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Being a Japanese high school student, solving mysteries, and (literally) battling your inner demons has never been more fun in the engagingly psychological world of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4.
2008 was not a good year for the Japanese role playing game (JRPG) genre. Sega's sublime strategy RPG Valkyria Chronicles was criminally overlooked by PlayStation 3 gamers despite rave reviews from critics. Namco's excellent Tales of Vesperia was also ignored by Xbox 360 owners, who flocked in droves to western-developed RPGs like Fallout 3 and Fable 2. A key reason behind the decline of the JRPG is because Japanese game developers have fallen behind their Western counterparts not only in terms of technological prowess, but apparently in design philosophy as well. The JRPG embodies this malaise more than any other genre; tired clichés, stale gameplay mechanics, and reliance on past formulas all led to an increasing disinterest in the genre outside of the mainstream Final Fantasy franchise. Despite the decline in JRPG sales and critical success, Atlus chose to release the latest entry in their Shin Megami Tensei series, Persona 4, on the now very-dated PlayStation 2.
The Persona series began as an offshoot of the critically-acclaimed but oft-overlooked Shin Megami Tensei (or MegaTen, as affectionately named by fans) RPG series. Whereas the mainstay MegaTen entries are set in dystopic, post-apocalypse settings, the Persona series takes place in a contemporary urban world, usually involving a young cast of characters that have to solve a mystery. P4 is set in the same world as the previous Persona games; it takes place a year after the end of Persona 3, but is unrelated plot-wise and features a brand new cast. Once again you assume the role of the silent protagonist, a high school student (that you get to name) who just transferred to Yasogami High in Inaba, a rural Japanese town rocked by a series of mysterious murders that occur on foggy days. Shortly after his arrival, the protagonist has a dream where he meets the mysterious Igor in the subconscious realm known as the Velvet Room, both reoccurring mainstays in the Persona series. Igor forges a pact with him, asking him to uncover the truth behind the foggy day murders. In turn, he grants the protagonist the ability to summon personas, mythological avatars, demons, and creatures that will eventually help him in his journey.
The protagonist quickly settles into school life and makes friends like Chie, a cheerful, tomboyish martial arts aficionado, and Yosuke, a friendly transfer student desperate to find something fun to do in Inaba. Chie tells them about the Midnight Channel rumor: if a person looks into a TV at midnight on a rainy day, they'll see their soul mate. The protagonist goes to test it out and sees his classmate on the Midnight Channel. He also discovers he has the ability to physically enter the world of the Midnight Channel. His classmate is found dead the next day. Those who have watched the Midnight Channel claimed to have seen the previous victims on the channel prior to their deaths. The protagonist decides to enter the Midnight Channel with Yosuke, where they meet Teddy, a mysterious creature that resembles a bear mascot. Teddy warns that the victims had entered the TV world and had been attacked by hostile creatures known as shadows. The protagonist then awakens to the power of persona and gains the ability to fight the shadows.
Unlike other RPGs, the persona isn't some arbitrary super power that the characters are innately gifted with. When Yosuke, the protagonist's first ally, awakens to his persona, it's far from a heroic, glorious moment. Instead, Yosuke is forced to face the troubling emotions he had been trying to deny, and he initially refuses to acknowledge his inner self. This causes his inner self to transform into a monster and turn against him. With the help of the newly-empowered protagonist, Yosuke survives, acknowledges his inner self and is awarded the power of persona. All his eventual allies have to endure this difficult self introspection before they can obtain their personas and move closer to the truth behind the mystery. What exactly is the Midnight Channel? Why does fog appear when someone's about to die? Who is behind all this?
Others that join the party include Chie's best friend, the reserved and elegant Yukiko; tough guy Kanji who struggles with his uncertain sexual and social identity; the androgynous detective Naoto who has issues with gender image; and burnt out pop idol Rise, who wants to live a normal life. One of the key components in a successful JRPG is to have a believable and likeable cast. P4 excels by avoiding tired character clichés and archetypes. There aren't any orphans with tragic pasts or effeminate heroes wielding gigantic swords.
