Persona 4 is Persona 3 with a murder mystery factored into the equation of high school dating sim plus dungeon crawler divided by Pokemon.
Let's not waste time arguing that Persona 4 is fundamentally different than its predecessor, because it isn't – and nobody said that was a bad thing. Instead, think about the pros and cons of the game in terms of dusting off your PlayStation 2; because that's the biggest challenge the game presents: Finding space on the surge protector to plug in your outdated console.
Choices: Whether it be weird answers to test questions, sprawling dungeons with plenty of doors that lead to nowhere, or the three (technically four) possible endings, Persona 4 doesn't skimp on offering the player plenty to do. If you get bored of grinding levels, there's Persona-fusion. If you hate Persona-fusion, you can go to school. If you hate school, you can get a part time job. If you don't want to work, you can join a school club and max out a relationship level with a girl, then invite her back to your bedroom. A few limitations apply – some dialogue choices, after school jobs and relationship possibilities can't be accessed unless you've raised your Knowledge, Courage, Diligence, Understanding or Expression high enough. But, hey, there's plenty of ways to get those scores up – up to and including gorging yourself on ramen.
Symbolism: I never liked the whole shooting yourself in the head thing in Persona 3; it was too emo. Also, I just didn't get some of the "philosophical" arguments made by the characters throughout the game. Persona 4 either cuts the shit when it comes to making up excuses for villains to be villains and teenagers to be angsty – or it offers a semi-plausible explanation for why there's this magic world that only you can enter where your inner self manifests as a tarot card that summons a monster. Having logical symbolism helps me concentrate on enjoying the game instead of spending whole cut scenes "WTF?!" and trying to click through them as fast as I can.
Murder She Wrote: Here's the plot: you're a transfer student sent to live with your uncle, a police detective, in the sleepy town of Inaba. Once you get there, people are abuzz about this phenomenon called the Midnight Channel. If someone appears on the Midnight Channel, they suddenly go missing in real life. If it rains, his or her dead body appears in the town on the first foggy day after the rain clears. As the game progresses, people you know start appearing on the Midnight Channel and gameplay revolves around trying to save them. The murder mystery angle makes the dungeon crawling more bearable. Not only are you actually concerned about the victims you're trying to save, but it breaks down the actually "dungeon" into smaller, more bearable chunks. And being governed by the weather (instead of the full moon from Persona 3) makes your time-management of crawling versus school life more urgent.
Naughty Nurses – Oh, Japan, the way you regard the medical profession as a den of sin is beyond me. But I think working up my Diligence score to get the part-time job at the hospital was one of the best treats Persona 4 has to offer… even if it did raise ethical questions about statutory rape.
Gameplay Extension: They wouldn't call it dungeon crawling if you could blow through the whole thing in half an hour. But… (spoiler warning!) three — technically four — endings? Two fake-out last boss/dungeons? And the three massive dialogue chains you have to go through to get the "true" ending – wherein if you blow one response you automatically get one of the bad endings? At some point (probably in the last 15 hours of the game), you're going to think enough is enough. You might even deliberately go for the bad ending just to give yourself a sense of closure that Persona 4 seems so bent on depriving you of.
Fishing: Game designers, please don't add fishing mini-games unless you're going to do them well. Persona 4 is the epitome of pointless fishing game mayhem. You don't have to do it to progress through the game; if you do do it, the rewards you can get by trading your fish with the old man by the river are no better than if you save up your money and buy equipment from the shopping channel on Sunday; and the way you do it blows. If I wanted to button mash, I'd go play any game besides a dungeon crawler.
"Wizard Did It": Part of the fun of murder mysteries is the guessing game. You have this idea that you can solve them based on the evidence presented to you – and in good murder mysteries, you can. That's why crime drama shows like Law & Order are still on the air after nearly 20 years. Persona 4 makes much of its murder mystery plot – but it doesn't work the way a murder mystery is supposed to work. Instead, it works like an episode of Xena as described in that Simpsons episode: "Every time you see something that doesn't make sense, a wizard did it." So, every time you feel inclined to "solve" the mystery – don't.
Why is this on the PS2? – I've bitched about this before. Atlus says it has found that "in both America and Japan, the vast majority of Persona fans are still using their PS2s to play RPGs. Atlus' first priority was to create a deep and engaging RPG experience without alienating their fans, and with the PS2's large install base both here and in Japan, developing for the last generation console made more sense." It's a classic case of "If you build it, they will come," if you ask me. Besides, I'd love to see some of the amazing Persona designs in next-gen graphics. Is it so wrong of me to want Shin Megami Tensei goodness on my PS3?
Persona 4 is a solid game for anybody who likes dungeon crawling. But it's worth mentioning the vicious cycle of sequels to good games: 1) If the first one was so good, thinks the developer, why not make the next dozen or so just like it? 2) If the first one was so good, thinks the fan, I'm going to buy the next dozen or so no matter what the reviews say. 3) If the first one was so good and I hated it, thinks the skeptic, I'll never buy it no matter what the reviews say. 4) So if everybody has already made up their minds, thinks the game reviewer, why the hell am I writing this again?
Persona 4 was developed and published by Atlus, released in North America on December 9 for the PlayStation 2. Retails for $39.99. Completed game on Easy Mode to get all three (technically four) endings. Started second playthrough on Normal Mode to maintain my self-esteem and tested out Hard Mode to see if it was really hard (it is).
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