Persona 3 was a pleasant surprise for me and many other JRPG fans. The concept of being a half life-simulation, half dungeon-crawler sounds interesting on paper, but there was skepticism on how it would work out. To our surprise, Atlus delivered on making Persona 3 a fresh and unique RPG that was better than the sum of its parts and won over many RPG fans' hearts. Unsurprisingly, Atlus capitalized on this success and created a sequel, making use of the successful formula. Persona 4 has a lot of expectations to meet due to the high standards Persona 3 had set. As it turns out, not only does Persona 4 meet those expectations, it sets the standard even higher for a wonderful RPG experience.
The game takes place two years after Persona 3, and the main character, whom you get to name, is a city boy who moves into the countryside town of Inaba. His parents are away overseas so he spends the year with his uncle Dojima along with his little cousin, Nanako. He settles into his new life quickly, befriending his classmates Yosuke, Chie and Yukiko in school. Things are seemingly normal, but the hero winds up coming to Inaba right when a series of murders begin to occur. First, it is a television anchorwoman on TV the previous night about an affair she's involved in. Days later, a high school student gets killed who was also on TV for discovering the previous victim's body. From those incidents, the peaceful town of Inaba enters a crisis.
During that time, the hero heard rumors of a strange program called the Midnight Channel. The rumor indicates that a channel appears on a rainy night at midnight when your television is off. The hero gets curious and checks out the channel, and what he sees are blurry images of people that later turned out to be the murder victims. He also discovers that he can go through TVs for some reason and decides to investigate further with his friends.
Inside the TV lies another world covered in thick, yellow fog. A strange stuffed bear named Teddie resides there and he's feeling upset that someone keeps bringing people over to his world. Teddie initially suspects the hero and his friends to be the culprits, but when they get attacked by creatures called shadows, the hero shows his worth by unleashing a power called a Persona, leaving Teddie in awe. After much convincing, Teddie trusts that they aren't the culprits, but made them promise to track the guy down so his home will be peaceful again. Believing that the midnight channel is connected to the murders, they accept Teddie's promise. The police are on the case, but with supernatural elements involved, the hero and his companions are the only ones who can thwart the killer's schemes.
The main story has more meat to it than in the previous game, and has better pacing due to story segments occurring more frequently. Since it's a mystery story, it does a good job of keeping the players engaged and leave them guessing. Throughout the year, your objective is to rescue people who appear on the Midnight Channel, giving you only a few weeks to do so. There is no special day to advance the story and fight a boss like you do in Persona 3. If you don't rescue the person by a certain day, it's game over. You are given the option of resetting the game a week back to try again, but you lose all your progress.
I find the core cast to be more likable and down to earth, acting their own age and doing normal activities as opposed to the SEES crew from Persona 3 who act more mature for their age with the exception of Junpei. They also receive their character developments early on. Throughout the game, they have to confront their shadow selves, which are a manifestation of their fears and parts of themselves that got tucked away. These suppressed inner thoughts tackle issues such as one's fear of growing up to wanting freedom from the life others forced upon one. One character even has to confront his true sexuality and be true to the non-manly hobbies he genuinely enjoys. After facing themselves and accepting who they are, their Persona manifests, and then they join the good fight to save Inaba. The cast has great chemistry with each other, making the interactions feel genuine while the comedy and dramatic parts are super effective. By the end of the game, you'd easily feel attached to at least one of them.
The Social Link system returns from Persona 3, and it's just as good in Persona 4. In order to get stronger persona, you need to forge bonds with the people of Inaba. They all have a story to tell, and they're all interesting in their own ways. This time, all your party members have a Social Link instead of just the ladies, enabling you to know your favorite party member even more. It's also the only way to evolve their persona instead of automatic progression. The social link is a great method of character interaction, and awards you on the gameplay portion the more you invest time on the story front.
The only weakness the story has are the NPCs. In Persona 3, I liked that each NPC had their own little story which developed throughout the course of the game, and your teachers in school were quite zany. These elements are present in Persona 4, but it's not as engaging, and the teachers are pretty dull with the exception of two. It does not detract from the main experience, but the little things are always welcome, and Inaba does not feel as alive as it could.