Through Kanji and Naoto, P4 briefly incorporates homosexual and transgender issues, though without actually mentioning those words. It's very refreshing to see these normally taboo issues addressed with a degree of thoughtful sensitivity instead of the usual stereotypical characterizations common in the genre. Typically Japanese anime, manga, and games tend to write off gay characters as absurd comic relief, so it's gratifying that P4 treats these issues with a surprising degree of sensitivity. While Kanji may come off as a stereotypical thug, his characterization is anything but as he begins to accept his innermost feelings. Naoto feels trapped by societal gender expectations and is forced to put up a façade to meet those expectations. As a whole, the cast is much more relatable and natural compared to P3's sometimes overly brooding cast of misfits. Since the game takes place over the course of a calendar year, there's a natural sense of character progression and development, especially if you invest time into the game's Social Link system.
P4 separates itself from a typical RPG because you have to balance time being a normal high school student while saving victims and solving mysteries in the TV world. Perhaps more so than any other JRPG, time management is crucial. Similar to a dating simulation game (a very popular genre in Japan), improving the protagonist's personal stats like Courage, Charisma, and Intelligence is important. How the protagonist grows is entirely up to your priorities. Going to school, working part time jobs, doing well on exams, participating in character building club activities affects the people he befriends in the Social Link aspect of the game. You can spend time trying to deepen relationships by making the appropriate decisions and saying the right things when prompted. Social Links directly affect the strength of the personas you eventually create. Each character's Social Link corresponds to a Tarot Arcana. When creating personas affiliated with a specific Arcana in the Velvet Room, additional experience is gained based on the rank of that Arcana's Social Link. One notable improvement over P3 is the option to develop Social Links with your teammates. Not only does this provide additional insight into the lives of your allies, it also grants you additional bonuses in battle. For instance, if you max out your Social Link with Chie, she'll push the protagonist out of the way if he's about take a fatal hit.
There's also the option to pursue a romantic relationship with your female friends. Unlike P3, where you actually have to cheat on your girlfriend(s) to complete the Social Link, you aren't forced to enter a committed relationship once you reach a certain Social Link ranking. It does make things interesting if you do choose to date several of your female teammates at once, though. Sorry gay gamers, there's no option to pursue romance with the male characters (though that's possible in Persona 2: Innocent Sin, which recently received an unofficial translation patch). I was slightly disappointed that the Social Links are fairly linear outside of the decision to date your female friends or not; I was hoping for different branches and multiple endings depending on your choices. Since each character has their own schedules, there's a need to plan in advance and prioritize who to spend time with. Social Links are also thankfully optional if you don't like a specific character or would rather pursue other activities.
The other half involves exploring the TV world, saving would-be victims, discovering new personas, and uncovering the truth behind everything. The P4 battle system employs the latest iteration of the Press Turn system, which emphasizes exploiting your enemies' elemental weaknesses while defending your own. This cuts down on tedious level grinding by encouraging you to equip the appropriate personas and plan out their attacks strategically. Equipping the wrong persona at the wrong time often results in death, and when the protagonist is killed in battle, it's an immediate game over. With very little margin for error, this ensures that battles are usually tense -- another MegaTen signature. Other key improvements include being able to directly control your allies (the AI controlled allies in P3 were prone to making idiotic decisions) and the aforementioned Social Link benefits. Given how the tide of a battle can turn depending on your persona's elemental weaknesses, having an ally to protect you from an early demise is much appreciated. This cuts back on unexpected and frustrating deaths prevalent in most MegaTen.
