From The Brady Bunch to Happy Days to The Wonder Years, there’s something entrancing about watching an idyllic re-telling of our teenage years. Perhaps we enjoy remembering this time as a blur of exciting, 30-minute escapades instead of a never-ending cavalcade of awkwardness and boredom. Atlus’s Persona 4 pays homage to this grand tradition by dealing with something we all did as teenagers – solving a murder mystery involving a bizzarro alternate reality inside television sets.
Ok, so maybe we didn’t all do that as teenagers, but to be fair, making a game about a guy that plays a whole lot of Diablo 2 alone in his room wouldn’t be very interesting. Far from that, Persona 4 universally improves on the formula introduced in 2006’s Persona 3. Players familiar with Persona 3 will be acquainted with the game’s basic flow of managing a high school social life in-between exploring a series of random dungeons. While the experience is familiar, numerous tweaks and fundamental improvements make Persona 4 a real evolution of the series instead of a marginally improved sequel. If you played Persona 3 and liked it, stop reading now. Play Persona 4. You will love it. For newcomers to the series, you will need a bit more explanation.
Persona 4’s story opens with the player-named main character (who will henceforth be named “Humpbert”) moving from the big city to stay with his uncle and niece in the country. Rumors circulate about the “midnight channel” at Humpbert’s new school, stating that one can see their soul mate if they watch a powered-off TV at midnight while it rains. This seemingly innocuous high school rumor turns more sinister once the people appearing on the midnight channel start disappearing – to be found dead days later, strung up on television antennas.
After discovering the ability to use television sets as a portal to a twisted, Silent Hill-esque fabrication of the missing person’s psyche, Humpbert and some of his classmates discover that something or someone is luring people into this alternate reality where they are eventually killed by demonic shadows. From there the game becomes an evolving murder mystery, with the protagonists attempting to rescue the latest prisoner of TV world before they are killed, while divining the identity of who- or whatever is causing all the mayhem. The progression of the story is intelligent and reasonably believable. Those looking to poke holes in the game’s logic will find them, but overall the story provides a great framework for character drama and development.
While the game’s overarching story may be a bit fantastic, the characters involved are much more realistic. Once a character is pulled into TV land, all of their insecurities and worries are manifested in a shadow doppelganger. Characters display a lot of depth and subtle conflict when foiled against their shadow counterparts, and deal with common, identifiable problems, like adjusting to boredom in the country after moving from the city, or being jealous of a friend’s looks and popularity. The characters deal with all the social hang-ups and insecurities we all experienced (or are experiencing) as teenagers – which plucks the heartstrings very effectively. Additionally, the supporting cast members that seem to just fill mechanical roles in the story also show surprising depth. I didn’t even dislike the adorable little girl and cute teddy bear mascot characters I was prepared to hate.
Players will need a bit of patience to start cracking open all the story’s greatness, though. Persona 4’s introduction is very controlled and paced, taking about two to three hours to get humming due to all the setup the story requires. From there, the player can get to living the bustling life of a teenager. Persona 4’s main gameplay is broken into two elements: the daytime role-playing segment and the TV dungeon-crawling combat segment. As far as the role-playing goes, each day is broken into several phases, with each phase offering the player one action. Attending school, joining clubs, and hanging out with friends will allow the player to enhance social links (which increase combat ability in the dungeons), raise personal stats (which open up more social links), and complete quests for NPCs (which offer items and money).
By meeting new people and forming relationships, the player creates “social links,” associated with both a tarot arcana and a character. By spending more time with linked characters, the player will both expose the story involving that character and strengthen the link, which increases experience bonuses granted to all fused personas of the associated arcana. In combat, party members will absorb fatal blows or perform follow-up attacks depending on the strength of their relationship with the main character. Some social links require the player’s personal stats to be at a certain level before they can be formed. These stats – Understanding, Courage, Expression, Knowledge, and Diligence – can be raised by numerous activities around the town or by taking on part time jobs. Luckily, the game will always state which stat is deficient in forming or progressing a social link, so the player will know where to focus to move things ahead. These stats not only influence which social links are available, but also which dialogue choices can be picked in certain situations. During an argument, a player may lack the courage to say something more direct and instead have to pick a more passive response. Spreading the effects of the personal stats out makes the system feel less video game-y and more life simulator-y.
