Release Date: December 8, 2008
Systems: PS2, PSN, PSVita
Metacritic Score: 90
Persona’s 3 & 4 are two of my favorite games of all time. However, I always have to talk about them together, because each game does something I wish the other did, making the other game feel lacking while I play one installment or the other. So many of the issues I had while playing Persona 3 have been addressed here, but just as often I found my self asking “why was this changed”?
The story to Persona 4 is a little…weird. I tried writing a comprehensive synopsis, but I couldn’t find a way to make the odder bits seem any less odd. So instead I’m just going to lay out all the weird right out front: like in Persona 3 you play as a transfer student. You soon meet new friends in the small Japanese town of Inaba and the three of you soon learn that there is another world inside everyone TV’s, filled with creatures known as shadows, that someone has been using to commit murders. The three of you, knowing that the police wont believe you, go in searing for clues. While there the repressed parts of of each characters psyche becomes manifest, becoming shadows you must defeat. After doing so, each character gains the strength to face their inner demons, awakening their “Persona”. You soon find out that those who are thrown into the TV world to die have some connection to a rumor about “The Midnight Channel”, where watching a TV on a rainy night supposedly shows you your soul mate. Once you know who it is that’s been thrown in, you go to save them and watch as they battle the parts of themselves they keep hidden and awaken to their own power. And as before, while all this is going on you still have to balance this with making friends, studying for tests and other such high school antics.
So, with all that weirdness out of the way, lets talk about how much I love this games story.
My main issue with P3’s story was that it didn’t properly start until about 75% into the game, where as here the story starts right off the bat. Almost as soon as you start the game the intrigue of the murders starts, compelling you to unravel the mystery. But like P3, what really sells the game is the characters. By making the bosses the hidden parts of each of the characters you gain a much deeper understanding of the characters, making an already well rounded cast feel even more human. But before we talk more about these characters, there is one negative I want to bring up: the pacing in the early game. By focusing so heavily on the story, there is a lot of stuff the game has to tell you, and the first few hours drag on a bit because of this. In fact, it took about three hours of game time before I was given any freedom at all. While this does help the game tell it’s story, I couldn’t help but wish I could actually play the game in those early hours.
Now to the characters. There are two I want to talk about and if you’ve ever heard a discussion about “Persona 4”, you already know who they are: Naoto Shirogane and Kanji Tatsumi.
Warning: mild spoilers.
Lets start with Kanji Tatsumi. Kanji is gay. Atlas made this a little more subtle in the American release, but there is no denying that Kanji is gay. However, what makes his character interesting is how he deals with this. Everyone in his life told him that being gay is unmanly, that it’s weak. Kanji, who is introduced as a badass hellion, hides this because this social reinforcement conflicts with his self identity as a man’s man, beholden only to himself. He sees himself as the only authority over himself, yet is still shackled to society’s view of his sexuality. Kanji is one of the best examples of how adding in LGBT and more diverse characters can make a story better. If Kanji was straight he’d be a far less interesting character, but his sexuality doesn’t define him. While he is the only gay character he is never “the gay guy of the group”. His wrestling with his sexuality is what gives him depth, but it is far and away from his only character trait.
And then there is Naoto Shirogane, a character I wished I liked more than I do. Naoto’s main struggle is with Gender Identity and Societal Gender Roles, both issues I’d like to see explored more. So why don’t I like the character? Well, Naoto is introduced as Transgender. The possibility of a sex change is even brought up early on. However, it seems like Atlas wanted to talk about these issues, but soon found they were out of their league. Naoto isn’t brought into the game until pretty late, giving you less time to explore his character. But if you do finish his social link, the route Atlas took was “I’m really a woman who was trying to fit into a mans world”.
