and a handful of fully animated scenes, and some of the basic set pieces are quite well done with lots of witty writing (just wait for your group to get drunk, or for the "beauty" contest late in the yet), and most of these are fully voiced as well.  There’s a few typical stereotypes but just enough to help flesh the game out.

Gameplay: A+

Like its predecessor Persona 3, Persona 4 mixes traditional turn-based role-playing with elements of dating simulations.  The game is fixed by its nine-month internal calendar, each day giving you the opportunity to either work on building your network of friends, or to explore the dungeons.  While Persona 3 had events triggered by the moon cycle, Persona 4 uses a pre-set pattern of weather, where the critical events takes place after a series of rainy days; these happen in a less regularly cycle, which helps in terms of the plot giving it a chance to breathe with somewhat longer events that occur during the school year without the pressure of having to explore the dungeon.

When you explore dungeons, each floor is randomly generated, but uses a routine that provides a less claustrophobic, more rambling level than those from Persona 3.  Once you reach a new floor in a dungeon, if you choose to escape and return to the dungeon you can opt to start from that level or from the beginning, which is a much better system than the "block" concept used in the Tartarus tower from Persona 3; you can also move back down to a previously floor you explored as to allow for any level grinding you may need.  Furthermore, the dungeons aren’t that deep, upwards of 10-12 floors in each, which makes the scope of the dungeon exploring feel more manageable than trying to run the gambit of 250 floors.  All shadows are shown wandering on the levels, and thus gives you to the opportunity to prepare or try for a first strike attack.

persona4-1-480

Combat is turn-based and is mostly focused on watching for strength and weaknesses to physical and magical attacks (which work both ways) and varies little from Persona 3.  A key feature of the system is the "One More" attack that you can gain if you can strike an opponent at its weakness or land a critical hit, causing them to fall; this then allows you to do more damage or keep working on a chain of such attacks as to get the entire field of enemies down, at which point you can launch an all-out rush with all your party members, usually resulting in ending the battle for most regular foes.  Foes can also gain "One More" attacks on your own party, so you need to take care to be prepared to cover for such weaknesses in your group or be prepared to withstand damage. 

By default, you only control the Protagonist in battle, selecting from attacks, guarding, using an item, using a Persona skill , or switching Personas, and the other characters (up to 3 out of 7 playable) will be controlled by the computer using a specific tactic that you can assign; however, Persona 4 optionally lets you control each character, which is great for boss battle fights.  However, I found that the AI control in Persona 4 to be much better than the previous game; characters will aim to try to get all the opponents knocked down to allow for all-out attacks, only performing basic attacks if they cannot strike at a weakness.  They are also better about healing and recovery.  In fact, given that the Protagonist seems to have a low initiative, I found that for the bulk of the game, by the time the turn came around to the Protagonist, the rest of the characters had done a sufficiently good job in reducing the numbers to make the battle easy.  Mind you, the characters are just as in the dark about a new enemy’s weakness or strengths, and they will try to attack with their best skills, which may result in the attack being adsorbed or reflected back at them, but they won’t try the same attack twice like that. 

persona4-2-480

The key element of the characters’ power is the Persona which grants spells for offense, defense, and healing, as well as the ability to expend hit points for certain physical attacks.  For all but the main characters, these Personas will grow as they gain experience in battle.  The Protagonist has the ability to store and swap multiple Personas, each which also has a growth sequence though not as deep as the other characters.  Once you’ve returned from the dungeons, you can visit the Velvet room to store Personas, extract Personas previously stored, and then perform Persona Fusion to create new Personas that incorporate the skills and abilities of the two or more Personas you used to create them.  You can also gain Personas after winning certain battles via a simple card game, though you also run the risk of nullifying any bonuses gained from that combat.  Winning combat also gives you money and material items; the last can be sold back at a store in town for more money and to have the weaponsmith prepare new weapons and armor for you.

