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Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (PlayStation 2)

90
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4.2
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Written by  :  Pixelspeech (954)
Written on  :  Oct 09, 2012
Platform  :  PlayStation 2
Rating  :  2.83 Stars2.83 Stars2.83 Stars2.83 Stars2.83 Stars

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Summary

Great for fans of the genre, but too tedious and difficult for others.

The Good

Game mixes anime with video games brilliantly, especially in the insanely beautiful cut-scenes.

The amount of time you'll spend reading dialogue or watching scenes unfold actually does make the story rather fun. It feels like a show without commercial breaks.

Characters can be related to.

Voice-acting.

You have to carefully manage how you spend each day.

Building social links is a pretty entertaining feature.

The Bad

Two hours of playing, five minutes of actual gameplay.

Game takes a very sudden leap of difficulty that doesn't match well with the timed narrative.

Even after gameplay starts becoming more present, I still feel like the game drags me through most of the time.

The main character

Very tedious and monotonous.

The Bottom Line

Story

Persona 4 is a very story-heavy RPG in which you take control of a transfer student in modern Japan. You arrive in the new town and move in with your uncle and younger niece, the former of which is a detective. Soon after your arrival the town is struck by a series of murders, leaving the townsfolk shocked and the police confused. Your character is however told through a dream that he has the power to solve these murders, power in this case meaning that he can go pass through any television and arrive in a different world. The world within the TV turns out to be connected to the murders, so you are forced to team up with a cast of different characters and solve the mystery yourself. What really sets this game apart from other JRPG-games is the timed narrative and characters. The long-term goal is to solve the mystery and prevent characters from been killed in the TV-world, but you also need to maintain a social and school life at the same time. This means that your short-term and long-term goals conflict and you are occasionally forced to make choices. For example: you have four days to save a character from the TV-world, but you also have to attend to your clubs on two of those days. In that scenario your social needs cut down on the time you have to save the character. You could of course skip on going to your clubs, but going there improves your “social links” which allows you to create new personas (read: attack styles). Even if you don’t have to save anybody, then you still need to decide between improving your social links (going to clubs and hanging out with friends), your own skills (which give new dialogue options) or just grinding your attack-styles to higher levels. At this point the timed narrative can get a bit frustrating, as the game has the tendency to throw events into your direction. This means that your plans on doing a specific task are halted by the chance to attend a one-time event. This wouldn’t be too bad, if it didn’t happen constantly.

The aforementioned characters are also a joy to behold because they are so well-written. Most of the time I feel very cold towards anime, solely because they usually involve people with such elaborate backstories and personalities. It makes it impossible for me, as the audience, to relate to the character on-screen and thus I’ll lose interest much faster or get frustrated over smaller issues. The characters in Persona however do have interesting stories behind them, but they are just regular kids. This game takes ordinary and relatable traits and manages to make them fascinating. I even felt like I knew what the characters were going through from time to time. The world inside the TV is also themed after whatever character is trapped there at the moment, so this title also serves as an exploration of each person’s deepest thoughts and wishes, which is another thing I really like and would love to see done more often. In the midst of all this is you, the player, and sadly you are boring as all hell. It really strikes me as odd that Atlus decided to make a blank-slate because that only works in games like Doom or Half-Life where we can imagine ourselves how the character would react to situations. This guy simply gives too much away because we can see him react to certain situations, such as his natural poses when talking to people or the way he motions while speaking. He also falls very flat because there are more interesting people surrounding him, quite literally turning him into a third wheel wherever he goes.

Gameplay

Persona 4 has a fantastic story and one that I would love to see develop, but that desire is instantly put to rest when you notice what the core gameplay is made out of. During each rescue mission you’ll be placed inside a labyrinth themed after the character that is imprisoned there. Your goal is to fight your way through dozens of enemies and eventually reach the final room.Tthis wouldn’t be too big an issue, if the final room wasn’t eleven floors higher than you are. Each floor of the maze also consists of randomized hallways and rooms, but all of them have the exact same scenery and pattern, so not only is the maze boring, but it also starts to wear on you very fast. Because of the randomized nature, you can never really get a feel for the logic either. Sometimes the staircase was right around the corner and sometimes at the end of eight branching paths. Each time you leave the maze it gets shuffled again too, which is another annoying feature.

Aside from been in no way compelling, making your way through the maze can also be ridiculously difficult. I made sure that I was always three levels above the recommended and I had to reload a save about three or four times per level (boss-fights included). As you make your way through the maze you’ll be harassed by a number of enemies, you can try to hit them in the back in order to get a preemptive strike (if they hit you in the back, then the fight will start with them). This is a useless feature because the fights start with you by default, so you might as well run into them and not risk giving them the first strike. Each enemy has a set of elemental strengths and weaknesses, if you hit a weakness then the enemy is stunned, but if you hit a strength, then the attack can be absorbed, heal or even deflect back at you. It sounds tactical, but the problem is that the game constantly switches to new enemies or even old ones with a different name. This meant that there was no real way to create a set of tactics or even an ideal team, unless you’d go back to grind later on. The boss-fights are also terrible and already the very first real one spawned additional enemies to help her and those enemies also used healing abilities. That would be cruel to put in nearing the end of the game, let alone the first boss.

