I recently had two weeks off for the holidays and came up with the crazy idea that I would give Persona 4 a shot during the break. If you’re like me and hadn’t even heard of this series until recently, it’s basically a traditional JRPG with an extreme focus on story and some social sim elements mixed in. I had heard about it here and there from a few people and it seemed like a good game to waste a holiday break on.
Boy, was I right. Persona 4 is an absolutely outstanding game in a genre that hasn’t really been very remarkable in several console generations. The last time I enjoyed a JRPG was probably…during the PS1 era. The success of Persona 4 is due largely to the balance it strikes between its two sides: JRPG dungeon crawling and a high school social sim.
Let’s talk about the JRPG side first. Dungeons in the game brought up memories of Diablo for me in that they are all randomly generated. The layout of each floor is created on the fly and the placement of things like treasure chests are littered throughout. It was extremely refreshing to play a JRPG where the dungeon segments focus on exploration. You often find yourself wanting to uncover the map for every corner of every floor, just in case you missed something.
Obviously combat is a big part of dungeons as well. Persona 4 seems to understand its place as a JRPG and makes sure that the combat system looks and feels familiar to anyone who’s played a game in the genre before. At the same time, it features mechanics and a flow of battle that make it seem fresh and fun. For example, (almost) every enemy has a specific weakness. If you exploit that weakness, you knock the enemy over. If you knock over every enemy in the battle you get to do an “all in” attack of sorts, which usually results in you straight up winning the battle. Finding and exploiting these weaknesses is what the battle system is all about. Thankfully, the game features a handy and easily-accessed info screen for each enemy you fight so that you can check what you’ve learned so far on the fly.
The other mechanic behind the combat in Persona 4 is the persona system. You are essentially equipping different personas (kind of like summons from other games, or even Pokemon) and altering your states based on the one you have equipped. You are constantly being mindful of what skills your equipped persona has, as well as what weaknesses. The reason for this is that those skills and weaknesses are applied to your character when you have that persona equipped. It’s a relatively simple mechanic that becomes deeper and deeper as it goes on; there are several layers of strategy to consider later on.
Of course, Persona 4 is a JRPG, so there will be a lot of combat. You’re encouraged to complete each dungeon twice (and the good rewards are incentive enough to do so). It can take several hours to work through some of the dungeons just one time alone. It can sometimes drag on a bit but seeing as it’s a JRPG the grind isn’t quite as bad as you expect going in.
The combat and dungeons are easy to talk about because they feel so familiar. While there are some fun changes and twists to them, the true uniqueness of Persona 4 lies in its other side: the social sim. When you aren’t working through dungeons, you’ll pretty much be attending high school and carefully deciding how to spend your time after school each day. This may sound like a bummer, but it is absolutely addictive and entertaining. In the same way that you develop a “one more turn” complex when playing Civilization V, you’ll develop a “one more day” complex while playing Persona 4.
The biggest reason the social sim elements are so great is because the characters are so good. Every single character in this game (major or minor) is written extremely well. Everyone is believable to the point where you feel like he could very easily be based on someone in the real world. I think a whole lot of the credit has to go to the localization team. The translation of this game is an absolutely top-notch job. Though the game is technically set in Japan, all the dialog was translated in such a fashion that it seems they could be average American kids. This is such a great boon to the characters because it’s a lot easier to relate to them when they feel so familiar. There are a few oddities here and there, like the use of Japanese honorifics (I am still clueless as to what any of them means) but in the context of the setting it’s just fine.
It’s a good thing that the characters in Persona 4 are so well written. It is, more than anything, a character-driven game. There is an overarching plot…well, several actually…but the characters and their interactions are the real focus. Every single character in the game has a unique personality and they all have their own personal dilemmas, fears, worries, and the like. The sort of depth these people have is rather uncommon in games and it lends itself so well to helping you grow attached to the story. Every character has an arc, it seems. If you make the effort to spend time with them, you’ll uncover more about their current situation in life and their troubles. The voice acting lends itself really well to listening to each character as it’s probably the best I’ve heard in a game out of Japan.
It’s not all drama, though. One very important thing about Persona 4 is that it’s very aware of itself and is constantly adjusting its tone accordingly. Nothing dramatic or comedic ever carries on past its welcome and the slow pace of the game allows time for each bit of storytelling to come out when the time is right. I never found myself thinking “this is boring melodrama” or “this comic relief messes up the pacing of this serious scene.” When the funny scenes do happen, they’re very charming and never feel like they’re trying too hard.
Charm is a big part of Persona 4. Little details from the colorful, stylistic menus to the extremely catchy soundtrack are really pleasing to experience. The game can easily put you into a good mood. The charm is found in nearly every aspect of the game, too, not just the presentation or the audio. The main characters all have their little quirks and some of the things random, unimportant characters say are rather amusing. When the tone of the game is light hearted, you’ll feel just plain good. I have never played a game that made me smile at so many little things so many times like Persona 4. I feel like that’s the best compliment I can give it and can’t emphasize enough how much it means.
I’m trying not to give examples because I’d hate to ruin the game for anyone who, like me, isn’t very familiar with it. Playing the game with a blank perspective was great and I’m glad that I really had no idea what to expect going in. In the same vein, I’m being awfully vague about the story for exactly the same reason. Persona 4 is simply something that you have to experience for yourself.
It’s worth mentioning that I got the “true” ending (of three possible endings) and by the end of it all I had clocked around 72 hours played. Persona 4 is very slow and deliberate in its pace, and while it may feel like four or five hours have gone by before it even becomes a game (mostly because four or five hours do go by before it really becomes a game), it never feels like it’s dragging too hard and does a good job of keeping you interested in what will happen next. Nothing can really express it better than this: even after 72 hours I didn’t want it to end and was sad that it was over.
I know Persona 4 came out two (or is it three now?) years ago, so I am a little late to this party. But if you’re looking for a good time-sink and sometimes find yourself thinking, “It’s been a long time since I’ve played a nice, long RPG,” Persona 4 will likely pull you in and not let go until the very end. Personally, I’m hoping for the fifth game to be announced this year. If it comes out on PS3 then it’ll have trophies and my life as I know it will be over.