Review by Vidohunir
"Persona 4 has many good elemnts, but has some minor flaws which lead to some major problems."
Persona 4 mostly follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, for better or worse, with the promise of small upgrades, resulting in a more improved formula of game play elements. However, a lot of little things end up resulting in some major problems. Though there are definite moments of joy and fun, there are also some moments of irritation and unbalance.
This is a long section, but rightfully so as there are many aspects of game play in this hybrid RPG.
Game play consists of going to school, hanging out with friends, buying items, doing quests, fishing and exploring the dungeons of the TV realm. All of which is dictated by the calender system that was seen in Persona 3. Each day is made up of different parts of the day in chronological order, and some key events will trigger the game to move forward with the day. Hanging out with friends will move the day forward to nighttime, as will fishing and exploring the dungeons. This aspect makes the game feel a bit restrictive to what can be done, but the game gives you a good amount of time in a year to get most all of what you wanted completed. Things tend to get a little frustrating when certain events or people only show up on certain days, but weather conditions or school trips get in the way.
There are also many activities that can boost your characters traits; diligence, knowledge, courage, expression and understanding. There are many ways to level these, and some quests and social links require you to be at a certain level.
Social links come back from Persona 3 and are better executed this time around. Along with your teammates, you can meet specific people throughout the town by getting a part time job, being at a certain point with another character, joining a club, or just going up and talking to them. Each person is generally interesting enough to see their social link to the end, and each person carries a characteristic parallel to a persona affinity, exactly like Persona 3. This time around, however, it feels like these persona affinities match the persona better than they did in Persona 3. All characters are on a ranking system that rates how much time you've spent with them, 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest, which effect your ability to fuse persona cards. Basically, the higher the rank, the more bonus EXP you'll gain when you fuse the corresponding persona affinity or unlocking the ultimate persona for that affinity. As you level your teammates' social link, they gain abilities to assist you better in combat. However, some of these abilities feel like they should've been placed earlier in the game to add a little more balance. Ultimately, social links are interesting and rewarding for the fusing portions and battle portions of the game and are a necessary component to the game. You advance social links by choosing responses to a dialog a character is having with you. Often times the correct choice can be clear, but overall, you won't be sure how a character will react to what you say. This results in you resetting the game to see if you can get a more desired result if you're unhappy with how the dialog plays out.
Which brings me to fusing persona cards. Fusing persona cards is as rewarding as ever but can be a little annoying. You basically take 2 to more cards (6 being the most) and combine them together to form a new persona card which is determined by the affinities of each card and how they rank in their affinity. The results can be very nice for getting a more powerful card from two relatively weak cards. Since cards can be won from battles or bought from Margaret, there's never really a short supply. Margaret's prices can be steep at first and feel unnecessary since you're already limited to the capacity of making cards based on your current level. Certain spells will also carry over to your new persona, however, you don't get to choice which spells. Each combination is randomly picked out for you, often slowing your fusion process as you cancel the fusion until you get the desired spell combination. This is an unneeded limitation on the player and comes off as an annoying time sink.
The dungeons and the battle system. The first big change comes from the fact that your allies in battle can now be directly controlled by you, the player. The battles start off with you attempting to sneak up on an enemy. A hit to its back will result in your advantage, a hit to another part or a hit to you will result in a neutral battlefield, and if the enemy catches you in the back, it will be a disadvantageous battlefield. A lot will be riding on how well you can sneak up on an enemy, however, the game does not do its best to foster this element. The camera can be rotated from side to side, but not up or down which might result in some near misses due to misjudged depth perception. The hallways are also not meant for sneaking as they are usually narrow and run perpendicular to each other. Enemies also move around a bit at random, and can sometimes just run into a wall repeatedly and stay there. You'll spend most dungeon-crawling waiting for an enemy to position itself just right so you can run up behind it. This can hamper a lot of the game's pace. Depending on the enemy, it'll react to your presence differently. Stronger enemies will have bigger models and notice you a lot faster and react faster. Sometimes you'll be in the middle of a swing and they'll spot you and turn around and start the battle. Weaker enemies are smaller models and have a small radius of detection, making them already easy enough prey. There are rare, powerful monsters that will glowing red and just plain rare monsters which will glow yellow. The yellow, rare encounters aren't as important as they were in Persona 3, or as rewarding, giving very little EXP but a lot of money. When you go to attack an enemy, the game sometimes miscalculates where your blow landed. Sometimes you'll hit an enemy in the back and get a neutral battlefield, sometimes you'll hit it in the face and get an advantageous battlefield, and sometimes it'll hit you in the face for a disadvantageous battlefield. These moments are rather uncommon, but tend to be confusing when they do happen.
