[The Persona 4 team!]

System: PS2
Publisher & Designer: Atlus
Release Date: December 2008
Genre: RPG
Players: 1
Save Feature? Yes!

As impressive as Persona 3 FES was, Persona 4 is exactly what you want in a sequel because it improved upon P3 in virtually every category. Everything from the pleasant high-school town atmosphere and eclectic soundtrack to the engaging gameplay and surprisingly deep story with its memorable characters and surprising twists and turns just sucks you in and never lets go. This game might kill your social life for a season but it is worth the trip! As a matter of fact, Persona 4 might very well be in my personal Top 10!

Overview: As I discussed in my Persona 3 FES review, I came across the Shin Megami Tensei series by sheer accident! I had never even heard of this series of cult-classic RPGs until I happened across some strange "Persona 4" game at a local pawn shop several years ago. I saw the low asking price of $5 and I figured "Why not?" And while it would take me nearly four years to finally sit down and put together a serious playthrough of Persona 4 myself, I knew that the game was going to be something special as I would occasionally watch my brother Nate tackle some of the early portions of the game during his P4 playthrough. I had also thoroughly enjoyed Persona 3 FES so I felt pretty confident about Persona 4 being another solid RPG outing.

I had no problems diving right into the game either because Persona 4 plays a lot like its predecessor. On one hand, you have your traditional dungeon-crawling gameplay where you explore one of the game's unique areas, fight hordes upon hordes of some of the strangest-looking enemies this side of Earthbound, and snag all of the glorious treasures in sight! This aspect of Persona 4's gameplay feels deliciously old-school (There is even a pixelated 8-bit castle area to prove my point!) and, despite the repetitive nature of dungeon crawling in general, the wacky venues themselves are enough to encourage you to press onward. Instead of simply climbing a very tall tower like in Persona 3, you will encounter some pretty trippy areas in Persona 4 such as a sauna, a strip club, and even heaven! How the programmers had the gall to have a strip club AND heaven setting in the same game sounds sacrilegious and yet, within the context of the game, it somehow works. Even if you do not consider yourself an avid anime supporter, you have to at least give anime props for its originality and sheer fearlessness.

While this aspect (i.e. dungeon crawling) of Persona 4 is quite satisfying and a lot of fun in its own right, there is more to this game than simply slugging it out with creepy shadows. You can honestly spend just as much time shooting the breeze with NPC's, cultivating Social Links which enable you to create more powerful Personas, increasing personal stats such as knowledge and courage by correctly answering questions/reading books/working, and completing side-quests. Establishing and leveling up Social Links is, at least for me, a very rich and fulfilling experience. This allows for some real character development/growth to take place and it is a pleasant distraction from the more intense dungeon crawling gameplay.

I also love how your decisions matter in Persona 4. This applies to your Social Links sure but even the main story/ending relies on your choices this time around. If you really want to see the game's true ending, you are going to have to really consider your options and even follow a hunch you might (or might not) have before speaking. You truly feel empowered in Persona 4 and having this much control is a huge plus indeed. It isn't all serious either because there are times when you are given some downright silly dialogue options! Like in Persona 3, the school events in Persona 4 are freaking gut-busting where laughing yourself until tears roll down your cheeks is not uncommon. Having this much control is absolutely huge and it gives Persona 4 a unique element not found in many games.

Another aspect of this game that I found fascinating was the finite nature of time and hence the importance of sound time management. Anytime you do something productive, no matter how menial ("Will you pet the cat?"), you will notice that some time will pass. As a result, if you really want to reach Max levels with your Social Links, you will have to find a way to be as resourceful and productive with your time as possible. This is especially true when it comes to saving potential victims in the TV world.

This brings us to what is usually one of the most mundane and boring conversation topics...the bloody weather. Some might disagree but there is nothing more impersonal and cheap than bringing up the weather with a perfect stranger. "It looks like it might rain today!" "Well I'll be. You might be right!" Sigh...we all do it but seriously! Nothing gets a good conversation going like bringing up a lackadaisical topic that is completely devoid of any real substance, right?

Don't worry...there is a point to be made here. Unlike with most games that feature weather changes for the sake of changing the atmosphere or adding a little flair to the graphics, the weather plays an integral role in Persona 4's story. You genuinely care about monitoring the weather (you can easily do this by viewing a television set or by speaking with the young woman on the roof of Yasogami) because it can allow you to prepare for crucial deadlines and such. You discover early on that a succession of rainy days tends to lead to the dreaded fog which is when very bad things can happen. If you know this in advance, it can help you to prepare better. On a lesser note, you might discover that you are able to study/fish better on a rainy day or that sunny/cloudy days tend to be the best days to spend time cultivating relationships/participating in student activities since there are only a few people silly enough to stand out in the rain!

