Although the Persona series was not an instant hit in the United States, it has quickly developed a devout following among the RPG faithful, especially since last year’s mega-hit, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (and the subsequent FES re-release earlier this year). Largely hailed as the best RPG of the year, this title pushed boundaries in the genre, especially in terms of storyline and plot conventions. This year sees the release to a new Persona title, which somehow manages to be bigger and better than last year’s title in many ways.
Those who played through last year’s Persona title know that most of the game’s impact came from its story, which somehow managed to be an endearing, yet highly disturbing take on high school life in a small Japanese town. Part dating sim, and part occult thriller, Persona 3 was a thrilling title that kept your pulse pounding until its bitter end.
Although Persona 4’s story is completely different from previous Persona titles, there are quite a few conventions that the title sticks to. For instance, the action all still takes place in the mysterious region of Inaba, and all the characters are local high school kids. You may also recognize a few minor characters from Persona 3, who have aged slightly. However, the story this time around is completely stand-alone, and it involves some mysterious murders that seem to be connected to an alternate universe that the protagonist can reach by stepping inside a television.
I know the premise probably sounds more than a little ludicrous, but Persona 4 does a good job of establishing the game’s narrative in the beginning. The game gives you about two hours of prologue at the start to help make the events of the game more plausible and to familiarize you with the setting and characters. Although you won’t be able to really “play” the game until about three hours in, the beginning cinema and dialogue scenes are vital for the story, and they help you bond with the different characters early on and grasp complex plot elements.
The result is a highly imaginative story that definitely defies conventions and will have you thinking very deeply. Much like its predecessor, Persona 4 raises a lot of philosophical questions, and it allows you to make ethical decisions that affect the course of the game. The narrative shifts as a result of some of these choices, and many of the decisions you make in the game will require you to reflect on your own moral values.
Another strength that Persona 4 has is its depth of gameplay. Although, at its heart, the Persona series is a basic turn-based RPG, there is a lot more to it than that. Instead of just running through the different dungeons and finishing the game in a marathon session, Persona 4 invites you to take your time and become immersed in the world of Inaba. Your character can go to school, get a part time job, and even date one of the other characters. Although most of these actions are not required for the game to move forward, engaging in these extra activities will make your character more effective in battle, as “social bonds” will be created that aid in fighting with each character’s Persona.
The social links system represents some key changes to the Persona formula, as it becomes important in battle later on in the game. Each character also has five social stats instead of three, which makes getting your character to a preferred social standing take more effort and time than it did previously. However, the rewards are also much greater in Persona 4, and the social links system definitely adds a lot of depth to the already intense Persona experience
Though the game is only about 40 hours if you run right through all of the plot elements, if you really take your time with the game, you can get much more value from it. Maxing out social stats, improving relationships, and exploring different areas of Inaba can easily double your time with this game. Persona 4 also has substantial replay value, as there are different endings depending on your character’s choices throughout the game.
One part of this title that is definitely far from conventional is it’s graphical style. Persona 4 has an almost film-like aesthetic to it, and different colors are emphasized throughout the game to reinforce different meanings. For instance, yellow and black are battle colors, and they often permeate the TV world; while the color blue permeates The Velvet Room, which is a different dimension only accessible by dreams. The color scheme is very striking, and it really pulls you into different aspects of the game. The game also has some pretty amazing character designs, and the different Personas are meticulously detailed with rich patterns and accessories.
As for the graphics themselves, the game looks very good despite being released on the almost decade-old PlayStation 2. The cinema scenes in the game are great quality, anime-style animation for key plot points. The approach is very vivid and conveys characters emotions with turbulent force. The in-engine graphics are also very stylistic, but the graphical limitations of the PlayStation 2 are very apparent. Jagged lines and some repetitive character animations are chief among the graphical issues you may encounter in this game, but the amazing style overall more than makes up for these technical issues.
The music in Persona 4 is again composed by Shoji Meguro, whose work in Persona 3 was highly praised. The game’s music is nicely varied, and Meguro’s moody and thematic compositions definitely bolster the game’s emotional story. Also of note is the different J-pop-style theme songs, which are very energetic and fun to listen to.
However, when it comes to the sound, the voice acting in Persona 4 definitely takes the cake as the game’s best feature. While I am normally un-impressed by English voiceovers in JRPGs, the voiceover here was done spectacularly. All of the different characters have wonderfully produced voices and hit emotional notes just right. I have to say, the voiceover in this title rivals any other game out there, and it is probably better than some games produced primarily in English.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 is a must-own title, hands-down. Even if you have never played a Persona game before, the game doesn’t assume familiarity with the series, and does a good job of accommodating those who might fall into this category. Persona 4 delivers a unique, story-focused gaming experience that has plenty of style, substance, and heart. Even though some might balk at buying a game for the aging PlayStation 2, this game is definitely worth blowing the dust off of your old system, and it is unquestionably a serious contender for the best RPG this year.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.5 Graphics
Anime-style cutscenes look amazing. The look of the game, while not as technically complex as current-gen titles, has an awesome style and unique character designs. 4.0 Control
Simple menu-based controls offer nothing new, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. 4.9 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The soundtrack is wonderful to listen to and features a nice mix of classical and J-pop infused music. Voiceovers are top-notch. 4.8 Play Value
With a play time between forty and fifty hours, different difficulty levels, and multiple endings, Persona 4 will keep you hanging on for quite some time. 4.7 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.