Persona 4 review
plodding but yet oddly addicting and lovable
Persona 4 is the kind of game that sort of goes all over the place and tries to be many things at once. It tries to be a JRPG with a murder mystery story, a dungeon crawler with a somewhat quirky rock-paper-scissors system, a visual novel and a high school student life simulator. That's quite a lot to try and be. The problem is that it honestly feels like two games haphazardly put together with sticky tape and glue sticks. As a result, the flow of one game constantly gets interrupted or slowed down by the flow of the other game. For a while, I never understood the appeal because I can go and play RPGs and visual novels with more depth and grace in its execution. It has all the makings of being a mediocre game as its dungeons start to run together, its enemies are mostly inconsequential and used only for grinding, and the visual novel aspects are threadbare.
It's also insanely addicting.
Due to its simplicity and fun albeit melodramatic and – at times – borderline pseudo-intellectual script, Persona 4 can grab you by the scruff of your neck and keep you playing, even if you probably have better shit to do. This is especially worrying since the game is about 80-120 hours long. If you plan on playing Persona 4 and you have a tendency to play video games for a long time, I'd advise investing in a shock collar that sets off after a few hours so you don't wind up being a drooling zombie for over 24 hours with a Dualshock 2 (or worse, a Playstation Vita) in your hands. Seriously, you'd have to wonder how a story about finding a killer constantly interrupted by a story of some guy moving to a new town living like a high school Casanova is interesting to anybody who isn't some basement dwelling cretin... until you find that the script is contains enough sugary melodrama and super happy fun times to keep you playing – and hey, Atlus aren't above shoving basic level philosophy in there to make the player think that they're smart.
Now, usually for both an RPG and a visual novel to work, you'd need good characters, right? Well, yeah! Unfortunately, it seems like Persona 4's characters go back and forth between good and bad. They're good because they have a fair amount of depth to them, having realistic flaws and problems related to their age and the fact that it all takes place in a small town. Big teenage problems like sexual orientation, gender roles and finding your place in life are prevalent throughout these interactions. Unfortunately, it's the only thing that you'll get out of their interactions for the most part. Granted, the high, high amounts of melodrama on display here can be delectable at times, but at other times, it just keeps *bleep*ing force feeding you well past the point of having had enough. The Social Links haven't much personality to speak of either, which just further makes the interactions feel bloated, even if each individual interaction is about 5-10 minutes long. After a while, you just wind up wishing these guys would have some personality to go with their problems – the Persona 3 Social Links did!
It's kind of weird with the main characters as opposed to the Social Link-exclusive ones. It's one thing with somebody like Yumi – her daddy issues are just a big part of a character whose main involvement is in strengthening recently fused Personas of the Sun arcana. It's another thing with somebody like Chie gets half of her character development done during the visual novel portion while there's not much to be done during the main plot. Sure, you fight her Shadow version in the Midnight Channel and her Shadow version is an exaggeration of her biggest character flaw (mainly that she controls Yukiko out of jealousy), but after that? We're back to how she was before, which is being bright and upbeat. It's not as if the characters are terrible or unlikeable – they're just flat outside of their main arc, not really showing any signs of character development during the main plot. Their development during their arcs are fairly well done if really ham fisted, but after that, they're back to their basic personality. Keep in mind, the visual novel bit is a bit more optional than you think. I mean, it's a really really good idea to rank up your Social Links so that you can fuse together stronger Personas, but you don't have to do this. Persona 3 did this a lot better by having the characters develop during cutscenes throughout the game; I guess because now that the main characters have their short arcs and Social Links that they can skimp out on this. Nah, that's lazy Atlus.
I will say that at least the main characters are fun as the way their one note personalities interact with one another at least gel well together to make some fun filled situations. It's the Social Link-exclusive characters that are mostly bland and boring. Just thought I'd clear that up.
I will say, though, that this game starts off with a bang. It establishes the setting, the objective, the characters and the gameplay within the first five hours. The idea of being a high school kid who's playing detective solving a murder mystery involving an alternate dimension while the police scramble around looking for clues is one that makes you wonder exactly where they'll go with any of these ideas next, and that's what a beginning is meant to do. This is especially where the addiction kicks in because *bleep*, if a game can set up such an intriguing premise with fun filled characters that may or may not have complexities to them (which they kind of do) whilst being about a mystery, you damn well want to see what else this world has to offer and you really want to stop these murders so that everything can be sunshine and flowers. But I get the feeling Atlus were aware of exactly what would happen, because for a long time, not much really happens besides the introduction of a couple of new characters and more Social Link stuff. It's not until maybe the 30th or so hour that there's something resembling a plot twist. That is shit pacing, guys. Then we're all having super happy fun time until a number of hours later when there's yet another plot twist and then a few hours later, things get really grim. Thankfully, that's about the point where the main story takes precedence since we're getting closer to concluding it anyway.