For participating in battle, you have your standard RPG choices. Most notable: the guard option allows you to take hits better and stops elemental weaknesses from knocking you down, the persona option allows you to switch your persona in the middle of the battle and still use its spells and the run away option gives you the chance to run away. To run away from battle can be a little annoying if you don't do it right away with an advantageous battlefield condition. You rely on your supporting character, who does not actually participate in the fight, to find you an opening and let you escape. How long it takes for this opening to occur is somewhat random and can be annoying when you're party is suffering heavily, though there is an item which instantly transports you out of battle. Your support character will also help narrate the battle and events that transpire within it. This comes off as annoying and unnecessary considering you're the one participating in the battle, and the support character often just repeats the same lines over and over again. Later in the game, the support character can gain the ability to tell you an enemy's weakness in battle by announcing it at your first turn. However, if there are different types of enemies, they're never clear which one they're talking about.
The battles themselves can be a little unbalanced. The best resulting battles are usually the ones you have an advantage and cast multi-target spells to take advantage of the enemies weakness. The worst battles will be when the enemy catches you, casts its multi-target spells and takes advantage of your weakness, usually resulting in death. As you can see, elemental spells play a big role in battles. Most enemies will have an elemental weakness and can be taken care of quickly by powerful spells of the same element. However, you can also succumb to the same fate. If you or an enemy hits a weakness, it will result in an extra turn and the subject will be knocked down. If you or the enemy continues to hit the weakness, it can result in the subject becoming dizzy, which means the subject loses a turn. Critical hits can also cause dizziness after the subject is knocked down. This weakness system can be abused quite easily. Hypothetical battle situation: 4 enemies weakness to wind and you cast a multi-target wind spell, you hit 3 but miss 1. You get another turn because you hit 3 of the enemies' weakness. You cast again and hit all 4 this time. You are again rewarded with another turn because you've now hit that final enemy's weakness. This situation can be reverse to affect your party as well. Though you have no control when you hit or miss outside of manipulating your HIT statistic, it can still happen. Multi-element-casting enemies also prove to be a problem since your party, as individuals, are all weak to different elements. Another hypothetical situation: the enemy casts a multi-target wind spell and your wind-weakness character gets hit, resulting in another turn. The enemy now casts a multi-hit fire spell and hits an ally weak to fire, resulting in another turn. Keep in mind, all your characters are being hit with these spells. There's not a lot of enemies that can do this, but its still a problem when it happens. Your ability to cast spells relies completely on your SP. You get plenty of SP to use your spells enough but you lack a lot of chances to get your SP back. Items can be found throughout dungeons, but can't be bought. Later in the game you'll get an ally that can show up randomly in a dungeon to fully store your HP and SP for a price. This ally can show up very rarely which almost negates their usefulness. Usually, depending on your ability to level and grind, you'll have enough SP to make it a decent way through each dungeon.
Certain enemies also carry instant death spells. You can combat these spells with traits from your equipped persona or your equipment. However, enemies get these spells a little too early in the game, and can show up a bit too much to really feel balanced.
