Persona 4 - Staff Review  

Where's Raidou Kuzunoha When You Need Him?
by Adriaan den Ouden

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60-80 Hours
+ The return of one of the best turn-based combat systems ever created.
+ Social links for main characters provide additional benefits.
+ Terrific plot that keeps you guessing.
+ Fantastic musical score.
- Weak ending.
- Some changes from Persona 3 don't go over so well.
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   Just over a year ago, Atlus surprised a lot of people by creating Persona 3, an ingenious combination of their Shin Megami Tensei series' engaging, element-based combat system and a social simulation game. Persona 3 was hailed by critics worldwide, quickly becoming a fan favorite, and is widely regarded as one of, if not the best game Atlus has ever published. Just over six months down the line, Atlus surprised us once again by releasing Persona 3: FES, an expanded version of the original title with an entirely new chapter added to the end of the game. Now, several months later, Persona 4 graces North American shores. Making use of the same engine and much of the same gameplay as Persona 3, Persona 4 is a fantastic, memorable game that easily lives up to its predecessor, but doesn't quite manage to surpass it.

Once again, Persona 4 puts the player in the shoes of a nameless protagonist. The hero is a high school student who has been sent to live with his uncle in a small, suburban town in rural Japan while his parents are overseas on business. Soon after arriving, people begin to turn up dead under mysterious circumstances, and at the center of it all is a strange fog and the bizarre "Midnight Channel" that appears on blank TVs on rainy nights. The protagonist and his new-found friends soon discover that they have the ability to enter a dark, twisted world inside the TV, and they may be the small town's only hope of solving the case.

   One thing that Persona 4 does remarkably well is craft a believable and intriguing mystery that keeps the player guessing throughout the entire course of the game, and at certain points even requires the player to figure out the missing piece of the puzzle, or leave the case unsolved forever. The characters are interesting and interact wonderfully with each other, and in particular, the inclusion of family for the main character does a lot to heighten the emotional impact of many situations encountered in the game. As the game nears its conclusion, the build-up is so intense that it may be difficult to put down the controller.

   With such a well-written plot, it's an incredible shame, then, that the ending feels completely phoned in. The game builds up the story so well, but once the mystery is finally solved, the player is left wondering, "Is that it?" The game does manage to wrap everything up and answer all the questions, but the answers are all either unsatisfyingly vague or frustratingly anticlimactic. With such a bizarre and supernatural murder mystery, the ultimate answer is extremely pedestrian, and the ending by itself manages to hold the game back from being a true masterpiece. It's very disheartening to see such an excellent story take such a weak turn.

Taking jobs can earn you some extra cash, and maybe even new friends. Taking jobs can earn you some extra cash, and maybe even new friends.

   For the most part, Persona 4's gameplay remains the same as that of Persona 3, though enough has changed that even those well-versed in the game's predecessor will need to relearn a few things. As the year goes by, the player must balance spending time with his friends to create social links, enhancing his characteristics such as knowledge, expression, and understanding, and entering the TV world to solve the cases as they come. Unlike Persona 3, the day's activities are far less streamlined. The TV world can only be entered after school, which means doing so will come at the cost of enhancing a social link for the day. Furthermore, time spent in the TV world will also tire the protagonist out, generally preventing him from doing anything in the evening either.

   Social links have been enhanced significantly from Persona 3. The most notable change is the addition of links for every party member. In addition to boosting the power of fused personas, certain social links have other powerful effects. Leveling a party member's social link will allow them to perform special techniques during battle, such as taking a lethal strike for the protagonist, picking up a knocked down ally, dispelling status ailments, and even withstanding mortal blows. Should the player finish a party member's social link, their persona will evolve into a new form, supplanting the story-based change seen in Persona 3. A few other social links have similar useful effects, which makes completing them much more rewarding.

   Most social links are also less self-contained than in Persona 3. Characters from other links will often make appearances during social link events, and in these cases, the protagonist's relationship with those characters will often increase, though it won't level up. There are also several sub-events throughout the game that provide bonuses to relationships with various characters, which makes this aspect of the game much more dynamic and less predictable. The social links themselves are just as interesting and enjoyable as Persona 3, but the inclusion of links with important story characters, including the protagonist's uncle and cousin, give them an added significance that manages to thoroughly surpass it.

   The "Once More" combat system of Persona 3 returns in Persona 4, in which players are encouraged to strike at elemental weaknesses in order to gain additional turns. A few changes have been made, however, that have a fairly significant effect on the game's difficulty. For one thing, characters (enemies included) no longer lose their turn when they're knocked down, rising to their feet immediately. This means that the systematic turn-cancelling often employed during tough battles in Persona 3 is no longer possible, but it also means that players no longer need to worry about their own characters losing their turns. Turns can still be cancelled if a character or enemy's weakness is struck while he is down, but it cannot cancel more than a single turn. Players will also be happy to know that knocking down any enemy, even if another remains standing during an area attack, will still result in an extra turn. Not only does this make area attacks far more useful than in Persona 3, it brings with it many new strategies that can be employed to quickly decimate enemy groups. However, certain enemies are also able to use this to their advantage. One boss in particular can sometimes take as many as five turns in a row using this technique.

