Atlus adds yet another chapter to their beloved Shin Megami Tensei universe this week with the release of Persona 4 for the PlayStation 2.
Taking the series from the city into the Japanese countryside, Persona 4 is a murder mystery featuring a group of school children who discover a bizarre realm inside their television sets where their innermost thoughts and fears become a reality.
Does the 4th chapter in the series manage to live up to the high level of polish and style fans have come to expect? Journey into the bizarre world of the video game critics to find out.
Evil is most disturbing when viewed through pure eyes, and Persona 4 delves into the subject with haunting effectiveness. The game’s morbid story juxtaposes the innocent lives of high school students with brutal crimes and hidden shame, filling the plot with discordant and compelling moments. Supposed best friends bury resentment for each other, outwardly happy kids wrestle with intense fears of rejection, and ordinary people become the centerpieces of gruesome crime scenes. This isn’t an RPG for anyone who is content to marry a princess or save some crystals.
One thing that Persona 4 does remarkably well is craft a believable and intriguing mystery that keeps the player guessing throughout the entire course of the game, and at certain points even requires the player to figure out the missing piece of the puzzle, or leave the case unsolved forever. The characters are interesting and interact wonderfully with each other, and in particular, the inclusion of family for the main character does a lot to heighten the emotional impact of many situations encountered in the game. As the game nears its conclusion, the build-up is so intense that it may be difficult to put down the controller.
there is no longer a mega dungeon like Tartarus was in P3 and FES. Instead, each dungeon is a more individualized representation of characters and their personal fears, issues and psychological hang-ups. As a result, each dungeon is "themed" with different problems that these characters are struggling with, all of which your party will need to overcome to eventually save that person. Shin Megami Tensei games have always explored serious and even controversial issues, but some of the ways that it's handled in Persona 4 is incredible. This includes giving you a greater insight into some of the characters' problems, ranging from sexual identity to the dissection of personal identity in the celebrity spotlight.
Perhaps the biggest change to the combat system comes from the fact that you can now control all four members of your party, instead of just the main character. You can issue direct commands, and the game is a lot more fun when you know that your allies won't waste their turns on a useless attack or fail to heal your main character in desperate situations. Even if the bosses tend to be a bit harder, the entire game feels much fairer since you're not depending on the AI's support. When you lose a battle in Persona 4 , it feels like it was your own fault and not because your ally decided do something stupid, and that makes a big difference in some of the game's more difficult fights.
What really sets Persona 4 apart, though, is its endearing, relatable cast. While I loved Persona 3, I never really warmed to most of my cohorts, who suffered from what I like to call Ian Ziering Syndrome — thirtysomethings impersonating high school kids. From the moment my spunky tomboy classmate invited me to sit next to her in Persona 4, though, I felt an immediate connection — and the sense that these could've easily been guys and gals I went to high school with. They're all normal kids with mundane problems: a big-city dude who's adjusting to life in the country, a girl whose friendship with a classmate might not be without ulterior motives, a girl who's trying to reconcile her public image with her private desires. Nothing earth-shattering — just the personal, internal battles we all fight.
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?