Review by Gylgamesh

"The last great PS2 game is one of its best."

In Japan, the Megami Tensei games are some of the most popular RPGs on the market. The U.S. has seen a small portion of the series and its spin-offs hit our shores, the most popular of which is likely the Persona series, of which we've gotten all four games. Back in 2007 Atlus saw fit to bring over Persona 3 which was an overlooked gem in a dull summer of games. Little more than a year later, Persona 4 hit store shelves and manages to do everything great its predecessor did, but also improve on a few key areas that help elevate the game from great to excellent.

If you're unfamiliar with the Persona series, it's essentially a dungeon crawler meshed with a dating sim of sorts. It's a strange combination for sure, but the game manages to make it work, and work well. Throughout the game you're asked to balance exploring dungeons, gaining experience and skills and progressing the overall story with going to school, hanging out with your friends and having a job. Persona 4 takes place over a number of game days and each day you're able to visit a variety of places around town and participate in a variety of events before you head home to sleep and do it over again. The game is pretty open-ended in that you have a decent amount of freedom in what you want to do, though at certain points the game will attempt to push you along and move forward the story. There are points where you end up feeling a bit rushed, but as long as your time-management skills are up to snuff, that shouldn't be much of an issue.

On the other side of things is the battle system. Persona 4's battles take on a familiar mold if you've played Persona 3. You have your generic attack, item, guard and escape, as well as the ability to use special attacks that are designated by your personas – demon-like creatures that come to the characters' aid in battle. Most enemies have a weakness to a particular type of attack, whether it be fire, ice or whatever. If you hit an enemy with an attack it's weak against, you'll knock it down and get an extra turn. Your party members can also suffer the adverse effects of this as well, as each persona has its own strengths and weaknesses that the enemies can exploit just as well as you can. This simple concept adds a good amount of depth to the battle system that would otherwise have been pretty rudimentary. Also, as a welcome addition from Persona 3, you're now able to control your entire party as opposed to just the main character. This makes battles significantly less frustrating and aids in lightening the overall difficulty of the game.

In addition, you have the ability to collect and create new personas. After battles you may be offered a chance to obtain a new persona which you can use immediately if you so chose or you could fuse it with another persona to create a more powerful one. The fusion aspect of the game is fairly deep, with special fusion bonuses available on certain days of the week as well as new personas being able to inherit abilities from their parent monsters. There're a good number of creatures you can create and use and all of them are unique so there's a lot of variety to choose from.

On the storytelling front, Persona 4's isn't anything grandiose or epic – it stays very confined and this fits in well with the game's setting. There are times where it can get a bit obtrusive and you'll just want to get into the gameplay (the intro is something like three hours long) but most of the time it's interesting enough that you won't mind. The pacing towards the end of the game also gets a little off balance and the game tries its hardest to throw you off the path to the best ending – something you'll want to be sure you get because you'll be missing out on a good chunk of the game if you don't. The pacing issue can be a little frustrating, but the ending problem can be remedied with a quick look at a guide as long as you're okay with that kind of thing. Persona 4 also does characters better than 3 did. The main cast all feel like believable characters and you'll grow to become attached to nearly all of them. The cast is well rounded and there's really no unlikable character in the bunch and this is a good thing because you'll be seeing a lot of them throughout the game.

On top of all that, Persona 4's got a pretty slick presentation to tie everything together. The game's got a TV motif that ties in well with the story and the visuals are crisp and easy on the eyes (except for that yellow menu screen – that takes while to get used to). The graphics aren't anything fancy – this is stuff that could have been done on a PS2 back in 2001, but it suffices here and it works. The soundtrack's filled with a bunch of j-pop/rock type songs with English lyrics that you'll never be able to understand. It's different and it probably will take some getting used to, but most of the songs end up being pretty damn catchy when you get down to it. Voice acting here is top notch too – another big improvement over Persona 3.

Persona 4 has a number of other nice tweaks since Persona 3. In addition to being able to control your entire party in battles, you can now equip them from the main menu, you can quick-jump to any area on the world map rather than walking there, you can view what a persona's abilities do outside of battle, and a handful of others. While some of these may seem like minor improvements, they help the game run a lot smoother and it's tough to go back to the way Persona 3 did things after playing 4. Oh, and probably the best improvement since 3 – fatigue no longer exists.

Persona 4 is one hell of a game. There's a ton to do and it'll keep you busy for a good 60 hours at least. It throws a lot at you at first, but once you get into a groove it's crazy addicting and hard to put down. If you're an RPG fan this is probably the last great hurrah for the PS2 and Persona 4 is a game well worth your time. Even if you're a bit wary of trying this one out, give it a shot. It's a worthy entry to any PS2 collection and a fantastic game overall. Now to start the long wait until Persona 5.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 01/20/09, Updated 01/21/09

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

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