It’s always a tough sell in the States: a mix of supernatural battles with parts of your character’s psyche and…high school, set against a long and odd storyline pertaining, most likely, to the end of the world. But the Persona series, of the larger Shin Megami Tensei label, has found a dedicated following in the West, enough to make the previous installment a landmark title in the Playstation 2’s seemingly endless twilight years. Now in the countryside and sending characters through morbidly prophetic television sets, on the same withering console no less, will Persona 4 be able to recapture the sleeping hit status of its older cousin, or was shooting yourself in the head the only thrill this series can offer?
Setting itself apart from the urban life of most JRPGs, Persona 4 sets itself up in the rural Japanese town of Inaba, putting you into the shoes of an unnamed transfer student recently integrated into the town proper. You manage to room with a police detective named Ryotaro Dojima and his daughter, Nanako as you begin high school life, immediately after which the town is shrouded in a mysterious fog, during which two mysterious murders shake the hamlet’s community. Rumors quickly begin to reach your ears about something called “The Midnight Channel,” which can be accessed at midnight during rainy nights. A broadcast of “The Midnight Channel” directly corresponds with said murders, both of which are tied to a local celebrity’s infidelity. As friendships are established between the protagonist and other students, he becomes aware of a special ability he possesses, to summon a powerful proxy for part of his soul, called a Persona. Connecting the dots, he rounds up his recently acquired posse and leaps into the world of “The Midnight Channel” in order to track down the one murdering the citizens of Inaba, balancing other-wordly battles with the every-day tribulations of high school.
The series’ knack for inventive story hooks is as poignant as ever, the off-the-wall ideas inherent in the game’s opening act sure to draw in anyone with a hankering for the supernatural. Where Persona distances itself from its peers is that, after the strange prologue, the story continues to involve the player and drum up serious questions. This is a credit to Shin Megami Tensei’s eye for character, every person your mission brings you to having multiple layers of believable psyche and complex motivations. These ideological depths are revealed at a steady pace as the player gets closer to the facts surrounding the killer, giving the overall plot progression an even and novel-esque sensibility. Even the role-playing stereotype of one-line background characters is tinkered with, their smatterings of dialogue that evolves regularly with the plot, furthering the game’s sense of reality. Those between the background and major players tend to inhabit their respective one-dimensional archetypes inspired by their character design, but their sporadic appearances lessen their effect.
As the story takes a more subtle evolution across it’s many in-game vignettes, it’s definitely something that requires time and patience to become fully engrossed, but the continuous quirky underpinning keeps enough of a hook in for the greater development to sink in. Not a light series, Persona 4 continues the trend of its brood by tackling some incredibly deep subjects, like a character’s battle with sexual identity and the tendency for people to shelter themselves, both publicly and privately, from who they truly are. The more hardcore plot points are buffered with the lighter, slice-of-life elements of the daytime gameplay elements, but the story as a whole digs deep and, while isolating itself from a much larger fanbase because of its maturity, will find a dedicated following in any player willing to give it a chance.
Persona 4 immediately gives off a self-aware style. Retaining the anime aesthetics the series has become associated with, cinemas pumping a constant, high-energy jazzy-pop style that is unique to the title. The game prescribes a laidback and conservative design this time around; from the more worn-for-comfort character wardrobes to the idyllic layout of the townscape and lush, lower-contrast color palettes. Partly due to the game revolving so much around a rain cycle, Persona 4’s surroundings are detailed with lush greenery and slick, wet surfaces, giving the game a moody, yet peaceful sentiment. It all meshes seamlessly, giving a sense of rich world with both a sense of time and culture.
Menu designs are sharp and concise, with brightly covered, busy-looking backgrounds making the mandatory surfing for persona information – or, more importantly, during-combat commands – a simple and easy chore that negates the usual monotony that runs hand-in-hand with the mechanic. Monster designs reflect the game’s ‘inner self’ mantra well with surreal imagery rooted in noticeably normal foundations. Their movements are often limited to two or three actions, but the sheer number and variety between the several dozen different creatures makes the concession, if not forgivable, than understandable. Unfortunately, fans of the series’ will notice dozens of reused monster skins and spell effects, giving the title a bittersweet, sloppy second, taste. Of course, if this is your first foray into Persona, it’ll all be new to you.
On the audio front, the game opts for a more retro pop-driven soundtrack, the softer sound intensified by its swift tempo. Certain tracks are repeated to the point of insanity, but their mellow nature keeps them from clawing their way too deep into memory. Sound effects like weather and background noise are sparse but well implemented, rarely becoming cumbersome against scenes of dialogue. Character interactions are displayed through in-game text windows against an avatar, the voice-over track working very well with the lack of lip movement synching to worry about. Background actions by the in-game character models are static and repetitive, but at unobtrusive in their blandness. The smaller characters are limited to text, but those given voice are beautifully varied in their emotional delivery, furthering the game’s lush story flow.
