So, I’ve decided to replay one of my favorite games of all time. It has this title despite the fact that I’ve never actually beaten it, which should speak volumes about how highly I feel about its story (which I’ve only experienced roughly 2/3 of). After a frustrating experience trying to re-accustom myself to Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 a month and a half ago, I decided to actually go back and try and beat its far superior sequel Persona 4. The two games only share a universe and no major plot points, so it’s not a big deal that I haven’t actually finished Persona 3 either because like Atlus’ other games, it’s absurdly difficult (I’d rather fight certain bosses in Demon Souls because I at least know that game plays fair). So, I’m now replaying Persona 4, and I’ve decided to come up with a semi-novel way to approach my review for the game. For fans of the Persona series, you should know that the games take place over the course of one year, and gameplay is broken up into the discrete unit of a calendar day. So, I figured, what better way to ensure that I beat this game and devote time to it than to come up with a way that ensures I have to write posts at regular intervals in my gameplay (i.e. at the end of each in-game month). RPGs take dozens and dozens of hours to beat and the Persona games are notoriously long. If I approach the games in this method, it’s almost like I’m reviewing a TV series. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the town of Inaba and the murder mystery at the heart of Persona 4.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Persona series, this will likely be the only post you’ll want to read before the later ones become absolutely spoilerrific, so here’s the lay-out of the game. At its core, Persona 3 and 4 are what happens if you take the randomized dungeon crawling of Diablo, the monster catching and training of Pokemon, and then a high school social simulation of (no game whose name I can come up with) and put them in one pot. And it is a glorious, absurdly addicting amalgamation. Over the course of one year, your character (who you name) and his nakama (that’s basically Japanese for a group of very close friends) solve some supernatural threat that is terrorizing the populace of your town. You enter dungeons whose layouts change every night/day in order to get stronger and to capture new demons (known as Persona in this franchise) that you can combine to make even more powerful Persona. During your regular high school life, you create friendships and relationships (romantic or platonic) with your classmates, local children, and even grown-ups that in turn make your ability to create new demons even stronger. Every aspect of the game is interconnected with the other and it adds a wonderful layer of strategy and replay value to this game’s very deep combat system. Combat itself is mostly a standard turn-based affair (though you can thankfully actually control your teammates in Persona 4 unlike 3), but it’s your ability to create Persona just to your needs that gives the game plenty of strategic depth.
The basic premise for this game’s story is a great one, although as someone who’s put more than 60 hours into this game before, I know just how long it takes for it to really reveal its depths. The Main Character (whose canonical name in the anime adaptation is Yu Narukami which is how I’ll refer to him from now on) is a boy from the big city (Tokyo I’m assuming though possibly Iwotadai from Persona 3) who is sent to live with his uncle, Ryotaro Dojima, and his young cousin, Nanako for a year while his parents go away on a business trip. Not long after arriving in town, Narukami befriends three students in his homeroom class, the tomboyish kung-fu fanatic Chie Satonaka, the bumbling comic relief Yosuke Hanamura, and the quiet and reserved innkeeper’s daughter Yukiko Amagi. During the first week that Narukami is in town, the mistress of a local Congressman is murdered. Her body is discovered by another student at Narukami’s school, Saki Konishi, who Yosuke has a crush on. Saki eventually goes missing as well and is murdered (her body grotesquely hung from a satellite dish). The group discovers that if you watch your TV at midnight on a rainy day, you can see someone inside your TV. These are people who have been kidnapped. Unfortunately, the group discovers this fact too late to actually save Saki-senpai (she’s older than our heroes so she’s called Senpai. I’m going to be using a ton of Japanese honorifics in these reviews, just like the game itself).
Narukami-san quickly discovers that he can travel into TVs for reasons not quite explained (yet). Dragging Yosuke and Chie along (who is the son of the manager of the local department store, Junes, which the duo uses thanks to their massive TVs), the group enters the TV world and finds a never ending layer of fog and what appears to be a TV studio. After finding a creepy room with butchered pictures of the first murder victim, the trio run into a mysterious creature in a giant bear suit. His name is Teddie (natch), and he will become their contact in this Shadow world known as the Midnight Channel. Yosuke and Narukami enter the world on their own to try and investigate the disappearance of Konishi-senpai again when they are attacked by beings known as Shadows. Narukami manifests a power known as Persona which allows him to draw a creature out of the depths of his soul to aid him in battle. Yosuke rushes off on his own where he is confronted by his Shadow self which is the reflection of the dark side of his personality. After they battle the Shadow Yosuke and Yosuke accepts this part of his inner self, he gains the ability to summon a Persona as well. When Yukiko-chan is kidnapped, Chie joins the investigation (where she gains the power of Persona as well) to find out who is kidnapping and murdering the people in the sleepy town of Inaba.
