Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 Review
It’s almost too bad that Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei franchise has come into its own during the twilight years of the PS2. The fantastic RPG series simply isn’t getting the recognition it deserves, and Atlus clearly isn’t interested in making the leap to the new generation just yet. At least, not so far as SMT is concerned. But if you’re a role-playing aficionado, you owe it to yourself to pick up titles like Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4; this new installment is engaging – even captivating – with wonderful, unique artistry, and it’s a definite accomplishment. There aren’t many RPGs left like this, so that’s yet another reason to add Persona 4 to your collection, which probably hasn’t seen many role-playing games in the past year or so. For the most part, we continue to turn to the PS2 for our RPG fix, but thankfully, the PS3 is finally starting to get into the action. For now, let’s take a deeper look at one of 2008’s best games; a rousing mixture of Mature elements and old-school/new-school mechanics.
The graphics are fairly standard for the late PS2 age, but there’s some great CGI cut-scenes that will remind you of the last anime movie you saw. One could call the character design a bit clichéd and tired, but then again, we just have to realize that JRPGs have a distinct style and when things don’t fit that style…well, it just seems strange. As the game takes place in a fictional Japan, it would make sense that the characters should have an appropriate Japanese design. The environments aren’t quite as detailed or appealing as we would’ve liked, but then again, you do spend a lot of time in dark, foggy areas that don’t really lend themselves to bright, vibrant colors or intricate detail. For the most part, the visuals provide the player with just the right atmosphere, and despite the graphical shortcomings, most RPG fans will find little to complain about. Furthermore, the presentation gets better later in the game, so although you may not be impressed initially, you might be pleased before you complete your adventure.
The sound is absolutely fantastic, especially for a last-gen title. Perhaps what stands out most is the stellar voice acting; Atlus certainly found some real talent to handle the voiceover duties for most of the major characters. Some of the minor characters are irritating, but there’s a ton of dialogue in this particular title and it was essential that they nail the voices cold. Thankfully, they did just that. The soundtrack is great, too, as it features a nice variety of J-Pop and driving rock tracks for the action, plus some calming, ambiance-setting music for your day-to-day activities at school. The only downside centers on the battle effects, which could’ve been better; the flashier, more devastating skills just don’t resonate with the expected impact, and some of the voices in combat weren’t necessary. But it’s still not bad and overall, the sound is a big highlight in Persona 4. There was a time when we had to suffer through terrible voice acting and repetitive, unprofessional soundtracks in most JRPGs that weren’t called “Final Fantasy,” but obviously, those days are long gone. Great stuff.
Before we get into the gameplay details, let’s make one thing clear: if you’re the type of old-school RPG player who really needs an interesting and compelling storyline with solid characters, and you have the patience to allow the developers to create that plot, then this game is for you. If, on the other hand, you need more of an action-oriented focus and you can’t sit still for more than five minutes without messing around with your character, the first few hours of Persona 4 is going to drive you up the wall. Happily, I fall into the former category and I was very content to play the type of game I once believed had disappeared into the annals of video game history. They set you up with a premise, which does take some time but it’s still intriguing, and you begin to learn about a dark mystery that involves two different worlds. You won’t really get into the combat for a good hour and a half, and while this may annoy certain gamers, those who appreciate decent storytelling and the process of implementing a foundation will definitely enjoy every minute.
You play as a high school student who is forced to transfer from the big city to a small school out in the suburbs. You’ve got to adapt to your new environment quickly but despite one particularly abrasive teacher, most everyone is very nice and you soon nab a couple of close friends in Yosuke and Chie. Then, a pair of “incidents” rock the small town: two bodies are found, one hanging from a TV antenna and the other hanging from the top of a telephone pole, and the police have no idea how either death occurred. But when you and your friends test out an urban myth, you start to realize that it’s not a myth; that it might actually have something to do with the tragedies. The folktale is that if you stare into a television screen (it has to be turned off) at exactly midnight when it’s raining outside, you will see “your soulmate.” Well, as it turns out, you will see someone, but that someone isn’t your soulmate…that someone actually has a death sentence on their heads.
Oh, and let’s not forget that your character can voluntarily to go inside the TV, where a whole different universe exists. So, you strike out on a mission to find out who has been “tossing” people into this world, where apparently, they only emerge as corpses. Have they been meeting their Personas in this world…? Could they not conquer the darker side of themselves? That’s part of the point of the game: you will do battle with Personas you conquer, and these Personas are shadows of your real self. They will grant you great power in battle but you have to come to terms with them first. Once you do, they can level up along with your character, gaining new skills and upgrading their inherent statistics. There are many different Personas to experiment with in the game, and half the fun is this experimentation; it’s all about training them and establishing a relationship with the user. As you progress, this is a feature that quickly becomes the central focus – next to the story – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
As a student, you will spend a lot of time in school. This may sound boring, but if you’re familiar with the franchise, you’ll know just how critical it is to your eventual success. Depending on how you answer questions from your classmates, you may have a chance at upping your Understanding statistic (and other statistics), and it’s a good idea to pay attention in class. If you answer questions correctly, your Knowledge will increase. All of these things come into play on the battlefield, which, by the way, is turn-based! Wow, what a concept. It’s expertly implemented, too: you square off against enemies – usually Shadows in the Other World – and each side gets a turn. But there are certain aspects to the battle that greatly increase the required level of thought and strategy; here is where I talk to all you fans of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and other entries in the series. If you can exploit an enemy’s weakness, you get another turn. If the enemy exploits yours, they get another turn. In this way, you really have to pay attention to the Analysis of any given enemy and a battle can turn abruptly based on this one facet.
You have access to your Persona and its abilities, as well as any special skills or items you may have at your disposal. You also have a Rush command that can be used a finite number of times during a particular battle and may or my not give you the upper hand. Old-school RPGers will fall into this rhythm with ease but the added freshness really makes the mechanic shine; it’s actually one of the best examples we’ve seen of a turn-based battle system in any RPG. The pacing is good, the soundtrack is great, the challenge can be substantial (you can select Beginner, Normal or Expert at the start of the game), the enemy design is inspired, and because your actions in the real world have a direct impact on your fighting ability, you will always be thinking about your combat readiness. Perhaps best of all, you can check the status of your characters and their Personas at any time during the day, and you do have free reign to explore a bit in town. It’s still a very linear adventure, though, and sometimes, it feels as if you’re on rails just a bit too much. There are also big stretches of time with no opportunity to save…
The story is another huge highlight because it’s incredibly well done, and the combination of the daily activities (time passes in pseudo-real-time as you progress through Early Morning, Morning, Early Afternoon, and Evening, and you can perform certain actions during each section) and “other-worldly” battles is awesome. Sometimes, we felt a little out-in-the-cold when it came to dealing with our Personas, and that was in stark contrast to the hand-holding we’d see during the story scenarios. On the one hand, you may not feel entirely checked out on the whole Persona process, while at the same time, the game will tell you specifically what you just saw or heard…as if you weren’t paying attention or your short-term memory sucked. This got a little annoying after a while, but all in all, this is exactly the game hardcore RPG fans are going to love. There’s a ton of depth, fantastic pacing thanks to a tried-and-true method found in previous entries, good characters, and a battle mechanic that just doesn’t feel old or out-dated. It’s just plain entertaining.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of the series. It really is one of the best RPGs I’ve played in quite a long while, and even though the competition is thin, that doesn’t stop Atlus’ latest effort from being a clear-cut winner.
4/9/2009 Ben Dutka