Persona 4 comes in two flavors: RPG and High School Simulation. Though it doesn’t sound appealing at face-value, especially with the proposed 70 hours playtime, the combination quickly hits a rhythm and can become deeply involving as the story progresses. During the day (Early Morning – After School to be more precise) your Protagonist is a high school student, free to make and break friendships with various people across Inaga, be they fellow high school students or an ethereally acute shrine-fox. Far from busy work, spending the daylight hours doing so creates and builds up Social Links, levels of attraction and camaraderie between the Protagonist and the person in question, which can be leveled the more you devote your time to that person. Beefing up your Social Links affect the abilities of the various Personas you can create during the events later in the day. Players also have the options of attending a party time job or other various duties/activities to build up their basic statistics, which also have an in-battle effect come the moonlight hours. The part-time workload is especially helpful, as funds obtained from winning victories in the other world aren’t lucrative enough to keep your party fully equipped and healthy. Occasional in-game events are also triggered as the months wear on, midterms and family/friend outings providing the necessary story-centerpiece moments to balance out the quick-moving nature of day-to-day activity.
When the moon rises, players will have the option of entering ‘The Midnight Channel’ and doing battle with various creatures called Shadows. Entering into the battle will trigger a turn-based encounter with the spell and attack trappings one can expect from a traditional RPG. The player can call upon her/his Persona in battle do either do damage, cast status effects, or heal party members. If an enemy is knocked down by an exploited weakness or critical attack, your squad can pull together an “All-Out Attack,” an ultimate damage unison attack that uses all party members. One of the few new additions to the formula we see coming off of Persona 3 is the option to take full control over each party member in-battle, or allowing the computer A.I. to do the work for you. It’s a nice fix to a major dilemma in the past installments, and should round out those that will be able to get the hang of battle. The Protagonist having the rare skill to summon and hold more than one Persona, the player will later have the option to fuse two or more collected Personas with the help of the denizens of the Velvet Room, a mysterious older man and his female assistant with a subtle relationship to the outcome of the Protagonist’s efforts.
The timeline of the game is centered on weather forecasts, the player must ‘save’ various people from the fatal nature of ‘The Midnight Channel’ by the next appearance of the fog, which always sets in after a few consecutive days of rain. If the player fails to do so, the character in jeopardy will perish, sending the player automatically back a week in time to correct their mistakes. It’s a usual device that compensates for the game’s rigorous time progression, days and weeks quickly flying by as the player becomes more and more adapt at socializing during the day. Some weather forecasts also offer Fusion specials, fusing a specific Persona on that day will give the creature a specific bonus to certain abilities. The player must traverse through randomly generated dungeons to reach a battle with the captured person’s shadow, the design of said dungeons being indicative of the captured persons deepest fears and worries (for example: a repressed girl wishing for her “prince” to save her from her boring life has a dungeon in the form of a castle.) It’s a wonderful effort that furthers the plot’s metaphoric journey through the human psyche and, more importantly, adds variety to the required – if lessened – hours of level-crunching.
The most detrimental aspect to the gameplay of Persona 4 is its initial challenge. Even those used to the formula might rush into the flow of the game, finding the first few battles with shadows to be unforgiving in their difficulty. While the game does necessitate some slogging through to maintain character strength, the individual battles are quick enough to become tedious, and the randomizing items present an ulterior motivation for extra dungeon crawling. Individual dungeon levels quickly blend together, their straightforward layout, giving a feeling of monotony to the non-boss battle proceedings, especially with the sparse use of checkpoints requiring run-throughs of many levels in order to escape. Luckily, the high-school moments offer a reprieving balance to the gameplay, their low-stress progression a perfect counter to the battle’s intensity. Even though the doors may open horizontally and the English voices eagerly chirp name additives like “-san,” and “-kin,” the combination of school and saving the world have a universal taste, the balance between the two giving Persona 4 an incredibly addictive nature that will make the in-game months fly by.
Most gamers can decide whether Persona 4 is for them with a trailer, its anime style and quirky aesthetics seeping through in practically every screenshot. A quasi-repetitive dungeon crawler at heart, the everyday dramas of its high school simulation add perfect balance across the girth of its play time, it’s well paced, mature story and rich attention to detail stitching it all together in an incredibly unforgettable experience. If RPGs have never been your thing, Persona may not change your mind (in fact, it may further turn you off the formula), but anyone willing to work through the initial difficulty after the story hook wears off will find a dramatic and engaging tale beset on all sides by an addictive and entertaining mesh of ideas.
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Genre:Role-Playing Game / Simulation
Publisher:Atlus (North America, Asia, Japan) Square Enix (Europe) Ubisoft (Australia)
Rating:M for Mature
Release Date:December 9th, 2008