Think that life simulation, dungeon crawling, and supernatural murder mystery solving all go together? Then Persona 4 is for you.
Released in 2008 by Atlus on the PS2, the latest entry into the subseries of the Shin Megami Tensei games known as Persona, Persona 4 takes the template set up by Persona 3 and adds a few tweaks to the system incorporated with an all new story and cast. Persona 4 also seems to break the cycle of the series being redesigned from the ground up as the predecessors have, which may have angered a few hardcore SMT fans, but the rest of the gaming world seems deeply satisfied.
Like Persona 3, Persona 4 is a mix between life simulation and dungeon crawling, and the game progresses day by day. The days are separated into morning, afternoon, and night; each with different actions being available. The mornings largely consist of you being in class, the game usually fast forwards through this, but occasionally you’ll get quizzed on random trivia and if you get it right, you’ll increase certain stats. In the afternoon, you get either a choice between progressing into the TV world to complete the various dungeons, or to hang out with various students (or get a job) to increase your social link levels (more on this later). At night, there isn’t much to do but study to increase your knowledge, read a book to increase other stats, or go to sleep to go to the next day. Occasionally there’ll be mandatory story events at night.
For the dungeon crawling, you are tasked with reaching the top of the tower and defeating the boss by the specific deadline, or risk having a game over. Unlike Persona 3, the dungeon layouts aren’t randomly generated, and you also have the ability to go down to lower floors if the enemies are getting too tough for you. Dungeon navigation is done in full 3D, and you get to see your character, and your party members following you around. The monsters (called shadows) are visible on screen, so there’s none of the annoyance of random encounters. You are unable to tell what kind of shadows you’ll fight, as they are displayed by a generic shadow sprite. You are also able to swing your sword at the shadows to initiate the battles, if you successfully swing it, you can have an initiative at the beginning of battle. If you fail, or just touch the shadow, you just have a regular battle. The shadows are also able to chase after you, so if they catch you, they get the initiative. Though if you are above a certain level in each dungeon, you are able to scare off the shadows.
The battle system is largely your traditional turn based battle system, but most of your abilities focus on you summoning various Personas. Personas are what the series calls the various monsters you summon into battle. Many of them are based on various mythological characters from various cultures around the world. Each Persona has their own stats, abilities, and weaknesses, and the hero is the only one with the ability to have multiple Personas while the rest of your party only has their own special Persona. To gain more Personas, you get an event after certain battles to collect the cards with Personas on them. They briefly flash you the cards and you have to get the card right, the penalty will risk you leaving empty handed, and possibly losing all the experience you got from the battle. For your party, you have a choice between having the rest of your party under tactics to let the AI do the thinking for you, or for full manual. Luckily the AI in this game is fairly smart, and you can go through the game with tactics with no problems.
The big deal with the Personas is fusion. While the ones you gain from battles have their abilities, they are fairly weak and only know one or two moves. Your task is to go to the Velvet Room and fuse Personas together to gain stronger Personas with more, and stronger, moves. You are also able to save Personas into a compendium to recall them later if you want them back, but they cost money.
Your character has two different sets of stats: one for battle, and one for social. The battle stats are your basic RPG stats, but the social stats can help you along with the social aspect of the game. Allowing you to be able to talk to certain people, or to initiate certain story events.
The beauty of Persona 4 is how the social aspects of the game, and the dungeon crawling aspects are fairly dependent on each other. The social links are corresponded with a certain tarot card arcana, one social link for one arcana. The various Personas are also categorized by tarot card arcana. If you hang out with the social link people enough, the corresponding link will level up, this in turn gives your Persona an experience boost when you fuse to make them even stronger, and saves you grinding time. Each of your party members also have social links, so if you max out a party member’s social link, their Persona evolves into a stronger one.
With the social links, you basically hang out with a person and help them through their dilemma. You get to watch various people work through their life problems, and you get a warm fuzzy feeling inside when you help them out. The girls’ social links have a slightly different ending, if you max out a girl’s social link, they will ask you out and you can start dating. The problem with this is if you have a bunch of girls around a certain social link level, they’ll start to get jealous and leave you with a broken social link that you must then mend! If you do time everything right, you are able to have multiple girlfriends in the game, and end up dating all of the girls in your party (and then some What a stud!)
