Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4
by Polly



Well, it's only taken nearly two years, but I finally did it! I beat Persona 4. Not that it took me two long, drawn-out years to muster up the gamer skill and bucket loads of time it takes to complete this 96 hour (for me) monstrosity, but shortly after I obtained the game upon release, my save data got corrupted around the 30-hour mark and I just didn't feel like going through it all again. But, the bug bit me again around the middle of last month and I decided to take another trip back to TV World from start to finish.

Having played through Persona 3 in its entirety as well, there's going to be something that's really hard for me to avoid over the course of this review. I'm going to fail miserably at trying not to, so why bother, yeah? I don't want this review to turn into non-stop comparisons between the two games, but as sure as I'm typing this, I'm pretty sure it's going to. Even at first glance it's hard to deny the similarities. Both games are based on the same general concept, same engine, share similar production values, and elements are recycled quite liberally throughout. So, my apologies in advance if this review isn't quite "newbie friendly."

Persona 4 moves things away from the hustle and bustle of the big city and plants you (the main character) smack-dab in the middle of the tiny fictional backwoods Japanese town of Inaba. Over the course of the next year of game time, you'll be spending your days here living with your detective uncle and his daughter, forging bonds of friendship with the locals and your schoolmates, and ultimately, investigating a series of serial murders that happened to start just as you got off the train.

Rumors speak of a phenomenon known as the "Midnight Channel." Supposedly, on a rainy night, if you stare into a turned-off TV, you'll get a look into another world. The rumors vary on exactly what one sees on this Midnight Channel. Some say you'll see your soulmate, others believe something more sinister may be at work. Things get even more creepy when local residents begin appearing on the Midnight Channel, and subsequently disappearing in the real world, only to return as dead bodies hanging from antennas and other high places. Your parents really did pick the right time to go work abroad and dump you off in this mudhole, didn't they?

You'll soon be surrounded by new friends, as everyone begins to get sucked into the Midnight Channel rumors and the mystery of how it may or may not be connected to the murders that are taking place. You and your friends will (after about 215,000 hours of opening scenes) gain the ability to actually enter the TV world and investigate the mysteries behind the Midnight Channel, as well as gain the ability to use Personas to fight the Shadows that live there. Let's face it, friendship is about 200% more awesome when you get to go and kill shit inside the TV together.

Persona 4's cast of characters is a rather colorful bunch, but lean a bit more toward the believable side than those of the previous game's. (GOD DAMN IT, HERE I GO!) While Persona 3's characters were certainly likeable to a degree, I never really felt the connection and relatability with any them that I do the residents of Inaba. I'm not the kind of person who the hoity-toity rich girl student body president would want to hang out with, Akihiko is a boring drone, and I'd have jaw-jacked Yukari within 25 minutes of meeting her if she actually existed (even more so with that ULTRA-bitchy new attitude she got in The Answer), however Yosuke, Chie, and even the local rich girl, Yukiko feel much more down to earth and accessible. Their stories and the things they must overcome to be better people feel more realistic and well...average. Which is what the game seems to have been going for. It may have something to do with my own upbringing and crowds I was with during those years, but who knows?

The story that unfolds in the small town of Inaba, though focused on murder and confronting the demons that live within us all, is surprisingly light-hearted and only takes itself seriously when it absolutely has to. The plot is much smaller in scale, and it never feels like you're shouldering the weight of the world. Up until the last few hours of the game, you're just trying to find answers and solve the mystery while other crazy shit just keeps happening around you. For those reasons, Persona 4 feels much more focused than Persona 3's darker, grander tale of a world on the brink of destruction. Both stories and settings have their own appeal, and neither is necessarily bad, so it's really only a matter of which setting you'd prefer and who you'd want to hang out with. I was a-okay with both, if you must know.

The pacing is......fucking slow. Again, the game takes place over the course of a year, and often there may not be a lot going on until a new string of the mystery pops up, which only happens at pre-determined dates. It doesn't feel quite as empty as Persona 3 could at times, but the lull is still there. The game's worst offense here is that it takes far too long to actually get revved up and going. For the first two to four hours, you'll ONLY be pressing X to progress through text boxes while the plot and characters set themselves up for you. Other times, the game just gets entirely too fucking wordy with many lines of dialog either being redunant or simply unneded. It can and will get as slow and talky as Metal Gear Solid and Xenosaga, so have some popcorn ready when these events are taking place and just turn on the "Auto Advance" option in the Config menu. By the time I reached the end, I was feeling burnt out, and it's a good thing the game ended where it did, because I couldn't have done anymore.

