Review by Electrium
"Who needs ports and re-makes when we have games like this?"
[ Intro / Game Overview ] - RPG (Turn-based Combat) / "Dating Sim" / Mature ESRB Rating
skip if you're familiar with SMT / Persona games
Persona is a division of Shin Megami Tensei, a much broader series of RPGs popular in Japan, and gaining popularity elsewhere. The game revolves around two major aspects, both dependent on each other: 1, defeating enemies known as "shadows" in battle, and 2: establishing relationships with people in your environment to strengthen your arsenal against the shadows. Your only weapons against the shadows are spiritual entities known as "Personas," which are representations of their summoner's inner self. While your party members are limited to one persona, your main character can house a variety of Personas within his soul, and combine them through "fusion" to create new Personas. Now, back to those friendships established outside of combat (from this point on, we'll call them "Social Links") - each Social Link has a corresponding "Arcana" - in other words, they all match up with a type of tarot card (Fool, Magician, Judgment, Death, etc). Each Persona also has an Arcana. Stronger relationships essentially mean stronger personas of the matching Arcana. As a result, your main character can play any role you choose in your party, as long as you have the Personas and the Social Links to provide them with the skills they need. Now that you have a general idea of how the game works, we'll move on to...
[ Story - 8 / 10 ]
Your Main Character's (AKA "MC", you name him at the start of the game) parents make a decision to work overseas for a year - so in the mean time, you are sent to live with your uncle and niece out in the rural, small city of Inaba. Shortly after you move in and start school, a bizarre series of murders begins taking place - and amidst all of this, rumors of a phenomenon known as "The Midnight Channel" circulate through the town. Supposedly, if you stare at the TV at midnight on a rainy day, you'll see your soul mate. In the process of testing this rumor out, your MC accidentally discovers that he can fall through the TV and enter a strange, dream-like world within. You soon find yourself establishing friendships with other people who watch the Midnight Channel, and find a surprising connection between the TV world and the murders. Your ultimate goal is to find the truth behind the murders and the alternate reality of the Midnight Channel - or else, watch your friends become victims to a serial killer.
Story-based dialogue is about 80% voiced, with a talented cast of actors. Lingo is modern, but not so over the top that it sounds like an 80 year old trying to use teenage slang. You'll be convinced that the characters are actually talking and conversing, rather than having a plot simply revealed to you by crappy actors. There are some very surprising twists, and all issues are resolved and explained (assuming you earn the "true" ending, out of 3 possible). As well as the main story, each Social Link has a significant problem that the MC helps them resolve - some of these problems are dull, while others are touching and may even draw a tear or two from you. For example, an ex-actress struggles to deal with life as a "normal" person. A young girl who mostly takes care of herself struggles to consider her single father as a family member because he's always at work. A high school kid struggles to find meaning with himself and deal with his pitied life after his sister was murdered. You get the picture.
The game ties in a few underlying themes, mainly philosophical-based. For example, in order to earn the power to summon a Persona, the summoner must face their "true self" and learn to accept sides of their personality that they would normally hide from others. It's a pretty unique device for character development, and works well for the most part. There is also some criticism of society / humanity near the end of the game. It's rare that themes are as prevalent in games as they are in Persona.
Overall, the story is pretty good - any RPG fan will enjoy it, as long as they can tolerate all of the main characters being sophomores/juniors in high school. A few events - particularly your party's discussions about their theories on the murder - are predictable. Persona "veterans" who played P3 will probably not be as deeply touched as they were by P3, but they'll be happy to know that the story progression is much, much smoother and executed better overall. It even made me cry once, and I'm usually not affected much at all by games...>_<.
[ Gameplay & Difficulty - 10 / 10 ]
The battle system in Persona emphasizes the use of exploiting enemy's weaknesses, and this system can provide some very unique challenges - especially when you can't change the weaknesses of your party members (you can change your own thanks to possession of multiple Personas). This game has added some interesting tweaks on this system - when one of your allies exploits an enemy's weakness, they have a chance to remove another ally's status ailments without taking a turn or using MP, or even do a cost-free special attack. Unlike P3, you can actually give your entire party commands rather than depend on your allies' preset strategies and AI. The battle system has been improved in every sense of the word, and it wasn't even half bad to begin with. The Social Link system also went through some minor changes. Unlike in P3, you actually have some breathing room to finish your dungeons by deadlines and max all of your social links. You can also choose whether or not you want to date any of the school-related girl social links, or just remain as friends. Some Social Links also increase your characters out-of-battle attributes (Knowledge, Courage, Understanding, Diligence, and Expression) and depend on them to be at a certain rank to level up. In all honesty, P4 went above and beyond my expectations of improvement - clearly, the developers know what their fans want.
