Monday, January 28, 2013

GOT 'IM - Persona 4

  Welcome, readers, to my first review of 2013.  I have more than one reader, right?  Well, I've been no-lifing it for the past few weeks.  Persona 4 continues my obsession from where Persona 3 left off. 

I began Persona 4 just after MAGFest on January 6th, and I beat it in right around two weeks.  That's 90 hours of playtime.  In two weeks.  That's right, no-lifing it.   Persona 3 was one of my favorite games I played last year, and Persona 4 is (mostly) more of the same.  Which is probably just what I wanted. 

Look, before I go any further, Persona 4 is a lot like Persona 3.  It has its base systems of a daily calendar, social stats, social links, turn-based combat, dungeons located in an alternate space and accessed during free time; these two games are *very* similar in general gameplay.  You can find my Persona 3 FES review right here, and most of the gameplay mechanics translate perfectly.

Persona 4 takes that formula and makes it better.  I'll say it outright: at an objective level, Persona 4 is better than Persona 3.  With subjective things like characters, story, setting, and aesthetics it's a pick'em, but Persona 4 improves upon Persona 3's bread and butter mechanics.  Social Links have fewer barriers to entry and are spread throughout the playtime more evenly, with more opportunities to raise them other than direct encounters and Sunday dates; Personae are more balanced, with no arcana overly frontloaded or backloaded other than Judgment (which makes sense in context); there is more variety in dungeon design - more on this later.  OK, that paragraph is an incoherent jargon-rich mess.  I'll get to some Persona 3+4 basics in the next few paragraphs.

Most of what I say in the next few paragraphs is true for both Persona 3 and Persona 4, but I'll be writing in the context of Persona 4.  Persona 4 balances the social life of a teenager with the mission of a group of young people using their supernatural powers for good.  In one half of the game, your main character goes to class, hangs out with friends, does part-time jobs, eats at restaurants, goes fishing, or any number of activities a high school kid might do.  In doing so, you earn money (always important), increase your social stats (having higher Courage, Intelligence, etc. increases your employment and friendship opportunities), and create Social Links.  Social Links are 21 specific social connections (basically friendships) that can increase from 0 to 10.  Each S.Link is one of the first 21 Major Arcana from a deck of tarot cards.

Not coincidentally, the player's Personae (demon contracts that bestow combat abilities) are always categorized by one of the 21 Arcana.  The higher your S.Link for an Arcana, the more powerful Personae you create of that particular Arcana.  You can obtain some (under-leveled) Personae from battling, but most of your strong Personae will come from fusing others together.  Better S.Links means better Persona fusion, and since Personae level up VERY slowly on their own, those S.Links are crucial.  And building these S.Links mostly depends on you spending your free time at friends and with jobs, but your limited time and resources make choosing what S.Links to work on and max an occasionally difficult task.

So you make friends, build S.Links, and you get better Personae for combat.  So how is that combat?  Well, it's turn-based, but has a decent amount of variety and twists for it to stay fun.  You have your traditional attack types, instant-death spells, status effects, and support skills, with a particular emphasis on earning knockdowns to perform an All-Out Attack. Either hitting an enemy with its weakness or scoring a critical hit with a physical attack knocks it down; if a character knocks an enemy down, he or she gets a free turn; if all enemies in the fight are knocked down, you get a powerful free attack (All-Out Attack).   Determining enemy weaknesses and landing All-Out Attacks are a major part of combat in both Persona 3 and Persona 4. 

Both S.Links and combat have been made more player-friendly in the changes made from Persona 3 FES to Persona 4.  First of all, most of the S.Links can be started much earlier (only a few unlock in the mid- and late-game instead of several of them) and there are many ways to improve links outside of class without wasting every Sunday going on dates - now you improve S.Links a small amount by doing well on tests and in regular in-game dialog.  Social stats are a little more complex, with five to work on instead of three, but they're easier to raise as well.  Certain club activities and jobs will raise them naturally, and you can read books (in addition to studying) to raise just about any of them in the evenings.  Speaking of evenings, Persona 4 gives you MUCH more to do than Persona 3 ever did.  There are now four nighttime S.Links instead of two, and the addition of stat-raising books and night shift jobs are welcome injections of variety.  In Persona 3, if you hadn't unlocked those evening S.Links (which were both late-game-only and tricky to unlock under normal circumstances) your only options for most of the game is to study or go to karaoke.

