Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Persona 4 Review

Compared to last year, 2018’s release calendar has been fairly light. While some gamers might be
lamenting this, I’ve found it has been an excellent opportunity to go back and check out some titles from prior years that I missed. Thus, I’m jumped right into tackling yet another “gaming shame”, the Megami Tensei franchise. Except for two spinoff games, Tokyo Mirage Sessions, and Shin Megami Tensei Synchronicity Prologue, I haven’t gotten the chance to get into Atlus’s hugely popular RPG series. A friend was nice enough to lend me his copy of Persona 4 for PlayStation 2 back in April and it's taken me a while to finish the game and put together my thoughts.

Game overview:
Persona 4 is an RPG in which the protagonist and his friends must investigate a series of grisly
supernatural murders that have been taking place in their town. The wrinkle is that the investigators are all high school students and must juggle their school and social lives in addition to gathering clues, fighting villains, and rescuing potential victims.

  • Persona 4 begins with an incredibly long set of introductory cutscenes. During the first two hours or so of the campaign, the game only requires player input two or three times. Putting non-interactive segments this long in a video game would probably even give a director like Hideo Kojima pause. Thankfully, the writing is pretty good, so this lengthy introduction still has entertainment value, but I still wish it the game’s designers would have broken it up a bit.
  • As the two hours’ worth of introductory material makes clear, Persona 4 focuses on developing its characters and story above all else. I found the central murder mystery to be interesting and enjoyed getting to meet the whole cast of characters. The English language voice-overs for these characters are excellent and add significantly to their personalities.
  • Atlus made some interesting choices regarding localizing this game. Despite being a 100% English translated game, locations, characters, and events all use their Japanese names (the game is set in Japan, after all). The dialog even includes honorifics with character names. It took me a little while to get used to hearing English-speaking characters calling each other -san and sempai but I have to give the voice actors credit for making it work.
  • Much of the gameplay reminds me of old-school dating sims like Tokimeki Memorial. The game follows the daily life of its typical anime teen protagonist over the course of a year as he goes to school, hangs out with his friends, works a part-time job, investigates a serial murder case, and battles demonic forces (I described it as “anime” for a reason). How and with whom the player elects to spend the hero’s time will affect his personal stats. Points in the hero's qualities like "knowledge" and "expression" open up new pathways for interactions between characters but also can affect his combat performance as well.
  • Since the hero juggles his high school life and his evil-battling life, I break the gameplay down into two modes: school mode and quest mode. School mode plays much like a visual novel or a dating sim (especially like the aforementioned Tokimeki Memorial). During the classroom segments, the protagonist may be asked questions by the teacher or may have to take exams. Scoring well on these segments improves his “knowledge” stat. After class, the player can elect to have their character attend after-school activities, work a part-time job, or spend time with his friends and family. These activities either boost general stats like “diligence” and “understanding”, or increase the “Social Link” score, which affects combat attributes when in quest mode (more on that later).
  • Outside of all the usual high school activities, the player can enter quest mode after school. The quest consists of gathering clues about the murder mystery that the characters are trying to solve by talking to NPCs and exploring dungeons to track down suspects or rescue potential victims. There are about eight dungeons in the game and the player is given a month or two of in-game time to finish each one; missing the deadline to complete a dungeon results in a game over. Thus, managing the character’s time between school mode and quest mode is crucial. 
  • The dungeons themselves are themed after each character’s inner struggle (similar to Psychonauts) but the layout of each is procedurally generated with the exception of the boss room. Most of the dungeons are eight to twelve stories tall and require and a considerable amount of time to finish (about three to five hours each in my playthrough). Running out of MP and items often means that dungeon runs have to be spread out across multiple in-game days in order to restock supplies. While I thought the character-specific theming was pretty cool and I didn't mind the procedure layouts, I couldn’t help but wish that the dungeons were a little shorter. After getting to about the sixth floor or so in a given dungeon, I found myself being a little bored of the slow dungeon crawl and wanting to just get to the boss as quickly as possible so I could advance the story.
  • The combat is in the form of traditional turn-based battles in which each character in the party can summon a demon (aka a Persona) to use special skills. Most of the strategy of regular battles involve figuring out the right skills to exploit enemy weakness and execute combos. The protagonist can collect new Personas by finding Tarot cards in the dungeon and can swap between these demonic allies in mid-battle. The rest of the characters only have one fixed Persona that they stick with for the whole game. This leads to the protagonist being the only strategic variable in boss battles which makes them less interesting than they could be. It’s important to note that bosses and regular enemies alike can exploit your characters’ weaknesses as well, which can mean that a bad roll of the dice can wipe out your whole party even during a basic encounter.
