Review by Tearfang
"Story Alone Can Indeed Make a Great Game. An awesome engine just helps."
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 does so many things right that it is hard at first to see any of its flaws. Visually stunning, particularly for a PS2 game, with a tailored pseudo-anime styling and voice acting that doesn't make one want to cringe and listen to something else while playing, the overall visual/audio presentation of the latest Megaten title is worthy of praise. But as a veteran player of RPG's, I feel that this must be said; graphics and sound are not what make a great RPG. You leave that largely to the script and the game's internal operation engine. And this game delivers aces in both categories. Let's break the various elements of the game down now, starting with what I personally feel is the strongest point of the game, Story/scripting.
Story/Scripting: 10 out of 10.
Without ruining anything for those of you have not yet played the game but would like to, it should first be said that if you played Persona 3 or its director's cut incarnation, FES, you're going to be familiar with some of the key plot devices, mainly Igor, the Velvet Room, and the Shadows. But aside from those elements and a trip across the Moonlight Bridge late in the game to Gekkoukan High School, you won't see many references to anything having to do with the previous installment in this incredible series of overlooked gems.
You play the part of a young high school student transferring from the big city to the small hamlet of Inaba, a rural town in the sticks. Shortly after your arrival in town, a mysterious homicide takes place, and your guardian, uncle Ryotaro Dojima, is assigned to the investigation as the town's lead detective. The circumstances surrounding the murder are truly bizarre, from the inability of medical personnel to determine the cause of death down to the placement of the body, hanging upside down from a television antennae.
With the aid of some of your classmates and a strange creature by the name of Teddie, it is your task to watch the highly rumored Midnight Channel to find out who the next victim is going to be in the series of kidnapping homicides that are striking the sleepy burb of Inaba.
I'd say more, but this is a review, not a synopsis. The characters you become involved with, especially through the improved Social Link system introduced first in Persona 3 are fully three-dimensional people, including those links who aren't main plot characters. Some of the NPC's in this game are given more personality and life than the main characters in other more popular role-playing series'. It's sad that with such organic conversation dialogue and expression of ideas presented in this game that it will be overshadowed by Squenix titles by any fanboy of the Final Fantasy crowd.
An attachment will be formed for the interested player, because these characters and the concepts brought forth can be identified with. Yes, the circumstances of the plot are fantastical and out of this world, but the key elements of their struggles remain valid to the everyday player/viewer of the game's plot. Add to this the clarification of the Jungian theories tied into the very nature of the game's overall plot, and you have writing that simply cannot be duplicated in other game companies. Atlus should be more than a little proud. And for those of you who play the games but don't quite catch all of the references, I'd recommend spending a little time checking out Jungian theory. The idea of the collective subconscious and the personality Archetypes is brought in in the game's TV world and the Persona themselves. But I digress.
There is one other element to the game's story that was brought in first in Persona 3 that I have not come across in other RPG's, and it is a narrative device that was not only uniquely implemented, but done well enough that I only really thought of it after finishing P4, and that is this; the 'Ticking Clock' mechanic. You are given a calendar in game in order to track the progress of one day flowing into another, and because you only have so much time to do any number of things that need doing in the game (building S. Links, shopping, adventuring, working part time jobs, fishing, fulfilling NPC requests, saving Midnight Channel victims), you must utilize your time wisely. The game does a good job too of gently nudging the player from the start in the direction of seeing that they MUST adventure inside of the TV world within a certain amount of time, or it's game over. They aren't forced to do it, though. If you don't go in and save the victim, the game ends, and you are reset a week in time. But you see that this way, death in battle is not the only way for the game to come to a crashing halt. Wasting your precious time does the same. Conversely, if you just adventure around like a combat monkey and never work on your S. Links, you won't be able to build ever more powerful Personas via the exp point bonus.
In dramatic fiction, the 'Ticking Clock' is used in order to add tension to a primary protagonist's conflict. Here, in Persona 4, it is used beautifully to also aid in the development of characters over the course of the eight to nine months you'll be spending in their world.
I have gone on quite long enough, but as you can probably see, I'm quite passionate about this game's scripting. Who other than Atlus would put this sort of effort into developing characters, emotional pulls, and sweeping psychological/philosophical musings into a single disc for a system that is no longer 'next-gen'? Nobody.
Visual/Audio Presentation: 9/10
Here we must take a point from the otherwise beautiful P4 due to the fact that, well, the fog mechanic was a litItle cheap inside of dungeons, and the palatte swapping on some of the enemies throughout the game. Plus, this is a PS2 game, and is no longer visually powerful enough to pump out the sort of high-def visuals that are becoming more and more tha norm. But for what it is, man, this thing is gorgeous.
Here once again Persona 4 shines, especially now that the player can take direct control of the other members of his party. Now you can strategically set up your enemies for the takedown of a lifetime by utilizing the various skills available not only to your main character, but to the other members of your party as well. Nothing quite satisfies like protecting an ally's weak point with a spell and then using that ally to conversely boost your main character's attack so that the smackdown can begin proper. I missed the Fusion Spells, but with so many awesome tactics opened up by giving you command of your allies, I hardly noticed after a couple of hours in the TV world. I also missed the system whereby going back to the dungeon entrance healed your HP and SP, but by taking away the fatigue system of P3, and introducing the Fox of the Hermit S. Link and his healing services (quite expensive until you work up the S. Link), I felt it was a more than fair tradeoff.
Bonus/side material/replayability: 8/10
On this matter I have to take two points away for a couple of reasons. This is a LOOOONG game, folks. My initial playthrough was nearly 70 hours, and I didn't do a lot of things I would have liked to have done. I didn't level grind too often either, and by the time I was done with the playthrough, my main character was level 74. I only messed with the fusion system enough to get 51% of the Persona Compendium. In short, I missed a lot of extra time to play on one go-through. But the upswing of this is being able to do more of that with a new game plus data. So why the points off? Well, for starters, there's the fact that you almost HAVE to play through more than once to get all of the Social Link Max items and see all of the NPC side stories to their conclusion. And secondly, figuring out the skill inheritance system for Persona Fusion is just mind-boggling, at least, for me it is. So that part of the side material is quite bothersome.
Well, that's all on my end. What about you?
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 01/12/09
Game Release: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (US, 12/08/08)
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