Combat is also better in Persona 4, and also more attached directly to Social Links.  There are small things, like physical attacks being as effective as magic attacks (not the case in P3, where magic reigns supreme) and SP healing being more difficult to come by - the "tiredness" condition from P3 is gone, so your dungeon running is limited by SP instead of tiredness.  Knockdowns are easier to recover from, but there are a few new status effects that can make your life more difficult.  But the best addition (for me) are the party S.Links.  New to Persona 4 and adapted for Persona 3 Portable (which came out after P4, and I haven't played), you can perform S.Links with all seven of your teammates instead of just dating the women in your group.  Even better, your party members get combat bonuses from improving S.Links!  These bonuses range from free critical hits if you get a chain of knockdowns going to surviving a mortal blow with 1 HP once per battle to taking what would be a mortal blow to the main character.

I was pleased by these party S.Links... maybe more than I should have been.  A few of your party characters in Persona 3 seemed either like lame plot points (Ken, Shinjiro) or cool-yet-unnecessary additions to the team (Koromaru).  Not so in Persona 4.  Not only is each playable character more fleshed-out in the story, but you can get a little deeper into their struggles and motivations via S.Link dialog.  Those combat upgrades are delicious icing on the cake.  But the best part is that characters' Personae upgrade to a new form when the S.Link is maxed instead of at a random plot point in the story.  The upgrade is mostly for looks, but gives a small stat improvement and a big elemental resistance bonus.  Basically, S.Links are important in general, but working on your party S.Links has particularly awesome benefits. 

So you have these S.Links, but... what are they?  Well, it's all dialog and time management.  Like Persona 3, Persona 4 has your characters attending high school and sticking to a student's schedule.  You go to school 6 days a week (with Sundays and holidays off and a long summer vacation), and you have two times of day when you might have free time - After School ("Daytime" on days off) and Evening.  Sometimes, your free time is taken up by story events.  But when it is free, that's when you can do the things I alluded to earlier - hanging out with friends, part-time jobs, hit the dungeons.  I'll talk about those dungeons later, but the rest of the options basically boil down to dialog options.

So when you have free time, you find the thing you want to do, and you engage it.  If it's an S.Link, then you'll have a nice conversation, currying favor with the character when you select responses they like, and the link will level up if you've scored enough points with them.  You can also up points for S.Links with other activities - scoring well on exams will make all of your school S.Links think more highly of you, and on certain days multiple S.Links can all hang out together for a group bonus.  Certain S.Links are only available certain days, and a few automatically upgrade throughout the course of the story.  In told, 3 upgrade automatically, 4 upgrade from evening activity, and the remaining 14 upgrade after school.  I managed to complete 18 of the 21 S.Links, but I was 1) a little lucky; 2) experienced with this process from Persona 3, which was less forgiving in its S.Links; and 3) spent as little time as possible in dungeons, so I could spend more time on S.Links.

So before I talk about dungeons, let's talk about the story overall.  That'll give the dungeons context.  Early in Persona 4, your silent protagonist main character ("MC" from here on out) arrives in the small town of Inaba, where he'll be staying with his uncle and cousin for the next year.  Shortly after he arrives, two murders occur, one after the other, and the town enters a panic.  Shortly after the second murder, MC and his new friend Yosuke discover a mysterious world hidden inside a television.  When they realize that the violent Shadow denizens of the TV world are what killed the murder victims, the MC and Yosuke pledge to prevent further murders from occurring by entering TVs and rescuing victims before the Shadows kill them.

I'm leaving out a number of details in that story teaser, but it boils down to this: you can your friends can enter a world inside the television that contains dungeons, and you need to figure out who is committing these murders by throwing innocent people into televisions.  Exploring the dungeons to rescue victims, fight Shadows, gain levels, and search for treasure takes up an After School time slot, but you'll need to do it at least once every four or five weeks of game time - based on when the serial killer strikes.

The narrative of solving the mystery is populated with several great characters.  Persona 4 has fewer playable characters AND S.Link characters than Persona 3,but they're an incredible cast.  The MC's uncle, Dojima, is a hardworking detective that would be right at home in a hard-boiled cable crime drama.  Dojima's daughter Nanako is probably the most endearing little girl character in video game history.  The villains of Persona 4 are each fascinating in his/her own right, with surprising motivations and some really sinister plot moments.

