Review by BloodGod65
"The Demon Within"
After a ten-year hiatus, the Persona series was resurrected with Persona 3, which received much critical acclaim. Now Atlus has delivered a follow up that contains all the hallmarks of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, and fixes most of the issues found in Persona 3.
While various aspects of Shin Megami Tensei games change from game to game, the one thing that is always present is a dark and mature story, atypical for the normal Japanese RPG. As expected, Persona 4 follows this tradition. The game revolves around a teenage boy (whom the player names) who leaves Tokyo to live with his uncles in the small town of Inaba. His arrival comes at a bad time, as a person is found brutally murdered in the area. For a time, it is merely a mystery that the police struggle to unravel. The Hero continues on with his life, making friends at his new school and adapting to life in the small town. Soon, one of his friend's acquaintances goes missing.Thinking that there might be some connection between the mysterious disappearance and murder of the first victim, and the sudden disappearance of their friend, the Hero and his new friends band together to find her. Things soon become even stranger as the trio find that they are capable of moving into a TV world, which is full of all sorts of oddities. Sensing that this strangeness has something to do with the murders and kidnappings occurring in Inaba, they set out to find their friend and figure out just what is going on.
While it is interesting when taken at face value, the plot also works on a much more subtle level. As the group goes in and out of the TV world and rescue others from it, the deepest desires and fears of those trapped within become apparent. The feelings of individuals, like envy and inferiority, start to form complex relationships between characters, making them much more realistic and believable. This in turn makes it easier to relate to characters and ultimately, care about them.
The impact of the story is aided by the excellent writing and translation performed by the American Atlus team (a skill that they excel at). The dialog for each character seems entirely natural, based on the personality they project during events, and chances are most people will be able to instantly relate to many of the characters. Phenomenal voice acting also helps out, and like the dialog, voices are perfectly matched to characters. There are only a few exceptions to this, those being Teddie, a character that inhabits the TV world and constantly makes puns about bears (he's a freakish stuffed bear). There's also a male character that is voiced by someone who is obviously female.
Since I'm already on the topic Persona's excellent audio design, it's worth noting that the soundtrack is also top-notch. The music is mainly Japanese pop and rock, which is irritatingly catchy (though the game does come with the soundtrack, so you can listen to a song until you're sick of it). Despite how good it is, there are times when events are at odds with the upbeat music.
Given how successful Persona 3 was, it should come as no surprise that the game hasn't been changed much. For all intents and purposes, it's pretty much the same game. There have been a few changes, and they will be appreciated by those who played the previous game. For instance, players will no longer be forced to trudge through the same dungeon through the entire game. Atlus has also made it so the player controls all the characters in the party, rather than having the computer take charge of the others. Finally, characters no longer get tired while dungeon-crawling, so it's possible to keep fighting till everyone is nearly dead though I wouldn't advise doing that.
The single dungeon was an issue for many who played the first game (including myself), and Tartarus has been replaced by many smaller dungeons made up of around ten levels. But those expecting a dramatic shakeup to how dungeons are put together will be disappointed. They are still made up of randomly generated hallways, although the general look varies from dungeon to dungeon. For instance, one uses a castle skin and another resembles a bathhouse. Regardless, it still gets repetitive because of how unimaginative the layouts are.
While wandering the dungeons, the party will encounter amorphous blobs, which are realtime representations of enemies. Touching them will initiate a battle, but if players get the drop on the enemy, the party will have the advantage. But this works the other way around, too.
The battle system remains one of the better ones I've encountered. Battles focus on finding and exploiting enemy weaknesses by using a variety of elemental attacks. By hitting a weakness, the enemy is disabled and the party gets an extra turn. If all enemies are knocked down, the party can perform a super damaging all out attack. However, hitting weaknesses is essentially a two-edged sword because the enemy can use the same tricks against you. Thankfully, there is a sort of enemy encyclopedia that allows players to see what element an enemy is weak to during a battle, provided they've already exploited that weakness.
As I've already mentioned, all characters are now controlled by the player. This is a wonderful change, especially since party members were prone to phenomenal stupidity in the previous Persona. Battle is waged using the power of a character's psyche, which exhibits itself as a Persona (hence the title). Each character has one Persona that will be used throughout the game, aside from the main Hero, who can have multiple Persona's and change amongst them at will. As character's level up, their Persona's strengthen and gain new abilities. Though it only applies to the Hero, this can easily be worked to a player's advantage. Each Persona has statistics, just like the Hero (things like strength and vitality). The interesting thing is that a Persona's statistics supplement the Hero's, adding its power to his. Changing between Personas might make the Hero stronger or a better magic user.