Story and Cast:
The protagonist has no default name, but if you watched the anime, or played Persona 4 Arena, he is known as Yu Narukami, and for the sake of this review, we shall also associate him as such.
You play as Yu Narukami as he has to spend a year of high school at a new school in the small town of Inaba. Your parents are going to be working for the entire year overseas and you must live with your uncle Dojima and your elementary school cousin, Nanako. As you enter the school, you soon befriend 3 students: the goofy Yosuke, tomboy Chie, and the elegant Yukiko, who are all friends.
Chie tells you of a rumor flying around school about something known as the Midnight Channel, where if you watch TV at midnight when it’s raining, you’ll see your destined lover on there. As the game goes on, you discover that the people on the channel show up missing, and appear dead a few days later, and you and your friends begin to notice something suspicious, as clearly you can’t have a Shin Megami Tensei game without murder victims. You then discover that there’s a hidden world inside the TV and there’s a strange bear known as Teddie who tells you about a stranger throwing people inside and you find out that those people were the kidnapped victims.
Most of the game cycles around you seeing a person on the Midnight Channel, and jumping into the channel to prevent them from dying. All while trying to figure out who the culprit behind the murders and kidnapping. They also tend to mix in stories revolving around your high school experience which tends to follow some typical tropes from anime school shows like: summer vacation, school camping trip, school festival, swimsuit scene, etc. While the story may have a dark demeanor in it, there’s also a mix of comedy into it to lighten the mood. While the game can feel a bit repetitive after awhile, the story events can be quite enjoyable and give very nice breaks away from the grinding. While there are plot twists in the story, you won’t have to worry about M Night Shyamalan style twists like a few Final Fantasy games, and the story is a bit straightforward.
The game is largely voice acted, with only the social links not being voiced. There is only the English voice cast, so if you’re a Japanese voice purist, then you will be disappointed. Though if you’re okay with English voices, the voice cast is very well done and has some big names like Johnny Yong Bosche of Bleach and Code Geass fame and Ali Hillis from Final Fantasy XIII and Mass Effect.
There is a fairly large cast, but each of the main characters get their time in the spotlight, and thanks to the social links, your party members don’t feel underdeveloped and paper thin like some other RPG’s. They don’t throw a large cast at you in the beginning, since you slowly accumulate more as the game progresses.
The art style is largely anime based, and Atlus also doesn’t disappoint with the graphics which are quite good for a late PS2 title. Everything is rendered in 3D polygons, and the characters are full sized (none of that super deformed nonsense) and very closely resemble the anime graphic they show when they’re talking. Even the anime graphic has different facial expressions when they’re talking, to add to their feelings.While you are only able to rotate the camera while you’re in a dungeon, or at school, you still feel like you’re running around in a small town despite the limited exploration you can do. Occasionally there are full anime cutscenes, but they are fairly rare.
A few screenshots:
The game comes with a CD of the soundtrack, luckily it’s a fantastic soundtrack. Persona 4 follows the steps of Persona 3 by having a more J-pop influenced soundtrack with vocals sung in English. Luckily, unlike 3, the Japanese vocalist has a much better English accent and you can understand what she is saying, whereas with Persona 3’s vocalist, you’d think she’s singing in Japanese until you look at the lyrics and it’s supposed to be in English.
While some of the songs have a J-pop twist, it’s not that fluffy and cute stuff that some people associate J-pop with, and there’s several instrumental tracks to keep with the mood of the game when it starts to get dark.
As typical of a Shin Megami Tensei game, this is quite a monstrous game and will be quite lengthy. Luckily there’s plenty to do in the game to break from the mundainty, and you will be kept on your toes over who the killer is. With its colorful cast and great story, Persona 4 is perfect for those who want to dedicate time to a lengthy RPG that doesn’t crush under its own weight.
Visuals (Or Graphics): 9/10.