- If you're an RPG fan, you can't help but admit that Atlus is on a serious roll when it comes to fantastic gaming experiences on the PlayStation 2.
Last year, Atlus released Persona 3, which was an excellent RPG revolving around high school students, monsters known as Shadows and a mysterious time of day known as the "Dark Hour." It was an incredibly deep title, thanks to the mix of social interactions and dungeon crawling, and was one of the better games released last year.
Then, further improving on Persona 3, Atlus released Persona 3: FES earlier this year, a director's cut which expanded and improved the gameplay of its predecessor. There was no way that Atlus could outdo itself, right? I'm glad to say that this assumption has been proven wrong in spectacular fashion.
Somehow, Atlus has managed to take just about every single lesson that it's learned from these two titles and implement them into its latest RPG, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, which is truly an RPG classic in the making.
Eschewing the busy city life from the previous Persona games, Persona 4 is set within the sleepy countryside town of Inaba, where the protagonist of the game is sent to live with his uncle (a detective in the local police force) and his young cousin for a year. However, things quickly take a turn for the worse when one young woman turns up murdered in an extremely shocking manner. Not only is there a lack of clues and suspects, but the lone incident turns into a series of strange disappearances and murders as well.
As the police are baffled by the crime, the protagonist and his friends learn that these incidents have a connection to a rumored television show known as the Midnight Channel, which is supposed to reveal a person's soulmate but instead seems to reveal details on the crimes. Even stranger: the protagonist and his friends discover that only they have the ability to solve the mystery behind the crimes and potentially catch the killer before he strikes again.
In effect, while Persona 3 was a dungeon crawler in its purest sense, Persona 4 is a murder mystery set against the backdrop of familiar Persona 3 elements, with a number of notable changes. For one thing, players will not be waiting for midnight to fight the Shadows. Instead, players will be able to enter the television realm of the Midnight Channel during the afternoon in search of missing people.
This is actually a key facet to exploration, because the mystery within Persona 4 is dictated by weather patterns. Every now and then, a character will disappear into the television world, and will remain there until the weather in the real world becomes foggy. If the player hasn't rescued these people by this time, the person in the television world is killed and the game ends.
The weather patterns also affect different elements of the gameplay, such as rainy days making Shadows in the television world much stronger, or affecting the sales and productivity of shopkeepers, which can affect when you choose to explore the game's dungeons.
On top of this, there is no longer a mega dungeon like Tartarus was in P3 and FES. Instead, each dungeon is a more individualized representation of characters and their personal fears, issues and psychological hang-ups. As a result, each dungeon is "themed" with different problems that these characters are struggling with, all of which your party will need to overcome to eventually save that person.
Shin Megami Tensei games have always explored serious and even controversial issues, but some of the ways that it's handled in Persona 4 is incredible. This includes giving you a greater insight into some of the characters' problems, ranging from sexual identity to the dissection of personal identity in the celebrity spotlight.
What's more, dungeons are definitely smaller than before, which is both a boon and a potential hazard. There's now only one save point within a dungeon, which is typically placed before a boss fight, and fewer exits for a dungeon. If you think you're simply going to leap in and level up your characters for a few minutes, kiss that goodbye, because you'll easily spend one or two hours on this process.
What's more: on some of the earlier stages, the lack of SP restorative items can be potentially tricky for players to get accustomed to, especially if you're trying to level grind. However, when you eventually discover items that allow you to exit a dungeon and re-enter a location on the same level, as well as ways to heal your characters within the television world, you'll find there's more that you can do when you choose to fight the Shadows.
Part of this realization comes because your characters won't ever get tired, unlike P3 or FES. Instead of having to try to race through as many battles as you could within a time period because the exhaustion of your characters would affect their skills in battle, you can remain within the television world as long as you'd like so you can level grind to your heart's content. While this does allow you to become extremely powerful, this can be done at the detriment of the tension of the mystery, because you can go through dungeons quickly and efficiently.
While bosses will give you trouble (even on easy settings), if you're accustomed to level grinding, you can save the character that's missing, which leads to the other pitfall of the reduced tension of the game: you're left waiting for the plot to advance as you save characters quickly, and while the extra time can be used to strengthen your party or boost your stats, it can cause the momentum of the game to slow down.
Two other adjustments have been made to the battle system. One of the largest adjustments is the inclusion of direct control over every party member, which removes the possibility of skills being triggered without your input or allies failing to cast healing spells on your main character when he needs help.
This might not seem like a big deal until you realize that it was stripped away from you in the previous two games. While this is a giant improvement, because you no longer need to rely solely upon AI scripts, I still wish that there was some leeway for the other characters to revive the main character on Normal or Extreme difficulties, particularly if other party members still have health and healing abilities.
The other big adjustment is the inclusion of a guard feature, which allows characters that are potentially weak against an elemental attack to substitute this weakness for general damage, which can prevent them from being knocked down or incapacitated. This adds an extra tactic in battle because you can choose to protect some characters that you know will be targeted or weakened by certain attacks, denying your enemies extra attacks in the process.
Similar to the previous Persona games, the focus on social interaction and stat building mechanics of the main character has remained from Persona 3 and will feel familiar to those who have played that game. However, these mechanics have been refined and expanded in Persona 4, creating a deeper and more involving experience as you navigate the P4 relationships.
Players now have to cultivate five different stats as they play the game: Intelligence, Diligence, Courage, Understanding and Expression. The strength of each stat plays a significant role during the course of the game because it affects some of the dialogue options that you have in conversations with other characters.
