In a genre that is often berated for stagnation, the Persona series has been a wonderful shot in the arm. The mixing of JRPG and dating-sim genres in the series, while at first seeming like an ill thought out experiment, works so well that one wonders why this isn’t more common. While the series may follow some of the often mocked staples of JRPGs (group of kids saving the day) it is hard to argue with the results, and Persona 4 is just another example of how amazing this series really is.
You play as a second year high school student who you can name whatever you care to, and who is currently in a train travelling to the countryside to live for a year in a small town with his uncle and cousin, since his parents are away. You go to school, make a couple of friends, and find out about a strange urban legend called “the Midnight Channel”, which states that if you watch your TV screen at midnight while it’s raining with the power off you will see the face of your true love. Before too long you find out that the legend is partly true, you do see someone on the screen under those conditions, but instead of that person being your one true love; it is instead a glimpse of the next person to be killed by a strange new serial killer. You soon figure out that these people are being killed by a world within the TV itself. They show up in the TV world after being seen on the Midnight Channel, and are found dead after the next morning fog. Your mission, as well as that of your friends, then becomes to save these people showing up on the Midnight Channel, while simultaneously trying to figure out who the killer is behind all of these heinous murders and bring them to justice.
I cannot tell you enough how well this story works. Upon hearing the basics of it from previews, I was really hoping for Persona 4 to have a mystery/crime-solving story and I was in no way disappointed. Throughout the game there are all kinds of twists and your group will often sit together and simply try to talk themselves through the newest happenings in the mystery. You really get a sense of being a group of High School students trying to solve a mystery, catch a serial killer, and save their town. The mystery is not the only storyline however; because while solving this case you also do all the things normal high school students do (in Japan of course). You go to school each day, have your club activities and hang out with friends. The storyline has a great balance between serious and hilarious, as you find yourself racking your brain and discovering the next murder victim on one day, while you try and taste one of your female peer’s culinary disasters without passing out the next. There are some moments that seem out of place or not very well voice acted, but it is hard not to enjoy a story so well told.
Playing Persona 4 is a mix between dating simulation and standard dungeon crawling JRPG. The JRPG aspect is taken up by exploring the TV world and trying to save the latest Midnight Channel victim. This would be a piece of cake, if the TV world were not infested with dangerous enemies known as Shadows. At first you are armed only with a golf club that your friend brought along, but you soon find that you have the ability to summon and control magical being known as Persona. Personas are the means by which every character you use will do their magic and special abilities. Basically, if a character is doing anything other than melee attacks, they are using their Persona. Every character has access to only one Persona, and therefore has a given set of abilities which will change as they increase in level, but the main character has the ability to capture and choose between many different Personas. This makes the main character extremely versatile.
After you complete each fight against a shadow, you are sometimes given the chance to pick a card in a mini-game. The cards are presented before you, most are usually blank, some are penalty cards which will take away any money or experience you got for completing the battle, and the rest are Persona cards. After you see which cards are what, they flip over and you have to try and keep track and pick out the correct card you want while they move around, or match three in a slot machines game, or pick two matching cards in a memory game. If you pick out a Persona card, you are then given use of that Persona with all of its abilities. Personas themselves have levels and experience, and you can only gain control of Personas with a level equal to or less than your own. You can only hold a limited number of Persona (I think it starts at 6 and then gradually increases as you level), and they take much more experience to level then any of the regular characters, so fairly soon you will want to start fusing these Personas into new creations. This is done in “The Velvet Room” which is a special room with 2 access points (one in the real world and one in the TV world) that only the main character can enter. Fusing them is the fastest way to gain more powerful Persona and helps to free up some spaces for capturing new Persona through the card game.
The TV world is cut up into different dungeons, each one representing the inner desires of a person’s soul. Persona 4 does a great job of giving each of these dungeons a unique and memorable design. Each dungeon has around 10 levels, with the end goal being to make it all the way to the last level and finish the boss there to save the murder victim. Saving is only done at certain save points, which exist in several places in the real world, at the start of the TV World, and at the top of each dungeon. Along the way you’ll come across many Shadows (there are no random encounters) which you can either attack from behind to gain an extra turn for each of the 4 characters in your party, or get surprise attacked yourself. During these fights the game plays out like a normal Turn based JRPG, except for some slight differences.
The enemies and your party members all have weaknesses and strengths against certain attacks. The different types of attack are physical, light, shadow, fire, ice, lightning, and wind. If a character or enemy is attacked with something they are weak against, it will do extra damage and knock that character down. Whoever succeeds in knocking down an enemy gains an extra attack. Anyone who is knocked down will get back up on their next turn without further consequence. Also, if all of your enemies are knocked down you are given the chance to rush in and beat on them for unblockable and usually fatal damage. Your enemies can’t rush you, but if they knock down one of your characters they will gain another attack. These mechanics make keeping track of elemental strengths and weaknesses hugely important as your goal for any fight will be to knock down all of the enemies to quickly rush in and kill them, but if you screw up the enemy might instead take advantage of your weaknesses and soon you’ll find yourself staring at the floor. If your main character dies at any time you’ll be taken to game over, and will have to start over from your last save point.
