Review by Kelson_H
"What happens when a game tries to be too cute ..."
Before I start, I want to comment that my first introduction to the Shin Megami Tensai series was the game before this, Persona 3, which I absolutely loved. It was the most addictive flawed game I'd ever played, and I probably played it through about 5 times. I preordered the FES version even though I had -- and had played -- the original game. I also preordered this game on the strength of that game. So, as you might expect, I'll be comparing this game to that one a bit, and showing where things got better, things got worse, and things just didn't work ... and why I don't think I'll be playing this one 5 or 6 times anytime soon.
Note that my section scores won't add up to the final score; a game is more than simply the sum of its parts, and it's only the final score that can reflect how everything integrates together to become a game, for good or for ill.
A quick summary of the theme of the game: You arrive at a small village/town in the country to stay with your uncle and his daughter for a year while your parents are away. Your uncle and his daughter still bear the emotional scars of the death of your aunt, but are willing to take you in anyway. Soon after you arrive, a couple of mysterious deaths draw you into an investigation to find a serial killer, accompanied by a group of friends that you meet at your school soon after your arrival. The course of your investigation takes you inside a "TV world", where you and your friends gain enormous powers, battle Shadows, and have to face things about yourselves that you'd rather not have faced.
With that out of the way, now onto the details of the game.
Graphics 9/10: The graphics are very nice, and a lot better looking than P3. They are probably among if not the best graphics I've seen in a PS2 game. That being said, the graphics don't seem to be used all that well. Many of the areas in town -- especially the high school -- are drab and somewhat dingy, especially when compared to the areas in P3. That might have been intentional -- to reflect the shift between the ultra-modern city in P3 and the countryside in P4 -- but it was noticeable for me. That being said, you will not be disappointed in the graphics in this game.
Sound/Music 7/10: The music and sound is reasonably well-done in this game, but again it's how it's used that causes issues. While it can be debated whether or not the actual songs are better in this game than in P3 -- I have both soundtracks, and feel I could listen to both -- the songs don't seem to match up as well with where they're used as they were in P3. For example, the battle music seems somewhat inappropriate, even though on reflection if you keep one member in your party I can't see how you could do anything else (anything more dramatic would just seem out of place). So that's a knock against it here.
But it's the voices that cause the most issues, and gives the first real link to the tagline. Overall, with some rough spots, they're fairly good. But in the S-links, there was an attempt to be "cute" and add sighs, one-line comments, and other small voiced elements to what are mostly simple text conversations. That's annoying; they don't add anything and sometimes are out of sync with what is being said in text (likely a translation error, but still). Even worse, if you read text quickly -- as I do -- you'll want to click through these things fairly quickly ... and then miss some of the fully-voiced lines that they tossed in during some of these moments. Basically, this added nothing and could be annoying, so in trying to be cute P4 actually makes itself less interesting a game.
Gameplay 7/10: There's a lot of gameplay here, so a lot to say.
First, it should come as no surprise that you spend a fair amount of time in combat walking through "dungeons", so let's start there. They removed fatigue from the game -- you can wander around as much as you want and never get actually tired -- but changed it so that returning to the entrance doesn't restore your HP and SP. Additionally, you CAN'T return to the entrance with anything in dungeon except for the save point right before the final boss of the dungeon or fairly cheap items, or the Traesto skill. And there are no other save points in the dungeons. To balance out this annoyance, they added the ability that if you return to the entrance and try to go back into the dungeon, you can start from the floor you ended on.
Now, restoring HP is fairly easy through items or skills, but SP is a lot harder. One of the S-links gives you the ability to buy a recharge of your SP, but for the most part the main way to go through these things is to go in, fight through the levels until you run out of SP, return, and come back tomorrow or the next day, since your HP and SP recharge overnight. And this is feasible because despite the fact that in general the story is pushing you to finish these things as quickly as possible, you seem to have plenty of time to do so ... although you don't really know it because unlike P3 it isn't "set" when your deadlines are: your deadline is when it rains enough to create fog. But, again, there's generally plenty of time to complete it, so there's no need to rush -- unless one actually wants to play in the game as presented.
The biggest and worst change is what was done to the support character, which makes them mostly useless. In P3, when you came across a new enemy you could have the support character "scan" them to tell you their strengths and weaknesses. That's been removed. So the support character basically tells you -- on analysis -- what you've already discovered by pounding on the enemies for a while. Yes, the support character is reduced to telling you how many enemies are there/left and doing what a pencil and a notebook could do. The support character, therefore, is now pretty much useless. Great job, that. Additionally, the your party members don't start immune to their own elements, and only get that way if you level up their S-links. So, at later levels, when you hit enemies that can reflect elements you may fire off an attack only to have them reflect it back at your party member, hurting them fairly badly. But since that's the only way to figure out what that attack WILL do to them ...
One wonderful change, however, is that now you can place all of your party members under your direct control. After having turned that on, I can't see anyone ever turning that off, it's that good. Even if the AI was wonderful, it won't always have the same plans as you; this allows you to fight how you are comfortable fighting knowing that your party will always back you up.
