"It's A Bit Rough Around the Edges, It Tends to Play With Your Hormones, But It Brings You Closer to the Truth"

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 is best described as a hybrid between a dating-sim and a regular RPG. If you've played the previous Persona 3, you'll clearly know what to expect. The Social Link system is back with a bit more complexities. The dungeon-crawling aspect which was prominent in the previous game however, has been toned down. But that doesn't really make the game less fun.

The game itself is a direct sequel to the popular Persona 3, taking place approximately two years after the end of the previous game. But the atmosphere and impression it gives strongly resembles the mood of earlier Persona games, like the original Persona and the two Persona 2. Probably hinting at how this time Atlus spent more effort in building the storyline, which was the biggest and perhaps the only flaw that Persona 3 had. So being a fan of the older Persona games, seeing this improvement clearly gave me some pretty high hopes.

Moving on to the story, as you may already know, the game shifts to a retro rural countryside setting where you play as a male high school student who just moved away from the big city where he was born, to stay with his relatives for a period of a year. His circumstances aren't really made clear, nor do they have any in-game importance. But then he dreams about meeting some strange old man (with a really long nose) that becomes an omen of the bizarre incidents which he yet must face.

So, not long after you, as the main character, transfer schools and start settling down in Inaba, the small countryside town where your detective uncle and your grade school cousin live, some crazy murder incidents start to take place. Because of a rumor going around town about some strange TV program that is broadcasted every midnight when the weather is foggy (the so-called Midnight Channel), you and your new school friends somehow stumble upon some clues which may just be the chance to prevent the next murders from happening. And so, begins your secret quest to save the next potential victims and also discover the truth (behind these mysteries).

Starting off from that simple premise, there's actually quite a lot of things that can be unveiled. Although it doesn't give off the cool, eerie impression that Persona 3 has, Persona 4's plot actually becomes more fun as you and your party members meet up regularly after school to gather clues and sort out various possibilities. This regular talk between party members feels just like the memorable conversations you go through in Persona 2, albeit being less complicated and also less frequent than before. It's actually a good start. With Atlus's capability to make even the most random things look cool, with its very, very, very good voice acting (it's hard to believe they actually managed to make it this good…) and very clever script, the game's events can be really, really captivating at most times. Again, similar to Persona 2, the story revolves around the theme of accepting the 'truth' about one's self and moving on. This alone was already enough to consider the game worth playing for me.

Like before, Atlus used several animated cutscenes to get the plot going. Like in the previous game, these cutscenes were also done very well. I think they didn't give us as much cutscenes as they previously did. But with the game's strong presentation and quality content, it doesn't make that much difference for me.

Inaba itself on the surface looks like a plain, boring old town. Very unlike the busy urban settings of the previous Persona games. But as you delve deeper and deeper into the mysteries, you'll find out that Inaba holds some extraordinary things in store which is hidden away from people's eyes.

Presentation.; Design, Graphics and Audio
I didn't really expect they would make the presentation any better than in Persona 3, but they did. The slightly moody blue tone of the previous game has been replaced with the more cheerful sunshine yellow. Sometimes there's this brownish atmosphere that supports the retro look, just like in old movies made in sephia. From that, there really isn't that much difference in terms of graphics compared to the previous game. But if you pay close attention to how the camera angles are situated and the way the character sprites move, you'll notice just how much more natural they actually made everything look. I tell you, that alone is actually a lot.

The camera angles can be sometimes be a bit awkward since it seems like the developers intended to make a slightly ‘cramped' feel, especially in dungeons and school classrooms. But all you need is to press the shoulder buttons a bit and, yeah, problem solved. So it never really did become a big deal.

The music is, well… it doesn't sound as strange as it initially did in Persona 3, to say the least. Probably because they moved back to the more casual techno tunes and J-pop, without the hip-hop. Besides, I don't think there really was as much variety in the tracks anyway. But most of the tracks in Persona 4 I really, really like. Especially the one used in the opening animation. I just sooo love it. The music and sound effects are really cool. So I don't really have any complaints regarding the audio either.

