Persona 4 - Reader Review  

The Other Side
by Jeremy Michael Gallen

60-80 Hours
+ Solid game mechanisms and control.
+ Intriguing plot.
+ Great soundtrack.
+ Good art direction.
- Subpar voicework.
- Graphics are somewhat rough.
Click here for scoring definitions 

   A boy is sent to live with his uncle in the Japanese town of Inaba, where two murders happen during foggy nights. The boy and his new friends soon discover the Midnight Channel, a world on the opposite site of televisions where the next murder victims show up, and where they gain the ability to summon Personas, seeking the culprit behind the murders. Atlus's Persona 4 on the Playstation 2 largely bequeaths its predecessor's gameplay engine with some new twists, and proves to be just as solid an experience in spite of some hiccups.

   Like the third game, Persona 4 follows the daily lives of the hero and his classmates, with the protagonist this time having five social stats that the player can increase through various activities, such as responding correctly to questions teachers occasionally ask in class, and which are sometimes necessary to access certain sidequests and Social Links. Social Links can be built when the hero spends time with classmates or other individuals across Inaba, although some have special requirements, such as completing certain sidequests or fusing certain Personas.

   After school, in addition to working on Social Links (with some available in the evening, along with occasional part-time jobs), the player can traverse Inaba to shop for new equipment and items, or enter the TV World to visit its several Shadow-infested dungeons. Before entering the dungeons, the player can adjust party setup or visit the Velvet Room to fuse Personas of different Arcanas, with experience bonuses depending upon how much the player has built certain Social Links. The Velvet Room also has a Compendium where the player can summon previously-used Personas for a price, and can register current Personas if they have different abilities and/or levels than those in the Compendium.

Odd place for a murder Hang 'em high

   Dungeons have a certain number of levels, each which has occasional treasure chests, some requiring special keys (acquired from rare Shadows and sidequests) to open, along with many Shadows. To fight them, the hero must approach them, having the opportunity to slash them with his weapon and get a chance at a preemptive strike, although enemies can ambush the player. As the player levels, Shadows shrink, making them easier to approach and ambush, although larger Shadows are on par with or more powerful than the player.

   Regardless of whether the player or Shadows get the advantage (or neither side does), combat occurs on a separate field. One major improvement over the third game is that the player can manually input commands for the protagonist's allies, although it is still possible to allow the A.I. to control them. Every character can attack with their current weapon, guard to reduce damage (which also temporarily nullifies their elemental weaknesses), use their Persona's SP-consuming abilities, use an item, or attempt to escape, which may take a few turns. The protagonist, able to command more than one Persona, can change to another Persona once during his turn.

   Returning from the third game is the ability to exploit Shadows' weaknesses to knock them down and obtain an extra turn. This time, simply exploiting one monster's weakness, regardless of a spell's effect against other Shadows (such as voiding damage or reflecting it back onto the caster), will still grant an extra turn. Exploiting a downed Shadow's weakness again will put it into dizzy state, making them lose their next turn, although the extra turn bonus will not apply. The same rules apply for Shadows exploiting the party's weaknesses, although Shadows or characters in down state will recover their next turn and still be able to perform a command. If all Shadows are down, the player's party can unleash a powerful all-out attack against them.

   The player can check Shadow stats, including their strengths, weaknesses, and abilities, during combat, and while question marks initially indicate their strong and weak points, as the player experiments with various skills, the game records the effects they have on specific Shadow types, replacing the full-scan system from the third game. Moreover, physical attacks are only of one type unlike three in Persona 3, and the player can check which character or Shadow will take their turn next, but not full turn order, a slight step down from the third game, although turn order fortunately remains consistent.

Necessary for other sidequests Fishing--a new sidequest in Persona 4

   Developing Social Links with the protagonist's allies, furthermore, can have many benefits in battle. For instance, allies may take mortal blows for the hero, perform critical follow-up attacks after he exploits an enemy's weakness (with critical attacks also knocking down enemies), recover status ailments, and so forth. Maxing Social Links with them will also evolve their Personas into more powerful forms. As in Persona 3, the hero's death either means Game Over, or, if the player is playing on the easiest difficulty, a chance to use one of ten continues, which fully restore the party's HP and SP.

   If the player wins a battle, all characters gain experience, money, and items, which are either necessary for sidequests or sellable at Inaba's armory to make more powerful weapons and armor available for sale. Sometimes, however, Shuffle Time will occur, with the player getting the chance to pick several cards from a shuffle, including a new Persona or a penalty card that completely nullifies all rewards from the battle, experience and money included. After a Shuffle Time, the player may gain an Arcana Chance, where a tarot card will spin around, landing upright or upside-down, respectively and temporarily providing beneficial or detrimental effects such as increased or decreased experience, money, and so forth.

