Â You ever wondered what you could do with a year’s worth of time. How do you interact with friends and family, how do you improve yourself at school or work, and more importantly, how do you make bonds that will never be broken? No, this is not just a philosophical question, but rather the juicy gameplay bits found in Shin Megami Tensei, Persona 4, the latest’s of arguably the greatest RPG to ever grace the Playstation 2.
The Persona series has been hallmarked for years, ever since it began on the original Playstation, for its originality and great design. It took the bump of last year’s hit, Persona 3, to get the series into a status of semi-mainstream, and Persona 4 borrows heavily from its predecessor. Let’s face it; the Playstation 2 is a system that is in the golden years of its life cycle. In fact, a year from now, most games will be out for the Playstation 3 or 360 instead of the giant, black brick that came into homes back in 2000. The systems longevity is amazing, but it’s time is running out. At the very least though, Persona 4 is a reason to bring the system out of whatever closet or basement it’s being held in, dust it off once more, and give it some loving that would make a Wii jealous.
The story stars a silent protagonist who has moved to a small town in the countryside in Japan, under the care of your detective uncle and his lovely little daughter. Swiftly after you settle in, mysterious murders begin to happen during foggy mornings in the town, ones that are so bizarre the police are baffled by them. What’s worse, you soon discover that you and your new friends can traverse into televisions and enter a new world, one that is seen every rainy midnight that is known as the Midnight Channel. The plot thickens when you realize those who have died were kidnapped and thrown into the Midnight Channel, and the killer is continuously attempting to continue his work.
The story is a lot less convoluted and doesn’t go for the standard exposition track that Persona 3 did in the early stages of the game. In fact, the colder openings that lead up to the mystery give a sense of the characters own vulnerabilities, which you will see a lot for those that you save in the Midnight channel. I won’t spoil many details there, but the secrets and hidden feelings of the characters in the midnight channel give the characters a more realistic feel, and probably would give Freud a field day.
But the game is not just leveling up by traversing in the TV realm; it is also by interacting during a whole calendar year. To help you in battle are your Personas, beings that represent the facets of your personality and manifest in the TV world in the forms of various gods in Greek, Japanese, and even Celtic and Assyrian mythology. These personas are also used to help in forming social links, not only with the player characters, but with NPC’s around town as well. In fact, managing your time is critical to your success, because a year goes by quickly and getting behind in anything can actually ruin your chances of making it to the end.
To do that, you need to go through the facets of real life. Go to school, study at night, take part time jobs, make lunch and eat with your friends. Even fun activities like making models and reading books are doable and even optional, but doing these activities not only forwards the story, but improves yourself as well. To help you unlock later personas and social links, you need to improve some facets of yourself. Knowledge, for example, increases by giving right answers during class or by studying at night. Understanding others can increase by reading some books or by working with children. Improving these skills can lead to new social links, or help you finish others during the game.
And what is the point of these social links? Well for one, it adds a lot of depth to the overall story, with well rounded and realistic individuals inhabiting the town, each with their own quirks, likes, dislikes, and baggage they burden. It also makes your own persona more powerful, thanks to the return of the fusion system seen in Persona 3. Creating new personas which inherit the attack and defend skills of other persona is the key to success in the later stages of the game. The more advanced your social links, the more powerful fused personas become, gaining levels quickly and learning skills they may never have seen before. And since each link is held together by a specific tarot card symbol, such as Strength, the Devil, Death, and so on. The persona created in that link represent the characteristics of their path. So expect a Chariot persona to have high attack stats, while a Justice persona would focus on healing and light spells. Planning is key when creating a persona, and using the right persona at the right time is critical when facing tough opponents.
And in a game filled with symbolism and mystical beings, the greatest rewards here is to see how you change those around you in the real world. To take one example, your aforementioned uncle is a workaholic because of an event that occurs in his past, and does little to care for his daughter at first. With your interactions with him, he will finally quell his own demons and become something he feels like he can be, a father. It is thanks to the great writing and characterization that makes these moments not only touching, but rewarding on an emotional level.
The game is, essentially, an upgraded version of Persona 3, taking similar enemies, menus and descriptions and transplanting them in this game. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it would have been nice to see some more originality and variety to separate itself from the previous game. Thankfully, combat and dungeon crawling has been revamped. You no longer go through one dungeon for the entire game; instead you get to traverse some cleverly designed set pieces, each of them representing a part of the characters psyche that you’re trying to rescue. And instead of giving orders to your teammates via “attack all” “support” etc. You can directly control players, which are a really welcome addition to the game and gives a throwback to the JRPG’s of old.
The game is graphically and sound wise an update of Persona 3. The textures and enemies are more crisp and detailed, the character animations are less jerky, and the cel-style graphics give it the good old anime feel. Plus the character portraits and persona designs are really first class. Here is to hoping the Persona anime graces the U.S sometime soon. The game also has added a lot of voice over work, something sorely lacking during some elements of Persona 3. While the voices only happen during important points in the story, they are well done with a lot of feeling and depth as characters resonate hidden or open feelings with each other. Other sound effects were lifted right out of Persona 3, and the funky, J-Rock and techno is still here, in different form, and fits the game style real well.
Persona 4 is a game that many have looked over, probably more to do with what system it came out on than anything else. The fans of the series will flock for it, the diehard JRPGers will play it and the rare reviewer will pick it up and shower it with praise, but the game’s time will be short. It’s funny how in a year now, they may not even be a Playstation 2 in production anymore, as time marches forward to an unknown future. But for now, Persona 4 is a treasure to be discovered, and while time may be running out for the system it’s representing, it is still a game that will be forever remembered by those who care for it the most.
Final Score- A-