Christ, I know bipolar people who have better control of their mood swings. But let's be real – this game has a lot of fat that needs trimming. When you're playing a game and you spend most of the first thirty hours wondering when the story will escalate beyond a few character arcs, you know for a fact that this is going to be a long *bleep*ing game. One that drags on for hours and hours. That is seriously the biggest issue with this game – too much *bleep*ing dilly dallying. Honestly, getting rid of the social sim aspect would make the game flow better. Trust me, most of the fun is found during the main story anyway, especially the middle and especially whenever Adachi appears on screen as he's that bumbling cop who accidentally spills the beans on private cop stuff. The game will still be long as shit, there's still plenty of light hearted shenanigans with dramatic bits here and there – everyone wins, right? All the philosophical stuff about being true to yourself will still get to be hammered into your head. I mean, you won't spend as much time with your cousin and uncle, but oh man, it'll feel a lot more tightly paced. If anything, having more scenes with the family during the game will allow you to develop more of a thing for them. I don't know, it's just Atlus' insistence on slapping two game styles together and calling it a game without considering a way to meld them together properly. Here's hoping Persona 5 does a better job of it all.
Then again, this is the kind of game that prides itself on time management rather than meaningful events (outside of dungeons). As in, you have to manage your time interacting with your mates, doing activities like eating the big beef bowl and fishing to raise real world stats, and working part time jobs to get some more money and increase real world stats. Oh, and read books at night, eat something in the fridge that may or may not send you straight to the bathroom, and do the nighttime Social Links. But to start up certain Social Links or work certain jobs, you need to have high enough or even maximum stats in certain areas. Starting up other Social Links also require you to get far enough in certain Social Links, really requiring you to figure out who to hang out with each day. Keeping in mind that you can only do one action per afternoon and night and that certain events are available only on certain days, it really forces you to make the right choices if you want to get the most out of your first run. It almost makes up for the fact that a lot of these events really boil down to answering some questions and pressing the X button. Almost.
Oh, and a trip to the Midnight Channel takes up an entire afternoon, so think before going. The RPG part isn't quite perfect, but it's fairly good. A lot of the dungeons are very similar to one another; just a series of paths with enemies and treasure chests. The only things separating them from one another are the looks, music, enemies and bosses. True, a lot of RPGs can feel like that at times, but a lot of them have different structures, usually deliberately designed with different paths and enemies in mind. Oh, and puzzles. Shame that's an antiquated concept, but they used to be there. This? Here, have 31 flavors of generic randomly generated floors to run through and hope to get over with – well, at least, you'd be saying that if you didn't need to make sure you're at a half decent level. It's easy enough to get there, thankfully, since you mainly need to have a decent variety of Personas and kill every enemy on any given floor so that you can stand a chance against the boss.
Enemy battles, on their own, are a bit lame since they're fairly easy to kill, especially if you exploit their weaknesses so that you can get more turns and eventually perform an All-Out Attack (does heaps of damage against enemies that are knocked down, provided that they are all knocked down). The ones later on are a bit more interesting since they don't have elemental weaknesses and can put up quite a fight, but provided your defense isn't paper thin, you can survive and kick ass fairly quickly. But as you fight more battles, you'll notice that your HP and SP aren't too high and you don't have as many items in your pouch. Taking a page from old school RPGs, you have to be prepared for anything. Even if the enemies and bosses are quite straightforward and not all too cheap (for the most part) for a Shin Megami Tensei game, a party unprepared for the long haul is a dead party, and since the Midnight Channel – which is where the dungeons are, by the way – takes up an entire afternoon you could spend with Social Links, it's best that you tough it out. Just for the record, physical attacks where your Personas are required consume HP, so at least stronger physical attacks don't require SP, and SP restoring items are fairly rare in dungeons. With SP, it almost turns into a survival horror, except the camera angles don't suck shit through a garden hose.
Then you meet the bosses and holy *bleep*, they're good! During my comparisons to Persona 3, I've been quicker to lick 3's nuts, but this time, 4 demolishes 3 – why have bosses that have 999 immunities when you can just give me bosses that hit like a truck and require me to carefully ration my items? The bosses not only hit hard, but they also require a fair bit of strategy to take down and enough items to keep you alive. None of them have any elemental weaknesses, meaning that maybe only lucky critical hits can knock them down for an All-Out Attack – and even then, some bosses don't let you do that. It's the kind of thing I wish more bosses were like. Strategy, adequate preparation... what happened, too many people not liking that one Final Fantasy 10 boss fight meant that all turn based RPGs had to cut down on strategy? I'd say either cut down on the long cutscenes or make them all skippable. That's just me, though.