The dating elements of the game focus on the development of Social Links, connections with your friends and others in the town, which will affect the growth and fusing of Personas depending on the specific Arcana that the Link represents.  As with Persona 3, most Links are easy to initiate and simply a matter of spending the afternoon after school with the person, but later levels may require several days to move the Link to the next level.  In other cases, you need to make sure your basic stats, such as Knowledge, Understanding, or Courage, are high enough to start or continue the Link.  While some Links will lead to more romantic relations with the female students, they don’t have the same difficulties of retaining these as in the previous game.  More importantly, when you improve the Links for the other members of the party that explore the dungeons, you can earn certain benefits in battle from them, such as having them take a mortal blow for you or following up on a teammate’s "One more" attack.  Tracking when Social Links are ready to progress is much easier to track in Persona 4; besides being invited by some when the Link is ready to progress, you can also see which characters are close to advancement as well.

persona4-3-480

Pretty much all around, Persona 4‘s gameplay does little to change from its predecessor, but makes just the right tweaks and changes to make the experience more enjoyable.  Getting around town is much easier, as you can easily warp from one area to another instead of having to walk to an exit.  All the screens with information on Personas, particularly in battle and during fusion, allow you to review all their skills to determine what they are, thus making it much easier to know what a Persona can do instead of depending on memorizing the various spell names (which do remain consistent with Persona 3).  You are also well aware of exactly how much growth a Persona can undergo, at least by knowing how many more skills they can learn (they can still keep growing in stats with more levels)  There are only two major issues I have with the game.  The first is still a carryover from the previous game: the fact that if you character drops in battle while other characters stay alive, that represents a "Game Over", despite the fact that if other characters (even those under your control) fall, you can revive them yourself.  This does force you to take the strategy in battle to make sure the main character is well protected, but given that you can turn this game into more a standard control-each-character turn system, it feels like an artificial limit.  The other major complaint is that with all the improvements of the game. the game is somewhat on the easy side.  I don’t believe I spend much time grinding, though I did repeat each dungeon once to defeat the bonus boss, and until the late game, I found few difficulties in getting through.  There still are points if you go in and just hit the default actions, you’ll quickly find the party overwhelmed, but compared to Persona 3, it is much more forgiving.  Even when I got to points that I struggled through, I found spending the little bit of time to get a few more levels and a few more stronger Personas under my belt was sufficient to make progression a piece of cake.  It is still a challenge, and a nice challenge if you are new to the series, but it is decidedly less difficult than the previous game.

Value/Replayability: A+

My first playthrough clocked in at 80 hours – and beyond load times, that was some of the best 80 hours of gaming that I’ve played.  It may be a little daunting, but the game is better designed compared to Persona 3 to allow you to play it at chunks at a time instead of long running segments.  Add to the fact that you can enjoy a New Game mode that allows certain aspects to be carried over, and you’ve got a game that can easily last you a few months if no longer.

Graphics: A

Sticking with the same style in Persona 3, Persona 4 looks just as good without dragging anything to a crawl (save during certain particle effects in battle).  The graphics are nicely varied throughout, the various Personas and Shadows you face are all well designed (even if some borrow designs from the previous game).  The menus are also nicely styled, adding to the whole game.  The only nit about graphics I have is the constant blurred-edge you have while in battle, which is meant to reflect the effect of the fog, but can be a bit of an eyesore at times.  However, it is by far nothing serious.

Audio: A+

The voice actors for all the characters are incredibly well done.  Teddie, the designated comedic character, does have a high, whiney voice, but it is used in good moderation and given some of the better lines in the game, so it’s quite tolerable.  The music is outstanding, more variations on j-pop themes, and at times nice and mysterious to keep with the overall scheme.  The battle music does get a bit repetitive but that’s probably the only place where this occurs, compared to the Persona 3 battle music and the dungeon music which got old and repetitive over time.

Overall: A+

Persona 4 is not perfect, but for a JRPG, it is a pinnacle of excellence, expanding on the successful formula of Persona 3, fixing most of the major complaints while adding just enough new elements to keep it fresh.  The story and characters are very memorable, and while having some flaws, still does a great job to successfully knit this game together to keep you wanting to play more.  Any JRPG fan will want a copy of this, but more importantly, I would say that those that haven’t tried a JRPG before or who don’t necessarily like the genre will find Persona 4 to be a great way to get into these types of games.  The gameplay length may be a bit daunting, but it is definitely worth it to play through the game.

Advertisements

3 Responses

  1. Please excuse my ignorance, but would you say this game could be played on its own? That is, would somebody need to play the other games in the series for this one to make sense?

  2. Yes, there’s minimal story connection, and while the gameplay is the same at P3, it does not presume this knowledge to start the game.

  3. Awesome job. I loved this game when I picked up. Haven’t found anything else that tops it yet. It really does deserve a spot in the JRPG world, up there with FFX and others. Check out my blog when you get a chance. I think you’ll like it.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: