Saving the Best for Last
Trying to pick my preferred entry from Atlus' Playstation 2 Shin Megami Tensei lineup might as well be an attempt to select my favorite game on the console. You see, I love JRPG's, and few entries in modern gaming have been quite as relevant to my interests as those in the "MegaTen" line. Nocturne was a sweeping epic that contemporized the series, the Digital Devil Saga twins simplified the formula for mainstream tastes, and Persona 3...where do I begin with Persona 3?
Persona 3's was a MegaTen title at heart, but it's gameplay was part dating sim, part high school sim, part dungeon crawler, part tarot decoder, and part pokemon battle. Layered through the experience were multidimensional characters fleshed out over the duration of the narrative, an intense, mature story line, a limitless battle system, an incredibly deep monster/persona fusion system, and a compelling atmosphere delivered in part through the overwhelming j-pop/hip-hop soundtrack. In short, Persona 3 was almost the antithesis of a Final Fantasy. Despite a budget that was clearly far behind the money SquareEnix throws around, it was simply astonishing and wound up being one of my favorite games on console overflowing with classics.
Persona 3's epilogue/directors cut, FES, was thought to be one last gift to the appreciative MegaTen fan base, but Atlus gave the go ahead to commission a full on fourth entry in the series...on last gen's hardware. A (relatively) short turnaround time and a reuse of many of the previous game's assets suggested Persona 4 was to be a cheap cash in on Persona 3's success and, honestly, that probably would have been fine with me. Apparently that wasn't fine with Atlus, because Persona 4, despite its visual similarity to its predecessor, turned out to be the finest entry in the series.
Burn My Dread, Again?
A silent protagonist, you've just moved to the small village of Inaba in the spring of 2011. Your character has enrolled in the local high school and has started to form a few close friendships, but it seems to be taking a backseat to a handful of disappearances and bizarre murders encroaching upon the rural village. The next part is a little hard to swallow, but it turns out a mysterious entity is luring people inside televisions, where they eventually disappear to for a few days before winding up dead in a random part of the city. Clued into the madness by watching the Midnight Channel, you and your friends are seemingly the only ones with the power and knowledge to literally enter TV’s and prevent further murders from happening.
All of this unfolds over the course of a year. The game progresses in real time, so you'll actually be living through every single day on the calendar. A lot of time will be spent in school, but two sections of your day, usually afternoon and night, can be spent undertaking one of a variety of activities.
Your immediate attention will focus on your stats; diligence, courage, expression, understanding, and knowledge. While they have zero effect in battle, they are all paramount to the ways in which you interact with others in Inaba. For example, you'll need courage to talk to certain people (and initiate social links, more on this soon), but what do you do if you have no courage? Simple - eat the crazy left over’s in the refrigerator, read manly books you bought in town, or volunteer at a hospital. Each stat is intertwined with nearly every aspect of the game, and managing what skills you need or where and when to best increase them is a large part of the challenge.
Though it only burns a full day in the game, a considerable amount of your real time will be spent passing through the dungeons that populate the TV world. Always thematically tied to the context of whomever you're out to save, you can expect several floors of heavily populated and randomly generated dungeon crawling. Enemies (called Shadows) are always visible onscreen, and you have the opportunity to get the jump on them should you whack them with your weapon before they see you. Your ultimate goal is to reach the top floor and defeat the boss before the next period of multiple rainy days (usually a generous amount of time).
The actual battles are traditional MegaTen turn based fare. Enemies usually have a weakness to exploit and, should you down every enemy with its inherent Achilles heel, you'll be granted the opportunity to bum rush the field as a group and collectively dish out some considerable damage. Identifying weaknesses and exploiting them is an absolute necessity if you want to keep the controller throwing to a minimum. While not quite as cutthroat as its predecessors, Persona 4 is still hard and generally not for those who get frustrated easily. Save the boss floor, save points don't exist in the middle of dungeons and it's entirely possible to get wiped out by standard enemies (damn you, Mudo). This will happen less often as you progress through the game and learn its caveats, but it's definitely going to be a barrier for the casual crowd.
