Persona 4 - Staff Review  

Another Persona 3 Expansion Pack
by Glenn Wilson

More than 80 Hours
+ Best localization in any JRPG.
+ Addicting simulation gameplay.
+ Lengthy, excellent script.
+ Voice acting is stellar.
- Graphics are low quality, even for SMT
- The final ten hours are a horrible abomination which can leave a reviewer bitter when its the last thing about the game he experienced right before writing the review.
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   The Persona series has always been Shin Megami Tensei: Lite, stripping out the most hardcore aspects of the main series along with the plots which require a degree in theology to fully appreciate, and replacing them with world-saving teenagers and gameplay that is more outright enjoyable. After Persona 3 became God's gift to RPGamers in 2007, Atlus put Nintendo's Zelda team to shame by spitting out a sequel with nearly identical gameplay in little over a year's time. Persona 4 is rife with tweaks, but do not be deceived by the title. In the PC world, this game would be an expansion pack, albeit a lengthy one, merely transplanting Persona 3's marvelous mechanics into a marginally dissimilar setting with a new plot. The storytelling and high school simulation are better this time around, although the attempts to make the dungeon-crawling easier and less time-consuming made it less interesting instead.

   The protagonist, a male named by the player, moves to the rural town of Inaba for one year, coinciding with his second year of high school. Soon after his arrival, a corpse mysteriously appears overnight in Inaba's dying commercial district, suspended upside down in the power lines. Finding the killer and saving his future victims takes the protagonist through a TV screen and into a world populated with homicidal shadows and one friendly resident: Teddie, the sentient, stuffed bear. Each day begins with the main character waking up and going to school, after which he may develop friendships by hanging out with people, complete various tasks to improve his personality or earn cash, or meet up with his fellow sleuths to hop into a TV set together for some shadow-slaughtering, victim-rescuing action.

   Persona 4 is, at its heart, a high school sim. While the dangerous TV world must be entered separately and on a regular basis to avoid a story-induced game over, the sim and dungeon-crawling parts affect each other and work together; making new friends in the real world augments the player's abilities in the TV one. Spending time with individual party members after school gives them new abilities in combat. Whether the player chooses each day to build personal stats or power up a Social Link, the ultimate goal is for it to help in battle. The fact that it's a sim also provides a fluid way to display cutscenes without awkwardly interjecting them into the middle of a dungeon, or making it look like party members only talk when they first enter a town. Because the party in Persona 4 consists of a group of high school friends, and the simulation literally passes day by day, the player gets to witness more, longer conversations that match the current situation. When things are swell, they joke around and have fun. When things are tense, they fight and argue about what to do next. Even better, the individual personalities in Persona 4 are disparate, consistent, and above all, believable. There are no one-dimensional, Japanese clichés in this group, and they talk like real students rather than insulting stereotypes.

   If Planescape: Torment holds the record for most text in an RPG, then Persona 4 just set the record for most text in a Japanese RPG, and every word of it is fantastic. It would be within reason to call this the best localization ever done for a JRPG, and it is certainly a crowning achievement for Atlus USA, which already has plenty of solid writing credits under its belt. Throughout all the laughs, the tender moments, the disagreements, and the mundane, daily talk in high school life, the script always feels genuine. Realistic teenage insecurities ranging from common topics like sexuality and social acceptance to less common ones such as what it means to exist and gender identity are reasonably discussed as key plot points. The show-stealer for sure is Teddie, whose "over the top innocent" personality provides constant humor without forcing a teenager to act like a small child or resorting to slapstick. The voice acting is also outstanding for Teddie as well as nearly everyone else. As a whole, it sounds like a topnotch studio job meant for a Pixar film rather than the atrocious video game standard. There are several hours' worth of voiced cutscenes in the game, so the extra care given to their audio is appreciated.

Om nom nom nom. Om nom nom nom.

   While playing through the daily simulation is solid and addictive, battles are on the bland side relative to other Shin Megami Tensei games. Persona 3 featured a dumbed-down, simpler version of Nocturne's battle system that managed to stay challenging and interesting without being as cruel and off-putting. Battles in Persona 4 have been watered down even more, and it suffers for it. A game over occurs when the protagonist hits 0 HP regardless of how healthy his helpers are. To help keep this from happening, party members can smack the leader out of the way of a mortal blow and take the hit for him. Thus, multiple would-be game overs are avoided. Not content to merely help the player live longer, changes were also made to assist enemies.

