on September 22, 2009
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 is not for the faint-of-heart emotionally. No game yet created will be able to tug out as much emotion from you as a full playing here does. Moreover it is, without a doubt, an RPG made for adults. This alone is a feat of epic accomplishment -- when has a game (other SMT titles not included) ever used the 'M' rating for anything more than violence, language or sexuality? It today's society, it's hard for us to remember that "adult situations" come up in a lot of other ways, as well. Sure, there are some of those more common elements here, but... no, that's not what makes this "for adults".
In short, if you're willing to open your heart to it and dedicate some of your time to it, Persona 4 will ultimately become the most immersive and emotional RPG you've ever played. The setting, characters, gameplay and its incredible story all combine in perfect harmony to give the result.
For many years, I've wanted to be able to say that a new game was worthy of a highest-possible score (an effective 10/10 instead of just saying 5 starts of 5, which I list for 9 or 10/10 on my scale)... that something else was worthy... and I'm glad it's finally happened. Persona 3 and its FES epilogue version came ever-so-close, but Atlus has taken every aspect of P3 and enhanced it. To put it another way, any excuses anyone might have had to rain some scorn upon Persona 3 are now gone and you'll find yourself hard-pressed to come up with a single criticism of this game.
It's been a long week for me. With a first clear time of 59hr 36min and having received the game 7 days ago (at time of writing this review), it's not hard to realize I've done nothing but dive into Persona 4 at times other than essential life functions. That doesn't include much sleep, naturally. Not a minute of that time was a waste.
Alright, enough of the emotional ramblings. I suppose I should probably get to the actual content of the game itself.
The game scenario is pretty standard for an RPG, and if you wanted to simplify it into a single line, you could call it a Scooby Doo murder mystery case. The protagonist is a transfer student to a high school in a small town, events unfold, you gain friends and allies, and you work for a common cause. A serial killer seems to be on the loose, killing people in ways no one can seem to collect any evidence from-to say nothing for finding any suspects. It's not long before you realize that you have a unique but inexplicable ability to try to combat the killer, and the hunt it on. This quick summary is the end of any type of simplicity you could give to P4. ...There's one extra thing worth noting as you begin. The opening movie just can't stand up to what we saw in P3. After all, it'd be damn hard to make a more shocking opening than one where there's a simulation of someone shooting themselves in the head with a pistol.
The bare-bones start to the game lasts roughly 2 hours. It'll be another 2 before anything close to the normal flow of the game begins. It seems your town had some odd weather patterns and some urban myths to match, and the most famous being that watching a TV at midnight on a rainy night will show a picture of someone. Your soulmate, many say. This theory is quickly put to rest as people start to turn up dead. For American players, just a few murders hardly seem like something worthy of forming a such a game around. Just remember that this is Japan-ANY sort of violent crime is pretty much unheard of and a single act can put an entire city on edge. As the plot thickens, you can sense the rising tension amongst your school members and people around town.
Quite quickly, you'll see that the game is unapologetically Japanese. Name tags are used based on relation, school lessons match and general customs are followed. Incredibly off-the-wall is the introduction of a giant fuzzy teddy bear as a character, who'll be sticking around with you the remainder of the game. ...Yea, definitely Japanese. If you're willing to overlook the fluff and fuzz, you will see that he's quite a strong character and a valuable member toward your efforts. If anything you should consider the culture gap content to be a good thing, since it means that only minor adjustments (at most) were made in the translation and adaptation of a North American release.
Game flow is simple and easy to follow. You have school during days, your dungeon adventures occur in the afternoons, and your evenings are free to pursue your studies or do things with your relatives in the house. Days off and times you choose not to battle are when you'll form your "Social Links" and dive into the plethora of sub-stories, and your adventures in total will fall over a calendar year. One important difference between P3 and P4 is that each ally in your team has an individual social link, instead of just the girls. This is a lot more natural and will likely result in substantial guilt when you can't bring along certain members for certain missions... it's unlikely you'll really "hate" any of the characters since you really get to know them all at length.
When you start to have carte blanche over your time, the game seems to be able to sense what you're trying to do and scold you appropriately. After a few trips into battle the first week it was available, I received a phone call from the infamous and series-recurring Velvet Room reminding me that I should be looking to get to know people in my new town. For those not familiar, the Velvet Room is a special place only the protagonist can enter where you'll be able to manage your Personas. Though this is important, a trait of the Persona series is the need to advance your social links with friends so that your Personas can become substantially more powerful as you develop and create them. In all seriousness, a Persona that is a few levels above your main character will make difficult battles substantially easier in a lot of places and gives you access to more powerful abilities. In short, a Persona is merely a facade of yourself that allows you to reveal more of your soul, and thus changes what you can do in battle based on what you put forward.