Also worth noting here is the change of seasons that takes place during your "year" in Inaba. While the game starts out in the spring, you will notice changes that take place during the summer and fall months. Leaves will change color, characters will wear different outfits, and conversations with NPCs will even change to fit the times. It is quite the novelty for not only an RPG but any video game to have a "real world year" which is why I wanted to at least give this aspect of Persona 4 a brief glance.

Switching gears a bit, the battle system in Persona 4 feels a lot like Persona 3 FES. While you can equip weapons and use simple physical attacks, the real meat and potatoes of Persona 4's battle engine is the ability to summon Personas and utilize a vast array of skills and special abilities. Elemental attacks, waves of healing, and buffs/debuffs become possible thanks to the power of...Persona (or "Bearsona" in Teddie's case).

Each Persona has various strengths and weaknesses (e.g. Jack Frost uses Ice attacks but is vulnerable to Fire) so strategy is very important. By exploiting enemy weaknesses, you can blast through their defenses, knock them silly, and even cancel out their next turn in battle! Do this to every enemy and you can execute a vicious all-out team attack. Just remember that all is fair in war and that enemies can do the exact same thing to you so beware! The pendulum can swing on a dime so being prepared for particular enemy attacks and knowing your strengths/weaknesses is a must at all times.

The battle system is a lot of fun once you understand all of its strategic aspects and the ability to switch between Personas (at least for the protagonist) helps to keep the gameplay interesting. You can "win" new Personas by playing the Arcana Chance bonus game after a battle or by simply fusing multiple Personas together in the Velvet Room. Fusion is quite handy since, in addition to creating more powerful Personas, you can pass down some of your favorite skills to your new creation(s). Several Personas can only be created through fusion as well. It doesn't hurt to experiment and fuse Personas using different combinations. The Pokémon "Gotta Catch 'Em All" craze applies here as there is something very satisfying about creating as many Personas as humanly possible.

[Ah...the adventures that await you!]
[Yukiko laughing]

Graphics: Anime fans and lovers of Japanese culture will gobble up Persona 4's aesthetics. The anime movies in particular stand out with their flashy colors and superb animation while the regular in-game graphics, while nothing spectacular, are still quite impressive for a PS2 game. It is difficult to put into words but I love the unique feel that the graphics give this game. Perhaps it is the heavy anime influence or the unique high school atmosphere but Atlus has definitely found their niche with their Shin Megami Tensei games.

The character portraits that pop up during conversations with friends/important characters are absolutely vital as they help to flesh out the game's unique personality. Someone might appear to be irritated, surprised, or embarrassed and these close-ups really enhance the whole experience. There is a lot of humor in this game and these close-ups certainly help in terms of providing some real "gut-busting" moments.

Some of the hand-drawn persona artwork in the menu screen is also quite impressive and the attention to detail throughout the game's many locales (e.g. Aiya restaurant) makes me feel that the programmers really cared about their work. It is also worth noting that the game's dungeons all look superb and that the diversity in particular was a huge upgrade over Persona 3.

Music: Although Persona 3 was certainly no slouch, I feel that Persona 4 greatly improved upon its predecessor in the music arena. From an overall standpoint. Persona 4 features an incredibly diverse, catchy, and memorable soundtrack. I still remember firing up this game for the first time and immediately appreciating "New Days." Have you ever listened to a piece of music for the first time and yet it felt nostalgic somehow? That is precisely how I felt with "New Days." It is full of hope and encouragement and just feels pleasant.

Like Persona 3, Persona 4 contains a unique blend of Japanese pop music (with English lyrics), atmospheric pieces in the dungeon areas, and rockin' tracks when fighting enemies/bosses. This eclectic conglomeration works superbly as it greatly enhances Persona 4's atmosphere. You might be chillin' in town to the tune of "Heartbreak, Heartbreak" one moment then hearing the more ethereal "Castle" track the next. Some of the boss tracks are truly exceptional too. "The Almighty" is simply awe-inspiring with its perfect blend of hard rock and surprising nostalgia and it is easily one of the all-time great boss themes. "The Genesis" is another solid boss theme mainly due to its originality and unique feel. It contains quiet undertones and even moments of silence but then it suddenly crests and gives you the classic "We have to win this fight" feeling.