Persona 3 does have a much stronger finish, but Persona 4 has the slight edge for overall consistency with a better core cast. In addition, Teddie became one of my all time favorite characters in any RPG.
For those who never played Persona 3, here is the basic gist. One half of the game consists of spending time in Inaba after school, either leveling up a Social Link or another activity, which takes up a day. The main character also has five traits to level, which is a requirement to unlock and progress Social Links. Traits are gained through various activities you can do like answering questions correctly in school, studying and other activities. Other times, you venture onto the TV world and go through a dungeon to advance the story. The combat is traditional turn-based fighting with emphasis on exploiting weaknesses, giving you an extra turn for doing so. The hero can also have up to sixteen Persona, giving you an array of abilities. Last but not least, you can fuse Persona in the Velvet Room in order obtain stronger ones, gaining experience boosts based on a Social Link level. None of the gameplay elements are deep, but it all fits together for a unique experience.
The game also introduced a weather system. The weather aspect generally does not affect much except when it rains. On rainy days, nearly all of your Social Links are unavailable, but some unique options are available such as gaining points for multiple traits by eating in a restaurant. It also serves as an indicator for when you have to fulfill a story objective.
Another new addition is being able to get a part time job. Part time jobs are meant to kill a few birds with one stone by being able to do several things in one action. For example, one of the jobs is as an assistant caretaker where you increase your understanding trait while gaining 5000 yen and work on a Social Link. Money is also less abundant in Persona 4 so an extra surge of income is always nice.
The quest system is also different. In the previous game, you got them from the Velvet Room, and they consisted of fetch quests and fusing persona with specified abilities. The majority of quests had a time limit too. In Persona 4, you get quests from townsfolk, and most of them are fetch quests, but there are several which involve simply interacting with the other townsfolk. None of the quests are timed, but you wouldn't be able to fulfill some quests at certain points in the game.
There is also a fishing minigame, which takes up part of your day if you choose to engage in it. During the day or evening, you can go to the riverbed and obtain some fish in order to exchange for prizes or fulfill certain quests. The number of times you can fish depends on your diligence trait level and the amount of bait you have. It's a fine minigame, but it's not implemented too well because everything else you do would level a Social Link and/or character traits, leaving fishing to exist just for the sake of being there.
The greatest convenience of all lays with the square button. When you press the square button, you can travel to any area in Inaba instantly rather than having to keep walking to the destination, wasting less time and saving you from more, frequent load times.
Like the simulation portion, dungeon-crawling and combat also get a facelift. In Persona 3, you headed to the main dungeon during nighttime where you didn't have much to do, but now you can only enter a dungeon during daytime. This would've made the game tougher, but the new conveniences in the simulation part help out. Instead of a giant tower to plow through, there are nine distinct dungeons to go through. They only consist of nine to eleven floors with the last floor containing just a save point and the boss. You can leave the dungeon by using an item or ability, and when you want to return, you can start from the highest floor you left off on. They're easier to get through, only consisting of a mini boss or two before the boss, and experience gain receives a major boost. After beating a dungeon, you can go back and fight an optional boss. Defeating the optional boss increases your courage trait and supplies you with a good piece of equipment.
The notorious fatigue system is no longer present so your characters can stay in the TV world as long as they would like without getting tired. In exchange, you cannot automatically recover your HP and SP (MP.) Early on, you get a special Social Link that will be your healer for the TV world, but his service is very expensive. You can only get a discount by leveling his social link. Even if you want to power level, it has gotten more difficult to do so.
The battle mechanics are the same at its core, but there are a couple of improvements. The most notable feature is that you have the option of controlling all your party members. The AI-controlled party members were competent in Persona 3, but they screwed up at times or just unnecessarily dragged on fights, especially with trickier bosses. You still have the option of setting the party to fight automatically, and the AI is just as good as before. A guard feature is also present, and guarding not only reduces the damage received, but also nullifies any weaknesses. It's strategically helpful when you can anticipate what the boss or enemy will do.
You can also equip your party members directly from the menu, removing the tedium of talking to party members to equip them. In addition, you also have control of what abilities you can keep or remove on your party members when they level.
