The game starts with an opening cut-scene, with the news detailing a murder case, intermixed with you on a train and quick snippets of what looks like someone fighting for her life. It’s strange, it disrupts what is mostly a mundane train ride, but before any of this really matters, you’re in Inaba. It’s a quiet, rural town and a gruff, grizzled detective, your uncle Dojima, is there to greet you with his adorable daughter, Nanako. You’re going to be living with these guys. Your parents are too busy with business matters, so you’ve been sent out of the urban city to somewhere a bit dingy, but it has its appeal. You’re staying with family, after all.
And for the next two hours, Persona 4 becomes fully devoted in making you care about Inaba and the people that inhabit it. Key characters you’ll stick with through thick and thin are introduced, the murders briefly mentioned earlier becomes a driving plot point and then you’re suddenly jumping into a TV to save people from being potentially murdered all the while juggling school and general everyday life. Inaba’s become a bizarre place and you and your new friends are the only ones who can do anything about it. It's a calculated risk to force you to go through cut-scene after cut-scene, but after two hours of listening and watching while choosing the occasional and inconsequential dialogue option, Inaba's become something more than a hub with polygonal humanoids walking back and forth. It's town, a town with people worth caring about.
The game works like clockwork after its exposition. The day-by-day structure of school, dungeon crawling to save people, getting to know Inaba’s inhabitants, passing mid-terms and getting a job starts ticking. And when after a long day, you always return home by the evening, where you’re greeted with the always cheery Nanako. She seems to like that there’s company around here since her father is almost always out on super-important detective work. You live around around the weather, because after days of rain, fog settles in. Once that fog appears, it’s game over. You’ve failed to save the unfortunate and because of this, there’s a greater need to prioritize and your party members are much more proactive than they are in Persona 3 because of this weather pattern of death. Persona 4 is much, much more story and character-driven because of this. You won't have to wait an entire month waiting; you'll spend days with your newfound company trying to prevent the next kidnapping.
And it’s really these characters, these characters who will remain close to you throughout the entire game, that provides the most of Persona 4’s beating heart. You can always depend on Kanji to say something ambiguous to further question his true sexual orientation. You can always rely on Chie and Yosuke to always be at odds with one another. You can always expect Yukiko to laugh at something stupid, but her case of the giggles makes it funny anyway. You can always bet Nanako will greet you with a smile after a long day of dungeon crawling. These are well-rounded and very complete characters that, for me, have gone down as all-time favorites. They don’t go through dramatic shifts in their base personality through the game, but they will encounter situations that truly test them and you will be there to help them through it. In turn, they will support you in your time of need.
The ratio of cut-scenes compared to Persona 3 seems like it’s nearly 3 to 1, with a ton of them focused on the characters. The murder mystery is a good, solid tale, but with the game being this long, the mystery starts to wane with constant red herrings and “WAIT THERE’S ACTUALLY MORE TO THIS SURPRISE!!!”, before it suddenly kicks into high gear towards the end of the game. It’s how the characters react to sudden developments, not the technical details of the case that prove to be far more interesting. These developments hit on a personal level for both characters and yourself. So, yeah, what Persona 4's narrative is far more impressive than the gameplay, which consists of fun dungeon crawling combat and light sim elements mashed into a cohesive whole.
Though, the parts that you play are still great by any measure. Combat is easy to grasp and very complete. It’s turn-based and if you’ve played Persona 3, this is going to be very familiar territory. Exploiting elemental weaknesses is key, since it gives you an extra turn and puts the enemy in a downed state. Get all of them downed and you can go all-out in a fury of dust clouds and onomatopoeias as you and your party members bash the hell out of everything, delivering some epic damage.
You and your party are open to these exploitations too and that’s where personas come in. Summoning a persona is almost like tossing out a pokemon. You can collect them, change to a different persona on the fly, make them do what you want to do and even mash and fuse them together to get a new, stronger persona altogether. Each persona carries strengths and weaknesses that can be taken advantage. If the persona you’ve equipped is weak to electricity, then hope you won’t be hit by it, or maybe switch off to one that completely nullifies any damage from an electric attack.
