Way back in January, I wrote an Impression piece on Persona 3 FES, a game I later had to abandon because I got myself stuck in an unwinnable situation without sufficient save games to back my way out of it. At the time, I couldn't bring myself to restart from the beginning.
I'm not going to write an Impression of P4; the game sucked me in so completely that I have already finished playing it. Not just finished - I finished with the true, good ending. Anyone who knows my game playing habits will understand what this means - I usually take a very long time to finish games. My average play time for Final Fantasy games is measured in years. Persona 4 took months, but for me, that's crazy-fast.
Persona 4 takes the franchise concept in an interesting direction. As in Persona 3, you play a nameless (you get to name him) protagonist, newly arrived in town. Your parents are working overseas for a year, so the protagonist is going to stay with his uncle and young cousin for the year.
Shortly after arriving, though, the town is left reeling by a series of gristly inexplicable murders. As you'd expect, of course, this is an open invitation for the protagonist (a Japanese highschool student) and his friends and classmates to get involved in the investigation. It's a bit of a tricky situation for him from time to time, as his uncle is a detective with the local police department, but all crime-fighting Japanese highschool students have SOME cross to bear, or it just wouldn't feel right.
The investigation is aided greatly by the protagonist's discovery that he has the ability to somehow enter the screen of a TV, crossing over into a strange fog-filled world on the other side. There he is able to use the power of "Persona", another personality inside himself that he can call upon to fight the Shadows that inhabit that strange, misty world.
Without going into too much of the plot, the story unfolds with mechanics that will be largely familiar to players with experience of Persona 3. There are some significant changes that improve the play experience though, chiefly the ability to take control of all of your characters in combat. Persona 3 allowed direct control only of the protagonist; his friends were always under AI control. Having full control allows you to take advantage of character abilities better and to more carefully manage the health and magic points of the party on long dungeon grinding sessions.
Dungeon grinding is another area where Persona 4 improves upon Persona 3 in a dramatic way. In P4, you always have the option to resume exploration of a dungeon you've left at the deepest level you've reached in it, which prevents the often tedious trek back up to where you left off that P3 players faced on a regular basis.
The most important thing for me in any RPG is the characters and the story, and this is where P4 really shines in my eyes. The story and the world are written in such a way that each character that joins your "investigation team" has a Persona, and has that persona because they were a potential victim of the murder spree. Without giving too much away, each character is forced to face his or her own inner demons - or more specifically, their inner Shadow - and once that Shadow is defeated, that person gains a new level of acceptance of who they are. This becomes manifest by their acquisition of a Persona, a figurative and literal gain in power that enables them to join the fight to discover the truth behind what's happening in the town.
This is a really brilliant move because it doesn't just encourage good character development, it requires it. All of the characters you play rise above the stale stereotypes you find too often in games and display a depth and complexity that was beyond refreshing. These are characters who live in the mind and imagination of the player, real people with conflicting desires, self-doubts, multi-faceted personalities and a great deal of growth throughout the course of the game. When the game was over and it was time for me and my protagonist to leave these friends behind, it was with true regret that I had to let them go.
Before you start thinking that Atlus is paying me to write this, I should probably mention that there ARE some things that bothered me about the game. Most serious was the obvious railroading that goes on. Given the time management aspect of the game that P4 shares with P3, it's completely understandable, but it seemed to stand out even more in P4 than it did in P3. Understandable or not, it did affect my ability to enjoy the game on a regular basis.
All in all, flaws or no flaws, Persona 4 is currently at the top of my list of favorite RPGs. The story and particularly the characters are beautifully executed, and kept me completely enthralled. More importantly, those characters are going to continue to live inside my head for a long time to come, and will likely tempt me back in for another play-through, since getting the ultimate good ending allows you to start a new game with some carry-over data to unlock new stuff.
I can't recommend this game enough. If you have any interest in JPRGs at all, it's a must-play. If you have any interest in RPGs in general at all, it's a must-play. If you don't have any interest in RPGs at all, give it a try anyway; it may well be enough to change your mind.
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