On to difficulty - most battles are pretty well balanced, although some boss battles are extremely difficult. The game rewards adaptability and variety, but harshly punishes those who try to set their MC into one role (physical attacker, healer, etc). You'll need a specific strategy and a lot of party synchronization to beat some of the endgame bosses - but there's no real "cheap" bosses. Any problem can be solved by simply thinking over the situation and fusing new Personas. There is a twist to this game as compared to other RPGs, in terms of getting game over: if your Main Character dies, you automatically lose. It's also important to note that it's not uncommon for an enemy to cast an instant-kill spell. Some Personas are vulnerable to these, some reflect these skills, some can use instant-kill spells themselves. Some people think it's cheap, but I think it's nice because it reminds you to always be on guard and to adapt to what your enemy is doing. Conclusion - this game isn't easy. You won't beat the game by mashing buttons and doing nothing but using the "Attack" command. A modern-day RPG that actually makes you think? Yeah, that just happened.
[ Sound & Music - 10 / 10 ]
Anyone who recognizes the name Shoji Meguro should be immediately familiar with his high quality work. This game is no different - every song, from battle themes to boss themes to wandering around town is catchy and unique. The style is sort of a "j-rock/j-pop" blend for the most part, and many of the songs are memorable - particularly the boss theme, "I'll Face Myself". The music and sound effects in battle, in every dungeon, in every area of the game, is fitting. Especially the eerie and suspenseful piano music whenever a murder or a discovery about the killer is made (aptly titled "Who's There?"). There is some English and some Japanese singing performed by some female artist I'm not familiar with - but if you're not into the singing thing, you'll get over it (I did, ha).
As I hinted at earlier, the voicing is excellent. All significant story scenes - and most insignificant scenes - are voiced. Every Social Link character also has some voice clips, although they aren't used often. There are quite a few familiar names on the cast list, and many argue the voicing in the English version is much better than the voicing in the original Japanese version. My particular favorites are Dojima, Yosuke, and Kanji - although pretty much every storyline character has a convincing actor. But I digress. It'd be something of a crime to give this game's sound rating anything lower than a 10.
[ Visuals & Design - 8/10 ]
In general, the character models, Persona/enemy designs, and interface, look very good for the PS2. The Persona games have recently been very heavy on creative design in the interface area, and this game is no exception. From the title screen to the in-game menus to the text boxes, the Yellow/Gray theme shows, and it just flat out looks good. Spell animations are fairly typical. On the bright side, a lot of the higher level spells lack the long, drawn-out, dramatic super move animations that RPGs seem to cling to these days. If graphics are your thing, this game won't dazzle you, but it's hard to say that it doesn't look good.
[ Replay Value - 8 / 10 ]
There's a LOT to do in this game, from maxing your S.Links to fusing all of the Personas, to fighting optional special bosses. There are also 3 different endings (4, if you include the special game over sequence when you fail to complete the last dungeon). You'll probably be motivated to see all of these endings. However, the game can take anywhere from 60 - 100 hours for a first time player to complete. Some people - especially casual gamers - will not be interested in replaying this game the day after their first playthrough. I will say that it is really interesting to see thing from a different angle in the second playthrough, knowing what you learned in the first playthrough. 8 / 10 for providing the replay content, but not necessarily drawing us in to it.
FINAL SCORE - 9/10
Shin Megami Tensei does it again. I have not yet been disappointed by any of these games. Naysayers argue that the RPG genre is doomed, and that cliches from here on out are inevitable. Persona 4 takes everything they believe, and shoves it down their throat. It's games like these that make you glad you spent all those hours leveling your characters, following the story, and procrastinating homework, sleep, etc. This game is well worth it's pricetag, and I'd be hard pressed to find someone who didn't like this game's unique twist on the old RPG formula. Thank you, "BROtlus" (Atlus), for localizing and giving us the opportunity to enjoy this game.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 02/24/09
Game Release: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (US, 12/09/08)
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