Shin Megami Tensai: Persona 4, the sequel to 2007's Persona 3 (and its FES re-release), is best described as a RPG/Social Sim. That may scare off a few of you new to the series, understandable. But don't write P4 off as a over clichéd hentai wankfest like a majority of “dating sims," as you'll be missing out on one of the best games to ever grace the PS2.
P4 uses a unique, and very effective method to tell its story. There is a main plot which is played out in scenes triggered on certain days, or after certain events. Then there are the Social Links. You can use any free day you have (you have a lot of them) to talk to a friend, and spend the remainder of the day with this person. Every character (or Social Link) has 10 levels. Every few times you get together with a friend, the Social Link will advance, and you will get a cut scene. These normally are about half an hour each if you combine all of the 10 levels. You gather more friends as the game goes on, each with an interesting an unique story. This system works well for character development, breaking up the dungeon runs, and gives you a whole lot of incentive to keep playing. You'll always be in the middle of at least 3 stories, all of which you want to continue. Some of the Social Links are less interesting then others, yes, but as a majority, they're very well written, and very interesting.
Now that I've explained the Social Link system, and my love for it, I will move on to the main story. I can safely say that P4's storyline, which focuses on a string of strange murders, is by far the best story I've heard in a long time. For perspective, the game I beat prior to Persona 4 was Metal Gear Solid 3. P4 just had phenomenal character, in large part thanks to the Social Link system. Being able to see each characters struggles, thoughts, and life highlighted, watching them grow. That really gets you connected to the characters. You will care about the games inhabitants by the end of the game. On top of that, the murder mystery case had twist after turn, one after another. The story never drags on, never gets boring. The perfect blend of murder mystery and teenage drama, through both the main story, and Social Links, keep things fresh.
Then, adding another layer to an already astounding tale, the game is heavily based on mythology and history of differing origins. The themes are mature, the philosophies are deep, and the insight goes far beyond what most movies, let alone games, approach. I have never been pushed to think so deeply about how I live my life from any medium, game, book, or movie alike. After finishing the game I sat up most of the night, examining my thought process, the lies I force upon myself, the morals I hold, and my very idea of truth. This is what I want to see from stories. Instead of giving people a place to run from life, give us motivation to face it.
I'm not one to cry at any little thing, and I don't get riled up too easily either. Yet still, Persona 4 brought the man tears to the surface... multiple times. I'm not hesitant to say that, considering the brilliance of the games plot. If you don't at least tear up during the game, you are not human. Likewise, you will grow to absolutely loathe the villain. It's sad that so many games fail to make you truly dislike the bad guy, because it makes it oh so satisfying. The way the game reaches out to and connects with all parts of the emotional spectrum is very well done.
The last part of the story I'd like to touch on is the ending. I'm a firm believer that a ending can make or break a game, and P4 blew my expectations out of the goddamn water. Get all 3 endings. You owe it to yourself. They are all amazing, they are all touching, and they are worth the time. The most thought invoking conversations happen in the true ending, so please, don't skip out on it! I cannot say it enough. P4's story was amazing, is amazing, and will continue to be amazing. Graphics and gameplay will in most cases become outdated, but a good story lives on forever.
The gameplay in Persona 4 is very diverse for a JRPG. The social aspects in the game are interesting, fun to watch, and are packed with that wonderful story. While the dungeon portions do lead up to most big plot points, they are mostly straight up turn based goodness. The gameplay is most comparable to a mix between Final Fantasy and Pokemon. You have the basic attack, item, and guard options. Then your skills and persona options. Personas are “monsters” you collect and raise, they're where your skills come from. Each persona has a set of skill, weaknesses, and strengths. When you have a persona equipped, you share these attributes. You can raise your persona through training and learn new skills, or you can fuse a persona by mixing two, three, four, five, or six different personas to create a stronger one, which gains experience based on the level of your aforementioned Social Links. This is what connects the social aspect to the dungeon crawling portion of the game, and it works beautifully. There are at least 100 personas to collect, and its pretty damn addicting. I spent quite a bit of my time fusing my persona to try and get the best skill set possible.
