Review by KWang

"And it is with this game that the PlayStation 2 goes out. I doubt the PS2 has anything left to top this"

Along with being one of the most successful and popular consoles in video game history, the PlayStation 2 has also been one of the most remarkably long-lived. From its release in 2000, it continued to receive strong support from many companies even after the release of the PlayStation 3 suggested that high definition would become the new standard. As the PS2 kept seeing the release of high-budget titles such as Final Fantasy XII and God of War II in 2006 and 2007 respectively, it seemed that the PS2 was really not on its last legs after all. However, after a period of silence and shortage of good games, it seems the PS2 has made a surprise comeback in late 2008 with the release of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4.

The name "Shin Megami Tensei" will most likely seem unfamiliar to most fans of video games other than the most hardcore RPG fanatics. The truth is that while the series does okay in Japan where it originated, it has never been that popular in the West. Its dark themes and high levels of difficulty have largely shut out potential fans who are more likely attracted to "casual" RPGs like Final Fantasy. But with Persona 4, that is changing a little bit. The title is not so much actually a Shin Megami Tensei title as it is a spin-off of it. As such, it is noticeably less dark and less difficult, but still considerably moreso than the average RPG.

A few things set this game apart from the other RPGs on the market, beside the high difficulty that can be adjusted upon starting the game. There is a "social" element to this game often likened to a dating simulator, although I honestly don't see much resemblance. The player takes control of a silent and nameless protagonist, a male Japanese student in his second year of high school. The game follows a calendar system that spans from April of 2010 to 2011. The clock is not real-time though, meaning the time in the real world does not determine the time in the game. During each part of the day (Morning, After School, Evening, etc.), the player may take several actions that can only be done at certain times of the day, some of which automatically advance time in the game.

After the player finishes a day of school, he may spend the afternoon exploring the inside of a television. Yes, that's right. This is an RPG after all, and the fantasy elements are mostly kept inside a television into which the player can fall in. This mysterious TV world hosts a number of hostile entities called Shadows, who serve as the enemies of the game. Upon entering the TV, the player is brought to a central hub area, where paths to different dungeons are available to take. These dungeons are randomly generated, but their floors follow the theme of the dungeon. On the floors are shadows that can be fought by moving into them. Aside from the shadows, there are treasure chests containing items, and stairs for moving on to the next floor. Each dungeon typically contains about ten floors, and at the top is a boss fight which advances the story upon being finished. That's about it as far as variety is concerned. The entire game follows this formula, and it becomes stale after about the third time.

The dungeons do not have any features for distinguishing one floor from another. All the floors look more or less the same, and contain the same basic shadows to fight, possibly with a few treasure chests here and there. Depending on how much you care about exploring each floor to its entirety and wiping out every shadow you see, the time spent on each floor can be as little as less than five minutes or reach more than half an hour. It really doesn't matter how much time you choose to invest on each floor, because either way, you'll be doing the same tedious fighting the whole time.

Battles with the shadows should be familiar to most experienced RPG players. They are completely turn-based, with absolutely no timing involved. After one character acts, it is the turn of the next. In a character's turn, basic commands such as attacking physically, using magic, using an item, attempting to run away, defending, or scanning the enemy can be taken. Characters and enemies alike all have their own elemental affiliations, and striking a weakness not only does extra damage to the target, but it also causes them to fall down. If all the enemies are fallen, then the party can perform an "all-out" attack, in which the members combine their strength to perform a powerful physical attack that damages every enemy. While this was an interesting idea, it was already seen in Persona 3 for those familiar with that title.

The real key to the difference of the Persona series is the use of Personas to aid the characters in battle. The Personas determine the stats of the character, what abilities they may use, and what kind of elements they are strong or weak against. Only the main character can change his Persona; the rest of the party members each have their own, but they are stuck with them for the entire game. So it really is up to the main character to make the important decisions, because he is the one with the most flexibility. In another sense, he is the most important because if he dies, the game ends. It is vital to keep him safe if you don't want to be taken to the game over screen and start from where you last saved.

I don't want to argue about whether it is logical for the game to end if the main character dies, but the main problem here is that the game becomes too hard because of it. If the party becomes ambushed by the Shadows, you had better hope they do not all gang up on the main character and use an element that he is weak against. If you encounter enemies that self-destruct to take the party out, you had better pray that they do not take the main character down with them. The enemies are so merciless that they don't care whether you're almost at the final floor of a dungeon but haven't saved since the beginning, they will frustrate you and make you restart dungeons. Sure you can save, but doing so requires going back to the dungeon's entrance, so you lose time either way.

