Monday, September 22, 2014
PS2 review: Persona 4
It’s the start of a new school year, and a high school student has moved to the small town of Inaba to live with his uncle Dojima, a local detective, and young cousin Nanako. Shortly after his arrival, this high schooler learns of a few odd happenings around Inaba. First is the Midnight Channel, a static-laden television broadcast that seems to display the faces of certain locals on rainy nights as the clock strikes twelve. Second is a series of murders that, while involving victims who were seemingly unrelated, may be connected through their faces appearing on the Midnight Channel prior to their deaths. After making a few friends among his classmates, this newcomer decides to investigate the murders, utilizing a newfound ability to enter a world behind the television screen and call upon the Arcana powers of Personas.
The ability to utilize multiple Personas and their varying powers and skill sets is what sets the player-controlled protagonist apart from his comrades – you, the player, are able to adjust your own play style on the fly. You are only able to take three others with you into any given dungeon crawling session, and while some are better suited as healers, physical fighters, or stat boosters, each tends to specialize in at least one type of magic. In the case of Yukiko, her Persona hits foes with fire attacks and can also heal up party members, while Kanji is more focused on physical attacks at the cost of some lost HP, as well as electric attacks and a couple of boosts to your party members’ stats. In order to best compliment the offerings that your companions bring to the fight, you will need to visit the ethereal plane of the Velvet Room and fuse Personas that you collect from defeating enemies. Each Persona is attributed to a different symbol of the Arcana, such as Death, the Tower, the High Priestess, the Hierophant, the Chariot, the Lovers, and so forth. Building up your social links in-between your dungeon crawling sessions is key to earning experience bonuses when fusing these Personas and granting your allies a greater range of abilities in battle.
Maxing out every social link in a single playthrough is impossible, so it’s up to your own discretion in determining which social links you wish to pursue. Those associated with jobs and tasks around town typically take less time to complete, though the bonuses earned from your party members’ social links are always more significant, making the extra time it takes to complete them all the more worthwhile. Social links with some of the female party members and classmates can also open the door to romantic pursuits, though these are not necessary and you can opt to remain as friends – it will simply prompt altered and extra dialogue segments after you have cemented an intimate relationship.
With the option to participate in sports and school clubs, take up part-time jobs, spend time fishing, tutoring, and so on, no two playthroughs will be quite the same. The large amount of downtime in-between dungeons is one of the elements that sets Persona 4 so far apart from many of its JRPG contemporaries. Which of these tasks you decide to take up will boost your skills in Understanding, Diligence, Courage, Expression, and Knowledge, and jobs will net you extra cash depending on how devoted or focused you are. Meanwhile, the dungeon exploration segments are reminiscent of some of the older Final Fantasy titles, with multiple sprawling floors of interconnected chambers and hallways, and enemies that become tougher the higher you climb. While the earliest of dungeons are host to classic fantasy aesthetics, later locales includes a sauna, an anime-style secret base, and a metaphysical 8-bit video game.
Each dungeon concludes with a challenging boss fight, though each boss has a relatively predictable pattern of attacks, buffs, and defensive options. While these could not be more different from one boss encounter to the next, you may find that being beaten the first time you attempt to take on one of these powerful foes will grant you a more solid plan of attack with the next attempt. Later dungeons include a mid-dungeon miniboss encounter, while every dungeon includes two kinds of chests – small chests, which often contain health and magic-replenishing items, and golden chests, which must be opened with keys that are sometimes earned from fallen enemies. These golden chests often contain weapons or armor, as well as rare and valuable materials for crafting at the local metalsmith.
Persona 4’s approach to the dungeons is highly unorthodox, as it is not required that you complete each dungeon in a single attempt. Rather, you can tackle any given dungeon over the course of multiple days (or multiple weeks, even). The only risk you run of seeing a ‘game over’ screen is if you do not reach the end of a dungeon by the time heavy rain and the fog that follows are to set in, which would effectively see to the death of whoever has been thrown into the television world at that time due to the enemy shadows growing overly powerful.
However, Persona 4 suffers from an archaic save system, in that the only places you are able to save the game are the hubworld area within the Midnight Channel, and the final floor preceding each dungeon’s boss fight. And while it would be fine and dandy to save after you’ve cleared each and every floor of each dungeon, the amount of money you would waste on the Goho-M items which warp your party back to the dungeon entrance would prove ludicrous in the long run. This certainly adds an old-school RPG challenge factor to the combat-heavy portions of the game, but it can also be quite frustrating, especially in the earlier dungeons when you have a less concrete idea of how tough the enemies that lie in wait ahead are going to be.
When you do square off against enemy Shadows, it is important to learn what sorts of attacks each is weak to, as well as what your own Personas a weak against. Hitting an enemy with whatever they are weak to will net you both a critical hit and an immediate bonus strike to either finish them off or to focus your efforts on another enemy on the field. Ocassionally, your allies will request to perform a strong physical attack, which will always end in a critical hit. These criticals, as well as the ones earned from exploiting an enemy’s weakness, will cause them to fall down. If all foes in a fight have fallen, your party can then band together to pile on in a cartoonish cloud of dust and sound effect symbols, dishing out a heaping helping of damage that frequently finishes those enemies off.
After your newest ally faces their shadow self at the conclusion of a dungeon, they will begin to open up to you about their insecurities and personal struggles. For some, these are more commonplace pressures of feeling the need to please family and friends, or adhere to certain expectations that others have for them. In a few cases, the game takes a very twenty-first century approach to deconstructing characters by exploring their confusions regarding sexuality and their own gender identities. Persona 4 does a magnificent job of tackling these in a pointed manner while still maintaining its often cartoonish and comedic routine, which goes a long way in advancing classic staples of the JRPG subgenre, hand-in-hand with the highly-creative dungeon designs and emphasis on non-combat subplots and game mechanics.
While Persona 4 does well to consistently deliver generally high quality and quantity for the sum of its parts, the endgame stretch does fall victim to a streamlining process that robs the experience of some of its quirky spirit as well as the previously high degree of interactivity and player freedom. The last few hours of the game effectively become a series of pre-scripted dialogue sequences, some of which can result in a ‘bad ending’ cutscene if selected improperly. The motives for key individuals will also likely leave a great number of devotees disappointed, given how uninspired and plain stupid they are both in the context of the game world and as general driving forces for character development were they to be applied to a story in any other medium. That said, most of the party members weave stories that pan out in rewarding manners, so while the experience does see some significant falters later on, the journey taken there is, by and large, an excellent modernized spin on the fundamentals of classic JRPGs.
My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)