Review by CirrusStrafe
""per-so-na" [per-soh-nah] -noun; 4. The mask presented to satisfy the demands of the situation [player]."
MegaTen is a name that many fans of the Shin Megami Tensei games recognize and worship. The name brings with it a promise; that the experience you are about to have is going to be incredible. The MegaTen games are always deep, challenging, and involved. The stories they weave tend to be surreal and unique. Persona 4 is yet another MegaTen game that stands by that promise; giving a thoroughly rewarding experience in a challenging fashion while playing with your head along the way.
Gameplay ~ 10/10
Persona 4, as well as most of the MegaTen games, has a strange and unique take on the role-playing game genre. All of the standard operating procedures of a role-playing game are in place, such as fighting progressively stronger enemies to gain levels, gathering money, items, and weapons while slaying creatures and traversing through dungeons, and making personal choices that affect the game. However, it isn't your run-of-the-mill town-to-town save the world system; it's all about going to high-school.
The high-school/town portion of the game is where most of the role-playing exists. The player moves around town, partaking in all of the fun things that high-school kids get to do. These things include part-time jobs, participating in extra-curricular activities, hanging out with friends, and reading books. However, the main purpose of these things is twofold; to increase the main character's base stats and to boost social link relationships with your friends.
There is a limited number of things one can do in a day. Most days require a mandatory event, like going to school or advancing the main plot, as well as a midday and nighttime activity. Many things overlap and have different schedules, such as people only showing up during certain times or days and sometimes forces you to pick between two or more friends, jobs only offering work on certain days, not being able to hang out with anyone when its raining and so on. It's up to the player to choose what courses of action to take and sometimes begs for planning ahead with the calendar.
The main character's stats can be raised in many ways, like completing optional challenges in the dungeon, standing up for himself, and answering pop quiz questions correctly. The stats are also both a blessing and a curse. They provide the game with more charm and atmosphere as you are constantly dogged to do well in school (knowledge), hook up with the ladies (charm), hang with your bros (courage), etc. The only issue is that sometimes it can get overwhelming, trying to balance the slew of options to maximize your stat output and sometimes options are disabled due to lack of a certain stat. However, this gives a great reason to go into a new game + (stats carry over) and try out some of the more entertaining choices that were barred from low stats (which adds to the game's replayability).
Social Links are a measure of how close you are with certain key characters and level up when you spend time with them and make choices that they agree with. This comes into play when creating new persona to summon.
The player can peruse the conveniently located weapon shop as well as talk to various people around town, many of which give out side-quests from time to time. The player may enter the dungeon at nearly any time, aside from exam crams and school trips, which allows the player to focus on whichever aspect of the game that they want, although the plot occasionally enforces a deadline to get to a certain point in the dungeon.
The dungeon hub allows access to the different sub-dungeons that show up throughout the course of the game. Each dungeon sports its own theme and music, both of which are usually very fitting to the current bit of plot. Dungeon crawling involves heading up (and sometimes down) through various floors of your current zone until a boss is fought and a situation is resolved. Each dungeon also has its own set of enemies and usually has multiple sets depending on which floor you're on. The dungeons are semi-randomly generated because a few select floors in some of them are always the same, but most floors, chests, and enemy spawn locations are random.
The combat, at its fundamental level, is governed by a menu system in which you input the commands that you want your characters to do. Everyone takes turns beating on each other with hopes that the other side is crushed. The player can analyze enemies during combat to discern whether or not an attack with be super effective, do nothing special, be resisted, do nothing, be reflected, or be absorbed. When an enemy is hit with an attack it is weak to, it is knocked down for a turn or two, giving the player an advantage and an extra turn. When all enemies are hugging the floor the player can unleash an all-out, high-damaging attack on all of them. Of course, the enemy can do the same thing. This adds a very interesting rock-paper-scissors element to the combat that is standard with most MegaTen games in that it is almost mandatory to understand the weakness and strengths of your enemies because it can be the difference between heaven and hell when in combat.
The Social Links in the outside world represent the different types of creatures you can summon and fight. As a result, the strength of a particular S.Link is governs how much extra stuff you get when creating a new persona of that type. This is a great way to keep players engaged just as much as they can outside of the dungeon scene, since having a social life in the game translates directly into more power when combat rears its ugly head (wouldn't that just be great if the world really worked like that?).
Your first persona is given to you during your first jump into the dungeon area. You garner new persona by participating in the card roulette system that randomly shows up after defeating enemies. Cards with certain persona, or nothing cards, will show up, flip around, and spin like mad all over the place. You have to watch the one(s) you want and select one of them to keep forever.