Navigation around the town is much faster now thanks to a warp menu. Players can instantly travel to any connected area in a particular zone or skip out to the overhead map to travel to another. Save points are sprinkled all around the areas as well, which will be definitely welcome for anyone that endured long cutscenes before reaching the evening save point in P3.
The game’s progression is now more interdependent between the town/roleplay and dungeon crawl modes as well. The player must investigate around town for clues involving the most recent victim in order to track down their location in the TV dungeon. Talking to NPCs will lead the player from one clue to another, eventually leading the player to some sort of information that allows them access to the appropriate dungeon. The investigations make the game much more cohesive and add to the story. The characters do more than just whack away at demons with a variety of melee instruments.
This is not to say they won’t do their share of whacking. Each victim who disappears into the TV world creates a multi-level dungeon, themed in accordance with their particular mental worriment. Each dungeon has around ten to twenty floors, which is a shift from P3’s massive central dungeon. These dungeons no longer have return points either, which means the party must blaze through them in one go, or come stocked with items that quickly return the party to the entrance. The game doesn’t adequately warn of this, though. As a result, most players will have to hike all the way out of the first dungeon.
Persona 4’s dungeon-crawling gameplay is excellent (if old school RPG combat is your thing). Upon encountering enemies in the dungeon area, the action cuts to a self-contained, turn-based battle, and players select commands from a menu full of options. There are four basic elemental attack types, and enemies are vulnerable to specific types. A scan ability helps players to keep track of these weaknesses. Character stats aren’t tied to the traditional RPG-style leveling system. Stats like strength, endurance, etc, are attached to whichever persona the player has equipped at the time. Leveling the player will allow him to equip higher-level personas, which can either be acquired during minigames following a battle, or synthesized from existing personas. Players directly control every member of the party, though AI control is still available, and is serviceable for most run-of-the-mill encounters. The game’s unmercifully hard boss encounters provide a much tighter and rewarding challenge without the wildcard of spastic AI.
Persona 4 is a tight and lovingly-crafted game, but it’s not for everyone. The game is very long, with the core story taking 50 hours or more to complete. Thanks to optional quests that direct the player back to old dungeons (which can be re-populated with difficult bosses) and various other activities, playtime can easily exceed 80 hours. That doesn’t even account for time lost to dying, which will happen frequently. If you’re an old-school dyed-in-the-wool gamer that wants a traditionally long and challenging game, Persona 4 is everything you’re looking for. Those with full-time jobs and social obligations may never see the ending, though.
Aside from length considerations, a few other nagging annoyances pop up from time to time. The game tries to bring up a dialogue option every few minutes just to keep the story sequences from being long boxes of text, but often these options all say the same thing in different ways or the character’s reactions will match a line of dialogue other than the one the player picked. This is pretty par the course for JRPG dialogue, but in a game where so many other gameplay aspects are new and fresh, the dated mechanics stick out. The game also has pacing issues in the first fifteen hours. Whether it’s long story sequences or extended dungeon-running segments, sometimes the game forces the player to spend too much time doing one or the other. Near the beginning of the game, after going through so much story setup, I wanted to spend some time in the dungeon only to be shuffled from one story sequence to another, clicking through text. This issue abates as the game goes on, however. Once most of the story is established, the player is given more freedom to choose what to do and when.
Even if stuck in an extended story sequence, the stay isn’t horrible thanks to Atlus’ superb dialogue, translation, and voice acting. The characters are very believable, if sometimes a bit too eloquent and well-spoken to be average high school students. The dialogue is well paced and clever enough to genuinely entertain, though I could do without the "–sans" and "–chans" still present in the translation. NPC dialogue is often bizarre and refreshingly humorous. For example, one girl sitting outside a store is just listing off things she can think of that are both white and square. The game’s music is stellar as well (which is mandatory because players will be listening to nigh 60 hours of it). Mostly the soundtrack falls in the same jazzy-synth-pop vein as Persona 3 or The World Ends With You.
With Persona 4, Atlus has not only made a great game, but displayed their earnest desire to make a great product for gamers. The developers didn’t just go through a check list of problems with Persona 3; they went back and reworked the whole idea from scratch, thinking, “how can we make this a better game in every way?” and they made a product that is fundamentally better all around. The game’s manual even has explanations for some Japanese culture and mythological backgrounds referenced in the game, which is just a small example of the concern Atlus has for their customers. Persona 4 is a successful combination of modern innovation and reverence for the RPGs of the past, and as such is one of the best (if not last) games to grace the PS2.