Persona 4: A Truly Proper Send-Off For The PlayStation 2
As an RPG series, Persona stayed relatively under the radar for much of its existence in the United States. It wasn't completely obscure per se, but you more likely than not were an RPG aficionado if you knew of it. But then 2007 came and the game's number three installment in all its head-shooting infamy placed the spotlight on the series on an international level for the first time. The game, despite its flaws, was able to live up to such a role and be forever ingrained in the PS2's history. Now it's 2008 and with the console on its very last legs in terms of major releases, Persona 4 has arrived to herald the end. And what a hell of an end it is, too.
The game begins simply enough. As the protagonist, your parents have moved abroad for the year, thusly forcing you to move in with your uncle Ryotaro and daughter Nanako. They happen to be without a wife/mother these days, but they nonetheless take you in without objections and make you as one of their own. The normalcy stops soon after, however, as a string of gruesome murders begin to appear in their town during foggy days and you discover you have the ability to enter a haunting world via televisions. It's an odd premise indeed, but it's also one that manages to hold your attention for the duration of the 50 to 60-hour adventure by being uniquely compelling in a way few RPGs manage. By the end, you'll have unraveled much more than just the identity of the murderer along the way, making Persona 4's tale one of the best in at least recent memory.
But thanks to a lack of direct canonical connections to Persona 3, it's easy to get into the game and its story and have a really great time. This is made possible primarily because of the cast, a group of people who actually do feel genuinely human in every respect. These are people who have flaws and, much like in real life, overcoming them is a necessity in their development. Some have good intentions coupled with delusions, while others have identity crises of various forms, including sexual, while still others haven't figured out their real reason for living. This is not a perfect bunch of teenagers by any stretch of the imagination, but watching them grow up is one of the many fascinating points in Persona 4's plot. Even the main character, as the new guy in town, has the chance to become whatever sort of person you see fit due to various attributes you can choose to emphasize in your daily activities. If you prefer to spend your nights studying, then chances are that you'll become more and more intelligent, perhaps even to the extent of being the smartest one in the class. Or if you're the type who would rather go off and pursue the ladies in your spare time, then doing bold and daring things can help develop the courage to ask them out. It's a system which, despite its simplicity, works really well and is tied into the game's socialization system, which is one of its most compelling aspects outside of battling.
Besides telling a great story, though, one of Persona 4's primary concerns is to rectify the mistakes of its prequel, a task at which, unlike a lot of sequels, it succeeds with flying colors. If you had any nagging problems with the previous game, chances are that it's been solved rather cleverly, leaving you with a game that is even better than the previous entry. The battle system has been refined to make things even more streamlined while still being highly strategic. You still have a system of strengths and weaknesses in place, but there are specific nuances which have been thrown in to make battles noticeably different than those found in Persona 3. The grinding problems are minimized with the help of constantly changing scenery and a good difficulty incline. But perhaps most significant of all is the major overhaul which Atlus has done to the Social Link system. Instead of simply using dating sim elements to enhance the creation of Personas, your spell-casters, they also logically affect the dynamics in battle you'll have with your teammates. Essentially, the better you get to know each of them over time, the more they'll help you out in fights. From taking fatal blows for you to stringing critical hits together to curing you of ailments, the new relationship factors make skirmishes really dynamic and fun. All of these changes plus a number of smaller ones are all incredibly intelligent and show that the development team took the time to examine what was wrong with the last game and make sure those same errors weren't repeated to the extent where it makes the previous game's mechanics look old and outdated by comparison.
The various aspects of the gameplay sound like a lot to take in and that's because it is. Thankfully, though, Persona 4 does a good job of familiarizing you with it all in case you weren't familiar with at least the basics from the previous game. For the battles, the game eases you into it with a few introductory sequences tied into the plot. These let you understand the fundamentals without being overwhelmed and thankfully you have the rest of the game to experiment with whatever fighting style suits you best. Since the difficulty curve doesn't ever ramp up dramatically, but rather at a nice, rational pace, there's a lot of time to figure out the deeper mechanics without rushing the learning process. As for the socialization portion of the game, it's largely intuitive enough where there isn't that much to figure out at all. As long as you satisfy the requirements for talking to the specific people, the most you need to worry about is what actions you'll take and how you'll speak when you spend time with them. It's all simple in practice, but since getting to know each person means learning about their individual lives on a more intimate level, the whole process of befriending them (or going beyond that in some cases) never gets dull. A lot of the quandaries they have are relatable, so helping them get through it all in one piece is actually very rewarding in and of itself.
But what makes the gameplay really compelling is how these two seemingly disparate elements, the battling and the socializing, are actually deeply intertwined to each other. Unlike Persona 3, the two actually have quite a harmonious marriage going on this time around. What's happening in one can deeply affect the other. You can't get away with neglecting the social part of the game since it gives each character more and more extremely useful options to help you out in battle. But conversely, you can't abandon battling either or else the characters won't grow and learn how not to be done in by their flaws. It's a union which naturally sounds difficult in theory to implement well, but Atlus does a great job of making it feel entirely natural in Persona 4 to equally emphasize both. You end up doing both simply out of a self-induced compulsion, rather than the typical coercion.
From a technical viewpoint, Persona 4 is solid as a PlayStation 2 game. Graphically, it's not a tour de force, but it's hardly ugly either. It employs a visual style which manages to have a lot of spunk and quirkiness, especially in the enemy designs, which are memorable in a way akin to Alice in Wonderland's twisted caricatures. The truly gorgeous art is to be found in the game's anime sequences which appear occasionally, however, as they're crafted with a quality that often exceeds what is seen online and in television. Likewise, the sound design is fine, but the voice actors are what truly shine. The job they do with dubbing their characters into English is great, with no one character being weak. Their delivery is much of what helps make these people seem real and bring a lot of personality that really make each one stand out even more than they already do. Opting out of playing this version of the game merely because of stereotypes associated with English dubs for once does a great disservice, as the quality on display in Persona 4 is outstanding.
Persona 4 is a special game for numerous reasons. While a lot of its gameplay is derived from 3, at the same time it makes that game largely irrelevent by making a lot of much-needed improvements to create the PlayStation 2's last great RPG. Additionally, it weaves a story rife with humanity that's definitely worth experiencing thanks to its deeply personal touches. What you have in the end is a package which is definitely a recommended purchase for even the most ardent non-RPG players, as Atlus has crafted a game which transcends the genres limitations. If you've been holding out on moving to the current generation of consoles, Persona 4's existence is its way of making such patience more than worthwhile. Nothing like it will probably come along again on the PlayStation 2 and it's that, along with so, so many other things that make Persona 4 really alluring.