Review by Exodist
"Any game that makes a dig at Twilight deserves a great score in my books."
From the start Persona 4 is a game which decides who will and who won't play it. The introduction to the game will take about 3 hours to do alone, which basically consists of people talking, and a few battles here and there. Now, three hours to get properly into the game probably sounds a lot, and it is. However, those three hours will decide for you whether you want to play the game, and for me, it instantly drew me in. I had heard a lot about Person 4 before it came out here in the UK, namely a lot of good reviews, and since I love JRPGs and saw the cheap pre-order price, I couldn't pass it up. Bearing in mind I've never played another Shin Megami Tensei game, this review will focus solely on Persona 4, rather than giving a comparison to the previous entry, Persona 3.
The story concerns the main character (commonly referred to as simply MC) that you name. He is a normal Japanese teenager (I think around 16-17 years old) who has to move to his relative's house in the small countryside town of Inaba for a year whilst his parents are busy with work. However, upon arriving in the town strange murders start occurring during the night when fog has enveloped the town. Rumours of a so called midnight channel are also spreading; watch the TV turned off at midnight on a rainy day and a mysterious TV show will appear. Suffice to say, its true but there is something off about this for our hero: he can enter the TV. Within the midnight channel strange shadows dwell and areas are created based upon a person's true self. Soon people are being thrown into the TV, and the hero, along with some of his school friends and their mysterious persona which they can use in the midnight channel, set out in order to save the potential victims and stop the killer in their tracks (who is using the channel to kill people). The story is well executed and provides a lot of intrigue and mystery, I was guessing along the whole way and it certainly kept me interested for the whole game. The story and concept of this game do not disappoint, and whilst it may not be for everyone, those who are immediately interested in the story will love it. I admit, at the very end of the game it seems to pull a sort of twist out of nowhere, but this isn't enough to ruin the whole story.
One of the stronger aspects of the story though is the characters you do meet. They're an incredibly realistic, mostly likeable bunch of kids. The MC is a typical silent protagonist; however the other characters talk a lot and are much interesting. As mentioned, they're all just kids but they're characters you can sort of relate to and I found the dialogue particularly realistic. Take Kanji for example, the delinquent of the group. Whilst I probably can't really list them, some of the stuff he comes out with just sounded quite authentic to me and just makes it all the better. However, there is one rather deadly aspect of the game which some people won't mind, Japanese fanatics will love, and people will hate. I myself didn't mind too much but it does get very irritating after awhile: the Japanese honorifics. This means you'll be hearing words like chan', kun', and senpai' on the end of characters name and it can get irritating sometimes. Especially Rise's constant talk during battle, which doesn't really help that much. Apart from this though, the cast is strong and I certainly liked the characters that to me each had their own personality, as opposed to typical, cliched heroes'. The game is also immensely funny; I can definitely say its one of the funniest games I've ever played. During the non-dungeon parts of the game (i.e. in between two dungeons) you usually get school based events and they're all hilarious, which makes a nice change in pace whilst still being entertaining, making the game not entirely dark and serious, which to me is a good thing (better to have a balance of both). If the tagline caught your eye too, one of the funniest parts of the game is when (or, if) you read a book which details the plot premise of Twilight, then insults it. Good times are had.
However, you're still a normal Japanese student and in this game you get to control his life too. The game has a calendar and you'll get to play each and every day, from around April until the end of December. During these days your character will attend school (where you regularly have to answer questions), then it's up to you to decide what you want to do. Whilst there is no real-time system in the game, doing certain activities in the game will take up parts of your time, making you go to the next. For example, spending time with someone after school will immediately take you to evening time at home. The game has plenty of things to do after school, namely, social links and character development. Your character has a number of different stats that you can improve (such as knowledge and courage), you can get jobs to earn extra money (which are usually done in the evenings), you can shop, and you can enter the midnight channel anytime you want to, which allows you to visit any dungeon you've already unlocked up to that point. Whilst this aspect of the game might sound a bit boring its actually really fun due to the social links in the game.
This system allows you to spend time with different people and form bonds with them. The different bonds are associated with different arcana, which relates to the Persona system, talked about later. Essentially though, you spend time with these people and gradually improve your bond with them. The social links give you the chance to learn more about the characters you meet and essentially help them out. They usually have different problems, and by merely spending time with them you'll help them, shown through different cut-scenes. Each social link has 10 levels to gain, a cut-scene will happen on each level up, and you'll slowly progress through their own stories. These are often interesting, however the dialogue and voice acting for these sections is a little off. Sometimes they speak a few words, sometimes-whole sentences and sometimes they just make noises, which seem slightly random. The benefits of social links are related to persona, and the aforementioned arcanas.