Persona 4's production values are on about the same level as Persona 3's which can be a bit of a bummer, but I always got the feeling that these games may have been a little budget-ey to begin with. Nothing ever looks horrible, it's adequate. Good enough, but coulda been better. Inaba is presented convincingly enough and the near-constant fog in the air does a great job of selling the envionment and the story. In truth, there are only about five unique areas you'll be stuck in for most of the game (minus a few special areas), and it'd have been nice to see just a little more work put into the town's visuals.

Character models in the field still look like cute little dolls, which is fine because they do have their charm, and honestly it's an aesthetic that just works for the series. Battle models seem like they've been stepped up a notch with smoother animation, and each character comes with their own unique sets of idle and attack animations that adequately reflect their personalities. Personas and their included models and battle animations, aside from the new ones, seem lifted directly from Persona 3, but that's not really an issue, because you want an air of familiarity with these things, and they were never really broken in the first place. The 2D art that represents character portraits and Personas is also just as great as ever if you're into that whole Japanese Cartoon style. The many dungeons throughout the game you'll be slogging your way through all sport unique themes such as dark castles, steamy bathhouses, secret labratories, and even an 8-bit inspired game world, making just the thought of looking at them about 100x less boring than the lifeless slog that was Tartarus. Problem is, these dungeons are all made up of the same randomly generated corridors with the same few textures plastered over and over, and can get just as boring to look at in the end. The big problem comes down to normal enemy designs, which are mostly lifted from Persona 3 and reskinned OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND FUCKING OVER. It does get quite tedious to run into nearly the same enemies every other dungeon. Major bosses still look quite fantastic and are sometimes cleverly designed around the themes of the dungeons and characters involved in the current scenario. They're major bosses, though, and there really aren't that many to begin with. Even mini-bosses are just reskinned normal enemies, so sometimes it's really hard to get jazzed about a boss fight when it doesn't seem like the creators were all that jazzed to begin with either.

In the audio department, the Persona series again brings to the table the least likely set of tunes you'd expect to hear in a typical RPG. The focus this time around is more in the vein of J-punk and jazzy styled pieces with bits of electronica and mild hip-hop liberally sprinkled into the mix. From dungeon and battle themes, to the normal "runnin' around town" type tunes, there's probably a little something in here for everybody. Throughout the three weeks I was playing the game, I'd get random songs stuck in my head on a constant basis, so they had to have done something right.

Again, the game is about 80% voiced, and it's just about as good as its predecessor. Thankfully, there are no Shinjiro and Fuukas around to make me want to tear my fucking ears off. As with any dub there are a few awkward readings and botched lines here and there, and sometimes you'd probably feel embarrassed watching the more emotional scenes with someone else in the room, but overall the voice work is solid from start to finish. HOW-FUCKING-EVER, I must again-chan fucking complain-san about how stupid-kun English speakers-sama sound when using god damn-tan Japanese honorifics-sensei. Fucking-kun god damn-san stop-chan that shit-senpai!

I predict that right about now is when this review is gonna take a sudden turn. Yep, that turn. The one I really wanted to avoid, but knew full well that I wouldn't be able to. So, I'll just say it now: Gameplay-wise, Persona 4 is everything that Persona 3 FES should have been to the original game. EVERYTHING. Deep-down, though it's essentially the same game, Persona 4's laundry list of improvements, tweaks, and balances make the game so easy to pick up and enjoy and convenient to play, that I honestly don't see much reason to ever want to go back to Persona 3 after playing it. So, without going into Pat-Mode and ending up with 800k of text to sift through, I'll simply list the changes that were made that make this game a far more playable endeavor.

I Love The Square Button
Navigating Persona 4's world couldn't be any easier. While I do recommend that you check out Inaba's various locales the first few hours you dive in, after that you're gonna wanna be using the Square button's handy-dandy insta-warp feature. You're going to be spending an entire year in this town, and it's doubtful you'll wanna run all over the place each and every time you wanna go somewhere. The Square Button Menu is your ticket to speediness!

