You see a copy of Persona 4 on your desk... Play it?
After experiencing the tour de force that was Persona 3: FES, I was hesitant to move directly onto the sequel which had hit the streets after I started playing P3. Fulfilling the role of sequel to what is easily one of the best JRPGs in history is no easy task and though hopes were high, I feared disappointment. I was able to distract myself from its charms for a few days until I decided to boot it up just for kicks and that's where it all began. One minute turned to fifteen, then a half hour, then the next thing I knew, I was so drawn into its world that I could not tear myself away from it. Sixty some odd hours later and I'm convinced that not only is Persona 4 a stunning sequel, it also comes threateningly close to toppling its predecessor in nearly every aspect. |
Once again you reprise the role of a poker faced, prematurely gray haired student, transferring to spend his Junior year of high school in the rural town of Inaba. It's a country destination filled with easy-going folk whose only worry is the burgeoning Walmart-like super megastore Junes, which is threatening to put the town's ornate shopping district out of business. Your parents pawn you off to your Uncle Dojima, a hard-boiled detective and his timid seven year old daughter while they work overseas. Aside from making a few new acquaintances, your first few days in Inaba are uneventful, that is until the thick fog rolls in. When the fog finally lifts, the residents are shocked by a grisly murder as the body of an infamous celebrity staying at the local inn is found hanging on a roof antenna. The school is abuzz with talk of the murder and you get wind of a rumor about a mystical TV program called the "Midnight Channel" which is purported to reveal the viewers' soul mates if they tune in at midnight on a rainy day.
With nothing better to do, you and your friends decide to give it a shot on the next rainy night. The moment of truth finally arrives and you tune in to the Midnight Channel, unsure of what you may find. Interestingly enough, a blurry figure appears on the screen; it's difficult to make out, but you get this feeling that you've seen this person before. You reach out to the TV screen and you are shocked to see it enter the TV! Unsure of what just transpired, you decide to pull your hand out of the TV's maw and pretend it didn't happen. The next day you discuss your Midnight Channel experience with your new friends and while they agree that the person shown on TV looked familiar, they find your story about your Matrix-like experience with the TV hard to believe. On a whim, you decide to test your theory on a big screen TV at the local superstore. You choose to stick your entire body in and much to the surprise of your friends, you slip right in! They attempt to help you out, but much to their dismay, are drawn in with you.
The world inside the TV is mostly abandoned and enshrouded in a thick mist. Your party wanders around aimlessly for a while until you run into a strange creature resembling a teddy bear. He identifies himself as Teddie, the lone resident of the TV world and provides some guidance and a way back to your world! You decide to leave the TV world alone until you learn more about it, but soon, another murder shocks the town of Inaba. Your worst fears are realized as the victim is identified as a student at your high school and a close friend of your new acquaintance, Yosuke. The murder of someone so close to your inner circle prompts you to take action against this serial killer. Teddie reveals that people have been getting "thrown in" the TV world and is upsetting the formerly dormant Shadows that lived within. It's revealed that the Shadows are responsible for killing the humans that wander into the TV world, but the real noodle-scratcher is, exactly who is throwing people inside in the first place?
Slowly, but surely your group notices a pattern with the murders and the Midnight Channel. The prospective victim appears on the Midnight Channel days before they are thrown into the TV world and eventually killed. You also find out that the contents of the TV world are reflections of the repressed thoughts of people who venture inside and culminate into a powerful Shadow that the person can conquer and use as their Persona or simply be destroyed by it. Your intrepid group braves the TV world and with each person successfully rescued and helped to face their other selves, you inch closer to the truth and the identity of the true killer. The story is a nail-biter in every sense of the word and will keep you guessing and pushing in pursuit of the murderer. It's a little difficult to compare it directly with Persona 3's epic struggle for the souls of humanity, but coming from a rural part of town myself, Persona 4's story is more believable and has a number of clever twists along the way; after all, there's nothing like a good whodunit in a dreary country setting.
The gameplay sticks pretty closely to the tried and true formula found in Persona 3, but with a number of changes. Gamers who were tortured endlessly by the nitwitted party AI of P3 can now rejoice as Atlus has heard their cries for help and included the option to control your party members directly. Though I didn't have too many issues with the party AI in the previous game, I was sold on the idea of directly controlling my party's actions after the first minute of trying it out. The combat balance has been tweaked as well; recovering from being knocked down no longer takes up a turn and an extra turn is always rewarded for attacking a weakness, as opposed to P3 where you had to exploit all of the enemies' weaknesses before being awarded a turn. This negates the challenge formerly posed by battles against enemies with varying weaknesses as one character can now practically end the battle in one turn. Couple these revisions with direct control over your party and battles, dare I say, become a little easy.
The game still progresses in a day to day fashion like the previous game, but with a serial murderer on the loose, your activities no longer revolve around the night. While it's a shame that you can no longer waste your nights at the Game Panic arcade, the town of Inaba offers no shortage of wholesome activities for the modern young person. Atlus has added three new personal attributes that the player can improve over the course of the game, bring the total to five (Knowledge, Courage, Understanding, Expression, and Dilligence). Most of these attributes can be honed by taking on after school and graveyard shift jobs, which are great avenues for not only earning money, but meeting new people as well. With the banishment of the Dark Hour, the moon phase system has been replaced by weather patterns, with rain being the point of interest. Aside from playing a major part in the plot, rainy days don't allow you to engage in any social activities, so it's one more thing to schedule around if you're looking to make as many friends as possible.