The dungeons in Persona 4 are... optional yet not-optional.  As I mentioned earlier, when a victim is thrown into a TV they have a few weeks before they die, and you need to rescue them before that happens.  To enter the TV, the MC and his friends (starts out as only him and Yosuke but eventually builds up to a group of eight) must set aside an After School or Daytime time slot and jump in.  When you're there, you're stuck in a third-person dungeon with randomly generated floors.  Dungeons are always 8-11 floors, and are populated by visible enemies (Shadows) that you engage with a sword swing.

These dungeons are fascinating thematically, with each's visual design based on its victim's repressed inner feelings.  The young man who is sexually confused and might be in the closet?  His dungeon is a bathhouse full of muscular men in towels.  The young woman who secretly hopes to find a boyfriend and leave town?  Her dungeon is a castle where she's a princess waiting for a handsome prince.  That's some cool shit, but the dungeons are otherwise boring corridors.  Better than Persona 3, which had 250+ floors of a giant grind-tower, but still undesirable.  When every dungeon has a similar layout and next to no texture (i.e. areas of multiple heights, gimmicks like keys or puzzles), then they become boring much more quickly than they ought to.  It's nice that you can use multiple sessions to clear a dungeon (recovering SP is expensive as all get out) and the dungeon will allow you to return to your last floor, but any kind of item hunting or level grinding is made less fun by the emptiness of it all.

Persona 4's overall difficulty is... imperfect, but not bad.  At first it's pretty good, with each dungeon a little tougher than the last and some very tricky boss battles, reaching a peak at Void Quest, the fourth large dungeon.  After Void Quest, there's a bit of a challenge plateau, and once one of your allies learns an SP-restoring ability, the final two or three dungeons are made easy.  Boss battles are consistently tricky, including a hidden final boss that's positively brutal (or so I hear, I didn't even come close to unlocking it).

Shadow and Persona designs are really interesting, but heavily recycled from Persona 3 (who had many of its Persona designs recycled from monsters in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne).  Shadows have 15-20 designs that are palette-swapped over and over, which is too bad but not a deal breaker.  Persona 4 makes up for those recycled designs with a fully-realized setting that's a lot better than Persona 3's.  Persona 3 has a lot of wasted space and curiously missing space in its large empty halls and train stations, but every area in Persona 4 has activities, characters, S.Links, or sidequests.  Persona 4 makes excellent use of its environments, and makes all of them interesting.

Musically, Persona 4 is still quirky, with Japanese pop, jazz, and hip hop clashing with more deliberately "atmospheric" tunes.  This is in the vein of Persona 3, but still quite good.  Overall, the aesthetic of Persona 4 is a lot "brighter" than Persona 3's.  Blue and white themes have been replaced with yellows and oranges (it's weird, but it works) and Persona 4's writing is a lot funnier than Persona 3's.  Some of Persona 3's characters are overly dramatic or even "emo", but Persona 4 manages to balance out character struggles with humor.  Kanji, Yosuke, and Teddie alone deliver more laughs than the entire cast of Persona 3. 

And in fact, if Persona 4 has a major knock, it's that it's too similar to Persona 3.  The formula is the same and assets are recycled.  But what's new is all better.  You don't waste a turn from a knockdown in Persona 3.  Your character archetypes are similar, but more versatile.  Dungeons are still random and empty, but self-contained and more directly connected to the story (Persona 3's dungeon is a total mystery until the final 6 hours of the game).  Most of my Persona 4 gripes are personal (heh) things, like how I wish that physical attacks didn't use HP, that none of your party members learn Rakunda or Dekunda, or that Yosuke and Teddie have lame One More bonus attacks compared to the rest of the cast.  I liked Persona 3 FES last year, but Persona 4 is better. 

Games Beaten: 2013 Edition
1. Persona 4

Targets: 1/13


My 2013 gaming goals are up to a much faster start than I anticipated.  Not only did I beat my first game on January 20th (I procrastinate when I write these reviews), but my second backlog target is already finished!  And yes, while technically six or seven of my thirteen "backlog targets" were either purchased or received as gifts in 2012, they're still technically backlog.  Hopefully I can have that Pokemon White 2 review up before the end of the month. 

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