SHIN MEGAMI TENSEI: PERSONA 4 (2009) – ATLUS
Do you ever get the feeling sometimes that something great has happened but you have been left out of the loop? For me, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 represents that exact feeling. For years, I have read lists that have constantly cited this game as one of the great modern RPG’s, and yet wherever I looked I was unable to find it for sale. Then last November, the game was made into an anime, which I was encouraged to watch with a few close friends. Having the seen the first episode, I decided to bite the bullet and scour the interwebs for a copy. Happily, I found one for a cheap price and in mint condition – and I’m ecstatic that I did, because Persona 4 (hereafter called P4) is arguably the best game I have played in years.
P4 is quite unlike any other RPG I have ever played; whereas the likes of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest lean on more traditional qualities in their execution, P4 blends dungeon crawling with social simulation. The events of the game are set in a fictional area of Japan called Inaba, in the year of 2011. The protagonist (who remains silent throughout and is named by the player) is a high school student who has moved to Inaba for a year who live with his relatives. Around the time of his arrival, a series of strange deaths begin to occur where the victims bodies are found hung upside down from TV antennas, while a rumour is spreading around school: by watching a blank TV on rainy days at midnight, you will be able to see your soulmate. Along with his new friends Yosuke, Chie and Yukiko, the protagonists quickly realises there is a fog-shrouded world inside the TV, filled with malevolent creatures called Shadows. In this world, the four students are able to summon powerful beings called Personas who will fight for them. Over the course of the next year, it is up to you and your friends to investigate the world, and attempt to solve the mystery behind the murder cases.
To say much more about the plot would spoil what is as times a highly gripping and equal parts very dark and very funny story. The cast of characters in P4 are superb; alongside your three initial friends, you will meet other Persona users and interact with a whole bunch of other people, both inside the school and around Inaba as a whole. Half of the pleasure of the story is watching how the relationships between the characters develop through the course of the story, and there are some surprisingly deep storylines dealing with issues not commonly seen in video games as your party face their inner selves. Your course of action throughout the year also dictates the way that certain events will unfold, so there is a great sense of replayability in order to fully see everything that P4 has to offer.
The thing that grabbed me right from the start with P4 however is the gameplay. As previously mentioned, the game is based around a full Japanese school year, and as such you will engaged in a number of tasks that a student will go through, including lessons which occasionally pose real life questions for you to answer. Outside of school, the choice of things to do is up to the player; you could get a part time job to earn some cash, go shopping, catch some fish on the riverbed, or hang out with friends – and it is this last activity that proves the most beneficial as you can build up Social Links. Starting at level one, the more time you spend hanging out with certain characters around Inaba will gradually raise your social links, up to a maximum level of 10. Doing so will grant you various powers in battle situations, give you access to rare items, and offers a chance to build up the backstory of several characters. Most importantly, it improves the power of your Personas…but more on that later. Each day is split up into different times (e.g. Morning, Afternoon, and Evening) and certain tasks are only available to perform at certain times, so it becomes a virtue to organise your time to maximise your opportunities in the game. There is also a fully functioning weather forecast that can affect the outcome of certain social activities, adding the need for yet more strategy.
If you tire of the social activities of being a student however, there is always the opportunity to go kick some arse, and this is where the classic RPG section of the game lies. Once you have discovered the world inside the TV, called the Midnight Channel, you have the opportunity to take your party in once per day to fight Shadows in the dungeons, all of which are themed around a characters inner doubts (there are roughly eight dungeons in the game which become available to enter as people get kidnapped when the story progresses). Each dungeon is separated into floors, and the higher you progress, the stronger the monsters become. Once you reach the top level, you will fight a boss, again themed around the moral conflicts of the character involved. Once the boss is defeated, you can enter the dungeon again at any time while in the TV world to level up your party. Unlike any RPG I’ve played before however, the dungeons do not remain the same – everytime you leave the TV world, the dungeon will randomly generate a new setup for the next time you enter, removing the map in the process as well. This means that everytime you enter the dungeon it will be a different challenge than the last time.
