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As someone who hasn’t played more than a few handfuls of seriously lengthy console RPGs, I always found the beast that is the Shin Megami Tensei metaseries to be something of a daunting enigma that I had no desire to get sucked into. After many years of curiosity, though, and around the long-awaited release of Persona 5, I finally sat down to enjoy my unplayed copy of the much-revered PS2 role-playing game, Persona 4. In recent years, the Persona subseries has distanced itself from its parent quite a bit, earning name recognition without the SMT moniker, and that was most prevalent when Persona 4 released in 2008. In a lot of ways, P4 was the Final Fantasy VII of its series, and it (as well as its various spinoffs) has become a long-running moneymaker for Atlus. I have yet to play any other Persona games, but I can say for certain that it is in my future as of now.
Persona 4 is a nontraditional game in various ways as it blends aspects of life simulation, turn-based dungeon crawling, and (to a small degree) monster collecting. The sheer amount of mechanics and things to do in the game are overwhelming, and newcomers are urged to play the game on the “Beginner” mode as it will take some time to understand everything that this game is about, and it does not play around on higher difficulties. The story follows you, the permanently male protagonist, as he arrives into a small Japanese town called Inaba to live with his uncle and cousin for the 2011 school year. As a transfer student, you make new friends and are actually given the option to spend days (within the relative options available to you per day and conditions met) however you want, but time management is a big part of the game. You cannot expect to do more than maybe two or three different activities a day, and the game is plagued with a very slow three-hour start that was honestly more difficult for me to get through than the infamous Roxas section of Kingdom Hearts II when that game originally released over a decade ago. Once it’s passed, however, you’ll see what all the fuss is about.
The story and its concepts requires a massive suspension of disbelief, but it becomes something that grows on you the more you play, even if it is absolutely ridiculous. Mysterious murders constantly occur when the weather in Inaba gets foggy, and you and your friends decide to investigate just what the hell is going on to prevent any more people from getting murdered. The victims are thrown into the “television dimension,” and you discover that you (conveniently) just so happen to have the power to enter it yourself, so you and your party enter inside to take matters into your own hands. The television dimension is where all of the dungeon crawling takes place, with somewhat randomized dungeons with standout and memorable level themes. This part of the game reminded me a lot of Psychonauts, as each dungeon you battle and explore in is designed to be a reflection of the minds and suppressed feelings of different characters and their personalities. The characters of this game are its crux, and that’s a very good thing when the cast is colorful and strong. The full investigation team you put together won’t be complete until you’re more than around three fourths of the way through the main story, but just hearing their banter and dialogue truly is enough of an incentive to keep you playing the 80+ hour experience. The writing and delivery is just that good, and you will have a hard time picking a party a lot of the time because of how likeable every character is. You won’t even hear every line of dialogue your first time through. It’s probably one of the best localizations ever.
The turn-based battles in this game were so much fun that I honestly have nothing against turn-based tactical combat anymore. Sometimes, though, when grinding in the dungeons for minutes bleeding into hours, the battles can be a bit much and may become a bore, and I had to take several breaks throughout the days playing to be able to stomach it. The monster collecting aspect of the Personas did annoy me a bit as well, and was that one mechanic of the RPG that I didn’t quite understand at first, but a guide can somewhat fix that. Even with all the contrivances and dislikes I had toward it, I kept coming back, with the game being the only thing on my mind in between sittings. Persona 4 is aided by genius sound design to make every menu selection and action performed in and out of combat feel satisfying, and the overall soundtrack is something you will find yourself humming for weeks. Shoji Meguro is going to be recognized highly for his efforts in years to come, and for good reason: the soundtrack is incredibly memorable and compliments the game perfectly. His other work outside of the realm of Persona 4 is exceptional as it is.
Outside of combat is the more relaxed day-to-day simulation of everyday life, where you can increase many of the protagonist’s stats. The protagonist has five personality stats that can be increased multiple times, and allow you to access certain activities and conversations throughout the slice-of-life side of the game. If you ask me, the best part of Persona 4 is hanging out with your friends after school, where you can increase their “social links,” a meter that tracks how much you’ve bonded with them. The higher the social link, the more powerful the Personas you can create to aid you in combat when dungeon crawling. For your immediate battle party, increasing their social links not only gives you stronger Personas, but it also grants the party member in question with more abilities that aid you in battle. There’s well over a dozen characters you can develop social links with, and you’re likely not going to get the maximal result on your first playthrough. The reason why I like this half of the game so much is that it’s surprisingly compelling, and great revelations are abound when you discover more about the people you develop your relationships with. They all feel like real people with lives and problems. If new game plus is your thing, you can easily sink upwards of 150 hours into the game.
Persona 4 has an identity, and a fully realized one at that. The game isn’t exactly going to blow you away in terms of combat, but its characters are an achievement in writing and localization in my opinion. The plot, if followed through it to the absolute end, will surprise you. You’re going to remember this game long after the credits roll, and while it doesn’t reinvent the wheel or revolutionize the genre, it is simply a very good RPG that does what it does extremely well. If you can get your hands on the PS2 version, it’s worth it, but I do regret not owning a PS Vita purely for the enhanced re-release, Persona 4 Golden, as it expanded and improved the vanilla game. Regardless, the game is great, and even after you finish it, there are plenty of other Persona 4 games and media to last you awhile in case you end up missing the characters. I can guarantee that it will become a favorite of yours, if you give it the time. But make sure you have some experience with the JRPG genre before coming in, as the game expects quite a bit from the player even on beginner mode.