   Slamming a foe with its elemental weakness will knock it down and grant the player another attack. If all the enemies are knocked down, a powerful attack can be unleashed by the party to deal massive damage to each monster. While this sounds splendid, if an enemy's turn comes while it is knocked down, it will stand back up and attack like normal. This was not the case in Persona 3, where a knocked down enemy would miss a turn. These changes, in addition to the inability to scan for opponents' weaknesses, slow down what was formerly a fast-paced battle system. Taking advantage of elemental weaknesses was largely the point of Nocturne and Persona 3's systems, and that was made less useful here. Also, because additional turns are granted when an area attack knocks down just one foe, all out attacks and battle strategy in general are not as crucial in Persona 4. The result is a slower, easier, milder, more vanilla system. It is still more enjoyable than what most RPGs offer; however, it is sad to see what was once two slightly different, fun versions of the same basic system take a big step in the wrong direction with this evolution.

   In combat, comrades can either be controlled manually or left to the AI. The AI is acceptably intelligent with a penchant for burning through SP like it lasts forever. There are a few, limited tactics the AI can be set to, but none of them function quite right, nor as well as the basic "Act Freely" setting. Controlling party members manually drastically increases battle time, which is a good reason to avoid it, but it is great that the option is always there for those who want it. The AI is poorly equipped to handle bosses, so if worthwhile assistance is required during a boss encounter, the player must control characters in addition to himself. Featuring provoking and unique designs, the bosses are beautiful on the surface but horrible to fight. They are all elementless, meaning that they cannot be knocked down, meaning that they break the battle system, meaning that they are the most boring part of the game. In another attempt to protect fragile players from seeing the game over screen, bosses dish out less damage than the shadows just outside their doors, but in return they have astronomical HP values. Unfortunately, this makes these epic-looking fights mindless and long, where the real challenge is hoping to defeat them before running out of SP restoratives.

Shuffle Time was gutted and ruined. Shuffle Time was gutted and ruined.

   With the improvements and extensions to the story and simulation aspects over its predecessor, the dungeon-crawling in Persona 4 was made less significant with tweaks that are purely aesthetic. New dungeons appear in the TV world following specific points in the story. Each dungeon has around ten floors — most of which are randomly generated — and sparsely drizzled shadows sludge across each level. When a shadow is approached it will immediately notice the party and charge regardless of what direction it is facing. If the leader manages to hit the shadow's back with a sword attack, he will get a first strike in the ensuing battle. If the shadow hits the player's side or back, or catches him mid-swing, the foes will get a first strike in combat. This is trickier than it sounds because shadows can spin quickly while the player is stuck in the swinging motion. Throughout the game, dungeon layouts are all similar and unremarkable. The floors are large and empty, which is great if one needs to flee from a shadow encounter when health is low, but a higher shadow population or smaller floors would have made them more interesting.

   The most disappointing part of this hurriedly developed sequel is its graphics. Not necessarily repulsive, they look rushed and lazy with a limited number of dull backgrounds used around the town of Inaba. Monster designs are mostly recycled from Persona 3, and frequent load times take unusually long for such a late generation PS2 game with below average visuals and small locales. Backgrounds in the TV world, especially in the dungeons, are comparatively well done and quite creative. It is a shame that the same effort was not put forth for the real world. Contrastingly, most of the background music is newly written and very good. Songs always fit the current atmosphere perfectly, from the sleepy rural town to some of the outrageous dungeon settings. Overall, where Persona 3 used Engrishy rap, Persona 4 uses Engrishy pop music. The more repeated themes do get old by the end of the eighty hour game, but to an extent that cannot be helped.

   Persona 2: Eternal Punishment was a typical RPG with many substantial dungeons. Persona 3 was part dungeon-crawler, part high school sim, all awesome. Persona 4 cleans up and improves upon the sim elements to the extent that it plays like a story-driven simulation with tacked on dungeon-crawling. The result is a game with many well done pieces that pulls in the player with its "just one more day" simulation gameplay and keeps him there with the unparalleled characters and script. Without exaggeration, over half of this game is spent reading text or deciding what to do in the afternoons. It lacks polish in its graphics and the planning of the final murder mystery plot points — the ending is a horribly-paced train wreck in both content and implementation — but considering how quickly Atlus churned this out and then localized it, the overall quality of the game is surprisingly high. Anyone who disliked Persona 3 should not touch the sequel and anyone who enjoyed the first will also enjoy the second. The games are too similar to split hairs there. For those who skipped the previous game in the series, anyone who looks forward to the story and characters in an RPG should grab this game. Those with a hatred for dungeon crawling should pass, because that part of the game is there and time consuming. And as always with SMT games, anyone who loves creating, cancelling, creating, cancelling, creating, cancelling, and creating personas to get the perfect set of skills will find plenty of that here.

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