Fortunately, there are aspects of the game that are less frustrating. The social element of this game involves spending time with other characters, some of which are NPCs, and some of which are your classmates. By doing so, you increase the potential at which your Personas may grow. It's kind of a long stretch, considering that most of them don't even know about your Personas anyway. Nevertheless, it is important to keep an eye on the social links and make sure not to neglect them. Otherwise, you may find that your Personas are so weak that you cannot even advance in the game. To the player not understanding the significance of the social links at first and assuming that the game is all about dungeon crawling and fighting, the game may seem so overwhelming that it ceases to be fun.

You see, there is a time limit to completing the dungeons. Not in the sense that a timer is counting down to your doom, but you must defeat the dungeon's final boss before a specific calendar day. If you procrastinate too much (or were simply not strong enough to defeat the boss before the deadline), the game arbitrarily sends you back seven calendar days in time, telling you to use this time to get it right the next time. Any progress you had made during this time is lost, and it is at this checkpoint that you must start over. At least the game doesn't force you to start a new game. Since you must manage your time wisely, it is crucial to keep a balance between fighting and doing social links and other things, because otherwise, you lose your work. Thankfully, this doesn't happen too often unless you really squander your time.

The reason for this imposed time limit is that within the TV, there is a victim at the end of each dungeon (along with the boss) whom it is your goal to save. Not saving them in time results in their deaths, and you don't want that. These people mysteriously vanish from the real world, and the party deduces that they are in fact stuck inside the TV. It is only by reaching them that they can leave the TV world with the rest of the party. I suppose the idea is fairly original, but at the same time, it is every bit as laughable as it seems. The significance of this TV is not explained until the very end of the game, and even then, the reasoning will seem like the writers simply ran out of ideas and decided to chalk everything up to deus ex machina.

If you're a fan of anime, this game may very well suit your tastes. All the characters are drawn in this style, as well as a few occasional pre-rendered cutscenes at significant intervals in the story. Otherwise, you will not find much appeal in the graphics. This game could have been released as a launch title for the PS2 and nobody would have been impressed with its graphical power. Final Fantasy X, which came out for the PS2 seven years before this game, looked much better, but the emphasis of this game is hardly about the graphics. It seems to be more about dungeon crawling and social links.

The music is also short of excellent, unfortunately. While few of the tracks are forgettable, they are also not so great that you would want them to be stuck in your head. While composer Shoji Meguro is not the most talented musician available to create video game music, his works are often appropriate for the setting and are rarely terrible. Interestingly enough, many of the tracks for this game, including the battle theme, have vocals all sung by the relatively obscure Shihoko Hirata. The logical explanation would be to remind you that you're actually playing in real world modern Japan, but the lyrics are in English. Well, the singer has a Japanese accent, and the lyrics often don't make any sense, so that must have been how they reached a compromise.

Just as a warning before you go out and rush to buy this game, this game is extremely long. It's so long that the only longer game I've played is Persona 3. If you want to complete just the main story, that alone will take you a good 90-100 hours. If you want a game you can just pick up and play at any moment, this game is definitely not for you. That's not to say this is necessarily a bad game, but it's only suitable for a small target audience. Replay value can be found in starting a New Game Plus, in which the stats of your characters in a completed game carry over to the new file. But honestly, this game requires quite a bit of dedication if you want to spend another 90 hours doing the same repetitive dungeon crawling again. If rewatching the same unvoiced social link conversations a second time sounds like fun to you, there is that option in this game.

Other things to do include revisiting completed dungeons to fight a bonus boss at the end, but the truth is that a second visit is almost as time-consuming as the first, because you are forced to start from the beginning; you may not start from anywhere in the middle or the end. But in the end, it's really up to you whether you care enough to play through dungeons a second time. Doing so is really no different, although it is definitely more repetitive. If you complete each dungeon twice and defeat every bonus boss, you will have climbed through well over 100 floors. This is surely a test of patience more than fun.

Despite the flaws that Persona 4 has, it may be a worthwhile buy for those looking for a new RPG in the current generation severely lacking in the genre. If you liked Persona 3 or its FES special edition, you will likely like this game even more. With an original retail price at only $39.99, you are sure to get at least two hours of playtime per dollar if you actually finish the game. This game is actually not bad; it's just that less repetition and a little more polish would have made this an outstanding game. Nevertheless, the PS2 will likely never see an original title of quality this high ever again, so if you must complete your PS2 collection, this game is a necessary addition. Just be aware that it's not for everybody. Hopefully, Persona 5 for the HD consoles will be able to deliver where Persona 4 did not.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 03/29/10

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

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