Persona 4 Review: I Will Find the Truth!
Persona 4 has got to be the most pleasant enigma of a game I have ever had the privilege of playing. This quirky game is very much its own thing, splicing several different gameplay elements together--some of which tie directly into the narrative--in a way that not only creates a varied and unique experience, but also makes every little decision (or indecision) matter. Persona 4's strange hodgepodge of gameplay styles work well, though the meta-game does have a bit of a learning curve that may leave you regretting mistakes you made early in your playthrough. Did I mention the game is roughly 100 hours long? Some longtime JRPG connoisseurs may be used to this kind of trek, but my love/hate relationship with the JRPG genre has prevented me from experiencing such a lengthy narrative up to this point. Honestly though... I wish it had lasted longer!
Developed by Atlus, Persona 4 was one of the final big titles released exclusively on the Playstation 2 back in 2008, but despite outdated graphics (which the superb art direction compensates for) the game seems brand new. Many of the gameplay systems it utilizes will feel familiar to anyone who has played those genres before, but each has its own spin that makes it feel uniquely... Atlus. Person 4 is part of a long heritage of similar titles under the "Shin Megami Tensei" family of games. The basic premise of these games generally involves people with the special ability to summon monsters, heroes and deities of various mythos and folk lore to battle whatever foe may be ruining the protagonist's day. At its core these games are JRPGs and Persona 4 is no different.
Where Persona 4 stands out, and the main reason I fell in love with this game, is that it flawlessly interweaves the narrative with the mechanics of its various gameplay systems. Things that happen in the story impact the gameplay in a direct way and vice versa. The best example of this, and arguably the most important system within the game (apart from leveling yourself and your Personas), is the Social Link system. Basically there are several characters, both party members and NPCs, that you can form special bonds with. As you grow closer to those characters you (or in some cases they) become more powerful in various ways. But hold on now, all this talk of story meshing with gameplay means nothing if you don't have a clue what the story's about!
"I Reach Out to the Truth"
I would argue that the single most important element of any story-oriented RPG is the story itself. Story is what they focus on and what they generally do well, after all. In this sense Persona 4 delivers in fucking spades. The plot is that of a mystery that has the entire town of Inaba quite literally glued to their TV screens. Gossip is the name of the game and rumors of a mysterious "Midnight Channel" begin to circulate around town. When a mysterious fog sets in on this innocent rural town, bodies start appearing and the police don't have any answers... that is, until the biggest badass in JRPG protagonist history takes the case!
Igor is a creepy mother fucker.
The protagonist, in my case affectionately named "Rufio Alfonzo" (Rufio-kun just sounds hilarious to me), is not your typical JRPG protagonist. He is a quiet and incredibly stable high schooler sent from the big city to live with his uncle and cousin in the small town of Inaba while his parents are overseas on business. While Inaba is painted as your average, run-of-the-mill Japanese boonies, it becomes apparent from the get-go that there is more going on than anyone would care to admit. This is evident from the fact that the protagonist is bombarded by strange visions and dreams as soon as he shows up. Invited to the "Velvet Room," an inter-dimensional limousine complete with a tarot card enthusiast and a hot blonde, the protagonist learns that he is of the "Fool" arcana and has the power of the "Wild Card," allowing him to do all sorts of neat stuff that you other normos aren't cool enough to do. Oh, and he can also jump inside the "TV World" and kick the shit out of baddies... though as to why he can do that--well that's a part of the mystery!
A great set-up, really. Empowered badass fish out-of-water comes to a small town with a dark secret and uncovers a nefarious mystery that has the fate of the town's residents in its hands. But there is a whole lot more to the plot than a super-cool protagonist and a grand mystery. While the broader themes are critiques on Japanese society and human nature as a whole, Persona 4 manages to pull off a very personal story among all of the big ideas. You make a lot of friends in this game. No, I mean it. Persona 4 has some of the most relatable and memorable characters I have ever encountered in any game. The game manages to pull off the clichéd message of "unconditional love/friendship is the most powerful force in the universe" trope we've become all too familiar with in anime and JRPGs without it being cheesy or forced. I really did grow attached to these characters both in-and-out of game and when the chips were down the game had legitimately convinced me that we could pull through as comrades... and as friends.
The mystery itself was very well done, and while it holds your hand early on making it somewhat easy to call some of the twists, you really need to pay attention to the story in this game. Not in the sense that it is hard to understand, but you need to analyze the mystery as if you were one of characters, lest you fuck up and get the bad ending! And when shit hits the fan in this game it hits hard! If you want to uncover the truth you need to think outside the box. You need to consider every detail, every event, every relationship you have formed, the mechanics of the game itself and even its presentation style. The way this game can fuck with your head is a tribute to the spectacular writers of this game.
