Review by TheGrandFinale
"I am speechless. The best RPG on the PS2...and beyond!"
Well, tell you what...Atlus might just be the one and only, in terms of RPG releases right now. Sure good ol' Square-Enix is up there with some very good games like...well Final Fantasy IV and Dragon Quest IV on the DS for starters! And who could forget The World Ends With You? And...Yeah, S-E right now might be the best handheld RPG publisher, but their home console output as of late, has been sorely lacking in most departments from Infinite Undiscovery to Last Remnant. Things haven't been good for the king of RPGs. But Atlus is there to pick up the slack, filling the calendar with amazing releases on all platforms. Last year, brought us Persona 3, which for all intents and purposes was the greatest jRPG in over a decade. Instead of glorifying the conventions and continuing the usual style of gameplay and storytelling, Atlus made the most unique game in years, successfully mixing breathtaking art with a clever mix of dungeon crawling and dating sim elements to make what was, for all intents and purposes...the one game to beat them all. The king of jRPGs.
But there was still a few, underlying problems with what was otherwise, a brilliant, brilliant game. For starters, the gameplay did end up being slightly repetitive after a while. The social links system at the heart of the game had several filler events and simply bad writing in some cases. And the usual Shin Megami Tensei levels of challenge was simply missing, making the game much easier for a bigger mainstream appeal. But it worked. Persona 3 was Atlus's biggest NA success and when Persona 4 was announced, there was few who thought the game wouldn't make it overseas. After all, even the expansion of Persona 3, did make it here while much bigger games similar expansion releases never see the light of day here. It was clear that Persona 4 was on it's way. What wasn't expected was that the game would simply blow away the previous one in any possible way, and not just Persona 3 but the entire genre. And not just the Shin Megami Tensei brand. The whole freaking thing.
Returning to the older style of the Persona sub-series, Persona 4 is at it's heart, a murder mystery. And a very clever one at that. The game once again, take place in a stylish Japanese town, where the nameless protagonist comes to live for a single year with his uncle and niece. But soon after his arrival, a series of grisly murders are committed by a vicious serial killer with the habit of hanging his dead victims bodies upside down. Soon, the protagonist and his newly made friends from the local school, realize that the murders may be connected to a recent rumor of the Midnight Channel, a mysterious show that appears on shut down televisions during rainy nights where people say your soul mate will appear. Only, it's not your soul mate, it's the murderer's next victim! Gifted with the power of Personas, magical creatures that represent your inner self, you and your classmates start their investigation of the murders and try to save the potential victims of the maniac, by entering the Midnight Channel and wading through different persons own feelings and fears to save them from themselves and the killer before it's too late.
The storyline is indeed, as unique as can be and unlike Persona 3, where the storyline only picked up near the end of the game, Persona 4's pacing is simply perfect. There's no moment where you wonder when things will start happening again, events come at a lightning fast pace, yet you can still keep up with the game with no problems. Much like Persona 3, the story eventually become far more than just a group of young adults trying to unmask a killer and become something far more epic and rewarding. The characters are also much better written and complex than the cast of P3 which had a few misfires like Ken who had absolutely no redeeming features even in terms of gameplay. To put it bluntly, this is the best RPG cast since Chrono Trigger. And the characters from P4 are even more likable and in-depth.
The gameplay of Persona 4 is made from the same mold as Persona 3. But it completely removes the flaws and polish everything to a pitch perfect finish. Simply put, you won't find a more polished and fulfilling RPG out there. It's simply impossible. The game is played through a limited time period, in this case a year, where you as the protagonist go from day through day in your daily life, trying to mix the typical life of a highschool student to attempts to unveil the truth behind the killings that are rocking the town of Inaba. Every day, is split into several sections and your actions will spend a part of the day. You can spend your day in class, to meet up with friends after school...or simply study alone in the library and continue your studies before going to bed. You can join several clubs to meet new people or take on a part-time job to earn money. Freedom is the word of choice here and much like Persona 3, you have a set of attributes to level up during your interactions. But here, those points will count. In Persona 3 those skills were simply used to meet new people...but here it influences dialogue options so you better work on yourself. All these elements make up the social part of the game, where you build Social-Links, a network of friends, coworkers and other people who all become part of your private circle. Each person you meet, represent a Major Arcana of the tarot. And the Personas you use in battle also are represent by those Arcanas. To power up your own abilities, you need to cultivate a complex network of friendship. It might be a bit too much at first, but you'll get the hang of it and it's much easier to manage S-Links than in Persona 3. You also have a bigger margin to actually max those S-Links unlike P3 which needed a guide to perfect it otherwise, it was too easy to make mistakes. There is also a deepened quest system, where you must try to solve the problems of a variety of characters you meet in the game that ranges from helping someone make friends to typical fetch quests.
