Review by Crofty
"A refreshing change; an excellent sequel"
You know, I'll be the first to admit that I wasn't expecting much in the way of advancement or improvement with Persona 4. The game is on the same console as Persona 3, uses the same development technology (I don't know this for fact, of course, but just playing the game states as much) and appears - on the surface - to be very similar to what Persona 3 already achieved. Of course, not opting to move onto the newer consoles doesn't necessarily mean failure for a sequel, but with Persona 3 being as excellent as it is, it's hard to see how significant improvements could possibly be made.
It is with pleasure to say, then, that Persona 4 managed to quell my cynical mentality for the duration of its experience. So many times have we seen poorly made sequels and - most recently - RPGs in general; it's genuinely hopeful to see that developers like Atlus know how to make games that remind us why we spend so much time playing them in the first place. It's been a while since I played a sequel that doesn't contain unnecessary features, dumbed down elements and clear signs that the game wants to appeal to a wider, and mostly dumber, audience. But why should it? Persona is still proving to be a lucrative venture for Atlus even on the PS2, which just shows that there is more than enough gamers out there to warrant making games like this.
Persona 4 kicks off by both introducing us to the main character (or the Protagonist; as is the tradition) along with his uncle and cousin whilst also eerily flirting with sinister events that appear to be happening at the same time. Of course, this is all not before meeting up with the mysterious Igor in the ever moving Velvet Room, now seen as the inside of a limousine . It appears that the destiny surrounding the Protagonist is that of suspicion, shadows and murder, and it's not too long before we see the delight on the young man's face once his Persona ability takes fruition in order to fully deal with these issues.
The game takes a more up-beat and joyous approach to story-telling than Persona 3, despite the overall aura of playing a detective chasing after a serial killer. The rural region of Inaba, which the game takes place in, is a stark contrast to that of the Port Island in Persona 3; the countryside vents off a lighter and more laid-back feeling, and this shows especially well in the characters you meet and eventually fight along-side with. The tone of Persona 4 compliments its predecessor well, and is a credit to Atlus for being able to ignite the same feelings of attachment we had with Persona 3. Much like a good book, it's hard to accept when Persona 4 is finished; it's the type of place you want to experience forever, but ultimately pays off more in your memory for the impression it gives.
As ever, Atlus' choice of sound helps greatly in getting the message across while also absorbing the player deeper and deeper into the experience. Like Persona 3 you'll be hearing the same tracks pretty often, but they somehow manage to avoid becoming irritating, and only serve to add enthusiasm when peering over the CD that comes packaged with the game. Instrumental tunes will compliment events depending on the mood, while voiced songs will play as you go about your daily business, or battle with shadows in the game's many dungeon settings.
Instead of a towering, and somewhat bland, menace of a dungeon, we now have completely separate dungeon environments, each relating to the imagination of whomever takes up residence there. The layout and exploration of the dungeons remains relatively the same; run around each floor killing off shadows, opening treasure boxes and taking the stairs to the next floor, however, the difference in tone to each dungeon greatly reduces repetition. And, as expected, each dungeon comes with different types of shadows to battle, each with various strengths and weaknesses that help keep the experience of dungeon crawling fresh and enjoyable.
The combat retains most everything that Persona 3 had, but manages to employ a few differences that make it more enjoyable. For one thing, you no longer need to worry about your team-mates messing up, since you can now have full direct control over your entire party, furthermore, a lot of the status ailments, physical abilities and 'One More Time' functions are more stream-lined. It's not really a case of down-sizing what Persona 3 had, but rather meshing it all together in a manner that keeps the combat more fluid and enjoyable, while still retaining all the flavours needed to keep the game tactical and challenging.
On the whole the turn-based combat works extremely well, and has ignited plenty of enjoyment from me, especially with some of the boss battles that require plenty of strategy and pre-planning. There are some balance issues, though, that shame the otherwise superb experience. Like a lot of Japanese developers, Atlus are reluctant to find a more appropriate method of punishment for players beyond simply relying on that age-old tactic of having save points few and far between and only allowing re-load of a manual save, rather than any check-point system. It's easy to say "Just stop failing at the game, idiot", but when death can mean anything from 1-2 hours grinding down the pan, to having to endure another 10 minute speech-fest before a boss battle starts (on-top of the fact that it takes far too long to go from death, to main menu, to game-play), it makes it hard to not highlight all this as a flaw.