Each day is cut up into afterschool/daytime and the evening after you come home. During these times you can play the dating simulation aspect by going out and getting new friends, working on your personality stats (such as Intelligence, and Understanding), or taking up a part time job or you can explore the TV world and venture into the JRPG aspects of the game. Doing any of these activities will take up that portion of the day, and only one can be done each time period. The main goal of the dating simulation portion of the game is to work on gaining new relationships, because strengthening your connections with others allows you to gain experience bonuses when fusing monsters together. These bonuses make it possible to create a Persona greater than your level, since you fuse together a Persona at or below your level and then that Persona will get an experience boost that pushes it beyond your level. One great addition in Persona 4 over the third in the series is that you are able to work on more than one thing at once during a single activity. During some of the later part time jobs you’ll find yourself increasing your stats, working on a relationship, and gaining a bit of cash on the way. This helps to alleviate some of the difficulty of maxing as many relationships as you can while also increasing your stats to gain access to more relationships.
There are ten different levels of relationship strength, and each person you get close to will boost a different type of Persona (such as Emperor, Hierophant, or Lovers) based on Tarot cards and the amount of experience boosted will depend on the level of your relationship’s strength. There are many different people that you can become close to; ranging from an elderly lady who laments the passing of her late husband and thinks you look an awful lot like him to a pair of wise cracking school peers that you meet through the athletic clubs. Increasing the level on these relationships is important for gaining more powerful Personas, but they also present extremely interesting side stories as you gradually help these people work through their problems and become closer to them. You can also increase the relationship level with those in your party, which has the same benefits as the other relationships while also gaining them more options in battle such as the ability to save the main character from a killing blow, or take away a negative status effect after knocking an enemy down. These benefits help to intertwine the two different playstyles of JRPG and dating simulation even better than Persona 3 was able to.
Time management and keeping track of what day it is will be very important to your success in Persona 4. Once you have figured out who the next murder victim will be, you usually have around three weeks to save them before the fog comes and they die. This is never a defined amount of time, but you instead watch the weather for the upcoming week and are careful for several days in a row of rain, as the killing fog will usually follow. Going into the TV world to work on saving the person will take up a day, as you will be too tired when you come back in the evening to get anything else done. You have to constantly decide whether to spend time working on the newest dungeon, or work on the stuff outside the TV world.
The visual presentation of Persona 4 is probably its weakest point. Persona games are not the best looking even when you are only thinking of Playstation 2 games, but that is not to say that the visuals are bad. The character models are well designed, though the models for the non-important NPC’s are copied enough to be noticeable at times. Whenever someone is speaking it is presented with the common motif in JRPG’s of a more detailed two dimensional drawing of the person, with several different designs based on the mood of the conversation. These drawing are very detailed and work well to represent the characters. There are no apparent bugs in the game, and I never noticed any kind of frame rate slow down. All in all the visual presentation is good, but not quite up there with the best the PS2 has to offer.
The music in the title is infectious. It is hard not to get into the music, and many will find themselves humming their way through the dungeons. Each dungeon has a different song, which increases the variety beyond that of Persona 3 which only had one song throughout its dungeon. There is still only one song on loop while you travel about town doing your business, and it would have been nice if this changed with the seasons, but that is a small complaint. The voice acting is very believable except for certain times for a character name Chie where she sounds much more like a 40 year old woman than a high school student.
Gameplay in Persona 4 is amazingly fun. The dating simulation aspect will eat away hours as you tell yourself “just one more day” over and over again, while the JRPG aspect has a refreshingly strategic playstyle that keeps the grinding from getting repetitive as every battle is a life or death affair dependent on your mastery of everyone’s elemental weaknesses and strengths. My sole complaint with the gameplay is that there is a bit of a pacing issue in the beginning of the main story where it takes several hours to get the ball rolling. Also you’ll find that there are large portions in the game where you won’t have any new part of the mystery to work on, but instead have to spend time waiting around until the next event occurs in the main story. This is no big deal for a fan of the JRPG genre, but for others I could see it being a detriment.
My first playthough clocked in at 60 hours for the bad ending, 70 hours for the normal ending, and I’ve been told that to finish the game with the true ending I should add on another 4 hours or so onto that (still working on it). All of these endings are achievable on your first playthrough, so don’t worry about screwing something up in the first half hour that dooms you to the bad ending. The game only costs forty dollars so even at a single playthrough it is hard to argue with 60+ hours of amazing JRPG. There is a replay feature to start a new game with certain aspects of your character in tact such as personality stats, but there isn’t as much drive to do this since all of the endings are possible in a single playthough. That said, you’ll never be able to completely level all of the relationships to their max within your first playthrough, and I will personally probably play the game again just to try and find out what happens to that little old lady, as well as the relationships that I never even had time to start.
Persona 4 might be the perfect game for a JRPG fan. The story is incredible, mixing together comedy and tragedy in a very entertaining fashion, the battle system keeps your interest through the many hours of playtime, and the character interactions are second to none. That said, Persona 4 keeps many of the issues common in the genre with an almost excruciatingly slow start (mainly because my roommates kept making fun of me and asked when I would get to fight something), some minor pacing issues, and some cringe worthy moments from Chie. It is a must for any JRPG fan, but I am unsure I can recommend it to those who are not already fans of the genre, which is unfortunate because they will be missing out on one fantastic story.