Another nice change is how you get advantage on an enemy. If you strike an enemy right, you get to take one turn before they can move, which under the right circumstances can be the difference between life and death. But if they hit YOU right, THEY get that advantage which quite often is the difference between life and death. In this game, it's about "hitting from behind"; hit the enemy first and from behind and you will generally get an advantage. This is regardless of whether or not they had noticed you, which is what keyed the advantage in P3. This makes it much easier to get advantage and is a vast improvement on P3.
Now, out into the world. The biggest thing you need to do outside of combat -- other than S-links -- is raise your attributes. There are 5 of them now: Understanding, Knowledge, Courage, Diligence, and Expression. There are myriad ways to increase them, though things like clubs (which can also spawn and advance S-links), fishing, reading, studying, and various jobs (which also produce cash). I did like that there were more activities that you could do to increase these things, and so you could tailor the game more to you and have a better roleplaying experience.
Quests have been moved out into the world, and you get them by talking to random NPCs, seeing what they want, and then generally going into the dungeons and killing things to get the items they want, or else talking to other NPCs and getting things. This, unfortunately, carries on into the solving of the mystery itself, which led to me a number of times wandering around clicking on people hoping that they'd tell me something. This gets even more annoying when sometimes the NPC you need to talk to doesn't appear that day, leaving you wondering what you've missed. Yes, there aren't that many NPCs and yes, it's nice to make the world seem real, but a few more hints would have been nice (I did get some in the later ones, which may mean that I missed the first hints or that they were added for the later and more important missions). Clicking on NPCs until I hit a trigger -- either for a quest or for the main plot -- isn't fun. Again, an attempt to be too cute leading to annoyance.
Story 6/10: There are two aspects to the story in this game: the main storyline and the S-links.
The main storyline is very good. It's stronger than P3's because it interweaves the characters better; at all times, you feel like it's you and your friends all involved in this, and the main story brings you all together more often. As for the mystery, it's pretty standard, although I found that actual clues as to the mystery were fairly sparse; you are almost certain to follow the red herrings (what would be a good mystery without red herrings [grin]?) because the game pretty much only tells you about them, and little about any other options.
If there's any flaw in the main story -- ie outside of the S-links themselves -- it's that there are a number of times where you spend a lot of time on "auto-pilot"; things are happening, you select answers, and it doesn't matter at all to what happens. This is common in linear RPGs, of course, and not a problem ... but it could have been so much better if they'd at least made it so that the choices related more to what you thought of things and not something that might or should impact the situation. That can also be a long time before you can save the game, too, which is a bit of a flaw if you suddenly realize that you're late for something, but don't want to have to watch it again.
However, the S-links seem quite shallow and disappointing to me. For example, take Yukiko Amagi. In the profile in the art books, it states that she seems serious and reserved but later shows a silly side. So I thought "Great! She'll start out serious in the S-link, and gradually show a more silly side. Cool!". Well, her silly side does not come up in the S-link; it appears and is developed in the main story. But the whole point of S-links is to get a deeper understanding of the character, or at least that's what I liked about them. That doesn't seem to happen for any of the main characters; their development is mainly in the main story. And none of the other S-links seems that exceptional, which some exceptions. Also, some of the S-links are intertwined, which is really nice ... except that if you do them out of order -- ie one far ahead of the other -- you could end up dealing with issues that the other S-link supposedly settled. So the S-links -- one of the main draws for me for this game -- are disappointing. Hence the low mark on story; take away my S-link love and I'm not a happy camper.
One nice addition, though, is the ability to choose to have a Max S-link with the "girlfriendable" characters as a friend or as a girlfriend. This would allow you, for example, to decide if you want to be a "playa" or a one-woman man. Anything that adds to ability to be who you want to be in the game is a plus for me.
Replayability 5/10: With the lack of interesting S-links in general, the replayability of this game approaches 0 for me. However, the story is interesting enough that someone might want to play it again 6 months later, and there are optional bosses and conversation options that you can only get on a second play that might encourage replay for people who like that sort of thing.
Overall 7/10: The game all comes together in an addictive package, but one that's disappointing. The game suffers from trying to be too cute, at the expense of the game itself when the cute little additions get annoying since they don't come together properly. The most egregious example is about the multiple endings; after a long in-game cutscene -- which you can't save during -- you get into a conversations. What you say in that conversation can cause you to miss one of the most fun events of these games: Christmas Eve. And it isn't obvious what you should say. And it isn't obvious that that can cause a problem, even. Heck, without a FAQ it may not be obvious that there ARE other endings. P3 didn't do that; its choice was clear and done after Christmas. In an attempt to be cute with the story, this game possibly ruins your ENTIRE GAME just by you making one bad conversation choice. This is the theme of this version; high-risk moves that either pay off or leave a VERY bad taste in your mouth.
That being said, the game is addictive. It retains the P3 model of always having something for you to do so that you want to keep playing to clear a dungeon, advance an attribute, advance or finish an S-link, and so on. You will want to keep playing, and the game is well-worth playing. It just could have been so much better if they'd been more careful in how they integrated the new ideas into the game, and put more effort into the S-links.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 12/26/08
Game Release: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (US, 12/08/08)
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