Atlus welcomes you to the Midnight Channel. My Darkzero review
When it comes to the Playstation 2, there hasn't being a company right now as loyal as Atlus. Most other companies have abandoned the Playstation 2 to put their games on the main systems that are on sale at the moment. Atlus on the other hand are still releasing console exclusive quirky Japanese games on the very successful Playstation 2. For that we have to give a big thanks to Atlus. I'm sure a lot of Japanese RPG fans are extremely happy for Atlus to still be sticking to the system, which in Japan has had a tremendous amount of RPGs. If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't be seeing as many as we would have liked crossing the border.
One of the most successful Atlus titles to be released in recent years was 2007's amazing Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, and the even better, in 2008, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES was released, which was a add on budget priced game, but for a bargain came with the FES remix version of Persona 3 as well. Following along in the footsteps of shooting yourself in the head to release your innersoles, Atlus made a brave decision to keep with the Playstation 2 for its next instalment of the Persona series. Persona 4 has arrived and I'm proud to say it is even better than its predecessor.
The thing with Persona 4 is that everything about it is an improvement over 3. It is like Atlus decided to get fans of the series into a room and ask them what their problems with the last game was. Persona 4 is a big thank you from Atlus to all the Persona 3 players.
Murder is the key aspect of the story in Persona 4. Also the setting has moved away from the busy streets of the city. The location is now a quiet rural town that goes by the name of Inaba, which is in the middle of nowhere. Shortly after the protagonist arrives to stay at his Uncle's house, you learn about "The Midnight Channel." It's a bizarre and surreal supernatural channel that appears at midnight on a rainy day. Set one year after the events of Persona 3: FES, Persona 4 has you investigating the deaths of two murders that erupt shortly after you arrive, and also the exploration of the midnight channel and its shadow inhabitants, talk about bad timing.
Your uncle, who is a detective at the police force in Inaba, is having trouble finding clues or any sort of leads in these peculiar murder cases. Here's where you come in. You soon figure out that the murders are appearing after Inaba is covered in fog, along with the fact the Midnight Channel is slowly revealing people each time it rains, which shows who is going to be murdered next. Meeting Teddie, a strange person who lives in the TV world, you bark on a journey to find out who really is trying to murder all these inhabitants of Inaba.
There's a lot of story introduced at the start of Persona 4. You don't get into the full swing of things until you've passed the two hours of plot. There's a lot of story to follow in these two hours. Once that is over though, you are ready to delve right into the game. The story itself is certainly unique and most of the time manages to keep away from any clichés you'll mostly likely be familiar with if you play RPGs. The story feels like a giant murder mystery and comes with plenty of surprises to keep the player fascinated. It's one of the weirdest stories you'll come across for a while but is extremely well written and should be praised for not settling for one of the usual cliché storylines. It's not always serious as well because certain parts of the game and its characters are put into action to supply some comical scenes. It mixes both well.
Atlus have used the familiar gameplay settings of Persona 3 for its building blocks of Persona 4, except now they come with plenty of enhancements. The day clock system is identical but now has the addition of weather to take into account. One of the two major gameplay elements of Persona 4 is dungeon exploration and quest completion. This also fits in with the time system as you can only do certain things at specific times. The same time periods are in effect as before. This means your day is filled with Mornings, Dinnertimes (depending if there's something to do then), After School and Evenings.
The main bulk of the dungeon exploration comes into the after school section. You no longer fight the shadows late at night like you did in Persona 3's Dark Hour. Instead you'll be entering the TV world after you get out of school. This makes for some design changes as you now have an evening free to do what you want. There's actually not that much to do in the evening, which is a bummer. You can't leave your house unless you have a job or to go fishing.
Jobs are a new inclusion in the Persona series. If you feel you don't have anything to do, you can use a job to gain yourself some extra spending cash. Also some of jobs available will open up new S. Links for you to try and max out (more on that later) or increase one of your character's stats. It's a shame you can't enter the TV world or hang out in town at evening as it would have relieved some of the stress of mismanaging your time. I guess the murders that are happening are a reasonable logic why you shouldn't go out late at night in the village of Inaba.
Dungeon exploration isn't as much of a primary focus as with Persona 3's Tartarus. Long gone is the mammoth towering 250+ floor Tartarus tower. Now the dungeons are actually in separate areas. Entering the TV world acts as the hub to the dungeon locations. Each dungeon is given a theme based around an inner secret of the character that is about to be killed by the murderer. The themes add much more variety to the designs of the dungeons, making them instantly more appealing than the different colours of the floors in Tartarus. The layout plan of paths in the dungeons is identical to the style of Persona 3. This means that entering the themed dungeon comes with randomly generated maps, unless the floor you on is a key focus in the story plot. The size of the dungeons are usually around 10 floors, which makes it far less of a challenge to work your way up to the top to fight the boss.
