In 2006, Atlus shocked the world with Persona 3. While the game's departure from its predecessors in terms of artistic direction, gameplay and music were unexpected, it was a title of the highest quality. A game that would soon become recognized, on both sides of the pond, as one of the more innovative titles in recent years. Similarly, Persona 3: FES received a warm reception for its enhancements brought to the original game, Episode Yourself, and Episode Aegis — an epilogue scenario starring the "anti-shadow weapon" who was a fan favorite of the cast.
Once again, Atlus has exceeded expectations and managed to improve upon a successful formula in every regard; Persona 4 can be best described as "Persona 3, but better." Fans of the previous game — and of the genre as a whole — should be rightfully excited for its domestic release.
Persona 4's main character is a transfer student to Inaba, a small town in the Japanese 'inaka' (rural countryside). He moves in with his uncle, Ryoutarou Doujima, and his cousin Nanako. Doujima is a police officer who has been investigating the murder of a television anchor. Soon after the main character's arrival, a second body is discovered hanging from the telephone lines. Is it the work of a serial killer? Or is there something far more sinister, and perhaps supernatural, at work?
At school, the main character and his classmates Chie, Yousuke, and Yukiko hear about a rumor regarding "Mayonaka TV." The rumor states that watching television past midnight on a rainy day will reveal the viewer's soulmate to him or her. Curious, the main character tries it out one night and is horrified to see shocking images relating to the ongoing murders. He also discovers that he can enter the television and emerge in an alternate reality, a foggy world inhabited by a mysterious creature named Kuma. Kuma, who takes on the appearance of a stuffed bear, is originally hostile to the unknown intruders in his world. He is also unaware of the nature of his own existence, knowing little more than the fact that he has always existed in the television world, and that strange occurrences have been happening within it as well. These occurrences, Kuma believes, are due to the manifestation of "shadows." Could there be any connection between these shadows and the unexplained murders?
On the whole, Persona 4 is a bit darker than its predecessor and wrestles with character development issues at a much faster pace. In the course of the game's scenarios, each of the main characters confronts his or her "shadow" in the television world. These shadows are manifestations of the dark, innermost insecurities they possess. For one character, it is a fear of growing up; for another, it is the subtle disdain that has amassed due to living in the shadow of her much more beautiful and successful friend's popularity. The characters must deal with their repressed feelings and come to accept them; it is through such trials that they come to harness the power of their personae. Although the 'evokers' in Persona 3 had some conservatives up in arms (no pun intended), the themes of these trials in Persona 4 are more of a throwback to the controversial, risqué nature of Persona 2: Innocent Sin and Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, particularly in terms of its liberal take on sexuality.
A significant portion of the story revolves around sexual themes. The most notable of these themes is one character's struggle against the denial of his homosexual desires. Although the game never directly labels him as a homosexual, he openly expresses that he is more comfortable around men and conceals his effeminate side in an effort to appear masculine. This character confronts his insecurity involving homosexuality in his dungeon, a men's sauna, the boss of which transforms into a half-naked demonic version of himself adorned with flowers and dual-wielding mars symbols. In the aftermath of the conflict, he briefly comes to terms with what he is, but receives teasing from the party in later events. On a school camping trip, he asks the main character and Yousuke if he can crash in their tent, to which Yousuke implies discomfort and asks, "but aren't you... you know?" The character responds with vehement denial. Due to cultural differences, these scenes serve as comic relief; Japanese society views homosexuality, and homosexual mannerisms, as something amusing. Television personalities such as "Hard Gay," who run around in a leather bondage suit and make use of overly effeminate expressions, are looked upon as "hilarious" at best and "strange, somewhat detestable" at worst by Japanese society. Naturally, I hope that Atlus USA takes care in the localization of these scenes, as homosexuals could certainly take issue with the manner in which they are represented.
It's not all "serious business," though; Persona 4 maintains the same balance of lighthearted humor and poignant moments which made Persona 3 a remarkable success in the story department. From the homeroom teacher who is constantly cussing at the students and is, quite hilariously, unable to stay sober on a field trip — to adolescent pranks, cooking misadventures, and even the ripping off of Kuma's head — the scenarios are literally brimming with fun. As a result, even the most minor characters are three-dimensional, realistic existences in a fictional world, and the player cannot help but to become attached to each and every one of the new faces — and re-attached to a couple familiar faces from the past!
At heart, Persona 4's gameplay mechanics closely resemble those of its predecessor, with an assortment of minor adjustments which, on the whole, are beneficial to the experience. As there are a fair number of such adjustments, I will assume that the reader is familiar with the battle and school simulation mechanics from Persona 3 in order to focus on the changes.
First, the adjustments to the battle system. There are now three difficulty levels which are selectable from the start: Beginner, Normal, and Expert. Rather than allies being computer controlled, manual control is now available in the "tactics" menu for party members. As expected, this results in fewer unpredictable actions and wasted turns. A "guard" command has been added which, in addition to reducing damage, also nullifies a character's elemental weakness. If a certain character is weak to fire-based spells, that character can simply spend each turn in "guard" against a fire-spamming foe to avoid exploitation of their vulnerability. Finally, party members can perform special moves in battle based on the player's progress in his or her social link. These special moves include "covering" the main character in order to prevent a mortal blow, recovering from status ailments, and much more. All things considered, Persona 4 sits on the easier end of the difficulty scale for a Shin Megami Tensei game; the softcore crowd who were easily frustrated with "cheap" one-shot tactics in other installments (Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, in particular, comes to mind) will feel a little more at home here.
