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Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (PlayStation 2)

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4.2
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Written by  :  Donatello (384)
Written on  :  Jun 13, 2009
Platform  :  PlayStation 2
Rating  :  4.33 Stars4.33 Stars4.33 Stars4.33 Stars4.33 Stars

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Summary

Pursuing my true self

The Good

With the success of Persona 3, the sequel was inevitable, but the question remained: when? The fans of Atlus who were craving for another Persona game after completing the third one didn't have to wait long, because Atlus soon announced the fourth entry in their Persona franchise. As is the case with Persona 2, Shin Megami Tensei II, or even Soul Hackers and their prequels, P4 closely resembles Persona 3 and it's engine. In one hand, Atlus had the time to take P3's feedback into consideration, polish and streamline various elements which made Persona 3 excellent, on the other hand, the outcome in some ways is more of the same than a new experience, which could prove fatal for any game whose sequel is built on the groundwork that doesn't really lend itself to an extremely similar game if it doesn't want to cause a gamer fatigue and tiredness. Fortunately, Persona 4 has managed to avoid the fatal trap. That's not to say it's perfect, though.

One of the characteristics of Persona has always been teenage protagonists (except Eternal Punishment), and with P4 it's no different. Persona 4 employs the popular system first found in Persona 3 where you play a whole year as a high school sophomore. Every day is divided into three parts: day, afternoon, and night. Since you have no choice but to regularly attend classes, you can peruse your free time for extracurricular activities and socializing at afternoons and night, unlike P3, where you could hang out with friends or attend cultural/sports clubs only at afternoons. Building up your Social Links, the relationships you establish with various characters, is a pivotal part of the game. Balancing the exploration of TV World and a part-time job, hanging out with friend, or studies is a key to success in Persona 4, because S. Links grant you bonuses when you're fusing personae in Velvet Room. It's much more lax, and as a whole, P4 has a much better implementation of the social part of the game. Your friendships aren't so individual anymore, in P4 it's possible to spend time with multiple friends without wasting precious time.

TV World, the miraculous world of mysteries you get to explore in Persona 4. Abandoning the more apocalyptic tone of the third game, the plot of P4 revolves around a series of murders. After you've transferred to Inaba, horrible crimes start happening. Soon a rumour about Midnight TV, a mysterious TV channel, starts to spread. People say that when you watch the channel at midnight, it shows your future love. One day when you've got nothing better to do, you obviously check it out. By accident you find out that the screen of TV is not solid as common sense dictates, but hollow. Amazed by the discovery, you inform your newly made friends. Soon enough you find yourself in the depths of Midnight TV, where a mysterious teddy bear informs you of the other side. Having found out about the connection between the murders and the appearance of the channel, you have no choice but to venture into the depths of Shadow-infested multimedia land with your trusty friends, and thwart the killer's evil plans.

Needless to say, Persona 4's story is much more gripping than P3's. The game doesn't completely abandon the structure of P3. You still have to rescue people thrown into the TV regularly like you have to kill the bigger Shadows on certain dates in Persona, but the various dungeons you get to explore completely overshadow the mundane Tartaros of Persona 3. Persona 4 has much more events and as a whole, more meat to it's narrative than the previous game. There are twists (what would a detective story be without twists?), and in the end you have to make an important decision which totally changes the outcome of the story. The ending portion of the game is rushed, however, and as you'll soon find out in The Bad section, the true ending is obviously too obscure without a guide.

Personae subseries has never been grandiose in it's overall scope, and the plot has always been built on the relationships of different characters. P4 is no different. If the hunt for the bad guy is like two slices of bread, then the characters form the ingredients which make the overall package so delicious. Persona 4 tackles different issues by having the inner thoughts and subconscious of the characters manifest as physical spaces - dungeons - and in order to save the potential victims, they have to face themselves beforehand. It's difficult to spill the details without spoiling the greatest aspects of P4, but it's safe to say that Atlus undoubtedly tried their best to create persons with flaws, people who you could relate to. Characters are undoubtedly what make the overall story fit together.

Gameplay and battle system of Persona 4 aren't a massive overhaul from the previous game, but many excellent additions have been introduced in order to make the overall experience more accessible and comfortable. For example, there's a quick travel button, which allows you to instantly move from one place to another. You're on the 3rd floor of the school building, and don't feel like running all the way down in order to go to the city? No sweat, just push the square button, choose the location you want to access and you're there. I've saved tremendous amount of playtime, all thanks to the magical square button.

Battle system is very similar to Persona 3, which is already derived from PS2-generation of Megami Tensei games. Like SMT: Nocturne and P3, the battles are traditional turn-based affair, utilizing the iconic Press Turn System. You see, every enemy has a weakness to a particular element, and by exploiting it your character receives another turn. Enemy isn't the only one with weaknesses, your equipped Persona also influences your combat skills, weaknesses and resistances to various elements. This, along with the ability to make an all-out attack after knocking down every enemy (again, by exploiting their weaknesses), makes the battles of P4 much more tactical than other JRPGs. Here status affecting spells actually make a difference, and by skillfully managing your arsenal of Personae, you'll never have to grind like a madman. P4 also lets you control your party members directly, while still allowing the computer to take the helm (I personally find it useless, in P3 it wasn't much of an issue since the whole game was balanced to fit AI-controlled party members, but in P4 you'll only exhaust your resources, or make dumb moves). Advancing through party member's S. Link has a bigger impact on the actual gameplay now. By building a strong relationship with playable characters, they'll get various special skills in battles. They can help you recover from a knock-down attack, perform powerful special moves or, in critical moments, make a dash and protect you from a fatal blow.