   Characters and their Personas will naturally level up through the game, with the hero and his Personas having separate experience, and whatever Persona he has equipped after battle gaining experience (though passive skills can net unequipped Personas experience). When Personas level, their stats increase, and they may occasionally learn a new ability, with Personas only able to have up to eight; if their skill sets are full, the player can either refuse to learn the new ability or overwrite a current ability, with no chance of regaining the unlearned ability. The protagonist's level also dictates the maximum level of Personas he is able to fuse in the Velvet Room.

   If the player finds the party's health and especially SP to be running low during dungeon exploration, they can use a special item to leave, and later return to the floor of departure. As the game progresses, the player is able to form a Social Link with a fox that can fully restore the party's SP for a price, with discounts as this Social Link increases. Leaving the TV World also restores the party's SP, although players only have a certain timeframe to rescue missing persons, after which the game will end, and in which case the player can continue from a week in the past to try and rescue that person again.

Toilet Persona When you gotta go, you gotta go

   All in all, the mechanisms work well, with gameplay both in and out of battle containing great variety and strategy, and the improvements over the third game, chiefly manual control over allies, also serving the game well. It is more difficult to strike enemies first in dungeons than in the third game, but luckily this doesn't hurt the game terribly, and while the rare potential for instant death against the hero can make Persona 4 somewhat intimidating to play on higher difficulty levels, these instances are mercifully rarer than in Persona 3.

   Control also has some improvements over Persona 3, such as the ability to instantly travel to specific parts of the high school and Inaba, and being able to manage everyone's equipment in the menus without having to actually talk to them. The game's linear structure also keeps players moving in the right direction, and it is possible to find and complete many Social Links and sidequests without a guide. There are still some flaws that weren't fixed, however, such as the randomized nature of skill sets during Persona fusion and the total lack of a pause button, but interaction nonetheless helps the game more than hurts.

   Persona 4 largely uses its predecessor's gameplay and graphical engines, with many returning elements such as the battle and Social Link systems and the general art style, with plenty of returning Persona art. There are, however, many changes from the third game such as different requirements for building certain Social Links, tweaks in combat, part-time jobs, and the idea of the storyline. Ultimately, the fourth installment, while it does bring back many elements from its predecessor, does have plenty of new features to help it feel sufficiently fresh.

   The fourth installment's supernatural murder mystery storyline is a nice break from typical RPG plots, with plenty of development and backstory for most characters, and the Social Links giving spotlight even to characters that don't directly impact the main storyline, which can also have some effect on the ending. The plot can certainly drag at times, given the game's length, and the fourth installment, like its predecessor, makes the controversial decision of leaving in Japanese honorifics. While they do give more specificity to character relationships, they do make the voice acting sound stilted at times, with plenty of lines that would have sounded better without them. Even so, the plot is a reasonable driving factor throughout the game.

Interesting choice of name The new social stats

   The voice acting itself is resoundingly poor, with most characters, especially the females, being overacted and at times sounding impersonated, although adults mostly sound okay. Still, children watching cartoons and animated films are largely treated to better performances, and while the nontraditional writing style is partly to blame, Atlus could have found a cast capable of making the dialogue sound convincing, as the Digital Devil Saga dilogy's superior voicework showed. Granted, it is possible to turn the voices off, but there's really no reason for an M-rated RPG's voice acting to have less credibility than that in a Disney film.

   The soundtrack, though, is significantly better, with series composer Shoji Meguro providing plenty of nice tracks, with some being vocalized, such as the after-school theme and the main battle theme, which, while unchanging throughout the game, never loses its flavor. Many of the dungeon tracks also stand out, such as the secret laboratory theme, and there are a few returning tracks from the third game such as the beautiful Velvet Room theme. Some parts of the game do rely on ambience, but the aurals are nonetheless well-executed, in spite of the weak voicework.

   While the graphics mostly resemble those in the third game, they could have definitely used more polish, considering that Persona 4 is one of the Playstation 2's final RPGs. The art direction, though, is solid, in spite of many recycled Persona designs, with the dungeons having unique design, and battle visuals generally being well-executed, in spite of the asinine dodge animation of Shadows (moving to the side and back without lifting an appendage). Still, many environs outside the TV World look bland, with plenty of noticeable jagged edges and fuzziness. All in all, the visuals are probably the fourth installment's weakest aspect, though they certainly aren't without their redeeming aspects.

   Finally, the fourth installment is slightly shorter than its predecessor, but long nonetheless for a rigidly-linear RPG, with generous playing time of somewhere from sixty to eighty hours, and plenty of sidequests, not to mention a replay mode, adding to this. In the end, Persona 4 builds upon its predecessor for the better, and while it isn't without its flaws, such as subpar voicework and rough graphics, the solid game mechanics, endearing plot, and great soundtrack largely compensate for these flaws. The fourth game very much stands as a zenith in the Megami Tensei franchise and Persona spinoff series, and proves there is yet life in the Playstation 2.

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