   Many small additions also add to the game's overall flavor. Persona 4 introduces a new crafting system, for instance. By selling materials dropped by enemies, the weapon store owner can craft new weapons and armor, which he then makes available for purchase. Spell descriptions are now available at almost any time, most notably during the persona fusion process, which makes replacing a spell with a new, unknown one a much less risky endeavor. The protagonist also has many new options available to him after school and in the evenings, including taking part time jobs, reading books, and completing requests made by townspeople. There's even a fishing mini-game.

Persona 4 is a very classy game. Persona 4 is a very classy game.

   Not all the changes are positive, however. For all the additions and enhancements made, many downgrades have also come with it, although for the most part they are little more than mere nuisances. Analyzing an enemy will only show the weaknesses and strengths that the player has uncovered for himself, rather than searching them out. This can lead to some close calls and sudden, unexpected deaths when exploring, particularly in the early parts of the game. The protagonist is also limited to only using a katana, rather than being able to choose a weapon as in Persona 3, which may make preemptively striking enemies difficult for some players. One of the worst changes, however, is what has become of "Shuffle Time," the card mini-game that appears after battles. While Persona 3 regularly supplied cash, weapons, armor, and healing in addition to new personas, the new "Shuffle Time" only provides personas. Furthermore, many of the cards are blank, and in some cases, even penalize the player by cancelling all experience and money earned during the battle. The method in which players choose cards is also much more frustrating, as it usually involves precise timing rather than memory.

   A major change that should be noted is that Persona 4's dungeon designs are far more interesting than those of its predecessor. Each case that comes up has its own, uniquely themed dungeon to accompany it. While they are still randomly generated, they are also generally only ten or eleven floors high. Furthermore, the ultimate boss for each particular case lies at the top of these dungeons, which means that players are not constricted to a monthly schedule as Persona 3 did, and can even finish a case off weeks before deadline. However, should the player fail to solve a case in time, the game will end prematurely.

   While Persona 3 made use of the Shin Megami Tensei staple moon phases, Persona 4 takes a different course by focusing instead on the weather. After several rainy days in a row, a fog settles over the town, and it is before this happens that the player must solve each case. Weather has other effects as well, though. Rainy days are the most significant, as most social links are unavailable at those times. Special shadows that drop rare materials also appear during rainy days, which makes them a prime opportunity to go into the TV. While the general effect is the same as the moon phases of Persona 3, it does mean that the game isn't rigidly restricted to a month-by-month story sequence. Most events overlap months, and some even occur in the middle, keeping the game unpredictable and interesting.

   Persona 4 provides visuals pretty much on par with what was delivered by Persona 3, not unexpectedly. The character designs are well done, but the town of Inaba feels somehow rough around the edges. The coloring generally seems to be dirtier, and browns and grays are used far more heavily than in the previous game, giving the town a hazy appearance that might not sit well with some players. The exception to this is towards the end of the game when the town adapts a rather eerie aesthetic, but players will have to play through the game to see exactly what that means. Dungeons, however, are far more pleasant to explore. There is, thankfully, no incredibly gaudy, super-neon level, which should please those players whose retinas still haven't recovered from those Persona 3 floors.

A game within a game? What madness is this!? A game within a game? What madness is this!?

   Shoji Meguro has once again outdone himself, as the audio experience is simply outstanding. The soundtrack is once again a fusion of various styles, particularly jazz and techno, although for this incarnation, Meguro seems to have replaced most of the hip-hop elements with more J-Pop inspired pieces, although they are not gone entirely. The main theme and battle theme once again stand out as being impeccable, but the dungeon themes are also far more varied and appropriately unique to each area they are used in. Two tracks that particularly stood out to this reviewer were encountered towards the end of the game: the creepy, subtle, atmospheric music in Inaba after a certain event, and the incredibly melancholic piano melody that plays throughout the final dungeon.

   The voice acting is also excellent, but as with most JRPGs, this is more a matter of taste than anything else. There are a few instances where the voicework falters slightly, but certain characters manage to perform outstandingly throughout. The best example of this is Dave Wittenberg's performance as Teddie, whose over-the-top ham acting suits the character perfectly, but also manages to sound genuine and even heartfelt when necessary. Teddie is one of the easiest characters in the game to empathize with, thanks in part to this effort, and also provides some of the best comic relief throughout the game.

   While fans of Persona 3 can rest assured that they will find a thoroughly enjoyable experience in Persona 4, in many ways it feels like a move sideways for the series rather than a step forward. There are many players who will likely find it to be an overall better experience than Persona 3, while others, like myself, will find the game's weak ending and various grievances prevent it from truly surpassing last year's hit title. The game's difficulty falls right in line with Persona 3, and once again provides both easy and hard modes for those looking for less or additional challenge. However, the overall challenge actually begins to dwindle as the game progresses, and most players will probably find it more challenging in the early portions, and less challenging later on. Persona 4 is also slightly shorter than Persona 3, but still manages to last a whopping eighty hours, far more than most RPGs.

   As the game wraps up, all the mysteries are finally solved, but there is one left that only Atlus really knows the answer to. So how about it, Atlus? Want to answer this one, last question?

   When do we get Persona 5?

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