For example, if your Understanding is too low, you might not be able to present an empathetic response to a character that needs comfort. If your Courage is too weak, you won't be able to confront other characters. Fortunately, Persona 4 gives you a large number of ways to augment these stats, ranging from the interaction with animals to rainy day specials at shops that let you work on multiple categories at one time.
You can even take on part time jobs that will let you make money, work on your stats and make new friends. With the expanded stats, you'll have an even larger number of activities that you'll have to pick between, which can leave you somewhat torn between friends, jobs or activities but provides a huge sense of replayability and flexibility for gamers.
Of course, the more you focus on the friendships and forging social links between characters, the stronger their relationships become in the game. But this has a much more important impact in Persona 4 than before. For one thing, the higher you raise the social links between your friends, the more abilities they gain in combat.
As your friends begin to trust you more and look to you for guidance, they'll be willing to do much more to help out. This will lead them to develop new skills, such as taking a mortal blow for a character, helping out a character that's been knocked down or incapacitated with a status ailment, or even perform a free attack on an enemy.
Social links are also tied to the Major Arcana of Tarot cards, which helps determine the abilities and powers of summoned and created Personas for your character. Once again, while your friends are only able to hold one Persona (which is tied innately to some aspect of their inner self) your character is able to create, store and summon numerous Personas, and gains the ability to hold more as time goes on.
As a Persona is used more in battle, its abilities grow and evolve, eventually becoming stronger and more complete. Players can also combine multiple Personas together in the Velvet Room in a wide number of arrangements (such as a triangle or even a hexagonal spread of cards), further boosting its stats and powers.
Now, one of the previous issues that I had with the Persona creation and the Personas in general from P3 and FES is that the entities seemed to spring out of thin air without any kind of explanation as to what you'd receive or what their skills were. Fortunately, that issue has been completely eliminated thanks to the Skill Info option, which lets you receive a quick description of what an ability like Sukukaja or Pulinpa happens to be.
This gives you more control over which Persona you want to deploy in battle, and how their skills could possibly help you and your party. However, you're not restrained from using this at a lull between fights. Players can even gain this information in the midst of battle, so as you analyze an enemy and determine their strengths and weaknesses, you can appropriately summon the proper Persona and inflict the most damage possible.
What's more, you can also gain additional effects or handicaps when you combine and summon Personas thanks to the Fusion Forecast, but you can also gain insight into what those new skills are with the same Skill Info option. This is a huge boon for players as you prepare to go into battle against the Shadows.
Apart from the social and battle adjustments, there's just a myriad of adjustments that have been added to the game, such as the removal of quest time limits from the game, which is a huge bonus. It can be tricky enough to track down some of the items that you need to complete some of these quests, but having to focus on completing these jobs while studying for exams and trying to save characters would have been way too much. Fortunately, that's gone. Players can also perform a quick travel between locations with a simple press of the square button, which pulls up a list of areas to travel between.
This means that you can leap between the first and second floors of the school building, for instance, without having to run over to the stairs and climb them. A level of weapon crafting has been included within the game as you collect different materials from fallen enemies, which can be taken to shopkeepers and crafted into different items.
Players can take part within a fishing mini-game, and successful catches can be fed to cats or traded for different items. You can choose to cook lunches for yourself and friends, boosting your social links. You can even sleep and improve your relationships by dreaming about your friends. It's difficult to cover everything that's been done within the game, but needless to say that it's quite deep, and with the inclusion of the above items as well as a New Game + option, you'll be playing Persona 4 for a lot of hours.
Now, if you compare Persona 4 to P3 or FES, you'll be rather accustomed to the solid visual style, particularly as you move through the town and school portions of the game. The dungeon portions, however, are where Persona 4 shines, particularly in representing the different psychological demons that each character faces.
While many of the monsters that you face off against feel repurposed from the previous game, and some of the Personas do as well, the visual presentation is still eyecatching. In this case, however, you don't have to worry about using Evoker pistols to shoot yourself between the eyes when you summon a Persona; the pistols have been removed in favor of cards being wielded, which is a bit gentler.
Soundwise, the voice acting is bolstered with a much larger set of lines than previous Persona games, and is pretty good overall. Once again, some lines fall flat, and in some cases just feel weird based on character. This is one of those situations where inevitably, if you have played either P3 or FES and then play Persona 4, you'll probably find yourself leaning in one camp or another thanks to the performances of the actors.
For instance, there were some delivered lines where the actress playing Chie sounded more like a thirty year old woman than a high school kid, which can be jarring. Apart from issues like that, the game is packed with a larger number of musical tracks, and while it still winds up repeating itself quite a bit with the music loops, particularly during battle sequences, you'll at least feel like there's some creativity with the music.
A significant improvement over the previous Persona games in many ways, Persona 4 provides a deeper dungeon crawling/social link experience that makes it engaging to play. Everything from the battle system and the dungeons that you fight through to the social links you develop and friend interaction that you do on your "off hours" has been radically improved in this game.
While the pacing can be somewhat off, and some things feel repurposed or unaffected from previous games, Persona 4 really is an evolution of the RPG series, and an instant classic. Tie this in with a large number of bonus items included with the game, like the soundtrack CD which you may find yourself listening to in-between game or New Game + sessions, and you'll find this to be a great game that is rounding out the year on the venerable PS2.