One major change to the structure of the battle system is in the form of control. In Persona 3 you only had direct guidance over your main character. You could set general guidelines for your friend's actions, but they each had minds of their own and would occasionally (rarely, really) make some boneheaded moves. Debate arose over the necessity of this lack of control. On one side were those who argued that it enhanced the realism and thematic nature of friendship; you need to confide in these people, and what better way to develop comradery and forge relationships than by placing your confidence in their actions? Basically, do you trust your friends?
Well, if not, Persona 4 obliges to the "hate it" crowd and gives you the option to directly control every character in your party. I personally don't care for it as I feel it slows things down and destroys some of the cohesive nuance of the narrative, but I can't say it isn't helpful to pin point every action in some of the more difficult boss battles. As a bonus, your friends are also blessed with additional abilities should you manage their S Links correctly. Being able to jump in and take a hit that would have otherwise killed you or interjecting for a quick hit, among others, are an appreciated addition to the battle system.
Unlike your friends, whose actions and skills are limited their single personas, you have the ability to actively switch between and assume any persona you wish. Attaching yourself to one of nearly 200 unique personas not only grants use of their skills, but also aligns yourself with their respective stats as well as their strengths (such as nullifying electric attacks) and weaknesses (but weak to fire). Persona can be easily obtained via minigames (like keeping track of cards or slot machines) after battles, but are most effectively forged in the velvet room. By selecting two (or three, or four) persona to combine, you can create entirely new persona with different abilities. While this is a much faster process than leveling up your old persona, it's not without its limitations. Some more desirable abilities can only be obtained via leveling up some weaker persona to their full extent. Furthermore, you can only hold so many personas at once. You can summon any registered persona from your compendium at the velvet room, but that can get expensive quickly.
Friends In Need, Friends Indeed
The heart and soul of Persona 4 lies not in its narrative, but in the genuine emotion shared through creating friendships, also known as Social Links. While it's obvious the members of your party are all ideal candidates for peer bonding, they share an equal role with more discreet characters in the S Link puzzle. Among others, you'll meet a reluctant mother unsure of how to take care of her adoptive child, a strong willed classmate weakened by her relationship with her parents, and an ungrateful bitch of a class snob. What you say to these people matters, is rarely what you expect, and generally determines whether or not your friendship grows or diminishes. Each is tied to an arcana of the tarot, and, while some are required, it's entirely possible to progress through the game without ever meeting a few of them.
What's really striking is how well the writing/localization has made your social links feel like real people. Each and every one mixes casual conversation with a deep sense of vulnerability, which goes a long way toward making me care about a person who would, in any other game, be a throwaway NPC. When Yumi drops by to ask if I was going to drama club or when Chie encourages me to hang out with her that day, I honestly feel remorse over having to turn them down in favor of someone or something else. The bonds you form as a silent protagonist transcend the medium and, ironically given the Persona 4's plot, reach right through TV to you, the player. Rarely has simple text and choices personified such genuine emotion.
Of course, you'll be happy to know all of this has a practical purpose. Spending time with your S. Links and appealing to their specific needs will increase their respective rank. A dozen or so persona are aligned with each arcana, and each S Link is tied to a specific arcana. What this typically means for you are huge stat bonuses when you're in the velvet room forging persona. For example, if your friendship with Yosuke (Magician Arcana) is at rank 6, then you can expect the level 32 Pyro Jack (Magician Arcana) you’re creating to easily and instantaneously bump up to level 36. Needless to say, S Links can be the difference between an hour of grinding or an immediate payoff.
But that's not all there is to do in Inaba. Fifty or so optional quests are available for those who enjoy completing busy work. Most are tied to searching for specific items in dungeons or fetch quests about town, but the payoff is usually worth the minimal amount of effort these usually take (and some are even tied into your S Links). Additionally, you're also now able to get several part time jobs. Usually taking up only a portion of your day, you're free to scout the bulletin board for menial side jobs (like stuffing envelopes), to higher paying endeavors (like helping out at a hospital). The money, stat boosts, and S Links they offer make jobs a welcomed addition to the Persona formula. Thankfully jobs, quests, and S Links are more spread out over the course of your day (rather than P3's nearly barren nightlife), allowing you ample time to get a lot of work done.
