Atlus has yet to forsake the PS2 and continues to churn out the deep, involving role-playing titles without skipping a beat. The latest installment in the ongoing Shin Megami Tensei series may or may not be the last on the PS2, but given the gigantic userbase of Sony’s last-generation console, Atlus may not see a need to graduate to the PS3 any time soon. Hence, enter Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, which is scheduled to launch in North America on December 4. If you’re wondering, it’s not a direction continuation of the storyline found in Persona 3; it’s actually set in the rural town of Inaba, although we will have the return of the high school setting and Social Links system. The fourth Persona is actually more of a murder mystery; a girl is murdered at the start of the plot, and her friends – including the main character – set out to capture the perpetrator(s), and in so doing, stumble across a series of bizarre crimes that all seem connected to that murder. As you can see, it’s already a good deal different from the last entry, which is probably good news for most fans.
Keeping things fresh in a franchise is a must, right? So instead of focusing on the midnight hour and allowing the students to enter a parallel dimension in the depths of night, Persona 4 is more about paying attention to the weather…and television sets. That may require some elaboration. The rumor that floats around Inaba, much like a bedtime fairytale designed to stimulate the fantastical imaginations of the young and impressionable, is that if you look into a TV when it’s raining outside, you’ll see your soul mate. Believe it or not, the reality of this world is actually far more sinister: if you look into a TV when it’s raining, you get dragged into a nasty otherworldly dimension with no hope of escape. When the weather changes to foggy, though, some invisible force will chuck your body out of the TV and back into the real world. But of course, by then, it’s far too late to save them. It’s like something out of a cheesy horror novel, but given Atlus’ penchant for artistry and portraying an emotional and intense storyline, it probably won’t seem cheesy when you play the game. We’re wondering what that world inside the TV will look like…
Not surprisingly, the main character and his friends learn that those responsible for the aforementioned girl’s murder and a myriad of other crimes exist on “the other side.” Hence, they need to willingly launch themselves into that world – via the big flat-screen in a store – and start searching. And again, here we find another significant difference between the last Persona and this one: instead of moving through a series of randomly generated rooms and dungeons linked together in one ever-changing tower, you will be roving through smaller, more linear (and more relevant) environments. See, the dungeons are physical manifestations of the fears that inhabit a particular person’s psyche, and in this case, the psyche of the recently disappeared/abducted. The best way to combat any of the Shadows encountered in the darker world relies on your character’s ability to defeat their alter egos. They will have to confront these doppelgangers in combat, and once they do, they can use their freshly obtained powers in future encounters. These, of course, are the well-known Personas, but unlike the mechanic in Persona 3, you will be able to wield these Personas as one would wield a standard Summon or spell in any given traditional RPG.
And speaking of the combat, we’ll have the familiar turn-based format (a style that has all but died in the new generation), although the old style from the last installment has been upgraded for Persona 4. In the third Persona, you would adjust the tactics before combat and just go with the flow, but this could result in a few frustrating issues. For example, considering that you could only control the main character, if he bit the dust, the other characters would continue on without your guidance. You’d just have to hope your pre-set tactics would work well enough for them to finish the job, and if not, your entire party would fall. Well, no more of this. You will have the option of issuing individual commands to every character in battle, which is indeed the standard turn-based formula…and we have to admit, we kinda missed it. You will find that a lot of the combat in this game is more traditional from front to back; in addition to the RPG-like Summons in the form of Personas, you’ll even be able to Guard, which RPG fans have seen before. It’s like Defend, and if one of your characters is particularly weak against a certain element, Guarding won’t allow the enemy to exploit that weakness.
Lastly, we have to talk a bit about the Social Link system. This returns from the previous Persona; it’s a system that lets you build new skills and abilities based on your interactions with classmates. But much like the fighting, there’s an upgrade here, too: the main character has five traits rather than three, and you can use communication, courage, tolerance, knowledge, and perseverance to your benefit when trying to establish Links. Once established, you must continue to build the strength of the connection in order to reap the rewards in your adventure, so once again, becoming friends with different peers will be an essential part of your development. In the end, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 appears to have a lot going for it. Not only is it significantly different from its predecessor, it also enhances and/or upgrades most all returning facets of the RPG experience. For fans of the series, it’s guaranteed to be another must-buy and it arrives smack dab in the midst of the holiday rush. Atlus is gonna do it again!
11/11/2008 Ben Dutka