The character development is as strong and intense as it was in Persona 3, but the small town environment and the grisly nature of the murders brings everyone that much closer to the player; you'll begin to feel an almost authentic bond with these fictional characters. Atlus has also decided to spice things up by introducing characters with difficulties that many young people face today, such as confused sexuality and glass ceilings; a move that not only makes the game interesting, but socially relevant as well.
Social Links have undergone some minor, albeit important changes, like allowing the player to form bonds with ALL of your party members and not just the females, as we experienced in Persona 3. It doesn't stop there, however, as strengthening these close links don't just result in getting to know your party members better, it also grants them support abilities in battle. These added abilities range from shielding you from a killing blow to curing other members of status ailments. Girlfriends are taken a little less seriously this time around, with no penalties handed out for getting into serious relationships with several girls simultaneously. Other than that, the system remains the same; the highest level Personas can only be unlocked with a maxed Social Link and experience bonuses for newly created Personas are doled out for already established links.
Perhaps the most distinct departure from Persona 3 is the dungeon exploration. With no Tartarus on the horizon, where else could our valiant heroes tread to defeat the throngs of evil? How about several small dungeons with their own unique appearance and music? Admittedly, the dungeon layouts are fairly similar and predictable, but other than that, each dungeon is completely unique in appearance and even background music. Since each location is supposed to be a manifestation of a person's inner thoughts, the designs are nothing short of novel; get to the Void Quest dungeon and you'll see what I'm talking about. Grinding is still a necessary evil, but at least you're not stuck at the same boring tower for 200+ floors; each dungeon has 11 floors or less, so you don't have to worry about the scenery becoming dull and monotonous.
Speaking of scenery, Persona 4 is powered by a modified version of the same graphics engine used in Persona 3. The second you boot up the game and are greeted by the bright and lively user interface, you'll immediately realize this is not the same game. Though the similarities are not difficult to spot, the game is much more polished and offers a wider variety of textures as well as an expanded color palette. The off-the-wall dungeon designs do well to show off these improvements, as the psychedelic colors and detailed environments really bring them to life. The character models have been given some attention as well, bestowed with more expressive animations that add yet another dimension to the already excellent dialogue. All you need to do to appreciate this brilliant symphony of voice overs and character animations is watch one of the game's hilarious sequences and you'll no doubt realize the developers' attention to detail. Once again, Shigenori Soejima lends his talents in the art department and doesn't disappoint. The character designs are a bit of a departure from the previous game, this time leaning more towards realism. That means no more humanoids, Persona-summoning animals, or people with odd hair colors; just down-to-earth country folk. The designs won't jump out at you like they did in Persona 3, but one could argue that they resemble people you are likely to see in your daily life and in turn, easier to relate to.
Fans of musicians Yumi Kawamura and Lotus Juice will be disappointed to know that neither is involved in the music department, but Persona 4's soundtrack does well enough without them. With Shoji Meguro retaining his position at the helm, the soundtrack remains a far cry from being traditional RPG fare, but it has taken on a more approachable, pop-music style. Gone are the slick rhymes and heavy techno cues; replaced by peppy, upbeat lyrics and catchy melodies. Shihoko Hirata provides all of the vocals for the songs and has a voice well suited for this style of music. Much of the soundtrack shares an uplifting, central theme of seeking the truth and finding one's true self. No song is a better example than the battle theme appropriately named, "Reach out to the Truth", which is easily one of the most memorable tracks in the entire game and never seems to gets stale no matter how many times it's repeated. Even if pop music makes your brain hurt, it won't take long for many of the songs be ingrained in your memory; I guess that's just part of Shoji Meguro's magic. As wonderful as the music is, it's not quite as multifaced or atmospheric as Persona 3's soundtrack. It remains a little too consistent and one-dimensional as opposed to Persona 3's offering which changed moods along with the plot.
The voice acting is top notch as we've come to expect and is made more evident with the addition of spoken dialogue for certain Social Link events. There's nothing like hearing the emotions in their voices as you help them find a resolution to their dilemmas. The voice talent mesh well with their characters and have made it very difficult to find anything to really complain about in this department; a rare occurrence indeed.
When you reach such a lofty level of excellence, I suppose it's natural that your only worthwhile competitor would be the one that follows you. It feels a little wrong to even compare these two games together because even though they're shockingly similar, they're also radically different from one another. It's almost like comparing two brothers to each other; they're supposed to be alike, but at the same time, they are their own unique entity. Persona 3 is like an older brother, with the grooving soundtrack and the epic, engrossing story while Persona 4 fills the role of the more sophisticated little brother, with the better looks and several improved features. You're not supposed to pick favorites with your kids and the same goes for these two games, they both deserve your respect and your hard-earned money. It's safe to say that Persona 4 will probably be the last great RPG for the aging PlayStation2 platform. We can only hope that the next game will not only usher in the series to the next-generation, but also be the one to indisputably trounce its predecessors.
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