Release Date: December 9, 2008
Persona 3 was probably the finest RPG to hit in the last year, and it managed to get almost everything right. It had a story line that is one of the few RPG plots that could be called "deep," hitting the right mixture of obscure symbolism and relatable characters to make it easy to understand on both simple and deeper levels. The gameplay was challenging while being fun, simple while offering a wide variety of options, and it was just an overall solid game. Persona 3 FES simply expanded on the already high-quality game with extra features and improvements that made things even better. Persona 3 came out in the U.S. pretty close to the end of the PS2's life cycle, and while it was surprising to hear that Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 had been announced for Japanese release, the odds looked slim for an American release, with the next generation of consoles already over a year old. Thankfully, Atlus continues to prove that they understand exactly what hardcore gamers want, and they announced that the U.S. is getting Persona 4 this December, only a few months after the Japanese release.
Persona 4 opens up a few years after the events in Persona 3's good ending. Your main character, a nameless young man who is separate from the hero in Persona 3, has been sent to live with his uncle in the small rural town of Inaba. He attends Yasogami High School and appears set for a boring, rustic life until the events of the misty days. Every misty day, a new murder occurs, committed by an unknown and possibly supernatural force. The only clue to these murders is Mayonaka TV, a television channel rumored to show the murder victims shortly before they die. The hero and two of his friends witness the latest murder on their respective televisions and discover that it is actually possible to enter the televisions. Inside, they find a mysterious world covered by mist and inhabited by the mysterious creatures called Shadows. In order to solve the mystery of the murders, they will need to unlock the power of their Persona, a magical spirit shaped by their personalities, and the only weapon capable of effectively battling the Shadows.
The heroes in Persona 4 are not a team of superhuman warriors funded by a shadowy organization like in Persona 3. They're actually a group of (mostly) normal kids who get swept up into the situation, and they tend to react like it. It's quite a good way to keep a similar cast to Persona 3 without making it feel like a cheap retread. It was utterly satisfying to watch the group's first encounter after entering the television world, where they proceeded to handle it like, well, teenagers. When they chose to go back in, they grabbed golf clubs and tennis rackets and tied ropes to themselves, expecting to be pulled out. They meet at a local juice bar instead of in a secret privately owned dorm, and the entire thing gives the game a much-needed sense of separation from the Persona 3 cast.
Your main character in Persona 4 is quite similar to the main character in Persona 3. He has no name, never speaks, and everything about him is defined by what you do in the game. He retains the ability to switch between Persona at will, but can only equip two-handed swords, not the wide variety of weapons that the Persona 3 main character could equip. However, like the Persona 3 main character, his primary ability is the power to form Social Links, which are functionally unchanged from Persona 3. You meet various characters scattered throughout the city, both party members and NPCs, and build up friendships with them. The primary change to Social Links comes from the fact that your hero in Persona 4 has five, not three, social statuses that he can build up: Courage, Perseverance, Tolerance, Communication and Intelligence. As an example, Courage can be improved by eating strange foods, working part-time at a hospital or fighting optional bosses. Building up these stats is important because an improved social stat allows you to talk to people you couldn't before, and some options are only available if your character has a certain social level.
The town itself is not too different from the city in Persona 3, and there is a wide variety of locales to explore. Similar to Persona 3, the game has a calendar that keeps track of each day of the year, but Persona 4 also keeps track of the weather, due to the aforementioned misty day murders. Different weather causes different events; some people may only be accessible during nice weather, or certain events in dungeons may only occur when the weather is nasty. Some shops offer discounts on rainy days to drive up business, and you may find it easier to build up your Knowledge stat in the library on a nasty day when nobody will be around to bother you. The weather is a major part of Persona 4, and it's important to decide exactly which days are best to spend inside televisions and which days to spend in the real world. Since the clock continues to count down to the next murder, you must be careful not to waste too much time, or you may find yourself unable to stop a grisly death, which is an instant game over.
