Out of the Shadows comes greatness
Platform Presentation Controls Variety Audio Depth Value & FunOVERALL
PlayStation 2 9.50 8.00 8.50 9.50 8.00 9.008.64
General Information
Television set-up: 19" Sylvania CRT, SDTV 480i, composite cables.
Gameplay Description
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 is a dungeon-crawling Japanese RPG.  You act as a high-school student and build relationships that have benefits in battle.  Battles are waged in dungeons that have randomly-generated floors that you must progress through in order to reach the boss at the top floor.  Battles are turned-based, and you and your teammates use "Personas" which have different abilities such as elemental attacks, physical attacks and healing in order to defeat the enemies.
Dedication Meter 75.00
The battle-system isn't too difficult to get a grasp on -- you don't have to dedicate yourself to learning endless intricacies of the battle system -- but the game is lengthy, story-driven and requires preparation.  Playing off-and-on really isn't going to get you the most out of the game, and could make it a bit frustrating to boot.
Presentation 9.50
Excellent writing is rare in videogames, but despite being written originally in Japanese, Persona 4 comes through with incredible success.  Not quite as dark as its predecessor, Persona 3, but makes up for it with plenty of humour and charm.  But there's more than just the script that makes the presentation enjoyable; it's executed well on every front.  Packed in is an engaging mysterious plot, that keeps things moving along, though it does over-exert itself in the later chapters.  Perhaps what stands out is the human-element.  You can write as amazing of a story as you can, but when it's a visual medium and it's not presented properly, the emotion falls flat.  Overcoming the fact that the majority of the game's story takes place with the in-game engine, when it counts, the characters are animated in a realistic fashion in the brief and specific moments where it counts.
Controls 8.00
There's not a great deal to the controls in turned-based combat systems, and Persona 4 takes that to heart and keeps it simple and intuitive.  Navigation of your items could have been sorted a little better, but for the most part it all works.

The main kink to the controls, though, is in as you progress through dungeons.  Enemies -- called shadows in the game -- are visible on the overworld, and a battle begins when you come into contact with one.  You can gain an advantage by attacking the enemy from behind, and the enemy can do the same to you if they attack you without attacking back.  The hit-detection is spotty and what qualifies as giving you an advantage is inconsistent.
Variety 8.50
A big improvement over Persona 3 comes in the nature of how Persona 4 keeps things varied and fresh.  While it takes the same fundamental approach to the gameplay and progression, it's just handled more appropriately.  A primary factor here is incredible pacing that has you completing a dungeon of 11 floors, then getting a bit further in the story and having a chance to improve your social links.  

The game is split in half in two parts.  On one side you have the social side of the game.  You're controlling a high school student, and you can go out with your friends to build up your relationship and learn more about them.  While entertaining in its own write because of the writing, this helps on the combat side because for those who fight in your party, they gain new abilities, and you get bonus stats when you fuse personas.

The other side of the game is dungeon-crawling.  The floors are randomly generated, which works well-enough for what the game is, but can get a bit familiar.  In Persona 3, you had a single dungeon that was some 300 floors high.  While in principle Persona 4 does the exact same thing because the floors are all pretty much the same anyway, there are separate dungeons with separate designs and music, and somehow it makes a big difference.
Audio 9.50
There's something to be said for great voice-acting in this kind of game.  Dialogue is presented to the user in a dialogue-box, and you hear the voice of the actor read it, meaning there's not really a flowing scene going on, but each line being individually read.  Normally this can and will come across as uninspired and awkward, but shown in the strong writing and voicing, this isn't the case with Persona 4.

This takes a back-seat to the music, though.  For a game as long as Persona 4, you had better do the soundtrack justice or else you're going to annoy the player to no end.  Catchy, yet reserved, even funny in spots, the audio in every capacity is spectacular.
Depth 8.00
With well-balanced enemies and a solid battle-system, each encounter manages to avoid being tiresome.  A key aspect of the depth of the game is in the persona system itself, in that you can "fuse" personas in order to create new ones with different abilities.  In battle, you gain personas (you can only hold so many at a time), and you can then combine those with fusion.  Fusions will on top of allowing you to create otherwise unavailable personas, gain them abilities from the personas used in the fusions (for example, gain a healing ability because you used a healing persona in the fusion).  On top of that, new in Persona 4 are special effects on certain days that may grant new powers or bonus stats.