This tends to lead to some chaotic battles where either you're the clear winner, or the enemy is. It only takes for your main character to be knocked out for there to be a game over (you also achieve a game over for the entire party being knocked out as well). This can be a frustrating aspect to the game when you have 3 other healthy members still able to perform. These other members can die and be revived as much as they need, but if your character is down, there's no coming back. I have the feeling the game designers did this because the whole story is told from your perspective, and the idea is that you are this person. However, there's no reason these other 3 people in the battle with you couldn't have just revived you. So from a battle design perspective and a conceptual perspective, this element is just unnecessary.
If you win a battle, there's a chance for you to participate in a shuffling of persona cards, which you can ignore if you feel the need to. Depending on which dungeon you're in, you'll have a choice between choosing a persona card, a null card or a detrimental card. A null card means nothing is effected and you walk away from the shuffle with nothing gained or lost as a result. A detrimental card will remove all the rewards you've gain from the battle. This can seem a bit too harsh at times, especially when you were about to receive a sizable amount of EXP and money. A persona card will result in you obtaining that persona and have a chance of moving on to more rewards. Depending on the persona card's affinity, you'll stand to gain positive effects or negative effects, which are all determined at random. Of course, choosing cards in the shuffle isn't that easy, you'll have to watch as the cards are shuffled around face down and choose on your best ability to remember where the card you wanted is after the shuffle. This aspect feels fair enough, you get to see all the cards face up before-hand and there are rarely overly difficult, shuffling situations that leave you completely clueless. Items won from the battles can be used to complete quests and sold to unlock equipment options in the weapons/armor shop. Its unclear on what item and how many are required to craft new weapons and armor, but you can usually get by selling all the battle rewards and not miss many new equipment options. New weapons and new armor give your characters a decent boost in their stats, enough to feel very needed and rewarding.
Treasure can be found throughout the dungeons, just like Persona 3. There are two types of chests, normal ones and rare ones. Unlike Persona 3, rare chests now require a key to open, which you may or may not have. There are moments when you hit a string of rare chests but don't have a key, or you'll have plenty of keys and no rare chests show up. This is all up to luck unless you actively seek out to procure keys on a regular basis. Keys can also show up in normal chests, or more keys can show up in rare chests. It creates the odd feeling of beating-around-the-bush when you use a key to open a rare chest, just to get more keys instead of there just being treasure. Even more rarely, on second or more playthroughs, an optional boss will appear in chests. You can opt to not participate and come back to the chest to reap the treasure. However, if you're planning to save before encountering this dangerous foe, you can't travel to the nearest save point and come back to it, because the optional boss will have vacated the chest.
Dungeons are made up of randomly generated floors, with the exception of mid-boss levels and final boss levels. Each dungeon will carry a concept for whatever character the dungeon represents. This is a clever element that works well for a while, but as the game progresses, enemies will repeat themselves and show up in odd dungeons, resulting in the concept of the dungeons becoming more poorly executed. If you delve deep enough into a dungeon, you'll find a mid-boss. However, the game does not give you the option of a save point before these, even those these levels are pre-scripted to be exactly the same no matter how many times you enter them. The only save point in any given dungeon is right before the boss. So you either fight the mid-boss without saving, or you exit the dungeon to save. Exiting the dungeon can be achieve by either backtracking all the way to the beginning or using an item which instantly transport you to the entrance of the dungeon. Boss battles are challenging and require different tactics, leading to some exciting moments of victory or defeat. You have a certain amount of time to complete a dungeon, but the game gives you plenty of time to accomplish this. Failing to do so results in a game over, but being stuck in this situation never came up in any of my playthroughs.
Overall, the game play is split between attending to social links and battling. While the social links are interesting and rewarding, the battling can be a bit unbalanced. There are also other activities such as participating in quests which are usually easy enough, most just require you to find an item in a dungeon, and fishing, which comes down to just mashing the circle button rapidly.