The basic combat system is basic fair, turn based, rock-paper-scissors, type stuff. There are some twists, such as the personas, and the fact that physical skill take away from your own HP. Also noteworthy is the “one more” feature. If you hit a enemy with its weakness you get a second turn, knock down the entire enemy force and you get to do a team attack that normally kills off the enemy forces. I felt that really helped keep the battles fun. Always searching for the weakness, deciding if its worth the risk of trying a lightning attack that could kill the entire enemy force, or backlash and kill half your party.
You get a series of dungeons, each about 10 floors in length, to traverse with your personas and your party. Simple find the exit solutions for most of the dungeons, with a few exceptions. But don't peg this game as easy because of the simplicity of its dungeon design. P4 is the hardest RPG I have ever played. If you want to make it through with minimal grinding to see the story, get ready to swallow your pride and play on easy.
The graphics are fairly simple, yet I loved the style of the game. The character models are detailed enough, but nothing spectacular really. The game as a whole had a solid frame-rate, besides one instance in the final battle. That lasts about 4 seconds and really didn't affect the game though. What the game lacks in polygons and lighting effects, it does make up for in style though. The game was bright, and was just pleasant to look at overall. I really enjoyed the character design, and I feel it was far better than Persona 3's.
Worth mentioning is the fact that occasionally, you'll see a small anime cut-scene. These look nice, and help convey the story with a little more detail. I wouldn't call the animation in these cut-scenes the most fluently animated, but they where nice regardless, and if anything, add to the experience rather then subtract from it.
Something I was really impressed with was the design of the personas and shadows. All of the 100 or so personas were modeled, with battle animations, and all were interesting and different; same goes for the enemies. All of them had a fun design that kept the battle scenery from being too repetitive. I just thought it was fun to see the artist's interpretation of mythological figures and creatures. There's a lot of creativity put into the designs for sure.
Basically, the graphics do what they're meant to do, and not much more. They give you characters to assign personalities to, they convey actions and emotions, and they look good. This is the type of game that focuses more on fusing gameplay with story. That's the reason the game works so well on the PS2 this late in the systems lifespan.
I loved the P4 soundtrack. Absolutely loved it. The game even comes with a bonus soundtrack CD, and I listen to it quite frequently. The upbeat tunes lend to the bright aesthetics of the game and really just complete the package. If you're not a fan of J-pop or J-rock, then you might be put off a little bit, but for the rest of you, you're in for a treat. This contends with the best of them in my humble opinion. I know music is a little more subject to mixed opinions, but I dare you to not find at least one track in this game you don't end up loving. They did such a wonderful job tying into the emotions being displayed in the game, it's a beautiful thing when when music comes together with the game so well.
On the topic of voice acting, I have good news for you, that I believe fans of P3 will appreciate greatly. It's all pretty damn good (No Fuuka!). All of the voice actors do a brilliant job giving life, and personality to their characters.
You may notice that the story portion of this review is a little longer then the rest. I did this one purpose, to convey the simple fact that if story isn't important to you, you're looking at the wrong game here. While the battles will take up a fair portion of time, it's all about the story in Persona 4. You could go over a hour without a single battle in P4. If that bothers you, I still recommend you try it out anyways. Playing this game is a experience I feel every gamer should have. Hell, most of the time I just rushed through the dungeons to get back to the social aspect. Consequently when the game finally ended, I was genuinely sad to see the characters go. After all that time spent building the Social Links with the characters left me attached to them. I'd decided long before the credits rolled to play through again soon.
Be warned, the game is long, it took me about 70 hours to complete. But this is a JRPG we're talking about. That should be expected. Just let me say, that those 70 hours where perhaps the best I've spent playing a video game. I feel like I've learned a lot about the world, myself, and I got to play an awesome game to boot. What more can you ask for?
Overall Score: 10/10
Yes, a 10/10 and the VFH Seal of Approval. Am I saying this game is perfect? Not by any means, no. But I give Persona 4 my highest possible recommendation, not because it will benefit me somehow, or because I have to. But because the game is a prime example of what more games should strive to be, smart, involving, and most of all, fun. I want people to take notice. Anyone who misses out on P4 is missing out on a masterpiece, and that's just a shame. As a reviewer, I'm here to share my experiences with games, and rate my time with them. I'm not saying I'm 100% sure this will be the best game you've ever played. But I sure as hell enjoyed the game, from start to finish it was just amazing. That was my experience, and if you happen to like the game anywhere near as much as I did, I think you'll agree with all that I've said.