Technically, the visuals are very dated, even by PS2 standards. Thankfully, the characters and dungeons are aesthetically rich in detail and psychological meaning. Tartarus, the main dungeon in P3, consisted of floors devoid of personality. Each of the dungeons in P4 reflects the personality and concerns of the person you're trying to save. For instance, the first dungeon is a storybook castle, representing Yukiko's desire to be saved by a prince charming from her real world responsibilities as the heir to her family's business. Shigenori Soejima returns as the character designer, again taking over from long-time MegaTen illustrator Kazuma Kaneko. Soejima's designs infuse the characters with a colorful, hip style in contrast to Kaneko's darker, foreboding designs. The game does recycle Kaneko's iconic persona illustrations, which have been reused in most MegaTen games since the 90s (it's really time to update that, Atlus). In contrast to the hip-hop pop musical styling of P3, P4 composer Shoji Meguro opted to go with a more guitar driven, J-rock flavored score. The music is catchy, thankfully replacing P3's repetitive rap battle hymns with more palatable Engrish girl rock ballads. (I wonder if Japanese anime and gaming industry will ever tire of coming up with nonsensical Engrish songs...)
P4 does everything a good sequel should: address all the key complaints from the previous game and refine the successful components. The two gameplay styles are better integrated, there's a greater variety of choices available to make, and the battles are a lot less frustrating. MegaTen purists will be disappointed that the game is more story-driven and light-hearted compared to the other games. While P4 lacks the emotional gravity of P3, which was ultimately about saving humanity from its self-destructive impulses, it never needed it in the first place. P3 is about understanding the inevitably of death while P4 is about cherishing those ordinary, everyday moments shared with friends and family. The dialogue does stretch out much longer than the previous MegaTen games, but it never feels unnatural or stilted due to the game's solid writing and excellent translation.
P4 is Atlus USA's finest localization effort to date. Within a very quick turnaround (five months) between the Japanese and US release, Atlus provides solid English voice acting (sorry, no option for the Japanese dub due to space constraints), an abundance of text free of grammatical errors, and no game crippling bugs (unlike certain other games in the genre). Linguists will nitpick at the inclusion of honorifics and the lack of explanations or glossary for cultural nuances and terminology. More so than P3, P4 is an unapologetically Japanese experience intended for Japanime gamers. If you ever wanted to learn more about Japanese culture from the perspective of a high school student, P4 is a good primer.
Also, due to the lengthy nature of the game (minimum time to complete is roughly 70 hours, no exaggeration) and its somewhat repetitive game play structure, the game isn't for casual gamers looking for a quick sword and shield fantasy. Despite the initially steep learning curve, P4 is the most accessible entry in the series for newcomers thanks to its game play refinements, down-to-earth characters, and original plot.
While the game doesn't reinvent the genre, it succeeds because it isn't afraid to take unconventional risks with its characters and the unfolding of the story. While it's certainly not the last JRPG to hit the PS2 (NIS America will release Sakura Taisen V in the fall), it'll certainly be remembered as the genre's swan song on the console. Given the surprisingly warm reception it has received by the media and fans, odds are the series will finally graduate onto the next generation consoles. Hopefully Persona 5: The College Years won't be too far off. The recognition the franchise is receiving is proof that Americans can handle games with culturally foreign settings, controversial themes, and atypical game play conventions.
For those seeking more MegaTen action, Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs King Abaddon just came out, an action RPG spin-off series set in Japan during the 1920s. The game is directed by Kazuma Kaneko, featuring new monster designs (at last), the return of classic MegaTen game play elements, and a unique detective noir theme. Devil Survivor, a grid based strategy RPG spin-off geared towards a younger crowd, comes out on the Nintendo DS at end of this month. Newly-minted P3 and P4 fans will have a chance to play an enhanced and properly localized remake of the original Persona (in the first release the setting was changed from Japan to America, an entire sub quest was cut, and even a character's skin color was changed) when it hits the PSP in the fall. The recent success of the MegaTen series in America is proof that JRPGs don't need Final Fantasy-caliber production values to be successful, but a willingness to take risks, avoid clichés, develop relatable characters, and tie it all together with a compelling story.
For William Hong's review of Persona 3, click here.
[links updated July 12, 2009]
Date Posted: 6/19/2009