Persona 4 PlayStation 2
Published by: Square Enix
Developed by: Atlus
Just as you think the PlayStation 2 has seen its last great RPG there's another one that comes along and proves you wrong. Persona 3 came late in the life of the console but it proved to be one of the best games in the genre for the PlayStation 2. Persona 3 FES, which was the slightly improved original game plus it's expansion, came out at the ridiculously low price of £19.99 towards the end of last year and somehow managed to make a superb game even better. Here we have Persona 4 and whilst I'm not going to tempt fate by saying it could well be the last great RPG for the console, I am going to say it's arguably the best RPG on the console.
As in Persona 3 you'll play as a male, Japanese high school student. You've just left the big city and have moved to the rural town of Inaba where you're going to stay with your uncle, Ryotaro Dojima and his young daughter, Nanako for a whole year. Within moments of arriving in Inaba you learn of a strange murder of a female TV announcer and within days another young lady is killed in an unusual fashion. Things get even creepier when your character discovers he can actually climb into televisions and enter a fog-filled alternate world full of evil shadows. The only friend you can find in this world is a rather bizarre creature by the name of Teddie. You're certainly going to need his help when a young girl in your class, Yukiko, goes missing and is trapped in the strange world that Teddie inhabits. Together with your friends from the Yasogami High School you'll have to explore the world inside the TV and rescue Yukiko before it's too late. There won't only be their friend to rescue however as other victims are pushed into this strange world and it's up to your character and his fellow party members to rescue them before it's too late. You'll also need to find out who is behind all of this during your year at Yasogami High.
One of Persona 4's more interesting aspects are the dungeons. Each dungeon is based on the suppressed side of the victim's personality. This means you're going to see some rather bizarrely designed dungeons such as a castle, bathhouse and a strip club. As a result each dungeon feels significantly different from each other. Each dungeon comes with a mini boss, main boss and a bonus boss (that you can return to defeat once you've rescued the victim). If you've played Persona 3 you'll remember how you had to clear a specific number of floors to find a portal that would enable your progress in Tartarus to be recorded. This isn't the case in Persona 4 however. Using an item known as a Goho-M you can leave a dungeon on any floor and return directly to that floor upon re-entering the dungeon. This makes exploring dungeons far more enjoyable and equally more viable if you don't have hours at a time to play the game.
One of the core elements of Persona 4 is the Social Link system. Each of the personas, the creatures you summon during a battle, you use is tied to a specific social link. Every key character in the game is also associated with a social link. You'll improve your rank for each of the social links by spending time with the appropriate person and making dialogue choices that win you their friendship and in some cases affection. This is something you'll definitely want to do because you will have the ability to fuse personas (combining two or three personas in order to create another one). The persona that's created as a result of a fusion will naturally be aligned with one of the social links and if it's one of the social links you've ranked up you're going to be given bonus experience, the higher the rank the more experience you're given, with which to level-up the persona. When you create a persona through fusion, the created persona can't be a higher level than the character you're playing as. The real beauty of this bonus experience is that it can be allocated to your created persona which enables it to reach levels higher than your main character. Improving the social link rank for characters that will fight in battles with you will also earn them special abilities that they otherwise wouldn't obtain. Essentially then, it really pays dividends to work on improving your social links.
If you've played Persona 3 you'll be fairly comfortable with how the game-play in Persona 4 flows. You'll have a choice of three difficultly settings to play on. The easiest of which gives you ten special items that will bring you back to life should your main character fall in battle. Igor, who will fuse your personas, returns and he's accompanied in his velvet room, which looks like it's a stretch limousine this time, by a young lady called Margaret. On schooldays you'll attend class, occasionally answer a question or two, and from time to time you'll have examinations. Naturally with this being an RPG you have character development in the traditional form of levelling-up and we've already mentioned the social links system in the game. However, you can also develop your character in other ways. There are Knowledge, Expression, Understanding, Diligence and Courage attributes that you'll need to develop during the course of the game. For instance, Knowledge can be developed by studying or giving correct answers during class and Expression can be enhanced by taking a translating job. Courage affects your ability to use certain dialogue choices during conversations and you'll need a good level of Understanding to take a tutoring job which can rake in plenty of much needed cash. Of course you're not going to be able to have a character with perfected attributes and social links so you'll have to shape your character to not only suit your style of playing the game but also how you want the storyline to progress.
