Review by Platyphyllis

Reviewed: 01/20/09

Another great entry in the Shin Megami Tensei franchise and a definite improvement over its predecessor

You seriously can’t call yourself a JRPG fanatic if you’ve never heard of Atlus. Just two years ago, they unleashed Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 unto the unexpected gaming market. While Atlus did have a dedicated but small fanbase at the time who followed the game’s production and played previous Shin Megami Tensei games, people who never played any of the SMT games probably didn’t know what to expect when they bought Persona 3. What they got was a surprisingly great game which meshed a high school life with lots of traditional JRPG elements, all while adding a number of unique twists. Its emphasis on social life caught many people off guard, but it proved to be an interesting way of story progression.

Later on in 2008, Atlus decided to release a “special edition” of the game called Persona 3 FES (which is the version I played) which included even more Personas to choose from, an improved social link system (which made things a bit easier), and an approximately 50 hour epilogue which added to the story of the main game. Back then, I just thought that everything about Persona 3 just couldn’t get any better. Then Atlus USA comes along and announces that they are indeed localizing Persona 4 which uses the same basic engine of Persona 3 and, much to my surprise, they made it even better. It’s definitely nice to see that despite the fact that the PS2 is starting to slow down when it comes to games, certain developers are still willing to release great games like Persona 4 to the North American market because it’s definitely an experience that can’t be missed. With its polished gameplay mechanics, emotionally gripping story, and likable characters with realistic problems, even people who have moved onto the current generation of gaming should take a step back and check out this somewhat underappreciated gem.

Persona 4 has you playing as the protagonist, a high school student (it’s up to you to name him) who has to move to the small countryside town of Inaba because of some work-related problems with his parents. When he gets there, he tries to warm up to the new environment and the new people in his life and in the end, he makes a few friends on his first day at school. After a day or two, he hears a rumor that if you stare into a turned-off TV at midnight, you get to see your soulmate. The protagonist decides to give it a try and sees a woman who is being attacked and is obviously in a lot of pain. The next day, he discovers that the woman he saw was found dead.

Right from the beginning, the story shows a lot of promise. It sets itself up as a murder mystery with a rather crazy and almost supernatural concept. This makes the story start up very slowly (leading to a very long introductory sequence) but once the game gets running at a normal speed, you’ll see elements of mythology, media, and human emotions get thrown in which makes the overall plot become very interesting.

One of the biggest aspects of this game’s predecessor was the Social Links which took up such a huge amount of the playtime that it’s almost considered to be part of the actual gameplay (despite the fact that it’s pretty much mainly storytelling). The Social Link system returns to Persona 4 with even more improvements. For the newcomers to the Persona games on the PS2, social links are basically bonds of friendship that you form with the game’s many characters. Each character and social link corresponds to a certain major arcana from the divinatory tarot. The more time that you spend with your friends, the more likely it is that the Social Link corresponding to the particular person you spend time with will level up. Whenever a social link levels up, it grants various bonuses to you when it comes to your Personas.

Personas are basically alter-egos of the characters in the form of mythical and religious figures which they can summon in battle. The game’s battle system and the gameplay in general focus around them. They can learn abilities, level up, they decide your stats, and they’re going to be your main asset in battle. You’ll be using their elemental magic powers to exploit the enemies weaknesses and knock them down (and unleash a deadly all-out attack on them) and they’re also chock-full of physical abilities and support skills to help out. Each Persona also has corresponding Arcana just like the Social Links.

The social links tie themselves to the Personas because of a process called Fusion. You can combine two or more of them to create a completely new Persona. If you have been leveling up your social links and strengthening your bonds with your friends, the Personas which are tied together with the Social Link that has been developed gets bonus experience points. If you didn’t even begin that certain social link, you’d have to spend quite a bit of time leveling up the Persona just to access its full skill value but get the Social Link Level up to 9 or 10 and you might even learn all the skills from the start and have an enhanced Persona to start defeating enemies with. The Social Link system and the Personas go hand in hand together and the whole system works incredibly well to remind you that even if it’s important to go and fight monsters like in any traditional JRPG, it is also important to not sever your ties with humanity.

