No matter how much we try to forget it, we'll always remember high school. The tension, the confusion, the wanting to fit in, the falling through TV sets and battling monsters with our empowered darkest emotions, our most pivotal moments playing out in anime cutscenes. Good times. At least, that's how we choose to remember grades 10 to 12. The sad reality of our teen years pales in comparison to the wonderfully morose vision of high school in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4.
As part of a long-running Japanese RPG series, Persona 4 has a built-in cult audience, but don't think that means it's hard to understand. Although it’s primarily a dungeon-crawler, what really sets Persona 4 apart from the pack is everything that happens outside of the dungeon. As a new kid in the quaint little town of Inaba, you make some friends and find out about the Midnight Channel, a TV show that only comes on at 12:00 AM on a rainy night when your set is off. Somehow, it's connected to this other world that only you and your friends can enter, but only after school (you need to pay attention to your studies). The game really builds the setting well, with a slow pace and a lot of well-written dialogue, much of it spoken.
The other world is pretty disturbing, especially when compared to the small town in the “real” world. You enter it through a big TV in the electronics department of Junes department store (which looks suspiciously like Wal-Mart and is equally wicked in its destruction of small businesses). The strange dimension’s hub world looks like an empty TV-show set, and from there you go to the dungeons. Each of those are filled with off-putting monsters and are shaped by the twisted fantasy of the person held captive within.
When you do explore that other world, the game’s battle system plays like most turn-based RPG systems, with a four-character party fighting the monsters that fill its path. You battle using your Personas, deeply buried parts of your characters that they gradually come to accept, thus gaining strengths that range from confidence to shooting lightning. The random encounters are fairly deep, with twists such as surprise extra enemies, hidden weaknesses, and penalties like losing turns. That goes a long way toward making the game's backbone - dungeon exploring - feel exciting instead of tired.
While in school, meanwhile, making friends, earning money and studying are just as important as fighting the bad guys. Where other RPG's might have you finding the ingredients to make a magic potion as a side quest, P4 tasks you with joining the Drama Club, getting a part-time job or eating spicy curry to raise your stats, all of which play out through short dialogue exchanges. It really makes your mostly impassive character feel like part of the world, and it’s great to see the game reward you for doing more than blasting straight through the main quest. On top of that, there’s a ton of stuff to unlock and collect - like weapons, new Personas and tarot cards - and that gives you an incentive to keep playing even after you’ve finished the huge storyline.
That's also the only real drawback of P4: there's too much to do, and you’re given so much information at the start that it can all be a little daunting. Explanations on how a Persona works, the importance of personal connections, collecting and fusing Persona cards and lots of lesser exposition are constantly thrown at you for the first five hours or so, making you think you'll never get a handle on it. Fortunately (or unfortunately, for those without much time), you'll have a while to get used to it; Persona 4 is exceptionally long, easily clocking in at 50-plus hours.
Graphically, P4 is a very good-looking PS2 game. It understands its limitations very well, and its unique art design works within them. Full of lush colors, fully animated cutscenes and a catchy soundtrack, it's got some very stylish touches. If you don't want a heaping pile of Japanese culture, or don't like an odd or off-putting story, then maybe you should stay away. Otherwise, Persona 4 is a superb (if long) RPG, and probably the last great PS2 game.
Dec 10, 2008