Things are a lot better outside of the TV where most of the social side-stories are going on. You have to find a way to spend each of your days in the town of Inaba, so this means discovering its secrets, picking up mini-quests or improving your aforementioned social skills (characteristics). The mini-quests reminded me a lot of Fallout 3, just because they aren’t marked and you’ll actually have to ask around and search for them. I found some of them to fairly entertaining, but the real joy still comes from seeing the main story or social links advance. You can also stock up for your next journey by buying items and weapons in the shopping district or visit a special room where you can combine your personas and create newer, more powerful ones.

Presentation

Persona 4 has two different sets of graphics: one of them is the downright amazing animated cut-scenes and the other is the somewhat underwhelming gameplay graphics. During cut-scenes you’ll be shown visuals that could instantly be lifted and placed into an anime instead, even some more modern cartoons I have seen don’t look as great as this Playstation 2 title. It’s therefore kind of a shame that the game uses these scenes very sparsely and more often than not relies on the actual graphics, even during non-playable dialogue. These visuals are certainly not bad by any means, but they don’t really impress either. The problem is that characters don’t really emote well; they just get some animations like a pulsating # or a tacked-on blush. Movements are also very stiff, so most of the time I found myself staring at the pictures that accompany the dialogue instead of what was actually happening on the other 85% of the screen.

Luckily the voice-acting compensates for a lot of the presentation’s flaws and I’d even say that it was part of the reason I stayed hooked to the game. Unlike Kingdom Hearts, Persona always uses voice-acting, except for repetitive lines and the social-links’ dialogue-trees (whereas Kingdom Hearts randomly turned the voice-acting on and off). The voices of the actors perfectly matches the characters we see on-screen and they are almost all done professional, which is especially nice for a Japanese title. It also makes me really happy that this great voice-acting hasn’t been wasted on a terrible script either.

I have already talked about the level-design, but I think it’s worth repeating that it’s really bad. All the levels consist of the exact same hallways and rooms that get copy-pasted in a random order, so there is nothing engaging about the design at all. Only a few set rooms have something related to the story going on, but the rest of the time it’s literally a monotone maze. It’s not really encouraging to the player when the only difference between level 1 and 2 (besides a change of theme) is that level 2 had three more floors to deal with.

Replay-value

While playing this game I got a bit interested in how long this game lasted other players and I was shocked to find that players reported hours ranging from 75 to 110. I am going to be honest with you and say that I have NEVER played a game that lasted this long (aside from sandbox titles). It would take a true fan to ever willingly play through an entire ninety-hour long, semi-linear RPG twice. I am not one of those.

While the story would definitely warrant another playthrough, it’s the gameplay that really ruins it. I once again can’t stress enough that making each level a multi-layered maze (with randomized paths and the exact same scenery all throughout) was just stupid and I can’t believe that nobody at Atlus opposed this horrible design. If there is one thing that kills replay-value, then it would be dull repetition. Would you replay a game if you knew it consisted roughly fifty hours of navigating obnoxiously designed mazes after you have gone through it already? No amount of atmosphere, story or free pancakes can convince you to sit through THAT again.

It’s a shame about the story though. As I played through this game for the first time, I already started fantasizing about what I could see if I had taken my character in a different direction. I barely spent any time with the character of Yukiko or Doshima, so I wondered what I could have discover about them if the tight time-schedule didn’t limit the amount of time I could spend on developing social links. What would happen if I pursued a different relationship, club or job? It even goes into the statistics, because having a courageous character can offer you completely different dialogue options than when you have an understanding character. It far surpasses games like Skyrim or Oblivion where the RPG-elements are mostly built around achieving the same goals in different ways. Instead of that Persona 4 offers completely different story-lines, which is a much better incentive than knowing you could have persuaded a character in giving you the key that you just pickpocketed.

Extras

I have no idea.

Verdict

Persona 4 reminded me a lot of Deadly Premonition while I was playing it: You either see the game as a work of absolute art that renders all its flaws meaningless or you see it as wasted potential. Sadly I have to take up residence in the latter camp, because Persona 4 is flawed at the very core of its gameplay design and not just all-around rough. The very foundation of how the programmers decided to make this game was just flat-out wrong and because of that, all the story and characters that the writers poured their soul into are wasted. I’ll definitely take a peek at that anime I hear a lot about, but as a game Persona 4 is an intriguing visual novel that occasionally pisses itself for three hours straight.

If it were just a series of dialogue trees with minimal player-involvement, then that would have been fun, if a little weird for a Playstation 2 game. Perhaps they could have done more with the animated cut-scenes we occasionally get to see or maybe they could have actually made the Beginner difficulty for beginners (why don’t we have cheats in videogames anymore?). It’s too late to complain though, so my final word will be that Persona 4 is an excellent game for veterans of the genre, but not for anybody else.