Another awesome improvement over Persona 3 is the finer details of the plot. Not to say it wasn't complex, but there were times where you could be screaming at your TV wishing your characters would figure out something obvious. These moments are gone-actually, in almost every instance I came up with a new deduction about things it was addressed by others before my turn to speak. Shamefully, I must admit that there were times that my allies figured out some things before I did that resulted in a facepalm for me. This if far from a bad thing, of course! Just more proof of a very well-written story where it seems the authors thought through things and were able to anticipate what players were probably thinking at the time. The end result here is that plot twists are truly a surprise, yet are entirely logical once your team has a chance to sit around and discuss them.
The characters you'll find here combine to make the greatest cast ever assembled for an RPG. Each has quirks, a sense of humor, running jokes, particular matters of irritation, etc.. The cross-character chatting actually gets so intense sometimes that they make very offense remarks to others regarding very serious topics such as gender orientation. Not one of your crew feels at all "boring" and the development of all of them is quite enjoyable.
Always true to themselves, at some point everyone will probably annoy you temporarily and you'll grumble at the direction of your TV while glaring at them. Although (as you might expect in an RPG) all of the characters are dynamic in some way, their cores never change. My favorite instance of this was during a drinking game (yes, seriously) between friends where a particularly philosophical member has been forced into a situation where a lot of his-uh-"Innocence" was to be lost. On the spot and without hesitation, he spits out a haiku perfectly explaining what he has to do. It's not even an obvious thing and you have to REALIZE it's a haiku, though the fact he didn't spell it out for you makes it all the more hilarious. There are so many little moments like this and awesome lines from the whole crew that no cutscene is dull.
Regarding the combat system, it's simply flawless. Though a major beef with P3 was the inability to directly control your allies, you now can... though... there were but 3 instances where I actually took control of the entire party. I know it was 3 because I can remember reach time and why I changed! The ally and enemy AI alike are just phenomenal. Similar to the facepalms in the story, I found my group members performing actions to disable or knock down foes that I didn't realize or completely forgot about. It's never a bad thing when your friends help you, and not vice-versa. Combat speed is rather fast if you let characters act on their own, Persona summoning is very crisp (another improvement), and every pleasant quirk from P3 is still there with even more fun battle details added. You'll also be happy to know that you can actually find out what Persona abilities do by pressing Square on the Persona selection menu, since there's no way you'll remember what each strange spell name means on your own.
Of special note are the cross-member interactions during combat. This was already well-defined in Persona 3, but it's improved even further here and the banter between allies is almost continuous. Despite the limited number of lines they have, for some reason it never seems to get old.
Actually, developing your social links with your group members helps play into the changes to the battle system. Depending on how advanced it is, they're able to take a mortal blow for you that would have otherwise resulted in your death and a "Game Over". Better still, they're able to cure you from annoying ailments including the dreaded charm. Quite literally, someone will run up to you and slap you in the face to get your attention. Best of all, if you're willing to push through the entire story for one of your allies, they'll develop the ability to survive a single killing blow to them and this is very strategically important in boss battles. Players of Persona 3 in particular will enjoy this, since taking time to raise your allies basically crippled you in difficult fights.
Another little detail about dungeon improvements is that treasure chests will no longer spit out Yen. That was well and good of course, but also made no sense in P3. To counteract always being poor, the activities you use to increase your character statistics include part-time jobs that pay rather well. Your other primary source of income is the selling of innate materials dropped from defeated foes. Selling these off to a local shop unlocks new weapons and armor for you. Not remotely realistic, but as good of a system I've seen in a modern-era RPG nonetheless.
Oh, and it's been pretty clear from a lot of the other reviews around that you need to do a ridiculous amount of exp grind to really do well. I beg to differ. If you'd like an indication of how much "work" I did, I completed each dungeon twice... once for the storyline and another to defeat optional bosses. In a few cases I did short sorties to particular places to collect items requested by the townsfolk for quests. Do note that although the "fatigue" factor is gone from P3, you no longer recover full HP/SP after returning to the entrance.
