Everyone who’s ever lifted up a controller, or set hand to a mouse, to play a game knows that some games are good, some games are bad, and some games can be so enthralling experience that they defy any such label. Those are the games we find ourselves playing when the alarm clock buzzes at six in the morning, and we realize we forgot to sleep. Those are the games that drive us to become what we are: gamers.
Persona 4 is one such game. I could call it a good game, or a great game, but neither term fully captures the essence of Persona 4. Persona 4 is a game that will devour a great swath of time from your life—and you will be thankful for every spent hour.
Persona 4 is a Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) whose story revolves around a group of high school students gaining superpowers, fighting bad guys, and having fun, while all the while balancing both the supernatural and mundane aspects of their lives. Sounds clichéd? It is—not that it matters in this case, but I’ll get to that later—and it should also sound very familiar. The premise of Persona 4 is painfully similar to that of Persona 3, which was released to critical acclaim in 2006. It is true that Persona 4 introduces nothing new to the JRPG genre, or even the Persona series itself. The premise, story-structure, character archetypes, presentation, graphics and gameplay are virtually identical to Persona 3, and even were we to forget that, the basic presentation and mechanics are nothing unique. But, even with that, Persona 4 remains an exceptional game.
Gameplay in Persona 4 is rigidly divided into two distinct areas: the “real life” part of the game, where the player runs through town making friends, working, and going to school, and the “fantasy world” part of the game, which is devoted almost entirely to combat. This rigid divide means you’ll always know when to expect dialog-led social interaction, and you’ll always know when to expect a fight. Things can be a bit predictable, but Persona 4 endeavors to maintain a laid-back atmosphere throughout, so the stark juxtaposition never becomes too disconcerting.
The fantasy-world of Persona 4 is very different from Persona 4′s Dark Hour thematically, but very similar to it structurally. The game plays out in the Japanese town of Inaba. At the player’s discretion, you can go to a particular point in town and, from there, travel to the fantasy realm to progress through the story, level up, or search for various items that the people of Inaba want you to find for them. There are a handful of different dungeons you access one-at-a-time as you progress through the game. Each time a dungeon opens up, you have a set amount of time to beat the dungeon (which advances the story) or the game will end. Once you’ve cleared a dungeon, however, you can move back through it again, at your leisure, and attempt to defeat that dungeon’s hidden boss.
Though the aesthetics of these dungeons can be very, very cool (ranging from a strip-club to an 8-bit themed Dragon Quest tower) the actual layout of the dungeons is very simple. In a change from Persona 3, the dungeons in Persona 4 are no longer random, so every level will always look exactly the same—though there are some hidden and extra boss battles that spice things up. The various enemies are represented in the dungeon map as either hovering black balls or floating semi-sentient black puddles. These enemies move around along very short pre-determined paths, and when you encounter one you either attack it, or flee. When you attack an enemy—or when an enemy gives chase and catches up with you—you initiate a battle and shift to the combat portion of gameplay we’ve seen in every JRPG since the NES days. Attacking an enemy in the dungeon can give the player an advantage, but letting an enemy attack the player will give the enemy an advantage: the advantage is usually a full extra turn.
If you’ve ever played a JRPG, you should be pretty familiar with how Persona 4′s combat works out. You control 4 characters—either directly, or allow the AI to control the three additional characters with a handful of pre-selected behavior scripts—and take turns beating the crap out of monsters. The monsters also take turns beating the crap out of you. It’s all so very… symmetrical. Certain enemies have weaknesses, which will require the standard fire and ice-themed elemental spells to take down. The combat is fast-paced and the battle music is catchy, so combat is generally fast and fun, but every once in a while you’ll find yourself fighting a monster that is immune to ever single kind of attack save one. Those battle can be particularly infuriating when no one in your party is capable of causing any damage.