True to the Persona series, it is imperative to collect as many Personas as possible in order to survive. Once again, Personas are awarded after battle, through a mini-game that involves picking a card from a moving lineup. Each card is shown before the mini-game starts and the player must watch their desired card as it spins in an orbit (this time vertically and diagonally as well as horizontally). If the Persona card is picked, it can then be used in battle, provided that the Hero has enough space for it in his mind. However, there are also blank cards that award nothing, and penalty cards that take all rewards away from the battle (experience and items).
Two Shin Megami Tensei mainstays also appear in Persona 4, these being the Velvet Room and Persona Fusion. Series veterans will already know all about these mechanics, and there's nothing new here. For the SMT neophytes, the Velvet Room is a location in which Personas are fused. Persona Fusion is a method by which new Personas are forged and strengthened. To fuse, there must be at least two compatible Personas. Their type and skills will determine the type, skills and strength of the new Persona. A variety of other factors and methods do come into play, most of which players will learn as they go along.
Thus far, I've only discussed the combat aspects of Persona 4. But like the previous iteration, the day-to-day grind of school and life in general comes into play. Once again, not much has changed from the previous game, so players will find themselves partaking in all sorts of daily activities, such as answering surprise questions from the teacher. The main purpose behind all of this is to forge Social Links, which dole out extra experience for created Personas. In addition to the previous ways of gaining Social Links (talking to people around town, etc) there are now a few more ways, such as getting a job.
Ultimately, nearly every decision on what to do during the day affects Social Links as well as how the game plays out. By doing certain things - joining a club for instance - you'll meet different people and experience different scenarios. In addition to that, several factors of the Hero's personality can be altered. For instance, helping out a classmate can increase the Hero's Understanding, getting a job folding envelopes will increase Diligence or eating a strange food in the refrigerator will increase Courage. By increasing these seemingly unimportant stats, new scenarios will unfold in certain parts of the game, thereby changing how the game plays out. For instance, an early event based on Courage will determine whether or not the Hero can ask for a girl's phone number. Obviously, minor things like this can drastically change how the game ultimately plays out, taking the potential replay value through the roof.
There are only a few problems with the gameplay, and unfortunately, they do become troublesome. The main irritation is that when in dungeons, if the Hero is killed it's game over, despite the fact that other characters are easily resurrected. Though this has always been irritating, it made sense for the previous Persona because you couldn't command the party to resurrect a character, and in Nocturne, where the party is made up of monsters. Here it's just inconvenient. Then take into consideration that when the party comes across new enemies in the dungeons, you won't know what they're weak to or capable of, so you're automatically at a disadvantage if they have an attack the Hero is weak to.
The pacing of the game is also noticeably out of whack. Many players might never even make it to the real game because it literally takes four hours for it to hand control over to the player. As a longtime RPG player, I can suffer through that, but it's still not a good design decision. Pacing frequently becomes a problem through the rest of the game, as you might have a long segment of dungeon crawling and then a long segment of just going to school every day while slogging through page after page of text dialog. This is especially true after completing a dungeon, when there's nothing to do but wait for the next story segment to start or just level grind. Things like this take a measurable toll on the game.
Like many other Atlus games, Persona 4 has an anime visual style. While no longer unique, it still looks just fine and works well with the game. Character and enemy models all look good and have nice lots of nice detail work. Even so, Atlus is still using many of the same enemy designs that date back to Nocturne, which is a drag. There are also a couple of cool touches, such as the comic book style action captions (the old boom, ka-pow! sort of thing) that play during battle. During my time with Persona 4 there was only one visual problem I could identify, this being a strange ghost image of characters when they move.
Over the years, Atlus has made a name for itself in the RPG genre through atypical games that feature serious, dark and mature themes instead of the same old swords and sorcery garbage that the genre is saturated with. Persona 4 isn't a radical shakeup to anything they've done before, but rather a continuing and subtle honing of their art. Atlus fans know what to expect here, and any RPG fan who has never picked up a Shin Megami Tensei title will be in for a pleasant surprise.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.0 - Great
Originally Posted: 03/03/09, Updated 08/01/12
Game Release: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (US, 12/09/08)
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