Aside from that, there are also a large number of noticeable tweaks and improvements that have been made to the gameplay. A Forecast Fusion option is now also available which allows you to get bonuses for fusing certain types of Personas on certain days. Developing Social Links with your teammates is also given more value as they will occasionally take a fatal blow from the enemy for you or heal status ailments depending on how strong your Social Link with them is. Travelling around the town of Inaba is generally much easier than going around Port Island in Persona 3 thanks to the fact that a new Shortcut option is available which allows you to go to different floors of buildings or straight to the world map just by pressing a few buttons.

Some of the more major gameplay improvements include the fact that you now have the option to have direct control over your entire party. This game’s predecessor had you completely relying on the AI to command your teammates which was a turn-off for some and received some positive feedback from others, but it’s always possible to switch back to having AI-controlled party members. The new option to Guard also lets you protect your party members from lethal attacks from the enemy which is always a nice option (which for some reason, wasn’t in Persona 3). It’s things like these which will make it hard for some players to get adjusted to playing the previous game again but that just shows how much effort the developers have spent into polishing Persona 4.

Somehow, despite being released on the same platform in the late stages of its life, Persona 4 still manages to improve upon the previous game in terms of visuals. The weather system makes it so that depending on which day you go out, you’ll be treated to different looking outdoor environments which were a really nice touch as the town seems completely different depending on whether it’s sunny, cloudy, or raining. Dungeon visuals also get a noticeable upgrade considering how it’s not just one big 200+ floor megadungeon with no story development happening until the last few floors. There are now instead many different dungeons, each one belonging to a certain character. The dungeon’s designs themselves symbolize the characters’ hidden feelings and insecurities which really make traversing through them a lot more interesting, especially when you start noticing all the interesting touches. Character portraits in cutscenes are also very detailed and look really nice with all the different expressions. The one thing that irked me in this game is that the animated scenes are very low quality. The faces of certain people don’t even show any expression or movement and their mouths are the only things opening and closing, the character models look extremely weird and cheap in contrast to the character portraits in-game, and pretty much the only thing that the animated scenes have going for them are the environments and still objects. The moment something moves, it just looks odd. I don’t get why they had beautiful CGI/Anime hybrid scenes in Persona 2: Eternal Punishment but now on the PS2, the Persona games have low caliber anime. This is definitely something that needs to be improved upon for the future installments but for now, it isn’t any more than a minor blemish in the graphical department since there aren’t that many anime cutscenes in the end.

Audiowise, the game is very strong in the musical department. Lots of tunes have a very old-school feel which is very catchy. Battle themes (particularly the boss ones, some of which are just amazing) are very upbeat which helps you get prepped and excited for combat against your enemies. Voice acting on the other hand is a pretty mixed bag. The voices for some characters like Chie and Yukiko sound pretty nice and natural in the story-related scenes, but when put in a battle situation where they have to shout and act enthusiastic, they start sounding a bit strange as if they’re trying their best but just can’t quite get the proper level of excitement needed to make it sound realistic. Other characters like Kanji, Teddie, and Ryotaro Dojima sound great all the way through whereas I’m bothered with how feminine and revealing a certain character’s voice sounds (people who have already played through most of the game will know who I’m talking about). Regardless, the voice acting is acceptable in the end, but it still could’ve been a lot better.

The bottom line is, Persona 4 is a wonderful game. Its numerous improvements make it seem much more refined and polished and it’s a solid JRPG in its own right. Any fan of the genre who hasn’t even heard of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise needs to get this game right now. It’s an experience that isn’t worth missing and considering how Atlus games aren’t all that popular, this one might become a rarity considering the rather threatening effect that the current-generation consoles can make on the popularity of the PS2. This game receives a wholehearted recommendation from me.

Good Points:
- The story is extremely interesting, dealing with issues that even real people must face.
- Characters are realistic and likable
- The game improves in a very noticeable way which shows that the developer definitely listened to the complaints that were said about Persona 3.
- Solid visual style and gorgeous character portraits
- Battle system rewards players for being strategic and punishes those who attack without thinking.
- A high school social life system was merged beautifully with the gameplay
- Great music, each copy of the game includes a Soundtrack CD for now so collectors should try to pick up a copy as soon as possible
- Over 50 hours of gameplay and a New Game+ feature which should keep you playing for quite a while

Bad Points:
- Story starts off very slowly which might be a turn-off for some
- Anime cutscenes are noticeably low budget
- Voice acting is a mixed bag

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Product Release: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (US, 12/09/08)

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