The persona system is essentially a class system. During combat, the persona does the fighting and has the different skills that your party can use. Whilst you can't change your ally's persona (they're set and gain specific skills through levelling, they all have their own elements too), you can change the main characters persona, which opens up a massive but also interesting and fun system. There are plenty of personas and this essentially let's you choose what sort of character your hero will be. After winning a fight you will get the chance to gain a new persona from card shuffling. This will either mix the cards up and spin them, letting you press X when you want it to stop, a match-the-two-cards system where you simply choose the cards and match two of the same, or a reel system where you stop the three columns at certain positions, trying to line up the same persona in order to obtain them. These shuffles also have penalty cards, which if chosen will take away your rewards from the fight. When you have a number of personas, you can enter the velvet room, where fusing persona takes place.
Each persona is assigned to these different arcanas, and the result of your fusion will depend on the default levels of these personas, and what their arcana was. If your social link is high in particular arcana, fusing a persona of the same arcana will give you massive exp rewards, and the ability to fuse the best persona of that arcana when it reaches the max level. The system is rather fun since it lets you experiment a lot. Through out the game you will gain plenty of personas to fuse, and in the future you can fuse three together, and then later on make a strong persona by collecting the certain persona listed. There are plenty of combinations and provided you experiment enough through the game your persona will turn out strong and varied. You can change in battle allowing your hero to play as many different roles, providing a much greater depth of strategy to the game and to the battle system.
The battle system is a pretty basic Japanese RPG affair but it takes one aspect further making it stand out a bit more: weaknesses. In a lot of RPGs, you generally just use an enemy's weakness on them to help you, but in quite a lot of cases it isn't entirely essential. However in Persona 4 this is pretty much essential to winning fights. Persona 4 is a largely challenging game, and if you're not careful, you can easily get game over (which occurs as soon as the main character is killed) from a normal enemy encounter with full HP and SP. Each character has a weakness, whereas the weaknesses of your Persona vary, some are weak to none and some may even nullify or reflect certain elements. Whenever an enemy, or character, is hit by their weakness, or even a critical hit, they're knocked down onto the floor and the attacker is given one more turn. You can sometimes then make a knocked down enemy dizzy, making them miss a turn, otherwise they just get back up on their next go. So why is knocking down enemy's so useful?
When you knock down all enemies on the field, you can initiate a rush attack, where all of your currently available characters swarm the enemy and usually kill them all; it deals a lot of damage at any rate. This puts a lot of strategy into the game, from either simply using a wind spell against a group of enemies which are all weak to wind, rushing them and winning that way, or with dealing with different enemies. Earlier in the game, the enemies you encounter seem to have the same weaknesses making it a bit easier, whereas later in the game you get different types, forcing you to think more. One more addition, as I've heard, is that you can control your other characters, a feature bizarrely missing in Persona 3. As mentioned though, when enemies get extra turns things can suddenly turn disastrous, which is where the social links also help. Getting social links with the party you use (I used Chie, Yosuke and Yukiko for mine, it's definitely recommended you choose a party and stick with it) will provide you with a lot of help during the battles.
Sometimes, a character will offer to do a special attack when you knock some enemies down. For example, there are two enemies weak to wind, you knock them down but there is one left. Instead of taking your extra turn, when offered, a character might do their special move. Sometimes they're quite weak, but they always do a critical hit, knocking the last enemy down, allowing you to rush. Chie definitely wins here with her Galactic Punt move, which simply kicks the enemy out of the field. Later characters will also start taking hits for the MC. As said, if he dies its game over, and if an attack is about to kill him, a character will jump in, taking the hit but saving you in the process. They can also wake characters up from certain status effects, and survive attacks greater than their total HP once in battle, leaving them with just one but giving you a chance to heal them. The battle system is a typical turn based system made much more strategic and fun, but also challenging. Normal fights can be hard, but generally you can move through dungeons without too much trouble as long as you know enemy weaknesses (you have to figure these out, experiment and analysing enemies will tell you what you've found out). The bosses are quite challenging in the game, but I found the system quite lenient when it comes to grinding. Whilst I did a fair bit (I finished the game at about level 83) the game requires more strategy and strong persona more than anything else. The game also has three difficulties, providing something for anyone, be it new to Japanese RPGs or a veteran wanting a true challenge.