Though it is possible to beat the game by simply capturing new persona as you go along, combining persona can be unbelievably rewarding to patient players. When building persona it's very important to consider your options and their abilities. For instance, if you know you're about to fight a fire-spitting boss that is weak to ice, it's best to craft a persona that is immune to, or better, absorbs fire, and launches ice attacks. Of course, the system gets far more complicated as time goes on and many bosses have you hot-swapping persona mid-fight for different abilities. It is even possible, with some of the best persona in the game, to set up a hierarchy of skill inheritance that makes quite literally invulnerable persona (although Almighty attacks will damage anything). This complexity also bleeds into character choice, as some of the tagalongs you get have their own set strengths and weaknesses and these things should also be considered when going into a dungeon.
Story ~ 10/10
The story opens up casually enough. The main character moves to the town of Inaba to go to high school and stay with his uncle Dojima. School life proceeds as school life does, making friends with kids like Yosuke and Chie, up until a shocking murder hits the town. The murder doesn't cause too much of a stir in the main character's clique... until a few days later, when another murder rubs out one of Yosuke's friends.
From the get-go the game seems to evolve into a murder mystery, but that's just the tip of the iceburg. Your crew decides to play sleuth and check out a rumor that's been spreading, something about a secret, magical T.V. channel that appears at midnight on rainy days. A series of strange events proceeds until the main character is found to have the ability to travel into the T.V. and into a surreal dimension.
The midnight channel has been overrun by strange creatures called shadows. A very strange but friendly inhabitant talks to the main character's crew and they come to the conclusion that the murderer is somehow utilizing the midnight channel to kill his or her victims. From then on it's a race against time in both the real and T.V. worlds to discover the hidden enemy and to save anyone else being targeted.
I can't say any more without spoiling the main story, but I will note that it gets far more complicated and intense as time goes on, especially if precaution is taken to open up the path for the true ending. The game continues to twist and turn, beg questions, prod at the nature of human kind, and plays with the heart at times. It's a wonderful roller-coaster of emotions.
A major theme of the game also happens to revolve around the definition of a persona itself. Though the main character can, for a reason that is divulged much later in the story, wield his own persona right off the bat and change it at will, while the rest of the characters have to quite literally fight themselves to be able to summon these creatures. They have to face themselves, and not just the persona they display in public, but also their truest self. They must face the parts they deny and the parts they hide, accepting and understanding themselves as a whole. Once they surmount their wild emotions they are able to control their feelings and persona freely, thus enabling them to use their persona in combat.
Social Links are also a wonderful supplement to the main story because each link carries it's own, unique little sub-story, and the player often finds themselves torn between advancing the main plot and seeing if Yosuke is ok, or just what the creepy nurse is doing tonight. It also provides for some deep, philosophical thought. The main character has the combat ability to shift his persona to satisfy the demands of the situation, and this power is directly related to his social life and personality. The main character spends his time with different people that have different personalities, and creates bonds with them. He helps them build their own strength and in turn, they form a bond with him that allows him to utilize their own personal aspect, and in combat, persona type.
Graphics ~ 10/10
The graphics aren't some top-notch, super high-budget bonanza of special effects and art, but they are very well done for what they are. The art style is colorful and seems to just fit the game like a glove. The character avatars look like their respective poster art images and the emotes, body language, and emotions are done convincingly and well. Since I can't really find anything wrong with the graphics, this gets a full ten.
Sound ~ 10/10
The music can be hilarious and amazing at times. It's very energetic when it wants to be (combat) and very somber and sad when the occasion calls (like when something tragic happens). The music is also really catchy and memorable. Sounds are as they should be, with swords sounding like swords and fire sounding like fire. The voice-acting is top-notch; probably some of the best I've ever heard. Despite this, there is one theme that plays every so often when something suspenseful happens that sounds like someone was stumbling over piano keys, trying to make the most grating chord progression anyone has ever heard. However, this is a personal distaste and the rest of the music and sound is amazing, so this stays a ten.
Replayability ~ 10/10
Unless you use a perfect, nab-everything-in-one-shot guide, this game has a lot of replayability. If one plays the game casually, without militant calendar abuse, then a few of the social links won't be completed by the end of the game.
This is a good reason to go into a new game + and work on the social links you missed the first time through, and, also, if you happened to miss the true ending, you can go back and get that too. Plus there is always the added fun of carrying over the main character's parameters and exercising the options you missed the first time through.
The story is also such an incredible rush that it begs to be played time and time again.
Too Long: Didn't Read
Gameplay ~ 10/10
Story ~ 10/10
Graphics ~ 10/10
Sound ~ 10/10
Replayability ~ 10/10
Survey Says: 10/10
I would be hard pressed to find anything wrong with this game. Virtually everything was well designed, well thought out, and well presented. In fact, in the past two days of consideration, I have concluded that the only sour note this game plays is when one has to play the rather unforgiving fishing mini-game to finish off one of the social links. Aside from that, Persona 4 is a crowning achievement of storytelling and atmosphere, riddled with thought provoking themes and gameplay that requires a little more than just smashing the hit-the-enemy button.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 06/15/09
Game Release: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (US, 12/08/08)
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