Persona 4 is set in the fictional town of Inaba and has been the subject of many mysterious murders. You, as the main character, encounter a mysterious gentleman and his assistant, Igor and Margaret respectively, as they contribute a cryptic message about your destiny. Upon getting settled in your uncle's house and meeting your first batch of friends, you realize that you can go into television screens, thus, entering a completely new world. Here, you'll meet interesting characters, traverse dungeons and hopefully solve the case at hand. Along the way, you'll eventually befriend a decent size cast of characters, each with an interesting back-story and personality, and you coming closer to solving the mystery. The game, of course, will throw you misleading moments and subtle hints as well. The problem I had was I usually ended up figuring some points out before the characters did, and the plot seemed to drag on longer than necessary. The story felt like it belonged in a twenty or forty-hour game rather than a sixty-hour game. And the multiple endings just continued to push the plot as it tries to fully explain all the events. However, the plot elements get a little tangled and confusing by the time the true ending comes around, to the point where it comes off as a little incoherent or ridiculous.
The graphics work for what they're trying to do. All the main characters animate nicely, their reactions are often hilarious and well-done. The environments, outside the television realm, are well done, but too few. You have the school and its 5 floors, not counting inside classrooms, which look nice; the floodplain; the north and south shopping district; your home.
Inside the TV realm, the graphics tend to get too repetitive. The enemies are represented on screen as ambiguous, black blobs or floating orbs, which were partially carried over from Persona 3. The dungeon hallways are very repetitive, you'll likely see the same corridors and turns on every single floor for the dungeon, so much so, the layout may become predictable. The design of each floor, hallway and room does a nice job of accurately representing the concept of the character the dungeon is trying to represent. The enemies represented on the battle screen start out being unique, some models again taken from Persona 3, but varied enough to not feel boring. However, later in the game, those same models begin to show up in different dungeons, just as stronger versions of their former selves. However, every boss is uniquely animated and works for the dungeon concept. The persona models themselves have been recycled from Persona 3, so not much has changed there.
The game has a few anime cutscenes, which can be skipped, and are done well enough. These are few and far between though.
Overall, the graphics are good and work, but don't push the PS2 to its limits, nor are they varied enough to ward off the occasional sense of deja vu.
Not much to say about the sound. Sound effects are quite good and give the full feeling trying to be evoked, be it a sword hit or the shuffling of persona cards. The soundtrack itself suffers from not being varied enough. No one track stands out as truly great enough to be listened to repeatedly throughout the course of the game. That's not to say the soundtrack is bad, most of the tracks fit the mood and intensity of the situation they're put it, they're just not that outstanding. There are some, however, that completely miss the mood completely. You'll be in an intense dungeon and be treated to mild elevator music at some points.
Like most RPGs, the replayability of the game can be hampered by unskippable dialog. The opening sequences alone will take you about 3 hours before you can begin fully appreciating the game's worlds and dungeons. However, usually the voice actors and dialog are done well enough to deserve a 2nd or 3rd listen. The writing is done well enough to be truly funny or sad and everything in between. The game also boasts a Hard Mode, which, compared to Persona 3, isn't as hard as one might suspect, but can still be a challenge. To obtain the best ending though, you're required to go through a sequence of choices, which can be too similar to other choices. If you're wrong, you miss out and either reset to try again, or settle with a lesser ending. This feels like cheating the player a bit when they get it wrong.
In conclusion, the game has a good cast of characters, well above RPG standards, and has a unique plot which has a hard time developing and reaching a satisfying conclusion. The graphics are limited but work, as well as the sound. The gameplay is a mixed bag of tiny faults that lead to big problems and compelling elements. The best moments are when you're attending to your social links and fusing personas, but gameplay trips a little with dungeon-crawling and fighting. Gameovers by death often feel more like as stroke of bad luck rather than lack of skill. If you can look past its faults, its a unique experience like Persona 3 was.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 06/23/09
Game Release: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (US, 12/08/08)
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