While I applaud Atlas for at least trying to deal with gender issues, and I can’t say that where they went with the character was “bad” (part of exploring gender is knowing you may come back to your assigned gender if that is where you feel the most comfortable), but this does make the character noticeably less interesting that he could have been, and when you consider how under represented trans people already are in all forms of media it nearly undermines the issue entirely. One more thing to mention: while my reviews are based off my opinion, I do think it’s worth noting that a trans acquaintance of mine felt insulted by the direction of this character arch and hasn’t played the game since. Personally I choose to ignore the established canon and just headcanon Naoto as trans, but my headcanons are not the game, so your experiences may differ.
Overall though, I’d say the story here is much better than it was in P3, with generally better characters, a better plot and better pacing. If only it had stuck the landing a bit better.
Almost everything I said in my Persona 3 review stands here: you still have to manage your time between establishing social links, increasing character stats, and level grinding. This is as it was before, however there are a few changes this time around. Some good and some not so good.
The first change is to the dungeons. Where in Persona 3 there was only one dungeon, here there are a few, each based off the mind of whoever you’re saving. This creates a nice sense of diversity in the level design that was sorely missing from P3. This time around you can also control the rest of your party, but only after changing their tactics at the start of battle.
Speaking of your party, social links have also been given an upgrade. Now not only do they give you a bonus when fusing personas together but as you get closer to your team mates they become more effective in battle. As you level up your social link with a character, that character may help you up after you’ve been knocked down, or follow up on an attack. This gives you even more incentive to complete these, with the character’s stories still being the main draw (for me at least).
The one major issue I found was that the game was just easier than last time. The ability to exploit weakness is still a key aspect of combat but here it’s a bit overdone. In the last game if you knocked down an enemy by hitting their weakness, then hit them again they’d get back up. Here doing so disorientates them, giving you more chances to attack. And if you get knocked down, unlike in the last game where getting up takes up a character’s turn, here you can get up and attack. I know this game was meant to bring in new people to the franchise, but this kind of oversimplification makes the combat not as fun. That’s not to say that it isn’t fun, but I began to wish the combat was more like that of P3 instead. That goes back to what I was saying about how each game is incomplete when compared to each other. The combat in P3 is more thoughtful, but I hate having to rely on A.I. for the rest of my party. I love having control of the whole party in P4, but wish the combat pushed me more. The story is better overall in P4, but the stakes aren’t as high as they were in P3.
This is a good game, it’s fun and makes you want to solve the mystery of who’s committing the murders. However, I can say that you will get more out of your experience if you’re new to the franchise, and as someone who isn’t I can predict that you’ll also get substantially less out of it if you’re a veteran. Not to the point of disinterest, but you will likely long for something a bit… more.
Music and Sound:
The soundtrack is comprised of the same mix of J-pop, ambiance, and upbeat battle music as the last game. While I still can’t say I’d listen to any of it on my iPod, I liked the soundtrack a lot more in P4 than in P3. The battle music is more rock oriented, and the theme song is much better (although I do have to say, Persona 3’s theme song has grown on me). The voice cast also does a great job, but strangely there is no voice over in a lot of the scenes where you gain a social link rating. This is such an odd design choice. Persona 3 did this as well and it made little sense there too. If the cast is one of the main draws to the game, why not have these scenes voiced? Maybe this was a cost thing, but I cannot think of a reason why anyone would think reading blocks of text in the age of voice acting was a good idea. In the end this has the same level of polish as a well dubbed anime, so if that’s your thing, you wont have any major issues here, other than long stretches without voice acting.
Music and Sound: 4/5
Overall Score: 3.8/5
Who is this game for:
If you’ve been turned off to JRPG’s by the likes of “Final Fantasy” then you should give this game a look. With a great cast and modern setting, there is plenty to enjoy that deviates from typical JRPG conventions, while staying true to the parts of the genre that make it special. If you’re thinking about getting both P3 and P4, get this one first. It’s a clearer example of what makes this series special, but it does lose some of it’s charm once you’ve become accustom to the franchise.
Author note: I’d like to take a moment to thank my sibling for taking time out of their day to edit this review. Your hard work is very much appreciated