They also define your major statistics. Leveling only grants you HP and SP bonuses and it’s your personas that make up deeper stats. How capable you are with brute strength, how much of a capable magic-user you are – these are defined by the persona you have equipped. All of this isn’t very complicated, but it isn’t unnecessarily bogged with a cavalcade numbers, either. It’s clear what stat influences what; it’s obvious what benefits so-and-so item has over the other. It never gets to the point where the numbers feel superfluous and decipherable only through the use of FAQs. Persona 4's most technical aspect is thorough, lean, satisfying and fun.
And then other half of the game, the sim part, weaves into the fabric of everything else nicely. Social links are the most prominent aspect of this side of the game. Besides the gameplay benefits of granting personas experience bonuses to newly fused personas, social links develop periphery characters outside of the critical plotline. You can even start social links with party members, which will grant them some extremely useful combat abilities. These do a great job of developing party members further, but the problem lies in how your social links with them don’t really tie into the main storyline. This is especially true when you decide to get a lovey-dovey with the anime chicks. Most cut-scenes are directed and written in such a way that they don’t seem neither completely oblivious nor astutely aware of your relationship with them. It’s kind of distracting, especially since they have a lot to say during social links conversations, but eh, it’s only kind of distracting.
All these seemingly disparate elements tie into a logical whole and nearly everything about the game has an undercurrent theme of identity. Every dungeon is representative of an aspect of the self of the kidnapped and the conclusion of every dungeon is usually wrapped up with the self-acceptance of that self. The same applies to social links. These people find who they really are and who they really want to be and while all of this sounds offensively pretentious, it’s presented in a straightforward and relatable manner. Everything in Persona 4 matters. Not just to meet the endgoal, but to take in these themes and observe them on your own.
Much of this is visually represented and Persona 4 is a good-looking game. Inaba looks appropriately lived-in and it’s full of character. The wooden slats of Yasogami High School, the jumble of telephone poles and wires crisscrossing the shopping district – it’s distinct and down-to-earth. Much of the visual pizzazz, though, comes from the game’s dungeons and combat. It’s when the game’s most artistically creative, and the enemy and persona designs scream cool/weird. Persona 4’s menus also deserve some mention, because it’s utterly gangster. Some of it could’ve been streamlined and there’s a lot of empty space that could’ve been used to relay some more information, but there’s a lot of polish, creativity and scintillating style in every single aspect of the game’s interface. Completely ballin’.
On the flipside, most cut-scenes use stock animation and rudimentary cinematography. This primitiveness is muted by the use of expressive character portraits and strong, strong voice-acting. Whoever directed these voices deserves some important accolade for being awesome at his job. This is an excellent localization and it sounds like very precise notes were given to all the actors. The rest of the audio fares well, too. The game’s soundtrack is excellent, but any sweet track can get tiring after listening to it for some 70 odd hours. Still, it’s a smooth, cool soundtrack and the lack of raspy rapping is a godsend. The battle tracks in particular standout, especially the one for the endboss. Oh man, oh man, I wish I could tell you more.
But you should play this game instead. Maybe you won’t finish it, you might not even like it, but at least you can tell me that I’m wrong and that you’re right. If you have a PS2 that’s ready and willing, feed it Persona 4. Buy it, borrow it from someone you know who has finished this game already. Just try it, even if you tried Persona 3 and didn't like it. This is a case where even though Persona 4 pretty much plays like Persona 3, it makes the right adjustments and brings a greater degree of focus that makes this game astronomically better than its predecessor.
This is easily the shortest long-game I’ve ever played. 80 hours never felt like 80. I wish this game kept going. I wanted to stay at Inaba just a bit longer, but longing for more is better than hoping it’ll end soon. Give this game an opportunity. Begin your adventure.