Unfortunately, Persona 4 is a few degrees shy of perfection. Though the concepts, characterization and storyline are all very well-thought out, the game’s execution leaves a lot to be desired. Essentially, the game is predictable–and a predictable story can become a boring story very quickly. I don’t mean to say that you can predict plot points in advance (and there are some rather nice twists to be had) but rather that the overall structure of the story follows a rigid, excruciatingly predictable pattern. Those of you who have played Persona 3 probably already have an inkling of what’s wrong: the calendar. While not as obvious of Persona’s 3 full moons, it’s very easy to look at the calendar and see just when, exactly, the next key plot development will occur.
And it gets worse. As I’ve stated, the storytelling in Persona 4 is top-tier. There are certain scenes filled with tension and emotion. Unfortunately, the game itself chooses to deliberately rob virtually all of the tension in the game–all because of that nasty little calendar. I suppose it’s mostly because Persona 4 is meant to be something of a “casual” game: the developers feel like the game needs to hold the player’s hand the whole way through. It’s hard to take the game seriously when, say, a villain kidnaps your mother, spirits her away to a demon-infested dungeon, and threatens to murder her… and then you’re pulled to the side and reminded that, hey–there’s no rush. There’s plenty of time to save your mom. Why don’t you take your time and level up, or go out to eat, or go on a date before you save your mothers life?
This hand-holding results in virtually zero narrative tension, which kills off a lot of the story’s potential. Fortunately, the other aspects of the game are so-well executed that the tiresome formula doesn’t break the game.
Then again, no matter how poorly executed the story is, ultimately, that’s not what Persona 4 is about. The overarching story is, perhaps, the least-integral aspects of the game. Persona 4 is about people and relationships. It’s about characterization and dialog. It’s about the small things, not the big things. Persona 4 is about people. The people you encounter in the game feel real. You’ll come to truly care for the characters you meet. You’ll get angry at them, embarrassed with them, and laugh with them. You won’t just be playing the game–you’ll become part of the game. Ultimately, isn’t that the kind of enthrallment that so entices a gamer to game? You may lose yourself in Persona 4. You may find yourself in Persona 4. You might laugh. You might cry. You might even find your fists quivering with barely-suppressed rage. The level of empathy the game is able to create between character and player is really something special, and more than makes up for the story’s flawed execution.
One of the nicer elements in Persona 4 is the game’s audio track. The sound effects and music are all very good–particuarly the battle music, which is sufficiently catchy and rhythmic to add a whole new layer of addiction to dungeon exploration–and Persona 4 even allows the player to switch between the English and Japanese audio tracks. I’ve heard a great many dubs in my time, and in general I prefer the original audio to any second-language dub, but the Enlgish voice acting in Persona 4 is top-tier. Unfortunately, the pool of high-quality English voice-actors is pretty small, so if you happen to recognize the rather prolific voice chosen for one actor, odds are you’ll be able to spoil yourself on the significance of that character to the game’s plot. The Japanese voice-acting is also of a high-tier, but be warned, the Enlish text follows the English localization, so you won’t be getting a fully accurate translation if you play the game in Japanese.
Originally rumored to be in development for the Playstation 3, many gamers were saddened when Persona 4 was revealed to be a Playstation 2 title. Of course, an equal number of gamers were overjoyed by the prospect. Though Persona 4 enters the fray at the latter-end of the PS2′s life-span, it’s presented in such a way that its graphics are comparable to those of newer-generation titles.
Fog plays a big role in Persona 4′s story, and the careful application of fog to the game helps to cover up some of the weaknesses of the engine. The draw distance is extremely short, even for a PS2 game, but because of the fog, the low draw distance is perfectly acceptable in the game. The art-design follows typical Japanese animation conventions–the game even has several fully-animated cut-scenes–which are all well drawn and animated.
One of the first things I noticed about Persona 4 was that it is a colorful game. A very, very colorful game. All of the enviroments are bright and vivid, and even the menus feature a brilliant palette. The “realism” trend in gaming graphics is, to my mind, one of the worst trends in the industry. Persona 4′s bright colors and over-the-top animation are a welcome change from the mundanity that has plagued the market of late.
Persona 4 is not a game. It is an experience. It is the kind of experience that helps to define what it means to be a gamer–and what it means to be a game. In an age where developes are constantly pushing less and less, a game like Persona 4 is a rare gem. It is a classic: it stands high among such grand titles as Suikoden 2, Xenogears, and Final Fantasy VII. Though it lacks the dramatic tone of so many other games in the genre, Persona 4 manages to deliver an experience totally unique to the genre.
Make no mistake: Persona 4 is a fantastic game that every gamer, regardless of his or her tastes, ought to experience. You really cannot find a game of similar quality anywhere else–and that’s a shame. A crying shame. But the sheer craftsmanship present in Persona 4 more than makes up for that deficit–and lends a cynical gamer like me newfound hope for the future of the genre.