Name: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4
Platform: PlayStation 2
Before 2007, I was unfamiliar with the Persona series, as well as the entire world of Shin Megami Tensei. That changed when a strange-looking, little-known game called Persona 3 came out for the PS2 in the summer of that year, and despite being unlike anything I had ever played before, I soon grew obsessed with it. Over a hundred hours later, it had become my Game of the Year, despite being on a last-gen system. When Persona 4 was announced I thought that no game could ever live up to the experience of P3, even if it was part of the same series, so I went into it with cautious excitement. It wasn’t long before I was once again ignoring my next-gen systems, watching hours that felt like minutes pass, as I sat in front of the television compulsively making social contacts, crawling through dungeons, and collecting and fusing Personae. Somehow, despite only a little over a year between releases, Persona 4 has managed to suck me in just as much as its predecessor, and I haven’t wanted to stop playing since.
Persona 4 has taken everything that was great about the Persona 3 experience, and improved upon it. It also managed to change enough aspects from P3 to ensure it doesn’t just feel like a rehash. Instead of taking place in a city, with the main characters all residing in a boarding school dorm, Persona 4 is set in a sleepy, rustic Japanese country town called Inaba, where the main attractions are a historical inn and a big department store. As the protagonist, you have just moved from the city to Inaba, and are staying with your police chief uncle and young cousin for a year. As soon as you arrive in town, a woman is mysteriously murdered one foggy night, and the act is repeated when the next fog rolls in. While the town’s police force is clueless, you and your friends soon discover that there are strange, sinister forces at work here, all inside the world of the television.
While the shadows and dungeon area in Persona 3 existed in a strange time called the “Midnight Hour”, this time around the party goes into a foggy world inside the TV. That’s right, they actually go into a TV, a power that only a certain few characters have. Weather changes have replaced lunar cycles in dictating when important events take place, but the game still progresses on a timeline that follows a school year. In place of one very tall dungeon, there are different areas for different characters, as the dungeons and bosses represent hidden feelings and suppressed thoughts of the victims. As a result of this, there are some very dark and sometimes disturbing themes at work in this game, and Atlus does not shy away from uncomfortable topics. For example, one dungeon represents a tough teenage gang member struggling with his sexual identity, and the area appears as a steamy bathhouse. This may seem really strange to some, but MegTen games are no strangers to controversy, and these internal struggles are integral to the plot.
The best improvement in the overall gameplay is the ability to completely control your teammates in battle. In Persona 3, while you could direct them to defend or heal the team, you never had complete command over the supporting characters, which sometimes led to random and unpredictable outcomes. You have the option to stick to that method in Persona 4, or you can take over completely. Personally, I found the upgraded system to be ideal. Having completely different dungeons is also quite refreshing; even though I enjoyed P3’s Tartarus, being able to explore a new environment keeps the combat from feeling stale or redundant. Personae are still stored and fused via the Velvet Room, and though Igor makes a return, he has a new assistant, which you’ll learn more about in the game. The turned-based, “one more” battle system works just as well as it did in Persona 3, and exploiting the weaknesses of your enemies and having a well-rounded team play a huge part in attacking.
Another change to the dungeon crawling is the removal of portals every five floors to allow the player a chance to leave if he or she so desires. This can be frustrating if you don’t have the time or resources to go ten floors of fighting without saving, as there is only one save point in each section (on the highest floor before the area’s main boss). However, since you can buy items that allow you to leave a dungeon and later return to the floor you left off on, this is easy enough to get around. That is, as long as you know to go into battle prepared. Another annoyance is the fact that if the protagonist is knocked out in battle, it’s automatically Game Over—despite the fact that you can now control your teammates. This can be a little cheap sometimes, especially if you’ve just explored ten floors and stumbled upon an extra-tough foe who immediately exploits your weakness, acts once more, and kills you. There is nothing more frustrating, in any game, than losing a lot of progress, and I just felt that it was unnecessary to keep this element of the game.
The social link system is almost exactly the same as it was in Persona 3, albeit with a completely new cast of characters to befriend. Links can be formed with certain people or groups throughout the game, some of which are introduced through story elements, and others that have to be found on your own. Time management is a big factor in Persona 4, especially with exploration in the TV world taking place after school instead of at night; it’s sometimes hard to balance fighting, clubs, sports, part-time jobs, and social activities, but it’s also important. Each decision the protagonist makes, from answering a question in class to figuring out what to do after school, feels like it carries some real weight to it, and comes with consequences. This is part of what makes the Persona series so unique despite having so many elements of traditional Japanese RPGs.
It’s hard to find things not to like about Persona 4, especially for fans of the series. The characters may not all be as appealing as the ones in the previous iteration, but that’s a matter of personal taste. Since Persona 4 is on the PS2, the game obviously doesn’t have the graphical capabilities found on next-gen games, but that doesn’t mean it’s unappealing. I enjoyed the return of anime-style cut scenes, which work wonderfully interspersed with the quirky visual style of the game. The dialogue can get cheesy and ridiculous at times, and the voice acting is occasionally irritating, but these are very minor complaints in a game with an interesting plot and fantastic gameplay. For the uninitiated, the use of Japanese culture, tarot-based Personae and social links, and some disturbing themes will probably seem a little strange, but I was never bothered by it.
It’s a shame that this game will probably not get the recognition it deserves, because Persona 4 is really an outstanding achievement in gaming. There’s no question that this is going to be one of my top games of the year, and any fan of JRPGs should be playing it when it’s released next week. I don’t know why Atlus decided to stick with the PS2, but honestly, I really don’t care. Despite not having the graphics of a current-generation title, Persona 4 is easily better than many games released on the 360 or PS3 this year. It’s also incredibly lengthy and replayable, and at $40, there’s hardly a reason not to buy it. It’s not for everyone, but those who have enjoyed MegTen games in the past are in for a real treat, yet again. I never expected this game to become as much of an obsession as the previous Persona did, but it’s hard not to get sucked in to Persona 4.