  • In addition to acquiring new Personas, the protagonist can also fuse his Personas together to form new more powerful ones. The power of these fused Personas is a function of the Social Link scores you’ve built up with each character. Every character has an affinity with one of the arcana of the Tarot deck, which correspond with the 22 races of demons in hell (yes, this game has some dark themes in it). Hence, the hero’s decisions in school mode can have a significant impact on his progression in quest mode.
  • The connection between the school mode and quest mode of the game manifests itself in some ways that are interesting and others that are jarring. Since the dungeons take place in a hellish parallel dimension to the real world (did I forget to mention that?), things going on in school mode, such as the weather, can reflect the situation in quest mode. For example, rain and fog in the school mode portion of the game foreshadow the death of a character in the dungeons, representing a quest deadline. Since checking the local news is part of the player character’s daily routine, the weather report takes on a foreboding tone that adds to the sense of tension in the story. However, there are other times where this connection didn’t work for me. If you finish a quest mode objective earlier than the game expects you to, you’ll be prompted each day with a message that says something like “you are waiting for the situation to change”, and nothing of any consequence will happen until the original due date for that quest passes. For the first half of the game, I appreciated having this bit of downtime to meet all the characters and develop the Social Links. Yet, as the game went on, I had completed most of the social links that I was interested in and found myself wishing I could turn the clock forward past all the mundane school days and get to the next main story beat. Another instance where the connection between quest mode conflicts with school mode is the relationship between social links and Tarot Arcana. When a character asks the protagonist if he’d like to hang out, the player is prompted with a message indicating the benefits of this social interaction on the strength of his Personas. I found that this made my character seem like some sort of psychopath who weighs all of his interpersonal relationships based on the perks they’ll confer to his personal arsenal of demons. I realize that this prompt is just clarifying a mechanic in the game, but the direct acknowledgment of it in this context highlights how creepy the whole thing is.
  • Regarding the character-specific theming of each chapter of the quest, Persona 4 attempts to tackle some rather heavy themes such as anxiety, depression, sexuality, and gender identity. These are ambitious subjects for a video game to tackle (especially a Japanese game from 2008) and the execution sometimes feels a little clumsy by 2018 standards. That being said, I really have to commend the game for trying. Generally, Persona 4 achieves its goal of developing each member of the cast into a relatable person that the player can sympathize and root for.
  • While I didn’t know this going in, Persona 4 has multiple endings and it is extremely easy to accidentally get the bad ending. There is a key set of dialog tree decisions during a scene late in the game that determines which ending you get. To me, it seemed unclear which choices would lead to which path. I ended up reloading the scene several times only to get different variants of the bad ending each time before ultimately giving up and looking up the exact path through the dialog tree to get to the good ending. Thankfully, the game explicitly prompts the player to save the game right before this crucial scene.
  • Something that is often said about the Persona series is how stylish it is. I agree. The music and character animations give the game an extra helping of personality over pretty much any other RPG.
  • Some notes on how I played this game: I played on the easy setting and used a PS2 emulator so that I could make liberal use of save states. I have no regrets about either of these decisions. Losing progress due to large gaps between save points and getting wiped in unforgiving battles would have significantly hampered my ability to enjoy and finish a massive game like this.
Overall, I found that the gameplay of Persona 4 was interesting at first but lost its luster as the game went on; it was the strong characters and compelling central narrative that kept me on board for the 70+ hour campaign. I'm really glad I got to experience this landmark game and I know it will stick with me for quite some time. That being said, the investment of time and mental/emotional energy required to tackle a game as large and deep as this is something that I'm only prepared to handle occasionally. In all likelihood, it will be quite some time before I'm ready to dive into another Persona title.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 73 hours

If you would like to pick up a copy of this game while also supporting this blog, check out the Amazon affiliate links below:
Persona 4 - PS2
Persona 4 Golden - PS Vita

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