All dungeon diving now occurs in the "after school" phase and is dependent on the weather, rather than the moon. Each dungeon must be completed within a certain amount of time (before the next foggy day, which comes immediately after a rain spell) in order to rescue victims. Failure to accomplish this results in an anticlimactic "game over," but players need not be intimidated; there is usually more than enough time - two or three weeks - in order to hack through ten floors. Rather than a single dungeon like the tower, Tartarus, Persona 4 provides players with nine different dungeons, each with a different theme. The floors are still randomized and that sinking feeling of "déjà vu" will surely creep up on occasion, but compared to Persona 3, the dungeons feel fresh and offer more variety. Because each dungeon is much shorter than the massive Tartarus, there is only a single save point, usually outside the boss room, and returning to the dungeon entrance does not provide free healing to the party. As a result, the characters' SP ultimately becomes the bottleneck determining how much progress can be made on a single trip. In order to balance this out, the "fatigue system" from Persona 3 has been completely removed; it is no longer necessary to look after "sick" or "tired" allies, as everyone remains in top fighting condition for the duration of the trip.
In the intervals before and after their excursions into the television world, however, the characters' real lives must be lived, and, as expected, the school simulation side of the experience has been tweaked significantly. Aside from the twenty-one social links, the main character now has five character traits to be raised. They are communication, courage, knowledge, perseverance, and tolerance. In addition to club activities, dating girls and maintaining friendships, the main character must now work part-time jobs to unlock several social links, as well as become acquainted with a new and inanimate comrade: a fishing rod. Fishing, a new mini-game, is necessary in order to complete several quests.
If the obligations of a social life (not to mention simultaneously saving the world) were a tall order in Persona 3, players can rest assured that the simulation side of the experience is fairly flexible this time around, as its various aspects are more naturally interwoven into the rest of the game. Working part-time at a children's daycare, for example, will allow the main character to advance with the "Temperance" social link, increase his tolerance level, and even earn money — the expected compensation for a part-time job. The rainy day special at a particular restaurant increases not one, not two, but three of his character traits in a single action, for the low price of 3000 Yen. Basically, the main character of Persona 4 is much busier than his inner-city counterpart from the previous game, but he also has more resources at his disposal to get things done.
One of the best of these resources is none other than the good ol' square button, which reduces travel time between destinations in simulation mode. A press of the square button brings up an on-screen menu of the different areas in a particular zone. From the main character's homeroom in the school, for example, the player can instantly travel to the first floor, second floor, the roof, or to the next building — without the monotonous hassle of running up and down staircases. The game greatly benefits from this addition to the control scheme, which players can utilize until the very end of the adventure for convenient navigation.
Even at the end of the adventure, however, there is much more to be done. Persona 4's "New Game +" mode transfers the main character's traits, money, and items received from "maxed" social links. A couple optional bosses (which will challenge even the most seasoned veterans of the series) are unlocked, as is a "special persona" only obtainable on a second game.
Graphics and Music
Persona 4 lives up to the series' high standard in the audio department, but with what I call a "J-Girl Garage Band"-inspired theme, in contrast to its predecessor's rap. The main battle theme, "Reach Out to the Truth," is a catchy track that I have listened to a thousand times over and still love. My favorite song on the soundtrack, however, is found in the simulation side of the game, a track called "Heartbeat, Heartbreak." As a whole, the soundtrack is a diverse collection of songs; many genres are represented in its eclectic mix and there should be a little something to please everyone — except on rainy days, during which there is a somewhat surprising lack of music. Aside from that minor complaint, Shoji Meguro's latest work is a true masterpiece.
The graphics, too, are a solid offering on the PlayStation 2. The most noticeable enhancements from Persona 3 in the visual department are in the interface. It is very distinctly "yellow" and "television-inspired" in its theme. Shigenori Soejima (Persona 3, Stella Deus) returns as the character designer, and I'll be honest: I'm his biggest fan. The character designs, the dungeons, and the enemies are all fantastic, and the "inaka" environment was spot-on. In fact, Inaba (and the overall representation of the Japanese countryside) was so unnervingly accurate, I had flashbacks - on more than one occasion - of my own time living in Japan.
When reflecting on the current trend in the game industry, the old adage "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" comes to mind, particularly in the east. With Nintendo being the sole exception, console makers, developers, and publishers are all focused on "better technology" without considering "better experiences" in gaming, and "innovation" has become an all-too-commonly misinterpreted term.
Atlus is one company that has never settled for such complacency. Among the cookie-cutter sequels and half-hearted remakes, Persona 4 is a near flawless example of the perfect balance between "falling back on what works" and "pushing the genre forward." That said, I wholeheartedly recommend it as one of the best RPG experiences of the year.