Beyond the weather system, traveling around the city has been made much easier in Persona 4. Pressing the Square button at any time allows you to warp to any "screen" of that particular area of the city, drastically cutting down on the time required to reach certain areas. Save points are more common as well, instead of being limited to the single save space inside your dorm, so you can experiment and wander around a bit more without being forced to waste a day or reload a much earlier saved game.
All of the Persona 3 staples have returned, from the item shops to the restaurants and Igor's Velvet Room, all of which should feel quite familiar to fans. The Velvet Room has indeed undergone a bit of a change. Igor has moved out of his ever-rising elevator and into a posh limo, and his former sidekick Elizabeth has been replaced by Margaret, who is similar but different. He still performs the same basic functions as he did in Persona 3, such as fusing your personas together, which allows you access to new and more powerful Persona at the press of a button.
However, Persona fusion has a new wrinkle. Certain days of the year, depending on the weather and time, have the chance of allowing you to perform a Forecast Fusion. By completing certain requirements when performing a fusion, you may receive a Forecast Fusion bonus. For example, one of the earliest Forecast Fusions requires you to use a Magician Arcana persona as part of a fusion. Doing so bestows the fusion product with the Zio spell, which can be quite handy. Other bonuses include improved stats or even an increased chance for certain special effects, and those seeking the best possible Persona may want to wait a day or two and see if the Fusion Forecast is more favorable. Beyond this new feature, things are fairly similar. The Persona Compendium returns to allow you to repurchase favorite Persona, and Margaret will make requests from you, not unlike Elizabeth.
Gone is the Tartarus dungeon from Persona 3, and its replacement is actually a group of smaller dungeons located inside televisions. Television dungeons are semi-randomized but don't repeat in the same way that Tartarus did; each floor remains in the exact same form until you defeat the boss of that particular dungeon, at which point it resets. The dungeons are a bit more complex and different, though. Doors now block your view of certain areas until you open them, risking an ambush. There are no longer any Access Points in the dungeon, and the only way to escape is to use an item, walk out manually, or find the save point before the boss, which functions as a save point/checkpoint. Finally, and most importantly, you don't recover health and SP at the first floor of any of the television dungeons. Your stores remain depleted until you heal it with items, leave the television and sleep, or pay a rather greedy character to heal you up for an atrocious amount of cash. Since leaving the television wastes the rest of your day, you want to make the best possible use of your health and SP, or else you're going to find yourself with one fewer day to spend on Social Links and one day closer to the next murder. Since each dungeon is populated by bloodthirsty Shadows, it's important to keep a level head.
While battling Shadows in Persona 4 may seem pretty similar to the fights in Persona 3, they've actually switched things up a bit. While the game defaults to the same AI controls that Persona 3 had, it's possible to switch the tactics to manual control, which allows you to give direct orders to each member of your party. This slows down combat a bit, but is absolutely essential when you consider some of the new twists to combat and the new abilities your party members have. Keep in mind that while these party members are completely controllable, they can't switch Persona like the main character. Perhaps the best part about manual control comes from the new Guard feature. In Persona 3, you could skip your turn, but it had no real benefit other than preventing you from attacking during a period when attacking had no upside at all. In Persona 4, you can now choose to guard against attacks, which has two very important advantages: It decreases the damage characters take from attacks, and it stops attacks from hitting Elemental Weaknesses, which can be a lifesaver in some difficult battles.
In addition to controlling your teammates, they may act on their own sometimes, depending on how they feel about the main character. Unlike Persona 3, where only the female members of your team had a Social Link, Persona 4 allows you to establish one with any character on the squad. The benefits of improved ally Social Links increase as the link grows stronger. For example, a character with a level-one Social Link will knock your main character out of the way of a fatal attack and take the attack themselves, leaving them with 1 HP, but saving you from a game over. At your link advances, they may gain new attacks, help your hero instantly recover from being knocked down, fight beyond their HP limits, and the coup de grace comes in the form of a maxed-out Social Link, which gives the character an upgraded Persona with better abilities and elemental strengths! This even works for Rise, who replaces Fuuka Yamagushi as the non-combat member of your team and gains very useful map-based abilities as her Social Link improves.