More so than anything else, Persona 4 is about balance. What will you do with your time? Do you choose to improve your skills, spend time with friends, help out strangers, or rescue those trapped in the television world? Do you work on improving your social links to aid yourself in the velvet room, or skip the narrative in favor of a pure dungeon hack? Do you control your party or leave them to their own free will? Baring some sort of organizational miracle, you won't be able to do everything in the game, so some areas of your life will have to suffer under the weight of what's more important. Persona 4 isn't exactly open ended in the traditional sense, but the variety of ways to approach its gameplay makes it hard to label it otherwise.
While there isn't too much traversable real estate in Inaba, it's certainly put to good use. Not a single area of land is wasted, and each storefront, NPC, or classroom has a specific purpose at some point in the narrative. I also can't get over how well they nailed the small town aesthetic. Having spent some time in a less urban area of Japan last fall (specifically the Nabari area), I was overwhelming by the immeasurable amount intangible touches that helped convey an accurate sense of small-town Japan. The housing alignment, store fronts, escalators, and even the way people in grocery stores put their hand baskets inside their shopping carts in Inaba mirrored my experience in Nabari. Details that would have otherwise gone unnoticed are completely authenticated through the Persona 4's rich atmosphere.
The small city details, as well the generally bewildering (to Persona newcomers) design, was also completely intentional. In an interview with Play (Dec 2008), Persona 4 director Katsura Hashino conceded he had no expectations when it came to western audiences. Though it was attributed to a lack of time, nothing was compromised in favor of making the game appeal to people on this side of the planet. In an age when so many games feel watered down by focus testing and money brained external producers, it's refreshing to know you're playing a truly authentic vision.
Technically the visuals don't stand with the best the Playstation 2 has to offer, but they're certainly easy on the eyes. Oversaturated yellows and oranges add a sense of serenity to casual evening strolls down the shopping district, and the foggy haze that seems to permeate the school windows does wonders for the game's atmosphere. The day to day sound track favors light jpop over Persona 3's occasional hip hop influence, but it's still wholly unique and unequivocally Persona. Vocal duties were handed off to Shihoko Hirata, but to my untrained ears, she's an easy stand in for Yumi Kawamura. Of particular interest are the more thematic tunes that correspond with each new dungeon. The striptease music, in particular, was both hilariously authentic and ridiculously catchy.
RPG's are nothing without intrinsically attractive characters, and Persona 4 delivers in spades. I honestly expected the cast to be an alternate version of Person 3's squad; that is, I was ready to find a new Junpei, Yukari, and Akihiko, but what I found with Yukiko, Yosuke, and Chie was an entirely different array of personalities. Chie's intensity in particular completely turned my expectations on their proverbial heels and always guaranteed her a spot in my battle lineup.
Perhaps even more distinctive were the plights of Rise and Naoto, with Kanji's alleged homosexual tendencies (an area often cautiously, if at all, treaded in gaming) Rarely submitting to any archetype, they're a far cry from the chivalric nonsense or pretentious philosophical musings ingrained through your sidekicks in other RPGs. And I nearly forgot to mention Teddy, who's by far one of the most eccentric and bizarre characters to grace the mainstream. Your first encounter with your new anthropomorphic friend involves Yosuke accidentally decapitating him after you both mistakenly slip into the TV world. While there you find Teddy is apparently made of magic and also a pretty good sport about the whole tearing his head off thing. It's complete nonsense, for sure, but situations like that really give Persona 4 a flavor all its own.
It's important to note that none of the main characters (and few of the S Links) are single dimension write offs. If the day to day conversation wasn't enough, specific holidays are in place to ensure the characters are progressively fleshed out over the course of the narrative. Whether you're going camping or just strolling through the grocery store, there are a seemingly limitless number of events with no traceable purpose other than entertainment and to enrich character development. Compared to other JRPG’s that focus on endlessly repeating a theme, drown in pretension, or burden you with eternal filler, Persona 4’s a whimsical holiday.