It's one thing being attuned enough to know how to avoid death, but there are still times when even veterans will get an unlucky hit from a strong shadow, find themselves in a battle where shadows have a free-hit, and subsequently having the Protagonist die during the situation equalling game-over (on Normal and Expert mode, anyway). Since it's instant game-over when the Protagonist dies, regardless of if his team-mates are still alive or not, not having a more compelling method of progress keeping is a disappointment.
Of course, knowing the difference between what Garu is and what Dia does is the first step toward knowing how to play Persona 4, and to play it well. Newcomers will find the strange dialogue of combat hard to grasp at first, but the helpful use of the square button highlights and explains things that would perhaps complicate further down the line. The whole use of menus and game information is very well done, in fact, to the point where I would say it is a huge improvement over Persona 3 which itself had a very sluggish interface. Buying and selling is a lot less painless this time round, as is switching from information such as what equipment you have to something like persona abilities; it's all a lot more refined, and immediately noticeable to any player of Persona 3.
What abilities your persona will have can depend on your interaction with other people; a feature that makes up the other half of what Persona is about. Sharing time with other students of Yasogami High School, or even outsiders, will eventually lead to the creation of Social Links; something that will empower certain personas, and ultimately allow the creation of a powerful persona should the social bond reach its climax. Creating and strengthening social links with your fellow persona-wielding team-mates actually enhances their combat abilities, which I found to be a cool addition. For example, by creating a bond with Yosuke - a chap you meet early on - he will actually be able to take a potentially lethal blow that would otherwise hit and kill the Protagonist (this actually helps to counter the issue of instant death I mentioned earlier, although this ability only works for single-target attacks, not whole-team attacks).
Social links rise faster or slower depending on the type of responses you give, and so it becomes a test to read what type of person you're talking to, and to then say things they want to hear in order to obtain greater persona power. It sounds somewhat detached and unemotional when you read it like that, but in playing the game it's easy to instantly like the majority of characters you meet. It's also staggering to see how the whole persona database works with regards to social links and fusion (combing personas together to make a stronger persona) and highlights just how much depth Persona 4 has. Merely attempting to max-out every social link and obtain each persona is a respectable feat, despite the majority of it being completely optional.
Yet, because Persona 4 is such a likeable game, it's easy to look for excuses to make sure it lasts as long as possible. Fortunately there is plenty to do besides the clue gathering and mandatory dungeon crawl; there's 50 quests scattered through the game that range from collecting materials from a dungeon so a student can fix her desk, to asking a girl if she can sense her twin sister's telepathy. There's also the aforementioned optional social links; attempting to fill the persona database; fusing certain personas together to impress the mysterious woman in the Velvet Room; optional bosses; different game endings... and maybe even more -- I've yet to see everything the game has to offer. Play-time should average around 70-100 hours, and with the different choices you can make during the game, and the ability to carry over some character data for a new game, there's more than enough reason to play through Persona 4 more than once.
Persona 4 is identical to Persona 3 in many ways; it's visually similar and it plays very similar. However, even having a sequel similar to Persona 3 would be enough to guarantee success regardless, though perhaps the ending result would be of something still good, but not wholly impressive.
However, Atlus have not only managed to match the excellence of Persona 3, but have, most surprisingly in fact, surpassed it, with a sequel that ticks most of the boxes listed for things a good sequel needs. Persona 4 has improved in many key areas that not only make it a fitting sequel, and not only a superb RPG, but a game that is on a console nearly decade old and yet still manages to blow everything away that all of the three major consoles attempt to offer.
You can keep your Last Remnant and your Infinite Undiscovery, Persona is where it's at. Keep it up Atlus.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 04/20/09
Game Release: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (EU, 03/13/09)
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