Your party members also have a few support features now. You still get a game over if your hero dies, but by leveling your party members' Social Links, they can take fatal blows for you. In addition, they can also use special attacks, cure status effects and later survive fatal blows themselves sometimes. For the character doing the analytical work for the party, she gains special abilities that aid you in dungeon exploring as you level her Social Link, such as mapping out every treasure and shadow on a floor. These features do shrink the difficulty later on, but boss fights can still provide some challenge since you can control your party this time.
After a battle, you sometimes get a shuffle time sequence. This time it only contains Personae along with blank and penalty cards. Penalty cards remove everything you earned in battle while blank cards do nothing. The shuffles are a lot more hectic, requiring decent reflexes to get what you want. You also have an arcane chance, which enables to either give you benefits like experience boosts or hinder you, giving you the opposite of the benefit.
The biggest setbacks in the game are relatively minor. For rare chests, they contain better goods, but they can only be opened by keys, which are scarce, and you get junk items most of the time. For equipment, you no longer get new inventory in the store as you level. Instead, you have to gather materials and the blacksmith will forge new items if you get enough of a certain material. It's a more annoying way of obtaining new stuff, but the best goods come from rare chests and optional bosses anyway. Also, the hero can only equip a two-handed sword now, restricting the player to a certain melee style.
Persona fusion mechanics are the same with the only new addition being fusion forecast. On certain days, Persona you fuse gain certain bonuses if you meet the conditions of the forecast, but occasionally, fused Persona can gain stat bonuses just for being created. Also returning is the Persona Compendium. You can re-obtain persona you've gotten before for a price, and it's more expensive the higher level a Persona is. Every 25% you fulfill in the Compendium, you are given a discount when buying a Persona.
Like Persona 3, there is a new game+ which transfers your leveled traits along with the money you have and compendium data. Only in new game+ can you fight special bosses for the ultimate equipment or challenge.
The graphics remain the same, and while it does look nice, it does look a little dated by this time. The town of Inaba does look fine, but the dungeons themselves are more interesting. With nine different dungeons this time, they look a lot more varied. Initially, the dungeon designs are rather bland, but they get progressively more interesting. Also making a return is Persona 3's character designer, Shigenori Soejima, and he does a good job once again making each character look distinctive. The biggest highlight of visuals goes to the boss designs. Persona 3 has some interesting bosses, but their designs were not so memorable. Persona 4 designers kicked their creative juices up a notch to ensure that Persona 4 features some of the most unique bosses in an RPG. It will be hard to forget a macho man covered in roses nor a tie-dyed exotic dancer with a satellite for a face anytime soon.
Shoji Meguro returns to compose for the 4th installment. Previously, Meguro strayed from his usual rock and roll style in favor of J-Pop and hip-hop for Persona 3's music. The setting and style of Persona 3 made the music work well, but the appeal was limited. This time around, Meguro goes more versatile and provides a variety of different musical styles. J-pop songs are present, but they're more laid back and less edgy, fitting for the countryside of Japan. His more familiar style is shown in the TV world, utilizing industrious beats for dungeon themes similar to Nocturne, and his electrical guitar style for the battle themes, reminiscent of his Digital Devil Saga work. Other musical additions include some pleasant piano tunes, and for retro junkies, he's even done semi 8-bit style songs. In summary, Meguro's musical work for Persona 4 is a mesh of different styles from various Shin Megami Tensei games, and it gives more general appeal for RPG music fans.
The voice acting is also a step up from the previous game. Some VAs such as Chie can be a little weak in execution, and Teddie's lines occasionally sound awkward, but there is no grating VA such as Fuuka present. The voice actors did a commendable job of bringing their respective characters to life, and made several scenes of the game more enjoyable.
Persona 4 isn't a huge leap forward like Persona 3 was from the 2nd game, but it's a formula that works well, and Atlus further refined it. They added a lot of small features to make the game more interesting while tweaking out the annoying aspects of Persona 3. It's a well-rounded game that outclasses its predecessor in every aspect and has some of the best character interaction present in any RPG. Persona 3 fans can rest assured that it's an excellent sequel and those who never played the other games should definitely give this a shot. There aren't many RPGs that can deliver so many things as well as Persona 4 can, and no other RPG I've played this year reached this level of quality.