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Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (PlayStation 2) artwork

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (PlayStation 2) review

"What do you hate about yourself? Come on, be honest. Or are you too ashamed to admit anything? Perhaps you’re not even aware of it. It’s those perceived flaws, those nagging insecurities that can drive a person mad. Maybe you’re afraid of failure, that everything you do in life will ultimately amount to nothing. How about the resentment or jealously you might feel towards someone more successful than you are? A close friend you keep around to satisfy your sense of self-worth and need for accepta..."

What do you hate about yourself? Come on, be honest. Or are you too ashamed to admit anything? Perhaps you’re not even aware of it. It’s those perceived flaws, those nagging insecurities that can drive a person mad. Maybe you’re afraid of failure, that everything you do in life will ultimately amount to nothing. How about the resentment or jealously you might feel towards someone more successful than you are? A close friend you keep around to satisfy your sense of self-worth and need for acceptance? How about your gender or sexuality? What’s really hiding beneath that humble exterior, or that facade of an outgoing attitude? All your justifications and excuses might be the only things letting you sleep at night. Denial is the cornerstone of your behavior; you alter your personality, your actions, and everything else by measuring them against what is believed to be ‘normal.’ When it comes down to it, no one sees you in your true, flawed splendor. So, what are you really like?

…Not going to answer, huh? That’s understandable. Those are hard, unfair questions. Besides, you’re probably not ready to face whatever truth might be lurking deep in your psyche. But keep in mind that self-acceptance, regardless of the revelations that come it, is far more beneficial than that systematic denial that’s ruling your existence. In fact, it just might be what saves your life.

That’s the core theme of Persona 4; the necessity of self-acceptance. It’s a lesson that several of characters will have to learn the hard way. It doesn’t seem like it at first; the setting and the folks you’ll meet along the way seem boring at first glance. The Silent Protagonist is some high-schooler that has been sent to live with his uncle and cousin while his parents are off working. He’s left to transition from the fast-paced life of the city to the dull, bland pace of the town of Inaba. His initial friends are a blend of all the pals you might hang out with; Yosuke is the slightly goofy best buddy that’ll always back you up, Chie is the female athletic with an obsession over kung fu flicks, and Yuikiko is the responsible introvert. They’re ordinary, seemingly normal characters with whom gamers can easily identify. That’s the beauty of it; these people are just as flawed as the anyone else. The progression of the story doesn’t spare any of them from the awful truths that they try to hide; you’ll get to see them deal with fears of isolation, arrogance, sexual orientation, self-image, perceived immaturity, frustration over social norms, and several other problems.

This game isn’t some kind of touchy-feely group therapy session, though. Something evil has come to Inaba, and everyone’s inner demons have something to do with it. Every few days, another mangled corpse is discovered; police have no leads, no witnesses, or anything else that might help catch the murderer. The Silent Protagonist and his friends, however, have stumbled across the key to it all: a parallel dimension that can be accessed by entering a television screen. Inside, reality is warped based upon the murder victim’s perception of their life; depending on who you’re trying to save, you might have to peek into a steamy bathhouse, explore a massive castle, or a handful of other fantasy locales. Each of these mini-dungeons is riddled with “Shadows”, otherworldly beings that represent the darker, hidden sides of other peoples’ personalities. Since these creatures have no qualms about slaughtering you - the body count in Inaba is steadily rising, after all - you’ll have to come armed with whatever weapons and armor you can gather. Though you’ll start off with a golf club and some medicinal pills, a few trips to the local weapon maker will make things a bit easier. The point of the game is to get into a randomly generated dungeon, save the latest victim, smite anything that gets in your way via turn-based battles, and unravel more of the murder mystery at hand.

More importantly, you’ll get to develop your Personae. As the name suggests, a Persona is the extension of your personality. Without getting too much into Jungian psychology, this basically means that all of your beliefs, emotions, and unique traits are all cobbled together into something that represents you to the rest of the world. This game, however, gives the Personae a far more direct purpose: kicking ass. Each of the characters is capable of summoning his or her own inner beast and using it to lay siege to the battlefield. These things come in all shapes and sizes; you’ll get to see everything from angels, demons, pixies, mutated monstrosities, disco dancers, and several others. Each of these creatures can be leveled up and learn new powers to be used in battle. Even if you managed to find some ridiculously overpowered sword, nothing beats the slew of offensive and defensive spells your Personae can dish out. Since the Silent Protagonist can acquire, combine and use different Personae (the other characters are stuck with their defaults), there’s plenty to do in terms of development, stat growth, and all that other standard RPG stuff.