Teddie, the troll.
And it's not without its humor. True, some of the humor in this game may come off as distinctively "Japanese," but it is in large part a very funny game. From Teddie's terrible puns, to the joke-glasses gag, to all of the social gatherings that end up as awkward teenage fiascos, I was red in the face quite a few times. With that said this game also has emotionally draining low points. I grew incredibly attached to some of the characters and seeing them suffer came with some painful moments. But the game manages to bounce back from these moments, which is ultimately what this story does best: bittersweet, powerful moments of loss, acceptance and triumph. There is a formula to how the plot flows that will leave you with déjà vu quite a few times as the story progresses and while these scenes play out in a rather predictable fashion they are powerful nonetheless.
Ultimately the story is that of friendship and discovery. The "truth" is something the protagonist and his friends are striving for from beginning to end and when the pieces fall into place and the mystery unfolds... you will feel damn good about yourself. Persona 4 preaches that you can't go it alone and you won't want to once you get to know these characters. You'll want them with you when you figure out who the bad guy is and punch them in their no-good face!
That's enough about the story. If I go on any longer I will spoil it! Well, we'll get back to that when I detail how the story and gameplay complement each other, and for that I suppose I have to explain how this game plays. As I stated before, Persona 4 melds several gameplay systems into one cohesive experience. Basically the game is broken up into individual days which, depending on what is going on in the story, may be completely taken up by story bits. More often than not, however, you will be able to choose what you do with your day. This includes spending time with friends to increase your Social Links (more about that later), grinding your mental skills, fishing, going to work, doing side quests, or jumping into the TV to save people from the evil shadows that inhabit the TV world.
Travel around town to talk to people and prove how much of a baller you are.
This is the overarching system that dictates pretty much everything you do in the game. You can try your best to plan your days ahead, but as with real life you will have to deal with bad weather and other people's schedules. Balancing all of these things is essential to succeed in this game and it can be frustrating at times, but rewarding when you accomplish certain goals. Unless you're following a walk-through (you dirty cheaters) you will not be able to complete everything there is to do, but you can still experience a vast majority of the game's content if you don't optimize your day-to-day. Living the protagonist's life day-after-day can get monotonous, but is strangely addictive.
The meat of the gameplay is, of course, in the combat. While the party members you acquire over the course of the game have their own unique Personas (super-powered extensions of their ego basically, or super-cool dudes that inhabit your soul) the protagonist can summon a whole host of Personas ranging from the pathetic little Pixie to the mother fucking God of Thunder himself and, oh hey, fucking Lucifer.
Mara is slang for 'penis' in Japanese. I wonder what the 'Amulet of Mara' would look like in this setting...
Collecting Personas is similar to Pokemon in a sense... if Pokemon had giant penises riding chariots. I am sure that's one play on words that had American players scratching their heads. Occasionally you can play a little mini game after fights that, if you win, you get a new Persona! These Personas are automatically registered (assuming you didn't already have one of that type) and can be re-summoned for a price if you ever replace them. The Persona system is very complex, so I won't go into great detail, but giving some info on how they develop over the course of the game is vital. Like any JRPG you and your party members level after gaining enough experience. The difference between your party and you in this case is that while their Personas are static and represent their level, you level separately from your various Personas. In this sense and many others, it is vital to cycle through Personas by acquiring more powerful summons as the game progresses. The best way to do this is by fusing them together to form more powerful Personas.
The fusion process is the core of progression in this game and doing it correctly will yield some truly powerful Personas. It's an incredibly fun system that makes much of the progression in the game a surprise. There are literally thousands of fusion combinations. This will likely be where the bulk of your cash will be spent by the end of the game. When fusing two or more personas together to make a new one, they can inherit abilities that the former personas had. This creates an enormous time sink for those of us who want to make the best Personas possible. Why is that, you ask? Well, you can't simply pick which abilities you want them to inherit; it randomly picks which abilities they will inherit based on some sadistic algorithm. Oh yeah, you can re-roll, but good luck getting the three or so abilities you want on a Persona that is pulling 3-8 abilities from up to 6 different Personas. I'm getting a headache just thinking about it. If you aren't a perfectionist like me (or my girlfriend) this should not be a big deal for you, however. I suppose it is kind of worth it once you get some God-mode Personas though.
But enough about meta-gaming nonsense; how does the actual combat work? Well, it's pretty basic JRPG turn-based combat with a few twists. Your success in combat depends on your understanding and use of ally/enemy strengths and weaknesses, how you form your party and how you play the protagonist. While your allies mostly fill niche roles, you being the "Wild Card" can fill any role the party requires. This leads to a whole plethora of play styles that are fun to try out. I ended up using totally different party set-ups and protagonist roles pretty much every boss fight, which in good ol' JRPG fashion, don't fuck around. This game has some truly brutal boss fights that keep you on your toes the entire time. Do not go into a boss fight without full HP and SP dammit! It is suicide!