Combat in P4 is relatively straightforward. You can approach Shadows in the dungeons and attack them using the X button, and depending on your attack you can gain a pre-emptive strike or even be attacked first yourself. Battles operate in a turn based format, and you can pick from various options; Attack, Defend, Run, scan the enemy to check its weaknesses and health, or use skills via your Persona. Each character has a Persona with a certain element attached to it – for example, Yosuke has control over the wind with Jirayia, Chie can attack with ice using Tomoe, and Yukiko can use fire – and attacking an enemy with an element they are weak to will allow you to knock them down and get another strike in. If all enemies are down, then you can choose to go for an all out physical attack which deals great damage to all enemies; as a result, identifying an opponents weaknesses becomes all the more important. As you level up your characters, their Personas will gain more powerful skills and depending on your social links, may even evolve into more powerful states.
The protagonist has one ace up his sleeve in that he can summon a range of Personas to do his bidding. Following battles, along with EXP and money you can occasionally get the chance to snatch up a tarot card with a Persona on it. The tarot cards can then be used in battle on their own, or they can be fused together with other Personas to create even more powerful allies to fight at your side. Personas are separated by arcana’s, each of which is linked to a particular social link – and herein lies the benefit of being a social student, and the higher your social links are the more power you can bestow to a Persona during a fusion. The system is admittedly very hard to get used to for a start, and I personally managed to struggle through the game fusing only about five Personas – but if you take your time with it, the system is highly extensive and can make battling a hell of a lot easier
P4 therefore offers a highly intriguing blend of RPG fighting and social simulation – but not one that is completely free of problems. The main complaint is that P4 suffers from major rises and dips in difficultly throughout. The first two dungeons in particular when you are under levelled are ferociously hard to get through, and not aided by the annoying save system which only allows you to save at the first and last floors of a dungeon; although thankfully you can zoom from a level mid dungeon and return there at a later date, albeit with a different layout due to the random generation of dungeons. The absence of any way to meaningfully restore SP without exiting the dungeon to go home and sleep also means that it is nigh on impossible to do a dungeon in one go until much later on. There is also a great sense of trial and error involved in trying to ascertain the weaknesses of enemies, as their physical appearances are often grotesque and give no indication of their elemental properties. On balance, it is a game that gets progressively better as you get further in, both in terms of storyline and battling – if you can hack the first 15-20 hours, then the reward is more than worth it.
Part of the reason why P4 is one of my favourite games of the past few years is in its presentation – its quite incredible to conceive that Atlus managed to get so much out of the ageing PS2 for this game. Graphically, I have little to complain about: there are better looking RPG’s on the PS2 (the cel shaded works of Dragon Quest VIII and Rogue Galaxy for example), but P4 does little wrong. Character models and animations are a bit lacking at times, but the world of Inaba, monster and Persona design and dungeon layouts are top notch. There are also some very nicely produced pieces of anime permeating the storyline that are a pleasure to watch, and the general artwork of the characters is stylish. The highlights of P4 however rest in the audio department. For one thing, the voice acting is brilliant – about 70% of the game is fully voiced by some of the most reliable names in anime, and help to add yet more depth to the already well designed characters. Added to this, the soundtrack is infectious; there is a quite delicious mix of J pop, jazz and rock to enjoy in P4 that makes it one of my favourite gaming soundtracks that I have ever heard – standout tracks include Like A Dream Come True, I’ll Face Myself and Heaven. Having a soundtrack CD included with the game only sweetens the deal.
From my time playing P4, I feel the praise it received from the lists I was reading was justified. The use of the social simulation in addition to the standard fighting one expects from an RPG gives it something unique that I haven’t seen before in the likes of other JRPG’s. As an all round package, it excels – the narrative is strong, the fighting is engaging and the presentation shines – its hard to believe that it’s a late PS2 game rather than a next-gen title sometimes. If it wasn’t for Red Dead Redemption, then this is probably the best game I’ve played in the last five years.