When you're in any area of the game (save for dungeons, of course) you can press the Square button to call up a short menu listing all the available locations in your current surroundings. Select where you wanna go and instantly warp there. Again, in a game where you're going to be doing the same things over and over for quite some time, and visiting many of the same places, this helps take some of the tedium out of traveling.

Building A Better Me
Now, a lot of fans of Persona 3 likely barfed at the thought of having to raise not three, but FIVE individual characteristics of your main character this time around. I know I did. Believe me, taco salad is NOT as great coming back up as it was going down.... ANYWAY, raising these stats in Persona 3 was time-consuming, kinda boring, and often rather expensive. Persona 4 tries to ease the burden a bit, even though you now have to raise five different stats: Knowledge, Courage, Understanding, Expressions, and Diligence. Raising characteristics is important to initiating certain Social Links, doing well on school exams, and performing other various tasks. This aspect of the game is made to be less of a burden because they don't take quite as much grinding to max out and you're provided with many free and inexpensive opportunities to work on these stats, making them easy to finish off in a fairly decent amount of time.

For instance, the game makes you join a sports and cultural club early on, and these are free opportunities to boost your Diligence and Expression respectively, and they also hand out Social Links in the process. You can also find and purchase inexpensive books to read in your room at night and take on part-time jobs that pay out decent amounts of Yen as well as significant boosts to your various characteristics. It's still a bit of a grind, but a hell of a lot less annoying one, that's for sure.

Meeting People Is Easier And More Beneficial...But Still Kinda Meh
Persona 3's Social Link (S.Link) system returns this time around. S.Links are the bonds you form with other people, and each one comes with an interesting story to tell. As each S.Link progresses, it grants a gigantic haul of bonus EXP for fusing powerful Personas, and when maxed, provides you with the ability to create ultimate Personas of corresponding Arcana.

S.Linking in Persona 4 is much more lenient than its predecessor. You'll find that you have a lot more time to get things done because S.Links are more available to hang out, and it takes far fewer meetings to rank up and max-out almost all S.Links. A process that can go even faster if you have the right Persona on you (and you should ALWAYS try to do so anyway). Without using a guide my first time through the game, I ended up maxing all but two S.Links, and one of them was simply because I didn't bother with it. If you plan ahead a bit, there's more than enough time to max all the S.Links and still have free days left at the end of the game where you can literally do nothing but go home because you've maxed everything out.

Perhaps the greatest improvement to S.Links though, is an aspect that helps tie both the social and dungeon crawling aspects of the game together. In Persona 3 the elements felt really separate from one another aside from the Persona EXP, but Persona 4 tries to marry them together by letting you S.Link with your party members. This is important, because doing so grants them additional abilities in battle that will save your ass on more than one occasion. At S.Link Levels 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9, each team member gains a special ability, such as being able to shove the Protagonist out of the way of any single-target attack that might kill him once per battle, follow-up attacks that can knock down/dizzy enemies, and eventually surviving mortal blows themselves. At rank 10, each party member will gain a new Ultimate Persona with improved resistances, often completely nullifying their weaknesses. You'll DEFINITELY want to try and prioritize party S.Links if you don't want to be pulling your hair out later over a lucky critical hit or a one-hit kill spell that hit you at the worst possible time.

The bad thing about S.Links is that, while the stories are interesting, it's still not role-playing. You're still just telling everybody they want to hear to get the biggest bonuses possible, even if you don't agree with what they're saying. Hell, sometimes the right answers don't even seem to make sense. You can also still have multiple girlfriends, though the game seems to insist that you can't (a glitch maybe?) and you'll suffer no penalty for it. Even when you've grown "close" to these people, events outside of the S.Link stories don't really seem to reflect it much, other than some passing nods and glances toward the end of the game. It's still a decent concept, but I hope future installments look at what games like Mass Effect have done and make these interludes more substantial and consequential. That'd sorta help make your character more your own, rather than just "that guy that nods to everything and gets away with doing/saying anything he wants."

