Release Date: December 9, 2008
You begin Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 as a newcomer to the small sleepy country town of Inaba, Japan. Your character, a teenage boy, has been sent to live with his uncle for a year due to issues at home. Unfortunately for him, things go south as soon as he arrives. There is a terrible murder shortly after he arrives, with a famous television personality being killed and her body displayed in a strange fashion. The murders continue, with one of the hero's new friends joining the first victim, both appearing on a foggy day after a few nights of rain. The cause of the problem seems to be the mysterious "Midnight Channel," a television show that only airs on rainy days at midnight, and only if your television is turned off. It shows the next person to be murdered shortly before he or she disappears.
Your hero and his friends quickly find the cause: Someone or something has been throwing people into the television. Inside the television is another world, filled with horrible monsters called Shadows and a strange thick fog. When the real world becomes foggy, the television world becomes clear and the monsters go berserk, brutally killing anyone trapped inside. For some unknown reason, your hero can also enter the television world, and in doing so, gains the mysterious power Persona, which gives him the ability to fight against the Shadows. He and his friends are the only ones who know the truth about the Midnight Channel, and they must use their newfound power to protect the victims while solving the murders that haunt the sleepy little Japanese town.
Persona 4 is a mystery story, and you won't be able to simply wait for the plot to come to you, as you did in Persona 3. You're given a time limit, and if you can't figure out who the next victim is and save him or her before the next foggy day, the game is over. You'll have to walk around Inaba, talking to people and tracking down leads before you can go into the television and save the unfortunate victim. As the game progresses, you'll also be given new challenges, and false leads will obscure your path. Getting the game's true ending involves seeing through these various deceptions and discovering the true cause of the Inaba murders. It's surprisingly addictive to actually work out the solution to the mystery by piecing together clues. Tracking down leads does wonders for making you feel like you're influencing the story, even if you only make a few choices that have far-reaching effects. The game does a good job of accounting for any plotline that it puts forth, so if you feel like it didn't answer a question, it's usually a sign that there is more mystery for you to solve.
As in Persona 3, your character doesn't just gain power from his or her actions in the television world, but also from those in the real world. Your character has his own set of stats in the real world, separate from his combat stats, which show his social abilities: Courage, Diligence, Expression, Knowledge and Understanding. You raise these stats by spending your time in the real world doing various things. Studying in the library can raise your Knowledge stat, while talking to friends can improve Expression. Raising these stats is crucial to doing everything in the game because certain things can only be done if you have a specific level of a specific social stat. For example, earning the highest grade in school exams requires a maxed-out Knowledge stat and yields powerful items and tons of cash. The catch is that it's really quite hard to level up these stats and still leave time for other things. With a scant few exceptions, there is almost no way to raise these stats that doesn't take an afternoon or night, and since time is precious, you'll want to make sure you're getting the most for your effort. Without a guide, you probably won't max out all of your social stats in a single playthrough, at least not without sacrificing other things.
In addition to your social stats, your main character also has the ability to form Social Links, which are special relationships with certain characters in Inaba. By spending time with these people, you slowly help them overcome their problems and form a lasting friendship. While it's satisfying enough to help people in need, Social Links also have a rather concrete game purpose. Each level of a Social Link you complete earns bonus experience to any Persona you create of the same Arcana as that Social Link. The higher the level, the more experience you get, and maxing out a Social Link can unlock powerful new Persona.
All in all, the system in Persona 4 is very similar to the system in Persona 3, although there are a few minor changes. Your social stats now actually matter in your conversations. Having a high enough level in a specific social stat will unlock new dialogue choices, most of which tend to ensure that your friendship increases faster than regular choices. Social Links now have a purpose outside of enhancing your Persona's levels as well. Each party member in the game has his or her own excusive Social Link that you can raise just like a regular Social Link. However, in addition to getting the Arcana bonus, your party members also gain new abilities as the link increases. They'll gain the ability to perform additional attacks, heal status ailments, and even to endure an attack that would normally kill them. At the maximum level, the character's Persona changes, granting him new and improved elemental strengths and weaknesses.
As if all of the above weren't enough, you also now have weather to contend with. Each day of the year has its own weather: rainy, cloudy or clear. Weather can influence a number of things, but the entire game world changes on a rainy day. Most of your Social Links become unavailable, but new options are unlocked. Restaurants serve different food, you can catch different kinds of fish, studying improves your knowledge faster, and you can find rare enemies in the television world who drop uncommon materials, which are necessary for you to get new and better weapons. Many of the actions you can take on a rainy day are more effective than they would be on a regular day, but the cost is sacrificing the other potential options. In addition, rainy days herald the coming of a foggy day if you get multiple rainy days in a row. If you don't solve the current mystery before the rainy days, you're going to have to waste a potentially valuable stat-raising day in order to do so before game over.
Learning to balance your time in Persona 4 is the key to success. Every important action you can take in the real world, other than shopping, is going to take up an afternoon or evening. Your time is limited, and you have a lot to do before the next foggy day. You have to sack an afternoon timeslot, not an evening timeslot like in Persona 3, in order to venture into the game's dungeons, and since a large number of your activities can only be done during the day, that means planning your sojourns into the television world carefully. Spend too many days in there, and you're going to have to give up any chance at completing all Social Links, even with perfect planning. However, unlike Persona 3, finishing the television world in a single day isn't quite as easy.