The cut scenes in Persona 4 feature some of the more touching, emotional themes in the game. "I'll Face Myself" is simply wonderful with its hopeful/sentimental undertones. I like how there are several renditions of this song and that it is even used for the main boss theme. If any Persona 4 track has the potential to get stuck in your head, it is likely this one.

Lastly, I just wanted to mention that the voice acting in Persona 4 is fantastic! You feel as if you are watching an exceptional anime production instead of playing a simple video game at times because the voices are so believable and genuine. Each character has a unique personality, everyone talks very clearly yet comes across as sincere, and emotions such as laughter or anger seem real. I have noticed this in every SMT game I have played which makes me wonder why so many games fall flat in terms of their voice acting. At least there are a few games like the Persona 4's of the world which give me hope!

Play Control: I have no real issues with Persona 4 in regards to the game's controls. Navigating through the multiple menu screens is very straightforward and some of the interactive components like slashing at shadows in the dungeons and/or reeling in a big whopper of a fish is simple yet smooth as silk. You might find yourself adjusting the camera in the dungeons a bit more often than you would like but that is a minor gripe. The ability to speed travel around school/town is a welcome feature as it saves you from a lot of unnecessary travel time. I also appreciate how you can now toggle over every persona ability to get an explanation of what said abilities do. Playing through Persona 3 was truly an experiment for me since the game never explained what "Mabufu" or "Dia" did. Thankfully, Persona 4 is more user-friendly in this regard.

[This feels like...a video game!]
[A typical battle]

Challenge: One common thread with the Shin Megami Tensei series is that all of the games that I have played (Persona 3 & 4 and Nocturne as of this review) can be sneaky tough and even downright unfair at times. This is largely due to the fact that if the main protagonist falls in battle, the game is over regardless of if your other party members are still conscious or not. That's right...you can literally have three healthy party members but if the hero falls, you can kiss the last hour (or more) of your life goodbye!

With that being said, Persona 4 is probably the fairest of the bunch in terms of its overall difficulty. As you level up and cultivate Social Links with your party members in particular, new abilities will be discovered that will help to prevent your unfortunate demise. A fellow party member might shield you from a mortal blow or heal a negative status effect. There are also the wonderful "Endure" and "Enduring Soul" abilities which will revive you once should your HP fall to zero. While Persona 4 does carry the same dreaded "keep the hero alive incessantly" rule, at least you have a few tricks up your sleeve to counterbalance this problem.

However, do not fall into the trap of thinking that Persona 4 is a cakewalk because that is simply not the case. Some of the game's dungeons are simply huge and there are noticeable spikes in difficulty within each and every one of them. Quickly discovering an enemy's weaknesses is paramount to survival and being aware of what your various items can do can give you a significant edge for sure. Boss battles in particular are the great unknown because it can be quite possible to make it through a dungeon unscathed only to get completely owned by said boss.

This game will appeal to old-school RPG fans because you get a real sense of accomplishment anytime you defeat a challenging group of enemies or take down a tough-as-nails boss. Persona 4 scores very highly in terms of its replay value as well. There are a whopping fifty side-quests that will keep you busy and any attempts at maxing out all twenty-one Social Links will likely require multiple playthroughs unless you are insanely lucky. Also worth noting is that Persona 4 contains multiple endings and that new dungeons/bosses can be accessed should you discover the true path. This means something too because the True ending is so much better than the two "bad" endings. Good luck finding it on your own though. Persona 4 would have been a good "Nintendo Power" game since it is nearly impossible to find the True ending without help.

[Enter the TV World!]
[Getting closer to the sexy Rise]

Storyline: If your idea of a good story is an elaborate mystery with some real thought-provoking concepts and a major twist or two thrown in for good measure, then you will find Persona 4 to be quite appetizing in this regard. Like with so many of its PS2 RPG brethren, Persona 4's story comes across as quite original, intriguing, and surprisingly deep. Like with any great anime, this story does not hesitate to go down the rabbit hole either. I love it for that!

The game starts out with the main protagonist, a male transfer student from the city, moving to the quiet, rural town of Inaba to live with his uncle Dojima and step cousin Nanako for the next year. However, it is upon your arrival that everything starts to go south. There are mysterious, unexplained disappearances, bizarre murders where corpses are discovered tangled in electrical wiring on rooftops (I am not making this up!), and a rumor floating around of the enigmatic Midnight Channel that supposedly reveals your soul mate if you stare into a blank television screen on rainy nights. Leave it to an anime-based game to come up with something this wacky!