The strongest part of Persona 4's presentation however, is the character designs. The character designs are awesome. I never imagined there would be some artist that would impress me in SMT the way Kazuma Kaneko did. Yeah, the characters do look less cool than they did in Persona 3. The main character in Persona 4 may just be some ordinary guy compared to the nearly superhuman hero of the previous game. But the way they designed the characters made them really, really attractive. Even though they initially seemed a bit stereotyped (a rich kid, a tomboy, a princess, a thug, and even an… idol?!), each of them managed to somehow show off their unique traits as they actually develop (and I mean, seriously develop) both in main events and Social Link events.

Coupled with the flawless voice acting, Persona 4 has one of the most lovable casts an RPG could ever offer. Yeah, the voice acting could take a little time to get used to. Like always. But it's flawless, considering the emotional ups and downs the characters go through as the story progresses. They even added some voice acting for the relatively minor Social Link characters too. I never thought that they would actually do that!

I nearly forgot to mention how cool the Persona and Shadow designs are in this game. So once again, for my standards I must say that the presentation rocks.

However, the slight downside of Persona 4 lies in the gameplay. It's not really bad, since it has its good points and its bad points. But it just didn't offer the same intensity that Persona 3 had, even if you're playing in Expert mode.

In Persona 3, one wrong move during battle could immediately cause you to see the game over screen. In Persona 4, one wrong move during battle will still leave you a bit of a chance for a comeback, especially if you've been building your Social Links with your party members properly. Although the basic idea with the Persona and the turn-based battles are still the same, Persona 4 is much more forgiving considering several changes they made in the battle system. Persona 4's battles are still exciting by the way, with all its surprises and dynamic presentation. Overall, the game's like that too, so full of surprises. On the contrary, unlike the battles, the Social Link events are a bit of a different story. But I'll explain about that later.

For starters, the ‘1 More' feature, which gives you an extra turn if you ‘down' an enemy, by striking it with an attack that it's weak against or by landing it a critical hit (it also works the other way around), doesn't cause your enemy to lose a turn like it previously did. You'll still make more damage if you attack when you're enemy is ‘downed'. When you ‘down' all your enemies, you'll also still be given a chance to perform the notorious All-Out Attack just like in the previous game. But in Persona 4, turns are only lost if you or your enemy is made Dizzy by being struck by its weakness element again after(!) being ‘downed'. The problem is that striking an already ‘downed' enemy does NOT grant any extra turn. So you have a choice to gain another extra turn by attacking someone else, to aim for a chance to do an All-Out Attack, or to make sure that the enemy you just attacked really loses its next turn by attacking at its weakness again. On the other hand, striking with spells that attack multiple enemies this time can grant a ‘1 More'. So I think that so far, it's a pretty equal trade.

The intensity is toned down once more however, since unlike in Persona 3, the time you spend in dungeons is no longer limited by your stamina. There's no such thing as stamina in Persona 4. The floor layouts are still randomly generated. But you're now free to move up and down between floors and grind your levels as much as you like. Boring? Not really? It's just that there's one thing that may stop you from doing this, and that is the limited amount of supplies that you have. Also, the floor layout doesn't change before the passing of a day, making the number of treasures you may find in a day in a dungeon somewhat… yeah, limited.

No, I didn't mean that the items that you can get are literally limited. It's just that the developers somehow managed to balance the rate of the money you get and the money you spend. Making you often, like any other teenager would, broke. So not until later you can supply yourselves with the amount of items and weapons you need, which is also the reason why there are part-time jobs for you to do. Aside from the money, by doing part-time work, as well as other activities in this game, you'll also increase your status parameters and occasionally unlock opportunities for new Social Links.

