Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4

Almost a decade after the release of Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, gamers outside of Japan were treated with the third installment of the Revelations: Persona series of Shin Megami Tensei. Completely revolutionizing the series and the way gamers saw the Persona side stories, Persona 3 was a groundbreaking exercise in what is truly fun about RPGs. It introduced many innovative new facets of gameplay that were completely refreshing to play through rather than sit through the same old, stale, RPG for the umpteenth time. With such a stellar effort that even prompted the add-on disc to come to America, it was going to be a tough gig to follow. Not surprisingly, however, Atlus has hit another home run with the release of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4.

In the quiet, rural town of Inaba, the unnamed protagonist (the norm for the Persona games) has just moved from the big city to live with his new caretaker, Detective Dojima. Dojima lives with his young daughter Nanako. Shortly after moving to the small town, a murder occurs. A young television announcer’s body has been hung from an antenna in the school district. During this strange event, the protagonist makes acquaintance with fellow students Chie, Yosuke, and Yukiko. They surmise that the murder might have been a crime of passion, as the TV announcer had been involved in a scandal between other celebrities. The idea of “true love” is brought up, and sprightly Chie suggests that the protagonist, Yosuke, and herself tune into the “Midnight Channel” to see who their true love may be. The “channel” is a TV with the power off that must be viewed at midnight when it’s raining. However, rather than seeing their “other halves,” the trio instead witnesses a murder. Soon after, the protagonist discovers that there is a world inside the TV that he can enter and leave freely. In the following days, their friend Yukiko goes missing, having been tied to the previous murder. The three work out that the world inside the TV is somehow related to the string of bizarre murders that are occurring around the small town, and they must get to the bottom of things before more people–or themselves–are killed.

Persona 4’s core gameplay is relatively unchanged from Persona 3, but there are just enough tweaks and rearrangements that it feels much like an entirely new game. Everything that takes place in the storyline is divided up into in-game days. At the start of a day, the hero rises and ventures to school. At school, there are various activities to tackle. For instance, just like in a real classroom, you will be asked to answer questions(what is a definite article, historical trivia, fun facts) that can be used to raise your attributes. You can join one of many different after-school clubs that will raise different stats, and will strengthen character bonds. Of course, school isn’t in session every day. In those instances, the daytime is yours to do with what you like. After school activities are over, you can venture out into the town to get some shopping done, to tackle a job to make some precious money, or venture out into the world in the TV to navigate various dungeons.

Dungeons may be the most integral part of the campaign, but don’t think that you’ll get far without taking the time to manage your time effectively. For instance, you could waste every single day balancing school work, your job, social engagements, and recreational activities and completely ignore your training in the TV world. It can be a bit tough to walk the line between eradicating Shadows in the dungeons and learning about Mesopotamia, but it is doable, even if you need to sit down and write out a reference to keep to.

Much like the lunar phases in Persona 3, Persona 4 has introduced a weather forecasting system. Counting down to the full moon was prominent in the previous game. Now it’s the fog that you need to watch out for, as fog in the real world corresponds with danger in the TV world. Often a heavy fog will encompass the town after a few days of nonstop rain, so before that day comes it’s an absolute must that you get in, rescue the current victim, and get out. If you fail to comply, it’s game over. I felt that this was an interesting ultimatum that added some nice tension.

Unlike Persona 3’s ever-evolving Tartarus that players infiltrated to traverse a shifting dungeon, the TV world transforms into a differently themed dungeon area with every new victim that must be rescued. I found this a welcome change for the series, as scouting Tartarus did begin to feel hackneyed after visiting almost every single day, different floors or not. Now the dungeons change according to your tasks within. There have been some slight adjustments made to what goes on inside dungeons, however. First off, rather than scouting the area for a staircase, you’ll need to open various doors and explore a maze-like structure for each floor. This can get old extremely fast, seeing as the ability to return to the beginning of the dungeon is no longer an option unless you have a special item to do so. If you really want to leave, you must find the floor that allows a return, or use up a perishable item.

What’s more, you are not fully healed upon returning to the dungeon entrance. This is a glaring issue I had with the dungeons, as items are costly and yen is hard to come by. It would have been a much more polished and manageable experience had you still been able to heal in a much easier fashion. Quite often I found myself back at the beginning of the dungeon after spending 2-3 hours leveling because I was out of healing or escape items. There is no ability to save in the dungeon itself. If you are a gamer with a frustratingly low amount of time to spend on making progress, then this is one reason that you may not enjoy the game. I feel that at the very least, a quick save could have been in order, as the difficulty ramps up considerably when you are least expecting it, and it’s never fun to lose hours of gameplay only to have to attempt it all again. Even playing it on “normal,” while playing through to the second dungeon, I have lost an estimated 8+ hours that I obviously cannot get back.