It's impossible to deny that each of these fights especially were a joy. There was always this sense of tension, like if I screwed up, I'm a dead man. Knowing when to switch between stat raising spells and healing, and going on a full on offensive is key to staying alive against these bosses. Having just the right Personas – that is to say, the right resistances/immunities and abilities – is tantamount to survival. Hell, a barrage of regular enemies can wear you down after a while if you don't know how to conserve your items or construct a good Persona deck. Most of the latter is done through obtaining them via Shuffle Time (happens after random battles, usually ones you win with ease or maybe I'm just luckier there) and fusing them in the Velvet Room (within either the real world or the Midnight Channel), and holy *bleep*ing shit, just... just clear your schedule for the rest of the day, because the possibilities are seemingly endless if you have a decent sized deck. Fused Personas can inherit certain moves from the fusion material and gain experience points based on their Arcana's Social Link, provided that their base level is at or lower than your current level. I don't know, it's just insane what you can get together.
Even with the right preparation, Persona 4 can still be a bit tricky. We're not quite talking earlier Shin Megami Tensei, but those games were *bleep*ing cheap. This game doesn't give you surprise random encounters where the enemies get the first turn and eradicate your ass prison style within seconds. No, the enemies are on the field; you can whack them with your stick or sword or whatever two handed weapon you have equipped, and then either get a free turn or just start with your guys bashing them. Not that I dislike the older games because I think they're quite good in their own way; but Persona 4 (and more accurately, the Digital Devil Saga duo) are more my speed. Pure strategy, pure survival and cheap bullshit is kept to a minimum – just how I like it. Okay, there's this one boss borders on it since he takes forever to kill, takes two turns instead of one and can kill your entire party or even the main character in one go, and hits like a jet flying right into your face. Not a bad boss or even mediocre by any means, but Jesus Christ... Did I forget to mention that if the main character dies, it's game over and you have to start from the last save point? THAT... makes sense within the context of the story, given that it's his journey to take and he's the only one who can seek the truth. Bit silly in execution since enemies can gang up on him if you're unlucky and you could also be revived with revival items or spells, but oh well, I guess being dead for even a second will allow the truth to escape or some shit - I guess Yosuke and co are just helping out because they were affected by the killer themselves.
But the game's crowning achievement is the soundtrack. It's clear that the sound department were working overtime (unlike the graphics department – think aesthetically presentable 3D models and effects with an anime look and nice, detailed portraits and there you go) because each and every song positively radiates with excellence. Beyond the different emotions that each song conveys at just the right moment (except maybe one moment where a different song might've fit in better, but that's dipping into spoiler territory), each of them were distinct from one another, allowing them to become memorable. What really lets them seep into your memory banks is their melody – each note played adds up to a coherent melody that sticks out from the rest of the game besides the voice acting, and on top of adding onto the situation like an upbeat battle theme or that creepy piano theme used to highlight those more sinister moments (particularly towards the end), it just sticks inside your brain for hours on end. Simple, but very effective. Christ, wasn't this the point in time when composers considered melody an antiquated concept? The only real issue is that some songs get reused to a point where you actually don't ever want to hear them again. These are usually used during the Social Links and since there are over twenty of them each requiring ten interactions to get them to max, plus the overall addicting nature of this game, well, you're kind of screwed there. Good luck getting those songs out of your head.
This game is longer than it has any right to be, but there's definitely a certain charm to it that keeps you playing. With such a strong beginning and a fun cast of main characters that seem human enough, it's not all that hard to want to keep going. But it's the kind of game that gives you the goods in spurts – the Social Links inject just enough juicy melodrama in the realistic teenage problems that try to give the characters depth to keep you from realizing that their real personalities are pretty basic, even if it winds up feeling like it's bloated with that shit. I usually don't care for melodrama either, so to have a fair amount of it being tolerable when given the context that that's how teenagers tend to be is quite an achievement. The dungeons are lame, as are the individual enemies at first, but in the long haul, the survival aspect kicks in and suddenly, the enemies are a bit more badass. The bosses are like the piece de resistance that makes the trek through each dungeon worth it. Not to mention that the middle leaves such a good feeling after that plot twist even if it's clear that more can and will happen... like the last few story arcs that really, really grab you by the scruff of your neck as shit does right the *bleep* down. These moments and elements make up for the less than satisfactory ones - the ones that make this game feel plodding like its slow pace, just waiting and waiting for development in the case while pretending to be a 17 year old pimp in the most linear visual novel ever made.
In other words, Persona 4 keeps you addicted by giving you enough good moments to try and overlook the lesser ones. Atlus made a huge gamble here and they won 115% of what they bet. It's not heaps, but it's enough to know that it's worth betting again. Just hope that they bet on a different table and number, because lightning doesn't strike twice in the casino that is the video game industry.
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