The other half of Persona 4 is spent in dungeons which this time, represent each of the killer's would be victims inner thoughts and hidden secrets. In Persona 3, the only dungeon in the game was the massive tower of Tartarus but here each dungeon is unique. While Tartarus did change somewhat, as you went up, some people complained about the samey feeling you had after a while. Persona 4 eschews that by offering a much more diverse array of creepy places to visit. The game also randomizes it's corridors and rooms in-dungeon, to keep things fresh much like P3. One of the biggest complaints about P3 was the lack of control over your party. Only the protagonist was customizable and usable, all your party members were AI controlled. P4 solves the problem by giving you control of your team, but if you wish, you can also use the AI much like in Persona 3. And this time, the skill sets of your friends is in your hands. You choose which skills they keep which make for a much better experience overall. The battle system was also given an overhaul to make battle more strategic but also much harder. The level of challenge is comparable to previous Shin Megami Tensei titles so get ready for many beat downs.
The persona fusing system has also been streamlined, much like the Persona compendium in where you keep your summonable demons. Each Persona is a creature or entity from a variety of religions and cultures from around the world and each has it's own set of skills and powers, and you'll use them exclusively in battle by summoning them. Unlike Pokemon, where they fought in your stead, here the Personas only appear to attack and then are dismissed and their statistics and abilities become yours. The degree of freedom here is so large that you could make the protagonist the biggest powerhouse in the game,all the way to the best healer. You can also play mix-up to create diverse skill sets for your Personas or create new ones.
The graphics of Persona 4 are gorgeous. Not because the game is technically superior to others because it isn't. But the art style Atlus chose for their game serve to lift up the whole thing high and above the other games of the sort. While some games prefer to use simpler and less original looks, the presentation is everything in Persona 4. From the colorful yet functional menus to the bizarre design of the various creatures that populate the game's many dungeons, everything look stylish, sleek and unique. The game still stands out even compared to more recent RPGs. While the graphics are more primitive for sure, the care put into making the game look the way it does pays off well in the end. Persona 4 looks amazing even though it's on a older console and not a full blown next-gen game. The game also feature several beautiful anime scenes that are far better looking than similar scenes from P3.
The music and sound is also topnotch. The soundtrack of Persona 3 was an ecclectic mix of J-Pop and rock, techno and more classical songs that created one of the most unique soundtracks out there. Well they did it again. Persona 4 has a perfect blend of the same kind of musics to create a sound atmosphere just as good. But this time, the selection is even more varied and there are even more songs in the game which negate the big complaint people had on P3's music: again, repetition.
Much like Persona 3, 4 will last you quite a while. The adventure is very long taking upwards of 60 hours to complete and that's if you rush through it. If you take your time and want to get as much as you can out of the game you are looking at a game that will last you well over an hundred hours. The New Game+ allow you to keep the most important things you had collected in your previous playthrough and unlock a unique boss you can only face in your second playthrough and a new ultimate Persona you can fuse. You'll also want to replay the game since many S-Links have multiple characters to meet and befriend. You'll also probably miss a few anyway. All in all, I like my RPGs filled with value to the brim and P4 is just that, a very complete game.
I have been playing RPGs, since Dragon Warrior on the NES. I have seen so many good and bad RPGs in my playing years that I can't even begin to count. But Persona 3 took what was for me an ailing genre and breathed new life into it and became an instant classic that won't ever be forgotten. But Persona 4 simply is a much better game. It's the most playable Japanese RPG I have ever enjoyed in my life. From the story to the gameplay, all the way to the story and characters, there isn't a single weak link. Everything holds up perfectly. It's everything I ever wanted in an RPG and much more. This is one epic experience that simply cannot be missed by any player serious about the genre. A sublime game.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 12/26/08, Updated 12/30/08
Game Release: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (US, 12/08/08)
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