It seems as though Atlus has aimed to make this iteration of the series a bit more difficult, as even the rare treasure chests have been altered. Now, rather than simply walking up to a golden chest and opening it, you must be armed with a chest key. Chest keys are obtained by defeating certain monsters or meeting different conditions. You must pick and choose between which rare chests you want to open now. This leads to a lot, and I mean a LOT of backtracking through areas you’ve already explored in order to open a locked chest that may or may not contain something useful. Finding rare chests was a feat in itself already. I’m not sure why they felt changing the way they were accessed was a good move, but it turns me off of wanting to find them.

Fighting is your average turn-based exhibition that we see in the majority of RPGs. Teammates are not directly controlled, but it’s possible to change their “tactics” between full assaults (melee), conserving SP (akin to mana), or to use healing items whenever possible. The tactics work reasonably well, and AI manages to make the correct decisions most of the time, but in some boss battles it becomes a frustrating game of Russian Roulette. Will your teammate use a healing item on you since it’s game over if the protagonist dies or will they use a spell that the enemy is immune to, and waste their turn? You can never be too sure. I didn’t particulary enjoy this in Persona 3, either, but since you can get by without an abundance of problems, I can easily overlook it. Fights are visceral and entertaining, and there are a wide variety of strange, wicked enemies to defeat.

Another particularly annoying facet that has been changed is the “Shuffle Time” bonus mechanic that randomly pops up after certain battles. You are shown several different cards. Some contain bonuses such as experience boosts, money boosts, and some contain new Personas. The ones left over are either blank, or penalty cards that take away any bonuses you may have previously earned. In Persona 3 the cards would shuffle after you were shown what was available, and then you would be free to choose the one you want, making it easier to memorize which was which and to get something beneficial. Now, you must simply stop the card as it passes through the center of the screen. This is annoying because more often than not, you’re stuck with either a blank or a penalty card. When you need different Personas in order to progress through the game at a reasonable pace, the game isn’t making it particularly easy to receive new ones.

And now for the meat of the game–the Personas. The main character receives his Persona not by placing an evoker to his head and pulling the trigger, but by facing his “other self” in the TV world. From there the Personas are drawn into battle via usage of tarot cards. This makes for a much less entertaining animation when using them in battle, but they’re as handy as ever. There is a wide, wide range of different Personas to use, many returning from the previous games. As each belong to different arcanas, choosing the correct one to fight against certain enemies is key to success. Meeting and befriending new people to power up Social Links is integral as well, because without creating said links, it’s impossible to fuse the big guns later on in the game.

The Velvet Room has returned, where you can fuse, store, and resurrect Personas that you have registered in the compendium. Nothing has really changed with the summoning or usage of different Personas, except without the Evokers of Persona 3, the animations of characters calling them forth feel just a tad boring in comparison. It’s hard to beat putting a fake gun to your head, though.

This is a PlayStation 2 title, so what’s offered in graphics obviously isn’t the best of what could be, but it does a fantastic job of working with what the system has. Anime cut scenes are fit between integral game moments, and this go-around they are of much better quality than Persona 3’s. In the previous incarnaton, anime scenes paled in comparison to the anime headshots of characters in-game, leading you to wonder if the same team actually even worked on the cinematics. Now the animation is detailed and fluid, and a treat to watch. Character designs are interesting and varied, and as usual there are a ton of supporting characters to meet.

The voice acting is top-notch, as I have come to expect from many Atlus titles, and music tracks are engaging and lively. Recurrent musical themes that play often have long since wormed their way into my head, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I will be buying this game’s soundtrack as well.

Overall, Persona 4 feels very similar to its predecessor, but changes so many things that you can’t at all say that it’s Persona 3 with a new skin. The difficulty has been ramped up considerably what with all of the new game mechanics, but it offers the same solid RPG experience that we’re starting to lose sight of in the days of current-gen graphics and flashy, convoluted sob stories of RPG narratives. Persona 4 is just further proof that Atlus knows what they’re doing when it comes to creating engaging titles, despite the flaws this game contains. It’s a must-play for RPG gamers, and anyone who is looking for a challenging, entertaining PS2 purchase. I can’t think of a better way for the PS2 to go out, than with a fantastically voiced, difficult, and polished bang.

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