The actual dungeon crawling in the game was an interesting aspect to me as well. During the day time you can go to Junes (a massive department store), gather your friends, then enter one of the large TVs there and head into the midnight channel. Here you can access any dungeon you've unlocked, organise your party, save and visit the Velvet Room. You can't properly heal for free, for that you have to leave (then you can't come back until the next day), however you can get a social link with a Fox (pretty sure it was story based, but I'm not sure) who will heal your SP for a large cost. I heard about a stamina system in Persona 3 which essentially limited your exploration time, which has gone. Once you're in, you can spend as long as you can survive for pretty much. There are about eight different dungeons in the game, which are based upon the person who has been kidnapped. People are being kidnapped, and when thrown into the midnight channel an area, or, dungeon is created upon their true selves. The idea is a bit similar to a favourite anime of mine, Neon Genesis Evangelion. These dungeons offer an insight into the characters (most of them actually join your team) and are quite interesting; it's all about them facing their true selves. This gives variation in the style of dungeon, but each one has around 7-10 floors (they vary) which are all randomly generated corridors; there isn't much variety within the dungeons. However, another interesting concept is that you're still living the life of a teenage school student, and you have to manage your time well. When mist enshrouds the town of Inaba, the fog disappears from the midnight channel and the shadows get violent, killing the person who is trapped. Whilst the dates are fixed, they're not explicitly told in the game; instead you're simply tasked with saving the person before mist appears, i.e. after a few days of rain (the game obviously gives you a weather forecast to check). The game usually gives you about 20 days to beat a dungeon, then a month or so later the next will unlock, usually with entertaining events in between. These times also give you a chance to improve your social links and the like. Apart from that, dungeon crawling is pretty standard. You'll find chests along the way, enemies move around and striking them from behind give you an advantage and vice versa, and its just generally quite fun. It can get a little boring sometimes when you're just grinding or are stuck at a particular part, but I found the balance to be quite right in the amount you spend in and out of the dungeons.
The graphics in the game are pretty good for a PS2 title, fusing a mix of Japanese anime with fairly realistic 3D graphics in the field. As a fan of anime, I enjoyed the mix which I thought suits a Japanese game rather well. The character portraits are great and the anime cut-scenes are great too. The environments in the game are all typical Japanese countryside location which I really enjoyed, whilst the technical side of things holds up well too. The sound track in the game actually impressed me, and I'm not a fan of J-Pop at all. The sound track is for a game though (obviously) so there are more instrumentals, which I prefer, although I didn't mind the vocal tracks in the game. Most of the music fits well with the style and setting of the game, although after a while the battle theme got a little annoying. However, the dungeon music was great and I loved the piano track that played during the mysterious parts of the game.
A lot of RPGs, to me, get over-estimated in their length; however this entirely depends on whether you include the side-quests as well. Your entire time spent on Persona 4 is pretty much working toward the story. The side-quests are pretty short and are actually quite helpful (they're the kind you'll embark upon during normal gameplay, they basically involve you either talking to people or collecting items for them), and the social links are a big aspect of the game. I was impressed and had high expectations for the game when I started since I heard it'd take about 70-100 hours to complete it. It didn't fail me, taking me 90 hours to beat on Normal difficulty. For this playthrough I ended up about level 83, had a few decent Persona (but I didn't spend ages trying to get the big ones, just fused a lot instead), and did very few side-quests, because at the time I forgot about them and just didn't bother until near the end. As for replay value, beating the game will give you new game plus, which carries a few things over, however the main interest is in the few extras you get on that playthrough, including the ability to get one of the best persona and two extra bosses. It's a long game, and if you're willing to you can easily do another playthrough of the game and experience a rather different game. You can get the jobs you didn't before, do the quests you didn't, use the characters you didn't, make friend ships with the people you didn't before. Due to the way the game is played, it'd be very hard, unless you really tried, to do another playthrough exactly the same as your last. That said, even if you don't do another playthrough, it's still a really long game and that gets your money's worth.
Persona 4 is definitely a game that surpassed my expectations and then some. When I pre-ordered it, I was expecting an enjoyable, 40-50 hour game (ignoring the massive estimates) and got something more. Persona 4 isn't for those who lose interest quickly, and it certainly isn't for those that have no interest in the JRPG genre (not is it a good starting point). If you're a JRPG fan, love the Japanese culture, or are looking for a good, long, challenging game with an excellent story (but a lot of cut-scenes), Persona 4 provides all of this with mastery. Whilst a score of 10 might implies it is perfect, the game is not. Some may not enjoy the Japanese style of the game, and the dungeon crawling can get a little boring during the sometimes necessary grinding sessions, along with a few annoying bosses. However, to me a 10 merely says the game is one of the best of the best. It's not perfect, but it deserves a score which to me, says Persona 4 is one of the best within its genre.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 01/13/10
Game Release: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (EU, 03/13/09)
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