A role-playing game, more commonly referred to as an RPG, is a genre focused around fictional characters that are able to fight, take up quests and interact with the world. Typically when people think about RPGs, they think of large whimsical worlds, fantastical foes and deceitful dangers. However, despite the saturation of this scenario in the genre, Persona 4 proves that not only can an RPG do well breaking away from the conventional linear fantasy style we’ve come to know, but also become one of the best games in recent memory and one that I implore any fan of roleplaying games to indulge in this amazing experience.
Plot and Characters
The story of Persona 4 centers around your character (named by the player) who arrives in a small rural town known as Inaba to live with his uncle and cousin for the year to attend high school as his parents are working overseas. Shortly after his arrival, a string of murders begin to occur, with each victim showing no signs of bodily harm and their bodies being dumped in the most unlikely of locations, such as on top of a telephone pole. From here, the player learns of an alternate reality on the other side of the TV known as the Shadow World, and decides with his growing group of friends to try and solve the mystery of these murders and bring whoever committed these crimes to justice. As one may be able to imply, the game centers around this mystery, and the plot takes many twists and turns on the way to the conclusion. The main story always feels engaging and is always moving. Even when you may be performing a menial task to upgrade your skills or social links, the game never feels like it’s grinding to a halt, which is quite the achievement for an almost 70 hour game. The mystery is intriguing and actually requires thought from the player, trying to deduce who may be the culprit, and the pay off feels rewarding.
Though a well-written and focused plot is important, a great story is utterly useless if I don’t care about the characters involved. Thankfully, Persona 4’s cast is extremely memorable with a wide variety of characters. Within your main party, you will have a diverse pool of characters to interact with and battle alongside, from the goofy yet well-meaning best friend, Yosuke Hanamura, to the teenage pop idol sensation, Rise Fujikawa, to the detective prince, Naoto Shirogane, also looking to solve the murder mysteries that haunt Inaba. As I played through the game, the character I grew to connect with the most was Naoto Shirogane, the detective prince, as her story revolves around how others perceive her. While she is gifted in her intellectual abilities, the police force she works with still treats her as a child, and this has led her to try and act more adult. Her development as the story proceeds leads to her deciding that she’d rather become the person she wants to be instead of the person everyone else wants her to be. This resonated with me as I often find myself trying to fit in by being the person others want me to be. While I have started to be more true to myself in recent years, I often did everything I could to try and be accepted, instead of just acting genuine and surrounding myself with people who wanted to understand and get to know the real me. All these characters are fleshed out well and all have distinct personalities, making them a far cry from some of the more generic characters in some of the more uninspired games in the RPG scene.
The characters’ are one of this game’s biggest strengths, as they all have problems and quirks that one can relate to. These issues or feelings of doubt within them are all personified in the shadow world, so you get to see the hidden side of every main character in the game which helps develop them and make them feel more human.
As with many Japanese based RPGs, the game follows a turn based formula which allows all of your party members a turn to attack, heal or whatever you decide is important, then your opponent retaliates. The combat system borrows heavily from Atlus’s Shin Megami Tensei series. This is mostly due to the Persona series being a spin off with the main method of attacking being through summoning monsters known as Personas, a manifestation of one’s self.
Each character in the game uses their own Persona to battle, though the main character can use multiple, and each have their own unique moveset and animations. Thanks to the variety in team setups and equipable Personas, the combat doesn’t feel dull while traversing dungeons, though having to grind can be a pain. And, unfortunately, grinding is something that you will end up doing, as bosses can be quite the challenge if your party isn’t capable enough. While it is a problem found in many RPGs, it’s still disheartening to see it here once again.
Though your time in dungeons is spent fighting, you’re still a high school student, and thus you’ll still need to live your daily life outside of battling monsters. This leads to the social aspect of the game where you go to classes and interact with classmates. During classes, sometimes you may need to answer questions or do a test. Outside of school hours, you will have the opportunity to mingle with party members and other supporting characters to improve your relationship with them. From here, the game takes on a more visual novel approach, with the player having to select dialogue options to further character stories and improve relationships. This aspect, while seemingly dull, is one of the most enjoyable parts of the game as you are able to delve into the characters that inhabit this universe. Their charms, struggles and personalities are able to be fleshed out, and it is in these scenes where much of the character development occurs. It helps make the overall world feel more genuine seeing how much thought and effort was put into making all of these individual stories and the dialogue options help provide that sense of player involvement. It’s in these conversations you can really mold your character into whomever you want, whether you have him be a nice guy willing to help out or a jerk who reluctantly goes with the flow. Though this impact remains somewhat trivial as you can still get through character interactions; however, it’s still a fun addition and really puts the game in a league of its own in terms of variety.
Graphics and Sound
When the game first came out in 2008 on the PS2, it looked amazing. Due to how late the game came in the PS2’s life cycle, the developers were able to work well within the limitations. Today, however, the game looks a little dated. Simple outside textures look somewhat bland and the character models look blocky and flat. However, where the graphical design shines is in the shadow world, where the more creative colour palette and enemy design shine with creative looking dungeons and interesting foes. The character portraits during conversations are also well-made, helping give some personality and expression during dialogue that the 3D models just aren’t able to express. With what the developers had, they did an excellent job, but it certainly isn’t the most vivid and beautiful game ever made.
With sound, there are two major components, music and voice acting, and this game thrives in both, though with some minor hiccups. The soundtrack, in a single word, is euphoric, invoking whatever emotions fit the scene. Whether it be more laid back tracks that play while running around Inaba to the pulse-pounding boss theme that truly represents the depravity of the villains, the tracks are all well placed and well executed. Even on its own, I find myself coming back to the soundtrack constantly – a rarity as I usually only take a liking to a handful of tracks.
The English dub of the game, for the most part, is well cast. All the characters have a distinct voice that fits them well, both in personality and attitude. However, whether it be due to the limitations of the PS2 or just poor direction, the voices aren’t as expressive as necessary. While normal conversation is handled well, the atmosphere is decimated at points with characters who should be in a fit of rage sounding rather relaxed. There’s also the issue with the audio editing, as the voices sound like they were recorded with a low quality microphone with static at the end of louder utterances. While this is another issue that can be linked to limitations of the console, it still detracts from what should be otherwise exceptional voice work.
While its age certainly shows in certain aspects, Persona 4 is still a phenomenal game which kept me hooked for almost 65 hours until the credits rolled. With a mixture of an intriguing and engaging plot, well developed and realistic characters, gorgeous music and a sound combat system, Persona 4 truly demonstrates how unique entries in the genre can be, and I’d recommend anyone even slightly interested in Japanese RPGs give it a go.