Mushroom Soup For The Pixelated Soul
It’s a bit later than the estimated time, but hey, better late than never. Better never than on time.
Will this be my final Primotech review? Only time will tell, but I sure hope not.
It’s the last P4 review on the entire internet, but I hope you enjoy it, as always.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4
Atlus took a rather big risk releasing Persona 3 to North America, at a time when many gamers had jumped the Playstation 2 ship in favor of the latest, next gen systems. The gamble paid off, however, both for gamers starving for a new quality RPG to play, and for Atlus, who was happy enough with the game’s sales that they also released the “director’s cut” edition of the game, FES, containing more than enough content to give players a reason to double dip.
It is thanks to Persona 3’s strong reception that the latest sequel, Persona 4, was quickly localized for the U.S. following its Japanese release. Even though the next-gen adoption rate is even higher since P3’s release, Persona 4 contains enough improvements and additions to help it stand out not only from its predecessor, but from technically superior offerings as well.
Persona 4 takes place in Inaba village, a quaint little slice of Japanese country life, where students bicycle to class, families share three bedroom shacks, and Mom n’ Pop stores are quickly shutting down due to the rising commercialism of Wal-Mart (renamed “Junes”, for legal reasons).
Also, on fog-covered nights, murder occurs. Murder most foul.
After quickly (but not quite comfortably) settling into his new life in Inaba, high school transfer student Soji Seta (his default name, for those lacking creativity or a cool enough real name) finds himself involved in a growing mystery involving “The Midnight Channel”, an urban legend whispered among the students that anyone who gazes into a TV turned off on foggy midnights, will see an image of their destined soul mate. After a couple of murders occurring the day after, however, it soon becomes apparent to Soji and his new friends that the image appearing in the Midnight Channel is that of the person about to die.
Possessing the mysterious power of “Persona” bestowed upon him by series mainstay (and forever enigmatic) Igor, Soji must travel into the world beyond the television to rescue the latest victim to appear onscreen. With the help of fellow classmates Yosuke (a friendly but klutzy transfer student sorely requiring a lesson in bicycling as well as talking to girls) and Chie (a martial arts loving tomboy who loves to stick her foot into other people’s personal lives, as well as the private parts of people who agitate her), who both quickly acquire their own Personas, the three students form a veritable Mystery Machine, with the mysterious Teddie serving as their guide to the TV World as well as token Scooby, using his nose to help track the people thrown into the TV World against their will, along with analyzing the weaknesses of nearby enemies as well as delivering a few “un-bearable” puns.
Despite having a somewhat darker tone than the previous Persona with its story of midnight murders and inner conflicts surrounding its characters, the brighter colors and pop-influenced music mask the foreboding mystery with much more vibrancy than its predecessor, and the lighthearted aesthetics carry into the dungeons as well; Each section of the TV World changes its appearance in relation to the victim trapped within it, literally turning the prisoner’s inner struggles and doubts into a live TV show filled with aggressive Shadow enemies, including a Boss Shadow that manifests itself into a living embodiment of the victim’s inner desires and fears.
The visual shift in the dungeons help to really characterize everyone, from quiet Yukiko’s desire to have someone whisk her away from her mundane life as a caretaker of Inaba’s famous Inn, to Chie’s dependency on people’s dependence on her to hide her own inner weakness, and even one character’s sexual orientation manifesting into a hilarious but ultimately disturbing scenario for the Investigation Team to navigate through.
Yet even beyond the dungeons, characterization plays a huge role in Persona 4 in the form of Social Links. Those who played Persona 3 would be fully aware of the importance in forming social bonds with the residents of Inaba, as spending time with each individual will help strengthen their relationship with the protagonist, as well as strengthening his acquired Personas. The Social Link system applies to the protagonist’s own teammates as well, with one on one sessions resulting in closer bonds that increase the rank of their respective Social Link, along with developing a new special ability that may do extra damage to Shadows, or protect the hero from receiving a similar attack from retaliating enemies.
