HIGH The hilarious mid-summer camping trip.
LOW Unskippable cutscenes and long stretches between save.
WTF One character's totally unexpected mid-game reveal... Literally.
After the incredible experience that was Persona 3, I was more than a little surprised to see that Atlus was following up with a sequel so soon. Although I have nothing but the highest respect for the series, I have to admit that the critic in me was a little dubious that something of an equal or greater quality would be coming my way—after all, the gap of time between 2 and 3 was in the neighborhood of six years. Could a similar quantum leap have been made again in just two?
If nothing else, it's clear to see that the savants at Atlus do something better than nearly anyone else in the industry, and that's to learn from their mistakes.
Although the core of Persona 4 isn't a new design, it is without a doubt the most polished and streamlined incarnation of the series thus far. It's pure joy to play. However, let me be clear about something up front: Persona 4 is built squarely on the bones of Persona 3. Extremely similar to its predecessor in most aspects, there's no mistaking the inspiration. However, I don't state this as a negative; in fact, just the opposite. Persona 4 wisely carries forward all of the tweaks and modifications that made 3 so incredibly polished, intelligent and user-friendly, and given that the series still makes its home on the PlayStation 2, staying close to home was a very sensible thing to do.
Since the plot is so central to the game I can't give away much, but what I can mention is that at the beginning of the adventure, the main character comes to live with his uncle and cousin far outside the city. Soon after arriving in town, several bodies are found hanging upside-down from tall structures, and the quiet life of the small community is shattered. Gathering friends from the local high school, the player must investigate the crimes and eventually enter a strange world that exists behind the screen of every television.
To say anything more would ruin the experience for those who haven't played it yet, but the murder mystery at the heart of the game is a fine one, with a number of twists and turns that kept me constantly wondering what was going to happen next. Additionally, exploring the relationships and side stories that make up a large part of the adventure was every bit as engaging and interesting as unraveling the whodunit.
In fact, that so many of Persona 4's events happen in a plausible "real world" as opposed to some generically fantasy RPG setting is something I truly appreciate, and it's a large part of what makes Persona stand out from the crowd. In what other series does a player actually have to go to school, or practice with a soccer team? What other RPG asks players to listen to the problems plaguing friends, and try to ease the pain they feel over things like losing a loved one, or the difficulty of fitting in? If you're one of those players (like me) who doesn't mind taking a break from swords and sorcery once in a while, Atlus's efforts are like none other.
Looking at Persona 4's nuts and bolts, it would have been sheer madness for Atlus to tamper with all the logistics that were done to perfection in the previous game, such as the selectable difficulty level, the fast-paced combat, and the stellar Social Link system which virtually eliminates level-grinding while encouraging exploration of the game's numerous side-quests at the same time; greater intimacy with friends translates into greater power during battle.
In fact, Persona 4 goes even further towards design perfection by adding things like a way to instantly travel between locations, the means to access information on nearly any aspect of the game at any time, and the biggest thing that its predecessor was lacking: optional direct control over every party member during battle. There is no question in my mind that Persona 4 sports what is probably the most efficient and effective system for giving players the keys needed to efficiently utilize the wealth of content contained on the shiny underside of the disc.
Though I give Persona 4 my absolute seal of approval, there are a few caveats for those about to undertake the journey: the first is to make sure that you have plenty of time before you sit down and start to play. There is no such thing as "getting in a quick game" of Persona. Save points are not always handy, and there are many times when the game will go through an extended series of cut-scenes that can't be skipped or paused. If you don't have a solid hour or two on your hands, you probably shouldn't turn the console on. The second thing to know is that even though the difficulty can be selected, the boss battles (even on Easy) can be extreme wars of attrition designed to test any player's endurance. I don't say these things to discourage anyone—just be prepared.
With those issues in mind, the fact remains that Persona 4's mechanics are ingenious, the characters are well-written and engaging, the voice work and music are top-quality, the art is beautifully stylish, and its basis in a real-world setting manages to avoid the usual genre clichés. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 is a true gamer's game. Atlus has outdone themselves again and proved that they are at the leading edge of role-playing. As far as I'm concerned, Persona 4 is the JRPG must-play of the year.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via the publisher and reviewed on the PlayStation 2. Approximately 42 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed at the time this review was written. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains alcohol references, animated blood, language, partial nudity, sexual themes and violence. Although it seems like a game with all these warnings would be something to steer the kids clear of (and certainly, young ones need not apply) strangely enough, I think this would actually be a great game for teenagers. There are plenty of high school hi-jinks happening, and the environment will be instantly relatable. More than that, however, is the delicacy with which the main character can interact with others; as a parent myself, I appreciated the way the game dug into certain issues (camaraderie, deaths in the family, alienation, loss, love and healing, among others) regarding peripheral characters. Parental guidance might be called for here and there, but I don't think anything in the game could be seen as harmful, really.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: They will be fine for most of the experience, since it's a turn-based RPG and fast reaction times or auditory cues are not part of the equation. However, I am quite disappointed to report that there are no subtitles for the dialogue spoken during animated cut scenes. There aren't that many over the course of the game, but their absence was definitely noted. Come on, Atlus...you scored a home run everywhere else, don't skimp on accessibility.