That Old Song and Grind
Dungeon crawling and combat have been given marked makeovers for the better. It's almost like the team looked at what they'd done with Persona 3 and said, "let's do sorta the opposite of that." Instead of one giant-ass, boring slog of a dungeon, there are now multiple themed dungeons that range from 8-10 floors apiece. When one becomes available, you typically have around two weeks to finish it due to storyline reasons, and if you don't, the game is over and you'll have an option of resetting time to a week earlier to try and re-prepare. Your characters no longer randomly become fatigued while exploring dungeons, however they are limited by their amount of SP, which are used to cast certain magical Persona abilities. Starting out, you'll have to inch through dungeons, doing maybe 3-4 floors a trip to try and get your way through before time's up. Eventually, you'll be given aid in this department, as an NPC will begin accompanying your party into dungeons, and you can pay him an outrageous fee for complete SP refills. The price is steep as fuck at first, but Social Linking with said NPC grants a small discount for each S.Link Level gained, so by the halfway mark, you should be able to afford to handle full dungeons in as little as one trip.

There's also little need to grind out levels and money this time around. Why's that? Because enemies actually dole out decent amounts of experience and also drop substantial amounts of Yen that will help keep you in items, equipment, and Personas re-summoned from the compendium through the entire game. Enemies also drop sellable items that you can pawn off to the equipment shopkeep in town which will net you even more profit, and also opens up new and better equipment to outfit your comrades with. As for the Experience, you'll ALWAYS be at just the right level to fight any boss if you take on every encounter on the way there. That's not to say you still won't need to strategize a little, but winning isn't as dependant on your level as it was in the previous game.

The biggest sigh of relief and greatest improvement to Persona 4's system is the re-tweaked combat system. I've already gone over how Ally Social Linking is a great benefit, but there's other stuff too. It's essentially the same rules as before with exploiting enemies' weaknesses to knock them down and trying to cover your own, but minor changes have been made to sorta tilt the scale of fairness back to a bit of a happy medium. You're not cringing every time an enemy attacks you because you just know they're going to get a lucky critical, and you can feel more confident about your own attacks connecting a damn good portion of the time. One of my biggest gripes with Persona 3 was that you missed WAY too many attacks, often causing a character to fall down, and wasting two turns because of it. Missing attacks, lucky enemy criticals, and one-hit kills are still here, they just don't happen quite as often, and they don't always lead to sudden catastrophic Game Overs. There's almost always a way to get back in the game with the right strategy.

Perhaps the biggest complaint about Persona 3 was that you couldn't control your allies. It was a legitimate one, too, because your life was in your allies' hands and they had a tendency to fucking blow it way too often. (MIND CHARGE + TENTARAFOO...GREAT WORK MITSURU! ENJOY NEVER BEING USED AGAIN!) Persona 4 grants the player the ability to control not only their actions, but their allies' as well, and it is a HUGE turn for the better because of it. Now if you fuck up, it's on your shoulders, and that's exactly how it should be.

Odds are you're not gonna fuck up much, though. It probably sounds silly to say this after all the bashing I've done of Persona 3's bullshit difficulty, but by around the third or fourth month, if you're staying on top of your game finding decent equipment in dungeons, fusing new Personas, and inheriting the right skills, the game's just piss easy. Starting with the 2nd dungeon, I was clearing every dungeon in one day and never going back until a new dungeon opened up the following month or so. It's hard to put my finger on exactly what could be done here, but I'm thinking maybe the ability to dizzy an opponent for two turns once they're knocked down may have been a little too overpowered. So, my suggestion would be that if you're familiar with Persona 3's mechanics and struggled through it, to maybe play Persona 4 on Hard Mode. I really wish I had.

In my opinion, Persona 3 was awesome for its time. I've bagged on it a lot in this review, but that's all in hindsight. There really wasn't anything like it stateside, and that's why I'll stand behind my review for it, even though I can barely tolerate the game now. Persona 4 simply does everything better. Nay, it does everything right. It's streamlined and shaped up into everything that the previous game should have been from the beginning. Indeed, I'm a bit letdown by some of the lazy production, lack of challenge, and the drawn-out length, but it's certainly one of, if not the, best RPGs on the PS2. You need to snap up a copy of this one before it's long out of print and going on Amazon and eBay for over $100. But it probably already is!

On another note, I am looking forward to the PSP remake of Persona 3. I'm curious to see how much improvement Persona 4's various tweaks can bring to a game that became instantly dated the moment this one hit store shelves. I should have a review of that one up at some point in the future.

Ya know, like two years from now.






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