Elemental Weaknesses return from Persona 4, but they've changed a bit as well. The six elements (Dark, Fire, Ice, Light, Lightning and Wind) return basically unchanged, but physical skills have now been reduced to a single "Physical attack" attribute instead of the three separate attributes in Persona 3. This makes it much easier to defend against enemy physical attacks, but much harder to damage phys-immune enemies. As in Persona 3, hitting someone with his weakness knocks him down and grants an extra turn to the person who used the attack. Knock down all enemies at once, and you gain an All-Out Attack that ignores any defenses and does massive damage.
Persona 4 uses a similar system, but diverges from its predecessor in the details. In Persona 3, anyone who was knocked down lost his next turn, and intelligent use of knockdowns allowed you to keep certain enemies permanently stunned. Such is not the case in Persona 4. Hit an enemy's weak point and he will fall down, but he will instantly get up during the next turn. To keep an enemy down, you have to hit that weakness again, which puts the enemy into a stunned status and causes him to skip the next turn. Hitting a knocked-down enemy's weakness doesn't give you an extra turn, so you can't simply stun every enemy on-screen without trying. The good news is that All-Out Attacks only require an enemy to be knocked down, not stunned, so as long as you're careful, you can devastate enemy ranks with smart spell selection.
Enemies are a bit nastier in Persona 4; they tend to hit a bit harder and have a few special attributes that show up much earlier than they would have in Persona 3. Since recovering HP and SP isn't as easy as in the previous title and knocking down enemies requires a lot more investment of resources, it can be a tough to deal with enemies on their own. To make matters worse, you can't depend on Rise to instantly identify enemy weaknesses for you either. Instead, your Analyze ability now shows you the effect of spells that you've already used on that enemy. To discover weaknesses and strengths, you'll have to do a bit of experimentation. The fights themselves are not that much harder, but ensuring that you defeat enemies without wasting all of your HP and SP is going to require some serious forethought. It's also much harder to sneak up on Shadows on the dungeon map, and you'll find yourself earning a Player Advantage on enemies more infrequently than in Persona 3.
Even the prizes you receive from battle have changed. Shadows in Persona 4 now drop money regularly, so you don't have to play the Shuffle Time minigame to win cash, but they now drop smithing items instead of weapons. Similar to Atlus' own Etrian Odyssey, you take these items to the local blacksmith and sell them, and in exchange, he'll occasionally be able to create new weapons and armor for your team. Shuffle Time retursn, although in a modified format. Instead of the different types of cards in the original, you now have three kinds of cards: a Persona, a blank card and a Void card. Persona cards, as in Persona 3, give you a new Persona to play with, blank cards give you nothing at all, and Void cards are dangerous, since they remove all of your bonuses from that skirmish, so you won't get any money, EXP or Personas. The manner in which the cards are chosen has also changed, requiring you to play different minigames to select the correct card instead of simply asking you to follow a card.
Graphically, Persona 4 is pretty much indistinguishable from Persona 3. It uses a few different camera angles and some of the graphics are a little cleaned up, but it's pretty clear that Persona 4 is running on the same engine as Persona 3. However, artistically, Persona 4 is in a whole different league. Persona 4 has a very strong color motif, with each character having his or her own iconic color and dungeons and locations being populated by lots of greens, yellows and reds, as opposed to the more city-like colorings found in Persona 3. This is to be expected, considering the difference in location, but it also extends to the dungeons, which each have their own theme and coloring instead of the near-identical floors of Tartarus. It's difficult to get used to the much brighter colors, but they work exceedingly well for the game.
On the surface, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 is a pretty similar game to Persona 3, but once you dive into the system, you'll see that there have been a lot of changes. They may not appeal to everyone, but I can't imagine many gamers who are upset at the chance to tell their allies to use a Dis-Charm instead of wailing in frustration as they insist on healing themselves. The murder-mystery plot is deeply interesting and adds a much greater feeling of tension than the Persona 3 full moons, and the revamped dungeons provide a fairly interesting area to explore. Combining this with all the features that made Persona 3 great, I can't imagine why Persona 4 would be anything but a worthy addition to the franchise.
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