Supporting the refreshing dungeon themes are some of the weirdest boss fights you're going to see. Bosses are also based on the theme of the character that is trapped in the TV world. This leads to some extraordinary boss designs. One of my favourites is the erotic pole dancer that is decorated with psychedelic colours as she sexily dances up and down the pole. There's nothing to actually see on her, but the design is fantastic and fresh. Another one that comes to mind is the boss of the 8-bit RPG themed dungeon. That's got to be up there for one of the best unique takes on a boss battle so far, it's extremely amusing for old school JRPG players.
When someone gets kidnapped and taken to the TV world in the story. The game usually gives you around three weeks to get them back. You'll know when the date is coming up because it will be raining for a few days and the fog will stay heavy around the time they need to be saved. If you don't save them before the deadline then the game ends and you'll have to load up your save. The only problem with this is that if you beat the boss of the new dungeon that has opened up, the game goes into a time where the only other things to do is collect items or do social links. This is because the game won't continue with the plot until the three weeks has past. It kind of messes up with the game's flow of the story, but it's something that isn't a big problem as you can always find quests to do instead. It just shows how well the story is presented because you just want to hear more of the plot.
Persona 3 players will know that when you explored Tartarus you had the ability to return to the bottom floor and get yourself healed for no price, as long as your stamina could keep up, you would be fine to level up to your heart's content. This isn't the same in Persona 4 as stamina has been removed completely. Instead Atlus have opted for players to manage their time in the dungeons by the ability to be able to heal yourself using your spell points (SP). Once you've run out of spell points then you can try and rely on items to heal, but you won't have that many, also items that refuel SP aren't as easy to get as healing items. Because of this the players will have to waste a day to heal their points back by leaving the TV world. This is only until you get the Fox from the game's shrine area. The Fox, for an expensive fee, will heal your spell points so that you can contain through the game. The prices at the start are stupidly high. It's not until you've leveled up his S. Link that he becomes cheap enough for you to use frequently. It's a nice idea to replace the stamina concept, but at first it can seem frustrating when you don't want to waste a day spent on healing yourself because of your lack of SP. Thankfully if you plan ahead with a certain item that can warp you in and out of dungeon levels, then it will make life that bit much easier.
Social links are the other half of Persona 4. These will take up the rest of your bulk of time during the days and weeks in Inaba. These have also improved over Persona 3. The Protagonist now has five stats instead of three to improve throughout the game. Stats include Courage, Diligence, Expression, Intelligence and Understanding. These need to be improved to access certain dialogue requirements. Jumping a class with a girl might require you to have courage of level 4 or higher, because only the hardcore dare skip a lesson of education to go shopping with some girl who takes your fancy while she abuses your money.
This fits into trying to create new S. Links with characters and with your party members. Atlus have given you more than just a character's back story this time as a reason why you'll want to level up your team mates S. Link. Your companions will now learn certain battle skills at selective levels. For example a level 5 S. Link for your team mate will give that person the ability to help a fellow member in battle up if he's been knocked down. Level 10 is obviously the one you want to go for as the Persona for that character will evolve. Unlike Persona 3, the Personas in 4 do not evolve due to the story, but to the maximum leveling up of the S Link. This gives the incentive to actually want to hang with your team mates rather than go for random characters that you liked, as you would in Persona 3. That doesn't mean that if some hot school chick sticks out for you that you have to ignore her, you're still free to try and get her into your love cave.
Arcana tarot cards are still assigned to S. Link characters. This means the higher the level, the more the Persona linked to those arcana will benefit when you are creating new Personas in the velvet room. There are new Personas featured in 4 and some old ones have also had a redesign. You'll come about getting new ones by either fusing them or finding them from the shuffle time mini game.
Personality contains the word persona and that is an area where Persona 4 shines. The townsfolk of Inaba make up a collection of admirable characters. There's a wide cast of personalities. Ranging from a young famous pop star idol all the way up a guy who secretly doesn't know what sexual orientation he is. Each character shines and will no doubt leave a mark on you as you discover what makes them tick. They are well developed and in some instances you really feel for them when they are going through hardships. The S. Link system has been refined and it shows that it is a good way of getting to really know the characters in Persona 4. It's one of the key aspects of what makes playing Persona 4 so good, the characters add that much to this game.
One drawback to the S. Links system is that it doesn't appear to have an effect on the main story. Say you're dating one of your team mates, then you decided to be evil and go behind her back with another one of your team mates, it's ok to do that as you won't get a cat fight between the two. They'll just act as if nothing has happened and continue along all happy, which in reality for that to happen would be one of the most bizarre things for any human to witness.
There will be plenty of shadows to fight off and the improved features over Persona 3's battle system make it all that easier for the player. Persona 3 only allowed you to control the main character. This meant the AI would be making the moves for the other three characters in the squad. Most of the time this was fine, but occasionally the AI players wouldn't do exactly what you wanted at the right time. Atlus have corrected this and allowed full control over all party members. The option of AI is still there but it should never be switched on. The battle system works much more to your advantage if you control all four members of your squad.