The television world is a pretty different place than Tartarus (from Persona 3). Instead of a single giant randomly generated dungeon, the television world is divided into a number of smaller dungeons, each with its own unique design. Like Tartarus, the television dungeons are randomized, but unlike Tartarus, they're randomized daily instead of by floor. When you go into a dungeon, each floor of the dungeon is set until you leave the television that day. You can go up and down floors, leave and fuse some Persona, and then go back and find a treasure chest you left behind. Until you complete a dungeon, the game remembers the highest floor you've reached so you can return to it anytime, although the layout of the dungeon will still change every day.
While this may sound more forgiving than Tartarus, there are a few new wrinkles. First and foremost is the fact that your HP and SP don't regenerate when you leave the dungeon, like it did in Persona 3. Whatever damage you take or SP you use is spent until you somehow replenish it. This means it isn't wise to spam your best spells willy-nilly like it was in Persona 3, since you're working with more limited supplies. To replenish your strength, you can leave the television, which restores all of your stats but also advances the calendar, or you can pay the Hermit Social Link to restore your SP at a rather hefty cost. As the game progresses, it becomes easier to keep your SP up, but you still have to be cautious, especially since late-game enemies tend to use powerful spells to drain your SP. There are almost no exit portals in the television dungeons, so in order to leave, you either have to use an item, walk out yourself or reach the top floor, which contains an exit. If you're down to a sliver of health and no SP, walking down nine enemy-filled floors is a risky endeavor. You probably won't finish the earlier dungeons in a single day, although it's entirely possible to do the later ones in a single afternoon if you plan your tactics carefully.
The combat system in Persona 4 is a modified and improved version of the same one found in Persona 3. As with Persona 3, the game is built on working with the strengths and weaknesses of enemies, but this system has undergone a bit of a change. Hitting an enemy with an element to which they're vulnerable still knocks him down and gives you an extra turn, but enemies don't stay down this time. You have to hit the enemy with a spell (again, to which they're vulnerable) at least twice in order to dizzy them, which makes them lose a turn. However, you don't get an extra turn for dizzying enemies, so it isn't quite as easy to stunlock an enemy. The good news is that the same applies to your own party members, who now have the ability to guard against attacks. By sacrificing his own turn, a party member can guard, which weakens the effect of an enemy attack. While that alone would be useful, a guarding character is also immune to status ailments and won't be knocked down by his weakness. Mastering the guard move is crucial, as the strongest foes in the game love to target characters' weaknesses and use powerful charge attacks.
Perhaps the biggest change to the combat system comes from the fact that you can now control all four members of your party, instead of just the main character. You can issue direct commands, and the game is a lot more fun when you know that your allies won't waste their turns on a useless attack or fail to heal your main character in desperate situations. Even if the bosses tend to be a bit harder, the entire game feels much fairer since you're not depending on the AI's support. When you lose a battle in Persona 4 , it feels like it was your own fault and not because your ally decided do something stupid, and that makes a big difference in some of the game's more difficult fights.
The fights in Persona 4 are still quite difficult. They're not unfairly hard, but they're still going to test a gamer's abilities. The challenge comes both from navigating the dungeon and defeating the enemies that inhabit it, and by doing so with tactics efficient and smart enough to use a minimal amount of SP. This is made more challenging by a number of difficulty tweaks. For example, you no longer have a full Analysis ability like in Persona 3, which means that you can't see the enemy weaknesses right off the bat. Instead, you have to experiment with various attacks to figure out exactly what does and doesn't work on enemies. Considering your SP restraints, this can be a pretty hefty cost if you're not careful. The bosses are tougher than the lackluster Full Moon Shadows in Persona 3, although they don't quite reach the painful levels of the final boss from that game, and as mentioned above, they feel far more fair, even as they're kicking your rear end.
Persona 4 uses the same graphical engine as Persona 3, so you should have a fairly good idea of what to expect visually if you've played that title. With that said, much like every other element of Persona 4, it takes the building blocks of Persona 3 and improves upon it. The character animations are a bit more varied and smooth, the Personas have almost all been redesigned, and the town and dungeon design is far more visually interesting than the city in Persona 3. Perhaps my only complaint is that some of the Persona redesigns look a little silly, since many of them are based on the designs of the unreleased PSX Soul Hackers title, which had a much more "modern" look for most of the mythological creatures.
Persona 4's soundtrack is amazing. Almost all of the music is catchy, addictive and interesting, and some of the later dungeons made me leave the TV on while I did something else just so I could listen to the catchy beat in the background. While Persona 3's background music wasn't bad, Persona 4's blows it out of the water on almost every level. Likewise, the voice acting is almost all top-notch. A number of the characters absolutely hit it out of the park, and there are only a few characters who are bad, and that tends to come more from miscasting than a poor effort by the actor. There are a few clunkers, but they're not in important roles, with the exception of Margaret, who sounds like an intern reading from a script. The cast trips up a few times when reading Japanese phrases and names, but really, as far as RPG dubbing goes, Persona 4 is some of the best out there.
On the surface, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 may seem like a simple repackaging of Persona 3, but under the surface lies something more.Persona 4 is Persona 3, but better in perhaps every way. Everything — from the story to the combat system to the dungeon crawling and Social Links — has been improved. Considering that Persona 3 was already an excellent game, Persona 4 is a true standout. If you're an RPG fan who owns a PlayStation 2, you owe it to yourself to pick up this game. You won't regret it.
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