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Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (PlayStation 2) artwork

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (PlayStation 2) review

"Think back to a normal day in high school. Specifically, remember the routine. Every day, you wake up, you go to class, eat lunch, take tests, talk to friends, and do the same thing you've done a thousand times in real life. Yet through some trickery, it's actually a great game that excels in taking the mundane and making it exciting. "

Think back to a normal day in high school. Specifically, remember the routine. Every day, you wake up, you go to class, eat lunch, take tests, talk to friends, and do the same thing you've done a thousand times in real life. Yet through some trickery, it's actually a great game that excels in taking the mundane and making it exciting.

At its core, Persona 4 presents high school the way we all secretly wish it was, and I'm not just talking about the part where you physically enter your television to solve a bizarre series of murders by killing giant monsters. Although that too. You can be the star of the sports team, or the lead actor in the school play, or the killer ladies man that people who play Persona 4 probably never were. You can have the highest test scores of anyone in your class, and you go on field trips and answer questions just like you in real life, except with more zany antics and accidentally ending up getting drunk in a real bar.

Everywhere you go, you meet people, a lot of people, and that's what the game is about. The central piece of the game's plot is a murder mystery, revolving around discovering how a shadowy killer is hanging corpses from telephone poles with no evident physical damage. The police are baffled, the locals are horrified, and the only one who can stop it is you, because no one else is going to believe the fact that the murders are related to a magic world inside your TV, that's for sure.

Anyway, the game does a great job of pacing out the mystery over the 80 hours it takes to complete, dangling carrot shaped clues in front of you often enough to keep you engrossed while still leaving you unsure of exactly what's going on. The ultimate conclusion to the story is fairly satisfying as well, but the real life of the game comes in the journey.

Everything is optional, all the characters you meet have a backstory, even the NPCs, and you can chose who you want to hang out with and when. You could chose not to find out that the local biker gang leader secretly enjoys making plush dolls and knitting tiny clothing for them to wear...but why?

Even sweeter is that as you get to know people better, you become stronger. Your party members gain new abilities in combat as your friendships deepen. There's a lot of incentive to do it beyond the fact that it's interesting to watch the madness of all these weirdos unfold, so it's nice that the madness is so satisfying.

The other half of the game is saving the killer's would-be victims while you attempt to unravel the mystery by diving into televisions to enter a series of individual hells that exist in the minds of the kidnapped.

To be honest, the dungeons themselves are sort of bland. They have some personality, but it's mostly incidental. It's hard for a sauna full of muscle men representing the internal struggle of one man with his own sexuality not to have personality. It's easier to attribute that kind of thing to the characters themselves being interesting than the dungeon design. The maps are all randomly generated per visit, and full of bland, repetitive corridors that'll have you opening the map every five seconds and backtracking out of dead ends to find the correct path forward.

These segments are largely saved by a battle system with a few interesting tricks up its sleeve. The most interesting one, and I'm serious, is elemental weaknesses. It feels really weird to say that given that elemental rock-paper-scissors appears in every RPG ever made, but the mechanic has a point beyond just making your numbers bigger. Hitting enemies with the right attack types will knock them down, and if you knock down everything on the field you get a free attack that does massive damage to all enemies. Under the right conditions, it's quite possible to win a random encounter on your first character's first turn.

What really works in Persona's battle system is that the rules are consistent. Everything you can do to enemies can be done to you as well. Enemies don't have five times your HP to make up for your massively inflated damage, and they'll attack your weakness as well, knocking people down and turn locking you to win. It's less about numbers, and more about making the right moves. Every encounter with a new type of random monster is kind of a panicked dash to find out what they're weak against before they truck you. Believe it or not, the fact that nearly everything can kill you very quickly is a lot of fun, but only because you're capable of doing the same in return.

Persona 4 is remarkably light on weakness. Other than the fact that the presentation of the dungeons themselves is somewhat dull, pretty much everything works together to create a really immersive experience. Meeting and learning about the people around you is a lot of fun, and so is punching the monsters that torment them in the face. There's enough dialogue and character stories to explore to warrant multiple playthroughs, and for a game that's already pushing 70 hours, that's a lot of value for your money.

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Community review by dragoon_of_infinity (January 08, 2011)

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