It gets better too because it is around this time when the hero discovers his hidden ability to venture inside of a television screen to what appears to be a seriously whacked out television world. This is where the hero, accompanied by his fellow student and good friend Yosuke, meets up with a strange teddy bear-like creature who happens to live in the weird TV world! The TV world is truly a mysterious and quite gloomy place where shadows roam freely. However, this is also where the hero discovers his ability to fight these sinister shadows by summoning powerful beings of his own known as Personas.

As the game progresses, you will begin to discover a connection between the victims and the TV world. The good news is that, by intervening and reaching any potential victims before the fog sets in (Remember when I mentioned that the weather in this game means something?), you just might be able to save them from certain death. Discovering the identity of the one(s) behind the senseless murders/murder attempts is the real mystery, however. Believe me...there are several key moments when you feel like you have finally figured everything out...only to discover how little you truly know. Playing Persona 4 is like reading a captivating Sherlock Holmes novel but with the added depth that only an anime-based game can provide.

In addition to the intriguing story, Persona 4 is very strong in terms of its characters. While Persona 3 also featured a memorable character cast, I would have to give Persona 4 the nod in this area. All of the main characters bring something to the group and the chemistry is rock solid. Yosuke is your typical slacker who just wants to get by all while hitting on the ladies in the process (and incurring their wrath). Chie is a feisty young woman who loves her kung-fu movies while Yukiko is the daughter of the local inn owner where the initial murder takes place. Rise is charming and sexy as heck, Teddie provides endless amusement ("Don't fight over me, baby."), and Kanji is one tough dude...most of the time anyway. Lastly, Naoto is truly the Sherlock Holmes of the bunch and is exceptional at solving mysteries.

Over time, you really find yourself caring about the characters in Persona 4. While the main story is fantastic, the in-depth Social Link system allows you to really get to know everyone. And like with any great story, there is an ebb and flow with plenty of ups and downs along the way. The true ending does not disappoint either.

[Give me my animal crackers dang it!]
[This isn't old school at all! ;)]

Funfactor: It isn't every day that you come across an all-time classic by accident but it sure is exciting when it actually happens! While the visuals and sounds give Persona 4 its unique Japanese atmosphere, the addictive gameplay and impressive character development/story are the real hooks in Persona 4. And let me tell you...once that hook starts to sink in, you will find yourself playing Persona 4 incessantly! If you get tired of fighting enemies and navigating dungeons, you can always engage in more peaceful activities such as honing Social Links or simply fishing in the Samagawa River and vice-versa. There is a remarkable balance between the more relaxing activities and standard RPG elements such as fighting enemies which is a major draw in Persona 4...just like it was in Persona 3 FES.

I think that Persona 4's originality is another reason why this game is so much fun. There is something to be said about being a lifelong gamer and still managing to come across the occasional game that feels fresh and inspired. It gives me hope that there are still great games to be made and that the well hasn't dried up yet. I do look forward to playing Persona 5 once it is released for the PS4. However, it definitely has a lot to live up to because Persona 4 set the bar really, really high!

Negatives: Despite all that I have said regarding the impressive diversity of Persona 4's dungeons, you could still make a case that all of them share the same landscape/mold and that they are somewhat tedious where compared to dungeons in other RPGs. For example, Xenoblade Chronicles features dungeons with all sorts of terrain, layouts, etc. which provide unique challenges. You could say that, if you encountered one dungeon in Persona 4, you know the sort of "mold" you could expect in the other dungeons. Now granted, this is a very minor gripe but I felt this review would be incomplete without at least touching on it.

And I discussed this at great length earlier but getting a "Game Over" anytime the main protagonist is incapacitated in battle (even if your other party members are still alive and kicking) just seems blatantly unfair. There are admittedly ways to work around this problem but still...it just feels wrong. You should at least have the opportunity to revive the hero, right? Come on Atlus! Stop being so heartless! ;)

[Friends forever...]

Ratings: Graphics: 4.4 Music: 4.7 Play Control: 4.4 Challenge: 4.5 Storyline: 4.7 Funfactor: 4.9 Overall Score: 27.6 out of 30.0 Overall Rating: Golden Classic!!

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Last Updated: September 24, 2016
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