In 2007, Atlus stunned RPG fans with Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, an ambitious take on the genre that had never quite been seen before. Part dungeon crawl, part relationship simulator, all awesome, Persona 3 and its subsequent re-release, Persona 3: FES won the hearts of many with its outstanding dialogue, addicting Social Links, and solid turn-based combat. A little over a year later, Persona 4 aims to do the same thing – exactly the same thing, in fact. Those familiar with Persona 3 will find almost nothing new here. However, they will find yet another incredibly unique, addictive, and well-polished JRPG experience, complete with some minor changes here and there that keep the game from feeling like a port of its predecessor.
Persona 4 again puts the player in the shoes of a silent protagonist. This time around he’s a city boy forced to spend a year with his uncle and young cousin in a (fictional) rural area of Japan called Inaba. Things don’t stay quiet in the small town for long, as a series of bizarre murders break out. With the help of his fellow friends and party members, the protagonist determines that the murders are somehow linked to a mystical world found… inside a television set. Persona 4 plays out like a first-rate murder mystery, with twists, turns, and shocks aplenty. The darker atmosphere of Persona 3 is gone, replaced by a trippier, Tim Burton-esque feel. And, like Persona 3, it’s occasionally rather disturbing. It’s really quite good, and in fact, the main plot represents quite an improvement over Persona 3. The pacing is much better, largely devoid of the long, awkward pauses that plagued Persona 3‘s narrative.
The most impressive aspect of the story, however, is the characters. Like its predecessor, the cast of Persona 4 is a very likeable, realistic, well-developed group of individuals. Tired Japanese archetypes are carefully avoided, and the result is a group of people who actually talk and act like… well, real people. They’re not just likeable, they have substance.
Unsurprisingly, the game plays almost identically to Persona 3. Time is split between the everyday functions of a high school student and delving into the mysterious TV world. The structure of the dungeon crawling is a bit different this time around. In Persona 3 there was no goal in mind other than to advance higher and higher in Tartarus, and the player could do so practically at their own leisure. In Persona 4 the player must visit multiple dungeons within the TV world, with a specific goal in mind every time. This goal always involves rescuing someone who is trapped inside, and if the dungeon isn’t completed within a certain timeframe, the victim will die and the game will end. That said, more than enough time is given; the dungeons can often be completed in less than a week (by the game’s internal calendar), leaving plenty of time for other activities.
Once inside these dungeons, players will be back on familiar ground. There’s a lot more diversity this time around, although they are still randomly generated. The excellent combat from Persona 3 returns with a few minor changes. Enemies appear onscreen, and coming in contact with one triggers a battle. Combat is turn-based, with party members summoning their respective Personas to fight for them. The key to battles is exploiting the weaknesses of enemies in order to knock them off-balance. If an entire group of enemies is floored, the player can unleash an “all-out attack,” which will inflict massive damage. Unlike in Persona 3, enemies will no longer lose a turn when knocked down – when their turn comes, they will simply get up and take action normally. The same holds true for the party members, however. This change may seem minor, but in practice, it removes an entire dimension from combat – now, it’s really only worthwhile to exploit enemy weaknesses if it’s possible to knock them all off-balance, and subsequently, pull off an all-out attack. In Persona 3, even if it wasn’t possible to floor them all, it was a worthwhile strategy to floor whatever enemies possible, and in doing so make them lose a turn.
One major improvement that has been made, however, is the implementation of manual control for fellow party members. No longer is the player forced to sit and watch helplessly as party members burn through SP needlessly, refuse to heal status effects, or simply refuse to take any action at all. Because of this, an already spectacular combat system has been made even better; more complex and effective battle strategies can be formed, and the frustrating feeling of helplessness present in Persona 3 is gone. However, Boss battles tend to be more annoying this time around, because the majority of them have no elemental weaknesses. What this means in practice is that most boss battles boil down to pounding away with your most powerful attacks and healing every round. They often present very little in the way of challenge, but to make up for this, Atlus made sure to give each of them astronomically high HP totals. In short, most of the boss battles in Persona 4 just plain suck.
Outside of the game’s labyrinthine dungeons, the player will spend time living the life of a high school student. This includes going to school, studying, working part-time jobs, and of course, spending time with friends – AKA, Social Links. The system is largely the same as it was in Persona 3, with each social link corresponding to a particular Persona type. (Arcana). Developing and raising these links allows for the fusion of more powerful Personas of those particular Arcana. And be assured, it’s quite necessary to fuse Personas – you can aquire them in the game’s dungeons, but they are extremely weak compared to what can be achieved through fusion.
A welcome change this time around is the ability to develop social links with each and every party member. Better still, developing links with party members grants them benefits in battle; i.e. the ability to take a fatal blow for the protagonist, or to pull off a powerful “follow-up” attack when an enemy has been knocked down. However, Social Links aren’t good simply for utilitarian functions – they’re really quite fun to witness. The scripting is excellent, often quite funny and always entertaining. Also, Social Links with party members contain a lot of character developments that aren’t present in the game’s main storyline.
Shoji Meguro has outdone himself with the game’s soundtrack, which is once again one of the more unique audio experiences to be found in a JRPG. The music has a J-pop feel to it, rather than the hip-hop style present in Persona 3. The orchestral compositions are excellent as well. Voice acting is a bit of a mixed bag, and perhaps not quite as solid as it was in Persona 3. That’s not to say it’s bad; the voice actors for Kanji and Teddy (Troy Baker and Dave Wittenberg) stand out for their excellence. On the other hand, though, Yukiko (Amanda Winn Lee) consistently manages to induce cringing, and while Yosuke (Yuri Lowenthal) generally sounds excellent, he has a tendency to devolve into anime-esque overacting. In all likelihood, the quality of the voice acting will depend on the personal taste of the player.
Persona 4 is a long game, clocking in at around the 80 hour mark, but it’s well worth the time investment. With a truly engaging storyline, an extremely well-written (and extremely robust) script, a spectacular cast, and highly addictive gameplay, this is an easy recommendation to any fan of JRPGs.