On the downside, though, the abilities aren't balanced well enough, favouring heavily magic over physical attacks.  Each character has HP and MP, but different to the Persona series is that when you use physical attacks with your persona, that takes HP, whereas magic skills use MP.  At the very least, you should be able to get physical attacks that are equal to magic ones, if not stronger, but that's simply not the case.  There are also various classes of personas that create different kinds of personas, but from my own experience, magician types are by far preferrable in large part due to this imbalance.
Value & Fun 9.00
Simply put, your enjoyment of the game will depend in large part on your enjoyment of the presentation.  The gameplay is relatively standard fare with a few unique ideas, but it doesn't do anything really wrong in that area.  It's straight-forward, classic dungeon-crawling fun, and if that's all you're looking for, you'll be happy.  The pacing is fantastic and makes all the difference in the world, particularly when the game comes in at 75 hours long as it was in my case.

Persona 4 takes a concept from Persona 3 and turns in on its head, which works perfectly for adapting the pacing.  Toward the end of Persona 3, you are told you'll have to fight some unknown enemy on Sunday of that week, and you were left to your own devices whether or not to level-grind.  The problem with this is if you end up underleveled, you're screwed because you can't go back, and you can only level up so much per day.  In Persona 4, you immediately have the ability to go through the entire current dungeon, but have to complete it before date X.  This leaves time to prepare and grind if necessary during that time.

There are a few minor issues in the game.  The first and foremost is the ending structure.  There are three endings, typically referred to as the bad ending, the good ending, and the true ending.  How you reach each is trite, arbitrary and obtuse.  There is no reason for anything other than the "true" ending, as it only serves to detract from the experience for the player.

The second is one that is carried over from Persona 3, which is the way you enter battles.  As mentioned, you get an advantage by attacking the enemy pre-emptively (the same going for the enemy).  This being the case, you are constantly standing off to the side, waiting for the enemy to turn around, if only to avoid the enemy gaining the advantage.  The poor hit-detect doesn't help.

The last is the least and again was present in Persona 3.  When you're fusing personas, you have to press X to select say the two personas you're going to fuse, and once selected a status screen shows up with a preview for the persona to be created.  The extra abilities gained are randomized, so to get the combination you want, you have to repeatedly then press O to back out, deselect the two personas, re-select them and get a new status screen and hope for the best.

Terrific writing, solid gameplay, perfect pacing, minor hinderences.
Overall 8.64
Persona 4 is a testament to the difference pacing can make in a game.  Take this review as a general overview, because there's simply too much to describe in text.  To simplify this, if you are firstly a JRPG fan, and secondly can read a synopsis of the game and be interested, then clear your schedule, take the plunge and be immersed.
Posted by Yodariquo Thu, 14 Jan 2010 04:13:35
 
Wed, 20 Jan 2010 00:44:57
Nice review.  Game sounds good but for two things: the length and the random generated dungeons.
 
Wed, 20 Jan 2010 00:59:37
Yes, those were two serious issues in Persona 3, and are actually improved (though in some ways superficially) in Persona 4.  Persona 3 took me 94 hours (holy crap), and was all one really long tower.  Persona 4 as I said works out about 75 hours, and splits it into different much more stylized and much better paced chunks, though still randomly generated.

It's a story-driven game, through and through.  The dungeons are basically filler, in my perspective.  If you don't get immersed in the story and characters, it likely is going to drag.
 
Wed, 20 Jan 2010 01:53:20
Had you played 1 and 2?  Would you think it would be wise to play them in order?  (I have them, just never opened them up).
 
Wed, 20 Jan 2010 01:59:49
No, haven't played them, but the stories are unrelated.  There are a couple meaningless cameos in Persona 4 from tertiary characters in Persona 3, and Persona 3's story isn't a sequel in any meaningful way as far as I can tell.

If you're worried about those issues you mentioned, I'd play Persona 4 first, then.  If you like that, then give the others a try.
 
Wed, 20 Jan 2010 02:32:41
Sounds good.
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