Moving on to overall presentation of the game, you really can't ignore PS2 limitations anymore. Since the entire development process of Persona 4 has been after the PS3 was launched, it's unfortunate that the limited budget and resources of Atlus couldn't put this on the stronger system. Mind you, the graphics (in combat especially) are as good as you'll ever seen on the PS2, but hopping back to a game in HD will basically make your eyes bug out. Some kind of widescreen mode would have been awesome, but this is a very minor complaint and the lack of it doesn't subtract from the game in any way whatsoever.
The soundtrack is top-notch, as you'd expect from any SMT title. Each separate dungeon has its own background music, which mixes things up nicely while walking around. There are hours upon hours of voiceovers from a talented cast that anime buffs will be able to pick out a few "famous" voices from. Another intriguing thing present this time is "quazi-voiceovers", where the text of a line will appear and you'll only get a short outburst from the other character. This could be a clip of an emotional reaction, or the first few words of the phrase. To me, this shows that Atlus might have loved to have put a voiceover on everything, but could have been running out of disk space. One thing that they made a specific point of including for voiceovers, however, is the "final" cutscene with each social link that brings you up to the max rank. It feels like an extra bonus for your effort and really puts the emotion from everyone out on the table.
One thing I always love to talk about is details in games; it's often the little things that really make a scene stick with you or add a good memory to the game overall. The first such thing I saw in the game was when I was eating breakfast with my hosts and finished toast popped out of the toaster. It seems really tiny and insignificant, but it was so unexpected I actually jumped a little in my seat. If you're looking for a "big" example of details, naturally it would be the manga-like marks that appear above the characters quite often which explain their moods. Especially in cutscenes without voiceovers, it helps hold things together well.
I also can't help but mention how well "detail" and dialogue is used in the Persona. As a voiceless protagonist, somehow you're still turned into an incredible character and member of your group. If it weren't for the fact that you're controlling him at all times and his ability to control multiple Personas is unique, you can easily imagine him being just any other normal person at school. It's a damn good feat of writing to allow someone without a voice to be both the "main" character and the strongest in most any sense of the word.
The "mood" is also simply amazing. As you could expect, there is an eventual point in the plot where things have entirely hit the proverbial fan and things look incredibly grim. I can almost assure you that you'll be so sucked in to the game at this point that you'll literally have knots in your stomach waiting for the next horrible thing to happen. This is made all the more exciting by the fact that very few of the major events happen at times you would expect and you get a lot of short term changes you need to cope with.
In starting a summary, it needs to be said that this game is not for everyone. It takes dedication to get the most out of this game. Although I'd like to think that anyone who has ever at any point played any type of RPG and enjoyed it would find Persona 4 to be an incredible experience, there are some players that can't handle hours without battle action, or the fact that it's hardly worth turning on your PS2 unless you have at least 1-2 full hours to play in order to make much progress.
I'll kind start to finish this by giving a testimonial of my feelings throughout playing. At 10 hours in, I felt kind of disappointed. At 20, I'd adjusted to this. By 30, I was engaged. Hours 30 to 40 were hands-down the most I've ever enjoyed in any RPG (or game in general, actually). 40-Finish had me on the edge of my seat, and my first time at [AN] ending resulted in my crying for about 10 minutes.
Oh... and as a last impression, I'd like to say that this game answers important questions in life, such as what happens when a protagonist is used as an underage male prostitute (indirectly). Perhaps you'd like to know what hints of fanservice from previous Persona titles would look like. Best of all, you might be curious to know what an 8-bit era dungeon crawling game would look like in 3D, and thankfully such a vital ponderance is answered for you. When's the last time you fought a boss that was a 16x16 block of pixels. That's what I thought.
Conclusion-Just an incredible symphony here. At this point I'm not even sure if this truly my favorite RPG, but a somewhat objective view shows what is practically a flawless game that has corrected every imaginable critique it faced in its last release. There is still potential for great leaps forward in the Persona series, but at this time Persona 4 is worthy of the utmost praise for everything it gives you.
Dare I say, Atlus is developing enough of a fanbase around the world now that releases are anticipated at nearly the same level of Square-Enix games? Might we finally have another true powerhouse in the RPG department which is slowly evolving past niche games to things anyone can enjoy playing? We'll have to see what Atlus can put together for the PS3 and/or 360, I suppose. They might not have the budget or resources of the SE-folk, but they have 10x the heart put into their titles right now. Not impressed enough yet? Go ahead and play through again on your cleared data to unlock everything available to you.