'All-Out Attacks' are extremely powerful attacks that can only be used under certain conditions.
As for normal enemy combat, well there is a whole lot of it, but it doesn't feel as grindy when you are constantly introduced to new foes. Every time you encounter a new enemy it is wise to figure out their strengths and weaknesses, which adds life to what would otherwise be a mindless grind to the top floor of the dungeon. The "Rush" function helps here as well. It is a mode you can toggle that makes you and your party members auto-attack continuously in fast-forward. It goes a long way to alleviate some of the grind inherent in JRPGs like this one. Speaking of grinding, the dungeons themselves are pretty static, boring endeavors with occasional puzzles thrown in. Running down identical corridors for several hours isn't exactly inspired, but thankfully you spend more time in actual combat than running around with your dick in your hand.
When you're not dungeon diving there is plenty to do in the real world. The fishing mini game is fun, but only really necessary a select few times in the game. You'll spend most of your time in the normal world improving your Social Links and your mental skills. Your mental skills are broken down into 5 categories: Courage, Knowledge, Expression, Understanding and Diligence. These skills dictate many aspects of the game, most notably Social Links. There are various ways to improve these skills and learning how to maximize your gain and minimize the time spent on them will go a long way in making you a well-rounded BAMF. During the daytime you may occasionally have questions asked from teachers or friends which will improve certain skills (usually Knowledge) if you answer correctly. You have my permission to Google these answers... it is very apparent that many of them are intended for a Japanese audience. Make sure you do well on your exams so everyone knows how much of a badass you are!
"Trapped in a Maze of Relationships"
I felt the Social Links aspect of the game required its own section for explanation, because honestly, it is a whole lot more than a social simulator and is what's ultimately responsible for melding the gameplay and story together. The way the protagonist's power works as it is described in the story is that, through the social links you form with others, your ego grows and your ability to command certain Personas is enhanced. It is important in this regard to consider how you spend your time during each day so you can maximize the effectiveness of the Personas you want to use.
Getting downed is a serious disadvantage. Thankfully conditions can be cured in a number of ways, including having a party member of a certain S. Link rank.
All of your party members are Social Links and gain additional benefits on top of those you would normally get from increasing their S. Link. It is wise to prioritize party members so that you can get the full benefit of having them in your party. Some of the benefits they get are... pretty fucking awesome, I'll just leave it at that. The Social Links are at the center of the meta-game and play off of every other system in the game. Mental skills determine how far you can progress in S. Links, while increased S. Links improve your Personas and potentially unlock better Personas, etc. etc. You get the idea.
Trying to max them out is an interesting combination of wanting to get the character's entire story and racing to increase your effectiveness in battle before the timer runs out. Though what I find truly great about the Social Links is that they all tell a unique tale separate from the main plot. Each story explores different themes and displays some amazing characterization. However, some are definitely more interesting than others and a few of the characters are easy to hate. I kind of think of it like the loyalty missions in Mass Effect 2, some are incredible while others are... meh.
Social Links may be where gameplay and story most obviously intercept, but it is not the only place the game does this. However, breaking down how everything plays off each other would spoil the fun for those who haven't played the game for themselves. Vaguely put, many aspects of the game play off of one another in both straightforward and mysterious ways. Some important moments teeter atop the fourth wall and require that you not only pay attention to the plot, but also to the game's mechanics and systems. When you get too familiar with how the game works it might try to pull a fast one on you. Here's some advice: pay attention to the details, treat every bit of information the game feeds you with scrutiny, and don't let any question go unanswered.
Persona 4 is a damn good mystery story and has a fun RPG system to complement it. It has some hiccups here and there, but doesn't fall into many of the same pitfalls others in the genre do. If you have around 100 hours to waste on one game I highly recommend you waste them on this one. Persona 4 is currently available on the Playstation 2 and an enhanced version of the original game is coming to the PS Vita November 20th in the US.
Oh yeah one more thing! As if I haven't given this game enough praise... the soundtrack is fucking awesome. While watching my girlfriend play this game I asked, "How the hell do they get away with lyrics in their normal combat music? Wouldn't that get super annoying after awhile?" After playing it myself I can honestly say no, not really. I have no idea how that's possible, but there it is.
(Disclaimer: Some of the screenshots used are from the Persona 4 anime as they offered better picture quality than I could find anywhere else online. Same cut-scene quality more or less.)
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