Is Persona 4 absolute perfection then? Whilst I've no qualms with giving the game ten out of ten, in some small ways the game could have been better. For the first couple of hours you're simply sitting through a lot of narrative with only limited interaction. Initially this is a little off-putting but when you consider that you're probably going to be getting eighty hours minimum from the game that's hardly anything to complain about. Don't be fooled by thinking you should jump straight into the games hardest difficulty setting. On the normal setting the game can be fiercely difficult at times. In fact the easiest of the difficulty settings is far from being the pushover you might think it would be and those who aren't experienced with the Persona series will definitely want to begin here. It's great that the dungeons all look so varied but it's a shame that most of the floors within a dungeon look so much alike. This is only a minor niggle in all honesty however, considering you don't spend too long in each of the dungeons.
Some of the complaints about Persona 3 have been sorted out. You can now control every party member during the game's turn-based battles if you wish to. The AI does do a capable job of handling the other party members but it's great that you can now take full control of tough battles. Outside of the dungeons you can press the square button to gain quick access to different locations meaning you won't have to traipse all over the place to get to the point where you can leave the location. Personally I didn't find the characters in Persona 4 were as strong as those in Persona 3, although there are some memorable ones here, but the storyline is actually much more compelling and I've had great difficulty in pulling myself away from the game over the last few weeks.
There are sure to be many who are wondering if the game works on the original European PlayStation 3 consoles that support playback of various PlayStation 2 titles. The good news is that Persona 4 does work on the original European PS3 consoles but I have noticed one glitch (which I mention purely for reference). Whilst you're exploring the game's various dungeons you're always shown which floor you're on. This information is shown on the black bar that's displayed on the lower left of the screen on the PlayStation 2. When playing the game on the PS3 however, this is simply a black bar with no visible text. This isn't much of a problem and certainly doesn't take away from your enjoyment of the game.
Persona 4 looks just as good as Persona 3 in terms of quality of the in-game graphics. That's certainly not a complaint of course and I think it would be unrealistic to expect the game to look noticeably better on a console that is not too far away from being a decade old. Like Persona 3 the game is introduced by a slick looking, anime-style cutscene which really does look impressive. Where the game definitely improves however is in the look and ease of use of the menus. Atlus have really given Persona 4 a funky and stylish look which puts the presentation in most console RPG's to shame. There are no technical problems to speak of. The frame rate is absolutely fine throughout and load times are no more than a few seconds.
Whilst there have been several improvements in Persona 4, the support for deaf gamers remains the same. This is mostly good news although once again those impressive looking anime-style cutscenes aren't subtitled. Thankfully there aren't too many of them and it certainly doesn't spoil the game in any significant way. Virtually all of the other dialogue in the game is subtitled. You'll see the character's portrait and name placed alongside the text so you'll always be aware of who is saying what. The game also uses an assortment of icons to convey whether a character is surprised or shocked by something which is a nice touch. All of the quests you're given in a game are shown in text and can be recalled at any time. Tutorial messages are also shown in text. Most of the comments made by your party members during the course of a battle aren't subtitled however. There are no captions for the noises the shadows (the usual enemies you'll encounter in the game's dungeons) make. You can see their presence on the mini-map as a red dot but there are times when they can suddenly appear and surprise you where as hearing gamers will have heard their growl before they came into view. Thankfully, none of these omissions cause any real problems.
Persona 4 takes virtually everything what was great about Persona 3 and polishes it to a high sheen. The result is stunning and it's arguably one of the finest games on the PlayStation 2. Persona 4 offers the same addictive mix of dungeon crawling and taking a student through a whole academic year in a Japanese high school. The real beauty of this formula is that every action you do in the game has a bearing on your character's development thanks to the game's social link system. The improvements that have been made here serve to make this not only a more enjoyable game but also a more accessible one. It's fair to say that Persona 4 is a truly memorable RPG and it's one that will ensure that the PlayStation 2 isn't finished with just yet.