The strength of your Personae isn’t determined by just your battles in the TV dimension, though. When you’re not busy saving lives and hacking and slashing through psyches, you’ll have to maintain the boring, everyday life of the real world. That means going to class, taking tests, joining the clubs at school, and building relationships with the people around you. Every choice and action you perform will reflect on your character’s overall growth; get a high enough courage stat, and you might get enough confidence to ask certain friends some direct questions. Even if being a bookworm and answering in class nets you some intelligence points, standing up to some authority figures might boost other things as well. It’s always good to get to know the other students and whoever else might wander into your life. If you focus on building Social Links - the emotional bonds between the characters - your efforts will be reflected in your Personae’s development. Eventually, your Social Links will be so fully developed that you’ll be nigh unstoppable. Given the intricate systems at work, building the perfect Persona is half the fun.

Needless to say, this is a very different kind of RPG. If you’ve played Persona 3 (and shame on you if you haven’t!), this should all be eerily familiar. This game borrows several elements from its predecessor. But despite all its similarities, Persona 4 manages to trump the previous game by improving on the established formula. The game is so much more streamlined and efficient; rather than plodding back and forth over Inaba during the day, you can go to a necessary location with the push of a button. Being able to fully control everyone in your party is a huge step forward in terms of strategy; rather than simply keeping supporting cast alive, you’ll have much more say in how the battles are waged. Another is the format of the dungeons; in the last game, you have to scale a massive tower that had warp points every so often. This time, you’ll have to buy items that’ll let you escape and return to the dungeon when necessary. This demonstrates the necessity for preparation; if you don’t come with everything you need, you’ll likely find yourself in a tough spot in later areas. There’s nothing more annoying than leveling up a few times and acquiring some new Personae, only to lose them after you try tackling one floor too many and end up getting killed.

One of the most interesting improvements in Persona 4 is its overall pacing. The game utilizes the same system of progression from its predecessor; you wake up, go to school in the morning, do activities or fight in the afternoon, come home for dinner, and go to bed. What makes this different, however, is the emphasis on the weather. The murder victims are unveiled as the local fog bank recedes, which means you’ve got to keep a close track of the weather forecasts. Since you have only a limited number of days before the weather changes, you’ll have to rush to get prepared, jump into the next dungeon, and hopefully save the victim. If you waste too many of your afternoons, you might not have enough time to stop the next murder, which means a Game Over. That means that each day will be like a desperate scramble to get your teams ready or Social Links built up and hopefully save the next person before time runs out. Since that you have to balance everything in the afternoons, you might have some trouble figuring out what best to do with the given time It’s not exactly fast-paced, but progression seems so much more prevalent than that of the last game.

The same goes with the coherency of the story. Persona 3 had a considerable amount of shocking imagery (the suicidal summoning poses come to mind), but its characters lacked a certain appeal. Persona 4 strives to make its characters and story more approachable within its context; even if there are all kinds of inter-dimensional craziness going on, it’s still a murder mystery. It’s all about those subtle things that wouldn‘t normally matter in another game. It captures the loneliness of the Protagonist’s little cousin, who has grown up isolated and burdened with household responsibilities because the father is never around. Or the social issues that come with big businesses edging out the locals. The presentation is pulled off with a superb localization and great voice acting; there’s plenty of emotion backing every line. The cutscenes and dialogue are plentiful, but they’re easy to bear. It’s the Personae and Shadows, however, that truly steal the show; the monsters come packing detailed designs at every turn. One of the most impressive foes you’ll ever face is a demonic dominatrix being propped up by her otherworldly slaves, all with flowing tentacle whips and monstrous limbs. Despite the somewhat bland outdoor settings, it’s clear that a serious amount of effort went into designing the characters.

Look, folks. If you have any interest in RPGs, you need to play this game. Period. It’s one of the best titles available on the PS2. In fact, it just might be the console’s swan song. It’s a worthy sequel to Persona 3; it takes all of the things that made that game kick ass, and improves upon it. The revamped battle system offers more options and strategy than ever before. The intricate systems involved in creating and developing your Personae are deep and interesting to utilize; you’ll have to balance the reality of daily life with developing your psychological juggernauts. The choices you make reflect on your character’s unique personality. The dungeons might not be as easy to traverse, but they demonstrate the great need for preparation for the tasks at hand. The brisk pacing offers you a more structured and satisfying playthrough. The story itself is a great, dark exploration of the human psyche; it makes us consider our own fears and by witnessing the struggles and revelations of its very human characters. Who knows, maybe you’ll learn something about yourself along the way.

disco's avatar
Community review by disco (December 05, 2008)

Disco is a San Francisco Bay Area native, whose gaming repertoire spans nearly three decades and hundreds of titles. He loves fighting games, traveling the world, learning new things, writing, photography, and tea. Not necessarily in that order.

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meeptroid posted December 27, 2008:

This review was extremely informative and helpful. Despite being a huge RPG fan, I only recently discovered the Persona series by hearing about it on the internet. It seemed innovative and fun, definitely worth a purchase, and this review confirmed that. I'll probably pick up Persona 3 along with it and play that first. Thanks.

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