Knocking down your opponents by using an attack they were weak to added extra hits for your party in Persona 3, even better was knocking them all down to get an "All out attack." The refinements to the battle system mean that you can knock the enemy down; unlike Persona 3 however they will get back up the next turn instead of missing a round. This is due to you having to hit the enemy again with the weakness to stun them. Stunning them helps you make inflict more damage as you get to take another shot on the enemy. They take extra damage but you can't keep them stunned as the next turn they will get up regardless and have a hit at you. This also applies to your team members, so you need to be careful to protect against your character's weaknesses.
One of the best improvements though is down to the Personas themselves. It was quite annoying in Persona 3 how you couldn't view an understanding of the skills in battle, so if you hadn't learnt the moves in your head, you was kind of stuck figuring out what it does. It was also the same when you were using the shuffle time card game at the end of a fight. Using it to get the Persona you want was the easy part, but you couldn't check the skills to see exactly what attacks it could do. It was heavily based on you memorising all of them. Persona 4 solves this by allowing you to press the square button to bring up an explanation of the skill attached to the Persona. This can be done in battle, in the general menu or when picking your personas up in the card mini game that appears after fights. It helps so much more and is an extremely thankful inclusion.
The last bit that needs to be pointed out is how travelling has dramatically decreased. A simple press of square allows you to bring up a side bar with locations in the area you are in to quickly jump to another spot. It saves a lot of time in pointless travelling.
Inaba itself has a few areas that are travelled to merely by selecting the location on the city map. They aren't that many areas to visit, but in those spots are all your most valuable places. These include book shops, item shop, weapon shop and a special door to the velvet room where you can use the area to create new Personas. Daidara's weapon shop flogs you weapons if you collect parts in the dungeon to sell to him. Each new item you pick up will usually create something new to sell; this is also an easier way to get cash after a good stretch in the dungeon collecting items from enemies. Also the girl in the velvet room no longer hangs out quests anymore. Atlus have gone down the more traditional root with Persona 4 and this requires you to speak to people that require jobs doing for them. Speaking to the right guys enables the quest for you to precipitate in, no longer withheld by time periods like in Persona 3, so you can do the quests at your own pace.
Music has to again get a special mention. I don't know how Shoji Meguro does it, but every time he creates a soundtrack he manages to make it even better than his last work. The soundtrack in Persona 4 is full of catchy tunes. Plenty of times I've caught myself tapping and singing along to the battle theme. It's not just the battle theme that features lyrics now too. General dungeons have lyrics sung by Japanese artists in a mixture of Japanese and Engrish. The music leans more towards jazz rock j-pop rather than the hip-hop inspired tunes from 3. It's a soundtrack worth owning for all you game music enthusiasts.
Voice acting is also exceptional. Characters have high quality voice actors that most of the time hit the right delivery on lines. There are occasions when you might not expect them to say something the way they did, but overall it's one of the better voice acted games on the system. There's also plenty more dialogue spoken than in Persona 3.
Yellow is the colour of Persona 4. From the game's cover to the menu, options screen, and the TV World, you'll be seeing yellow everywhere. The visual style feels much more alive with the brighter colours and rural setting. Artistically it's up there at the top with the big boys. Everything from characters all up the way to the design of dungeons and enemies. There isn't anything else like it and you'll only encounter enemy déjà-vu if you've played Persona 3. You can tell Atlus have used the same graphics engine that Persona 3 used. The animations are roughly the same and improvements are minimal. It's the artistic colour palette that makes it look a tad better than its ancestor.
Just like this review, Persona 4 is a very long game. Expect the game clock to be finishing around the 80+ hour mark. Most of it will keep you entirely entertained from beginning to end. Doing all the quests and fusing every Persona will take you forever. There's even a Persona you cannot get till you play your second time through using the game's new game+ mode. The social links also add to the incentive to give the game another go after completion since you keep all your five personal stats when you start. This means you can access S. Link answers that weren't allowed the first time round because you didn't have the acquired skill. There's plenty game for your cash here.
Simply put Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 is an excellent Japanese role playing game. The improvements are just exactly what the game needed to progress forward. It looks more stylish, plays better, superior dungeon designs, more interesting characters with improved social links and overall is just a better game than Persona 3. It's one of those games that when you finish you get a tear in your eye because it was that good. It feels like you knew the characters and the world. That is a massive achievement to accomplish. It's not perfect, but then again what is? Persona 4 is exceptional. It does have some problems with pacing after you've saved people and you're waiting for the next story scene, but it's not enough to damage the game.
Persona 4 is the Playstation 2's new king of JRPGs and is awesome sending off for the system. Every single man, woman and child who has any interest in the story or has even the tiniest interest in the RPG genre has to check it out. So don't be frightened, get buying the game and learn to jump into those TVs because the midnight channel is certainly not as scary as it first seems.