So although they took out this ‘dungeon survival factor' which made Persona 3 intense, Persona 4 is still loads of fun. I guess Atlus was trying to make it suitable for more casual players. You'll still find intensity in the boss fights, by the way. The boss fights in Persona 4 may be some of the best designed boss fights ever made in RPGs. This one's hard to explain. Basically when against bosses, you often need to do more than just deplete its HP. Which is why dying in a boss fight can be so very annoying. And against these bosses, I'm actually thankful that Atlus gave us the feature to directly command our party members. So they no longer can go entirely automatic like in Persona 3.

The game's other aspect, the Social Links, like in the previous game, are basically the relationships you build with other characters that will further decide how much bonus Experience Points you get when fusing new Personas. In Persona 4, you'll still be living day by day as a regular high school student (a bit like in those Harvest Moon games), who struggles with his daily life problems like, making friends, keeping up at school, etc. Just like in Persona 3, the better you are in making friends, the literally stronger you'll become. The catch in Persona 4 is that Social Links with party members will grant more than just bonus Experience Points. Becoming better friends with party members will also increase their determination in battle, which shall enable them to later do some surprisingly incredible stuff.

Once again, regarding Social Links, your status parameters will affect your capability in making friends. Instead of just three parameters like in Persona 3, there are an additional two making a total of five: Knowledge, Courage, Expression, Understanding, and Diligence. Low Knowledge tends to get you low grades during school exams, while high Courage permits you to directly ask a female character out. Some available reactions during events may become unavailable if your Expression is low, and the amount of time you can spend fishing (yes, there is a fishing mini-game) depends directly on how high your Diligence is. So these status parameters play a really bigger role now.

What's great is that there are now a lot more ways for you to increase them when you're not investigating in dungeons: studying, working, eating in restaurants, giving out appropriate responses, and reading books. Sunday hangouts can often deal with multiple Social Links too, ruling out the illusion about how one Social Link character doesn't seem to know the other characters even exist. There's just so much that you can do, making the whole Social Link issue a whole lot more complicated than before. Most obviously because your time in Inaba is limited to only less than one year, it's a lot trickier to balance things out.

Adding more to the complexity is the weather factor, which replaces the boring moon phases of the previous game. Not just what day it is, but the weather will also decide whether you're friends are available for hang out or not. The weather will also give certain effects to the Shadows, these ugly masses of monsters you must face for you to succeed in your mission(s). And believe it or not, the progress of story events is entirely decided by the weather too. Is it raining long enough to show up a fog? That's when you ought to watch out.

Going on to another topic, there's not much change in the Persona fusion department. You'll still spend your time fusing your old Personas to make new ones in the mysterious Velvet Room. Accompanying Igor this time is the well-endowed Margaret, replacing the curious Elizabeth from the previous game. To be honest, I actually like Margaret better, so I'm quite happy with this change…

But anyway! There are still some other new features which I haven't mentioned. I'll leave the rest for you to find out. It'll be boring if I spoil all the fun.

The Truth
One bad aspect which I haven't mentioned is a bit dependent on what kind of gamer you are. The thing is, Persona 4 can be excruciatingly boring if you play it for more than three hours straight. Like Persona 3, the main storyline progresses sporadically and slowly, with character interaction, status building, and subquests filling the gap. Because there are just so many things to do which the results can only be seen later, doing routine chores without seeing much development can slowly but surely tire you out. Atlus made this game exciting with a lot of interesting possibilities and branches. But once you realize how you missed or failed to do something, you start to really, really lose the mood. And you're reluctance to play further starts to kick in. So, if you're a perfectionist gamer who can't handle regrets, stay away from this game.

Still, I strongly recommend to NOT play this game by using a guide. At least during your first playthrough. This is one of those rare good games which actually have an easy learning curve that's not hard to understand. It'll be a waste to spoil all the fun by playing it with a guide.

And if you do somehow manage to enjoy it until the end, you might be surprised by how satisfying this game is. Sure, it has its major flaws. But it has something else, some kind of meaning or something, which somehow makes you disregard its flaws and totally love the game. This something is only noticeable once you finally beat it and reach its true ending

Try not to see it as a game. See it as an experience. Try thinking about it after playing, then it'll help you change your life.

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 06/01/09, Updated 06/08/09

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

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