Post-battle shuffles don't give nothing but Personae cards and if you're lucky, a bonus arcana card. This makes it much tougher to survive in the dungeons, but on the other hand, your characters don't get tired anymore, and you can explore the dungeons as long as you want. That doesn't mean it's piece of cake, without health shuffle cards you're going to have a tough time if you plan on ascending to the top of the dungeon in one run. Dungeons are also much more shorter, consisting most of the time only of 10-11 floors and ending with a boss. After you've cleared the dungeon, you can always come back and it's not like you don't have a good reason - in the second runthrough a special boss appears on the last floor and while optional, it's recommended that you take that and all the other special bosses down.

Shadows, the monsters you'll have to face, are all similar to their "colleagues" in P3, and once again, have been drawn in the surreal style so characteristic to Megami Tensei games. Being a spiritual sequel to P3, P4 has a similar art direction. The more bleak, gloomy, and almost oppressive atmosphere of P3 has been traded for rural landscapes, suffocating fog and the yellow menu design. Graphics stay true to the "anime" style of P3 and that's one of the saving graces of the art design. Yes, P4 isn't technically advanced as most of the big players like FFXII, God of War, or Shadow of Colossus, but it doesn't need to be. The gorgeous art direction more than makes up for the shortfalls in the technical department.

In your free time, you've got more options to spend your time than in P3. You can try fishing, take a part-time job, read books, take part of special events with your friends, cook, and more. It's tempting to call them superficial and nothing more than actions you can't really participate in, but no. What makes the game really great is how everything is balanced and has just the right amount of depth. And in this case, you can't even criticize the game for pushing the dungeon-crawling part more than anything else, because in P4 the dungeons actually feel like a supplement to the "social simulation" part of the game.

Megami Tensei game have always been very experimental, even innovative with their contemporary (stylistically) soundtracks compared to other Japanese RPGs. It's no wonder, because traditional and classical elements just wouldn't work in the settings Atlus conveys in Megaten games. With PS2 era Shoji Meguro, a composer whose whole repertoire consists of soundtracks for Megami Tensei games, has taken pretty much over the music part of the games (for example, P1's soundscape is the work of 4 men, while Digital Devil Saga, Raidou Kuzunoha games, Persona 3 and Persona 4 are almost exclusively Meguro's solo work), and has consistently provided the imagery, action, and story of MT games with superb tracks. P4 isn't groundbreaking as his previous projects, but the overall synthesis of his best characteristics and musical strengths shine again in P4's soundtrack. If you were repulsed with the rap of P3, then you'll be glad to hear that there's no such "atonal barking" (not my opinion, of course) in this one. P4 is in many ways, similar to P3 with it's soundtrack, but also very different. P3's music perfectly captured the urban life of the game, and so does P4 to portray the mellow countryside. Yes, it has pop elements, but it's more laid-back, melancholic. There are vocal pop-rock songs, there are jazzy tunes and of course, Meguro's trademark melancholic rock with emotional guitar solos.

PS! My opinion on Meguro's works should never be taken as the most objective opinion, because he's my favourite musician (Yeah, I know I'm undermining my own review!).

The Bad

The story is not without problems, however. There are multiple endings, and while it's natural that bad endings don't offer much of a closure on the plot, it's absolutely absurd to hide the true ending from the player. Yes, hide. In order to get the true ending you have to make some unbelievably cryptic choices. The game actually lies to you so that you would miss the real ending with it's delicious revelations. I wouldn't be so upset about this if the normal ending was satisfactory. On the contrary, the slowly built tension reaches it's climax so fast that you're left wondering how it is even possible.

While the cast is made up of recognizable individuals, the JRPG staple of including a goofy or otherwise weird character in your party is at it again. In Persona 4 the android from P3 (who is actually one of the few out-of-this-world JRPG characters who doesn't tag along just to make lame jokes and shine with his idiotic humor) is replaced with a talking teddy bear Teddie. I'd have to spoil some important details about his character to explain my negative feelings towards that mess of a plushie, but I'll give you a hint: top-notch yaoi/slash fiction material. To make matters worse, his Social Link is the only imperative S. Link you have to advance.

As has been case with previous Megaten games, P4 isn't without some recycled content from the previous game. While I wasn't disappointed with the fact that there were no redesigns to Personae which have made their appearances in previous PS2-gen Megami Tensei games, and even extreme similarity to P3 didn't influence my overall opinion on the game in any way, it's still worth noting that P4 feels a lot like P3. So if P3 proved to be menial chore for you, don't bother!

The Bottom Line

In any case, Persona 4 is a very good product. The underlying mechanics of the game aren't very complex, and if you start examining them individually, you'd find a few flaws. This doesn't matter in the end, because as an unifying whole, the various elements of Persona 4 come together to form a fun experience. While "expert" Megami Tensei tend to criticise it just like Persona 3 for being shallower than the previous installments, it's still a good starting point for the wondrous world of Megaten, and even enjoyable for an open-minded veteran of the Personae series.