And while a fellow student warns Soji early on that he may grow “bored” with nothing to do in Inaba, there is actually a lot more activities players can partake in compared to Persona 3’s larger yet somewhat empty city. In addition to spending after school grocery shopping with female friends (and potential love interests) or practicing in a sports club with male peers, players can also sign up for part time jobs that can result in extra cash, a raise in personal stats (volunteering to make paper cranes at home, for example, will raise the hero’s Diligence, while working at a local daycare can raise his Understanding), or even a new friend to create a Social Link with. In addition, players can also purchase books, go fishing, prepare a school lunch, study for mid terms, or just head to the oversized flat screen TV at Junes to explore the dungeon at your leisure.
Indeed, the social interaction between the characters makes up the core of Persona 4. Even ignoring the optional Social Link events, there is a large amount of dialogue and cutscenes, almost entirely voiced by mainstay anime voice actors (ironically, Yuri Lowenthal, who voiced the main hero of Persona 3, has been bumped down to cast second banana Yosuke in the sequel). Many of these scenes have little to do with the actual murder mystery, but that fact hardly becomes noticeable considering the sheer charm and personality each character displays; Even though the residents of Inaba follow Japanese standards and traditions, they display enough quirks and traits that North American players will have no problem relating to. The dialog-to-gameplay ratio may frustrate action-heavy gamers (the opening in particular runs for over an hour before the first dungeon is revealed), but patient players and especially fans of RPGs will have no problem sitting through the enjoyable interactions between the Investigation Team and their haphazard (and often hilarious) attempts to solve a mystery that is well above their league. Of course they could always involve Soji’s detective uncle, but it’s always more fun to solve the case with friends, isn’t it?
Despite being a PS2 title with even barely even half the budget of a Final Fantasy title, Persona 4’s simple graphics are anything but mediocre; Aside from the rich palette and colors used to give the setting a 70’s TV show aesthetic (but not like “That 70’s Show”), the locations within Inaba are full of little details to give it a “lived-in” feel, and the character models may lack strong textures or facial expressions, but have no problem expressing their emotions through hand-drawn portraits and comic book-style thought bubbles. The music is also a wonderful collection of pop-heavy engrish and moody piano pieces; during battle, half the characters appear to be tapping their feet to the catchy battle theme, and real life players may find themselves doing the same.
As for the actual fighting portion of the game, navigating the dungeons and engaging random enemies is almost entirely similar to Persona 3, save for some small but much needed improvements. During battle, it is now possible to take full control of all party members, a tactic that becomes almost necessary when facing high level bosses. It is also no longer necessary to talk to each individual party member to manage their equipment or ask for healing, as both can now be done on the main menu screen. There is a tradeoff to the streamlined management, however, as dungeons no longer have halfway markers that instantly send players back to the main entrance. Instead, players must rely on the Goho-M item to instantly warp back (it is, at least, possible to start on the last floor that the item was used on).
Another handicap is that party members will no longer regain their health when escaping to the main entrance, relying on either items or an optional social link partner to heal them (the latter won’t heal for free, however, nor is he cheap). The ideal way to play this game is to balance out the protagonist’s life; Study for school, raise the Social Links of friends, explore the dungeon bit by bit is the way to go, although keep in mind that there is a time limit to rescuing the latest victim of the TV World that will require keeping tabs on the weather report; After a week of straight rain passes, the fog will return, and players watching the Midnight Channel at that time will be treated to an on-screen execution of the person they failed to save, followed by the Game Over screen.
Even though the game gives plenty of time to level up (both physically and socially) before the target’s deadline is up, the repeated dungeon visits in order to grind could prove frustrating, especially when enemies become too weak to offer any significant experience points. Likewise, powerful enemies can be quite cheap, randomly tossing powerful attacks or targeting a specific party member with their element of weakness. As in Persona 3, if the main character falls in battle, it’s an automatic Game Over. Fortunately, the effects of each Persona’s abilities can be displayed with the push of a button, a much needed addition for RPG players used to basic spell names like “Fire” and “Cure” but having no idea what “Sukukaja”, “Tentarafoo” or “Maragidyne” does.
In the end, Persona 4 can be forgiven for its sporadic difficulty and still-antiquated elements, because the story, characters, and addictive “life-managing” mechanics make it an RPG not only worthy of rivaling its high-def successors, but surpassing them completely. It may be the PS2’s final role playing game, but it couldn’t ask for a better swan song.