Of the collection of RPGs I've sampled in my early years, there have been several world-ends, at least four newborn gods of destruction, and more androgynous male leads than the boy bands of the 90's combined. But in the swarm of role-playing cliches, I can honestly say that I have never - ever - played a murder mystery. Following the trail of 2007's RPG of the year, Persona 3, P4 is a modern-day Sherlock Holmes adventure with a dark Freudian twist.
Console: PlayStation 2
Release Date: 12/9/08 (NA); 7/10/08 (JP); 3/13/09 (EU)
ESRB Rating: M
Having played through Atlus' last dating sim/life sim/dungeon grinder/heartbreaker of an epic, I was a little worried about how the sequel would be able to top (or at least reach) the bar set in Persona 3. Within ten minutes of the opening sequence, all of my fears had been quieted by the constant shrieks of your enthusiastic in-game assistant, Teddie.
Inaba, the small home of several plots of rice paddies and a quiet, winding river is the sort of town you miss on a map because it looks too much like a speck of dust. The main character is named and played as by you, and this is your first year living in Inaba after being transferred from the big city. The roads are slow and disturbed only by the occasional bus or cyclist. Children fish in the river and hide under the park's gazebo during the frequent rainy days. It's a scenic town, if a little dull - but that changes almost immediately after you arrive.
Studying, dating, taking on the odd part-time job, fighting the supernatural with creatures from your id. The usual.
Beginning the school year as the epicenter of student attention (hey, you are a city kid) you have no trouble making friends. Walking home with you every day is Yosuke Hanamura, class clown and son of the invading department store megachain owner; Chie Satonaka, Bruce Lee fanatic and martial arts queen; and Yukiko Amagi, heiress of the local Amagi Inn. Together you grab snacks at the burger joint in the Junes store, study for tests, and attempt to hunt down a bizarre killer that abducts his victims when the weather changes.
Early in the school year, students begin gossiping about a secret station on TV that only appears at midnight on rainy days: the "Midnight Channel." Potentially, it shows the face of your future soul mate. In reality it shows the face of the next person to be abducted and thrown into the TV's shadow-infested nightmare world, resurfacing in the real world weeks later as an abandoned corpse hanging from the highest point in town. You and your friends awaken to the ability of Persona , a facade used to face life's difficulties, and enter the hazy TV world to rescue each victim shown on the television. Teddie, sole resident of the TV realm, joins your cause and provides you with glasses that allow you to see through the thick fog.
This thing's kinda cute, it just walked right up to me and-OH GOD IT SPEAKS
Playing Persona 4 is as much an exercise in good, old-fashioned dungeon hacking as it is an appreciation of the developer's style. Persona 3 won hearts with its grind-by-night/socialize-by-day system, and P4 sticks with what isn't broken. It does, however, do away with the series' affinity for phases of the moon. While trudging through the alternate TV mindscape you'll have to constantly keep an eye on the real-world weather. The TV world is covered in a permanent fog that only lifts when it gets foggy in Inaba...and that's when the place become dangerous. If you haven't rescued your lost murder victim by then, it's an instant game over.
The battle system has remained largely the same since its overhaul in Persona 3, meaning the player controls a party of four that sprints through dungeons and hunts down the dangerous Shadows. Once a fight begins, the four characters will position themselves around the enemy and take turns fighting based on their speed. The biggest difference is the ability to control each of your characters manually; you can still let the AI control them as it did in Persona 3, but if you feel like it might be easier to choose their moves for them you're free to do so. Your awkward-but-fuzzy companion Teddie will assist you throughout battles by providing enemy information and recording weaknesses and resistances.
As in P3, every aspect of battle is decided by your Persona's abilities. Throughout the game you'll either find or create hundreds of different Personae, creatures manifested from your own psyche to fight on your behalf. Their strengths and weaknesses in battle are yours, and you can carry up to twelve different Personae within you that are swappable during fights. Each one can level up and learn different attacks and skills that help counter any others' vulnerabilities. Your teammates are stuck with only one Persona each, but it can pay off to hang out with them. The chummier you become with each of your friends, the more they'll be able to do for you in battle - help you up if you're knocked down, deliver instant kills, and even block a killing stroke in your direction. If you maximize your friendship with any of them, their Persona will evolve and increase vastly in power and resistance.
Yes, you will fight tanks. And giant robots. At the same time.
Building bonds with your friends isn't limited to the members of your team. Early in the game you'll meet Igor, master of the Velvet Room. This chamber is a place only you can visit where he will fuse new Personae for you. He also takes the time to let you know the importance of Social Links, the powerful bonds of friendship you create with the people around you. Social Links directly affect the power distributed to your Persona, and each of them is associated with a specific Arcana. If you spend time developing your relationship with Chie, who is the Chariot arcana, your Chariot-type Personae will gain more power upon fusion and be much stronger in battle. You'll meet nearly two dozen characters in the game that you can build new social links with. The strength of these links and who you focus on will determine not only your power, but the story arc as well. Each character has their dark secrets and human frailties. The more time you spend with them, the more likely you are to help them grow. Help someone overcome their fears, go camping with some pals, or even get a girlfriend (or two, or three in my case).
Orange soda: •400. Medium-rare steak: •1850. Yukiko's blank stare wafting across the table: priceless.
I was just as impressed with the art style and the music as I was with the story. The game borrows from P3's edgy artwork, but cleans it up a bit and makes everything as bright as possible. It's a little surreal to play a game that involves supernatural murder and pop open my bright-yellow menu filled with stripes and dots. It's a citrus-flavored splash of color that left me feeling like we should be driving a Mystery Machine instead of hoofing it across town. The graphics are nothing special, but they're not what makes the game so fun to look at anyway.
The music is slower and a bit more paced than Persona 3's high-energy soundtrack, but battles are accompanied by an incredible melange of electric guitar and vocals that gets your blood pumping just enough to brutalize your opponents with a super-powerful All-Out Attack. The soundtrack moves between different shades of comfortable while you're just running around town, but once you're plumbing a dungeon it shifts a gear or two up. Teddie comments on the disturbingly repetitive 8-bit tunes in one particular video-game-themed dungeon: "Doo-doo-dee-doo...AAAARGH, it keeps looping!" The voice acting is incredible, and manages to improve upon some of the lackluster actors in Persona 3. Believe me, as annoying as he sounds, you'll really never get tired of Teddie. Did Scooby-Doo's ham-fisted attempts at English bug you when you were eight years old? No, you just sat and laughed. So pipe down and enjoy your furry kibitzer.
AFTER SCHOOL OPTOMETRY COLLECTIVE ASSEMBLLLLLLLE
[ame="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DEEOS98sGAk"]YouTube- Persona 4: Izanagi's Awakening[/ame]
I haven't had this much fun romping between the real and the surreal with a team of friends at my side since...well, Persona 3. The bright and vibrant kaleidoscope of colors mixes with the fresh collection of head-bobbing tunes to show just how much love the developers poured into this game. A narrative that keeps you guessing straight until the end as well as nearly a half-dozen endings doesn't hurt either, so do yourself a favor and play it through again just to max out a few more S. Links and find a new end sequence. Persona 4 left me not a little bit dazzled, with just a slight craving for steak.
Some images courtesy of darkzero.co.uk and hardcoregaming101.net.