Future reviews will likely be devoted to me exploring the plot aspects of that particular month (whether this is the main story or the various people I meet and befriend. Actually the social link stuff will definitely be getting its own paragraph I think. maybe), but I just wanted to give a brief introduction to the game’s story. The fact that I’m calling that a brief introduction should say leagues about the game’s opening hours being ridiculously long. People joke about Final Fantasy XIII having the longest intro ever. No, that award goes to Persona 4. You literally go about 4 or 5 hours before you actually get to do any of the stuff that makes up the heart of the game (social links, real dungeon exploring, etc). That’s the reason this month gets a score of an “A-” instead of the “A” or “A+” I’d be tempted to give this game as a whole. Those opening hours are a bit of a drag. The writing and sharp realization of the game’s characters (which is really the best part of the whole game. This game’s stories and characters are pretty unparalleled) are as strong as ever, but this is a video game and interaction is an important aspect of the whole experience and for four or five hours, you just don’t really interact with the game outside of absorbing its immediately wonderful story.
The Persona games are hard… and even on the Beginner difficulty (which I’m not ashamed to admit I’m playing on because I primarily want to experience the game’s story again more than anything else), Persona 4 isn’t afraid to just completely kick your ass. If the Main Character dies, it’s an instant game over, and while the ability to control your team mates alleviates some of the frustration that mechanic caused in Persona 3, it can still be really annoying if a bad roll of the dice causes you to miss your intended target, and then the game proceeds to rape you with the elemental weakness system. I haven’t even gotten to the point in the game where enemies have actual one-hit kill spells that could easily erase an hour spent crawling around the game’s many dungeons. However, it’s difficulty does mean the game is more tactically engaging than 99% of other JRPGs because you are actually forced to spend time thinking about buffs and elemental resistances. This is without question one of the most difficult JRPGs I’ve ever played, and if you fancy a good challenge, Persona 4 will deliver.
Even though I’ve only been playing the game for half a month (You begin in the middle of April, so yeah, it will probably be a while before May’s review comes up considering I spend a good hour minimum each time I enter a dungeon), the story in this game is light years ahead of other video games in terms of maturity and emotional depth. Perhaps because I’m playing as normal high school students who stumble into an urban fantasy murder mystery (rather than your traditional JRPG cast of princesses, amnesiacs, thieves, rogues, kings, what not), the game’s cast feel like instantly recognizable teenage archetypes rather than your traditional power fantasy RPG heroes. I’ve always thought of the game as a very Japanese take on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, especially since Yosuke is almost a direct expy of Xander. You deal with all of the pains and tribulations of being a teenager while you save the world. Thus, I care deeply more about any of these characters than I do about the cast of any Final Fantasy game and I love the Final Fantasy series. They all just seem so real and authentic, and thanks to the Social Link system, getting to know more about them and developing them as characters is an actual game mechanic. It’s wonderful. And I know just how much better it’s going to keep on getting.
I’m nearing 2000 words on this damn game and I haven’t even gotten into the game’s graphics. This was one of the last games I ever bought for my PS2. In fact, it might be the very last game I bought for it. And in the in-game engine isn’t very pretty. That’s the honest-to-god truth. Atlus cared more about delivering as much possible content into the disc than having cutting edge graphics, and for that reason, it’s just not a good looking game 80% of the time. It makes up for things in terms of a distinct art style, but that can only take things so far. However, there are instances in the game when it switches to an anime-style for cutscenes, and those are all gorgeous. After the success of Catherine, I’m really excited to see Persona 5 on a current-gen system since they’ve proven that anime style is easily translatable to actual in-game graphics.
Ok hopefully, future posts should be considerably shorter since I won’t have to explain what this game is, give my opinions on the game mechanics (unless something new comes along that I find to be cool or frustrating) or generally rehash anything that simply hasn’t changed since this post. Here are some final thoughts. I want to strangle Teddie. His combat announcements are the most annoying thing in the history of video games (ok, that’s not true. That award goes to Vanille’s voice actor fromFinal Fantasy XIII, well that or Hope. god I fucking hated Hope). Honestly, at this point, that and the ridiculously long intro are my only complaints. I’m hoping that fans of the game will join me in on my ride here. In future posts, I’ll include stories about the social links I developed over the course of that month. Right now, I’ve only really started out with Yosuke, Chie, friends I made playing soccer, and a first-year in the band with me. We’ll be back in a month of game time (no idea how long that will translate to in real time), and I hope that you all return.
Final Score: A-