Years ago I have heard of a series called Persona in an online forum. I cannot recall much on what enticed me to Persona, but I do remember the characters having very interesting designs when I first saw bits of Persona 4. The art style really drew me in and I assumed that this was a Playstation 3 exclusive. Since then, it’s been on my radar for many years until a month ago.

Days before Christmas Break began, I went to a retro gaming store I usually visit to see what new games were available to buy. They were having a Christmas sale, putting all of their games 20% off. When I saw Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 box, I was extremely surprised to see the game available on the PS2 platform. All this time, my assumption of Persona 4 being Playstation 3 exclusive was wrong.

I previously saw many P4 spinoffs on the PS3 and Xbox 360 platform when I first briefly researched Persona 4, so I was confused as to why this was the case. There were also two additional PS2 games I was initially interested in alongside Persona 4, Persona 3 FES and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Saga. I never played an Atlus game in my entire life since most of their games consisted of SMT games on Nintendo handhelds, which never peeked my interests with its dark themes.

Thinking about the spinoffs, the P4 box I saw at the store, and many suggestions from friends who played many Atlus games on social media, it was my goal to buy Persona 4 discounted to see what the deal was with that game. Little did I know that this game would take over my entire Christmas break.

I had countless late nights playing Persona 4. After finally finishing the game truly this year,  I have so many positives to say about Persona 4 that I want to get out of the way to fully satisfy myself before moving on to other games. This will not contain spoilers for the game. I hope you enjoy reading through this review.

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Battles, Personas, and Dungeon Gameplay: A Strategic Dream

As someone who has never played an Atlus game before, I was very surprised by how heavy the strategy was required to beat enemies and bosses. In the battle menu, you are able to guard, attack, directly control party member tactics, analyze enemies, use Persona skills, change Personas, use items, and escape. All your basic components for an RPG are here, but it is far more strategic than it seems.

There are seven types of elements in total, Physical, Fire, Lightning, Wind, Light, and Dark. Finding an enemy’s weakness will knock them out during battle, giving you the another chance to attack the enemy and occasionally doing an all-out party attack to crush all enemies. By using Personas with different elemental attacks and figuring out weaknesses, battles become easier to breeze through. This really encourages having a variety of Personas, which makes battles require more thinking and feel more rewarding.

The bosses are very challenging and require another layer of strategy to beat them. It is not as easy as straight out attacking, you need to consider who to heal, who should attack, and what Persona you should utilize to beat these bosses. This level of challenge remains consistently varied up until the final boss. The last boss is disappointingly easy. I was really hoping that there would be constant changing in strategies with new threatening tactics from the boss every few turns, but it only has one major threatening attack that it is very easy to prepare for by simply blocking. It is not a huge deal though, and I enjoyed the consistent challenges from bosses enough for me to forgive an easy final boss.

The dungeons in Persona 4 are randomly generated and are standard RPG fare for the most part, with the exception of a few pre-determined floor layouts. The general challenge with these dungeons is to not lose your SP, which is your bar that slowly runs out every time you use an elemental Persona skill for a character. If you run out of SP, you are essentially screwed as battles become far harder without the necessary elemental skills to hit an enemy’s weaknesses. It becomes a real challenge and it forced me to think conservatively to pass through each dungeon.

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To best each dungeon, you will have to choose the right Personas in your party. As you finish battles, you will get the chance to obtain a Persona through card Shuffle Time. Persona cards can be shuffled by rotation, matching cards, or through slot machine means. Getting the Persona card you want is pretty easy if you pay attention and observe how each mini-game works. Occasionally, you will be able to activate Arcana Chance too, which can either grant you benefits or negative effects. It is more on luck based side of things, and recklessly starting Arcana chance every time could put you in a major risk or major comeback in dungeons. If there were any problems I had with dungeons, I would that sometimes dungeons feel a bit too long to navigate. A run button would have definitely helped solved this problem.

As for the Personas themselves, they are your battle partners that are very important to winning battles. Each Persona has their own stats and elemental/physical skills with their own weaknesses belonging to a certain Arcana and Race, which basically are the classes of each Persona. These Personas are surprisingly very memorable with its mythological character design. The elemental/physical skills Persona have are also very simple to remember once you get the hang of battle.

I was expecting things to become overwhelming with Personas, but thankfully tutorials in the game made learning the basics of a Persona simple to figure out. You can also fuse Personas to create more powerful Persona, and it is a fun feature to play with as well. You will want to keep a variety of Personas in your team, especially when it comes to battles and when you are out in Inaba to socialize with friends, via Social Links.

Gameplay and Characters: Making Social Links

The real magic of the game comes from the characters, and my god, they are some of the best characters I have ever witnessed in a video game ever. I would go as far as saying they are better than the cast of UNDERTALE. The main characters have simply spectacular, vibrant, and colorful designs. All of them have very likable/relatable personalities that have their own hilarious moments, and you really get to like them the more you spend time with them in the story. The same goes for the side-characters, though not as vibrant in character design.

That is where the half of the gameplay for Persona 4 comes in. In Persona 4, you mainly make choices as you talk to characters throughout the story that affects the way some characters look at you. There are certain characters in the game that are able to do social links. The more you hang out with them, the more powerful fusing certain types of Persona become. At higher social ranks with a character, there is a chance you will not see the relationship grow stronger but only grow halfway. But if you do a social link and have a Persona that has a matching Arcana as the character you are talking to, you have a better chance of seeing the social rank increase by one.

When it comes to the playable main characters, it also affects how they battle. For example, when you reach the max Social link rank for a certain character, that character will be able to upgrade their Persona, do follow up attacks, protect you when in critical condition, heal party members, and other benefits that give even more reasons to do Social Links.

The conversations themselves are very well written and these characters are more fleshed out in character development as you hang out with them more. Depending on how you answer, you are also able to have one of the female characters in Persona 4 become your girlfriend too. I chose Chie as my first because I loved her relatable backstory and her energetic personality.

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If there are a few gripes I have with Persona 4’s characters, it is that there are some times where a character has a bit of character inconsistency. I would expect with the amount of flexibility in choices, it would affect character’s dialogue in the main story. Occasionally, this does happen, but not during the main story dialogue. As a result, it can make certain moments in the game feel a bit awkward.

I would have expected Chie to have some changed dialogue once I got to be her girlfriend, but nothing really changes during the main story. There is nothing that affects other characters whatsoever. Even in the very end of the game, Chie does not even acknowledge me as her long-time boyfriend in her conversation about her future. It was a bit of a disappointment despite how well written her end-game dialogue is.

There were also many points in both social link and main story conversations where I would have loved to make a choice on saying something to the characters during a few interesting moments in the game. There were also many times where I wish I could have made a choice in some parts of the main story, but the game forces me to make a choice such as the game automatically ending your entire day on days where I could have spent my time doing something else. These moments were bothersome, but not enough to really steer me away from the experience.

I still think the character and gameplay elements still shine as the highlight for Persona 4. Never have I experienced a game with that much character development in such great quality ever. I was so overwhelmed by how good these characters were that I had to take a 3-day break from Persona 4 to ease myself. That is not to say it is bad, I was just simply overwhelmed by the complexity of character development this game offers.

Story and Presentation: An Alright, Lengthened Detective Narrative, but Unique Presentation

The presentation itself is pretty unique and stylized, it mixes anime cutscenes, 3D graphics, and dialogue art that reminded me of Fire Emblem Awakening’s overall presentation. The graphics in the game are fairly good, pushing the PS2 to the limits. When you walk around in Inaba though, the graphics do get somewhat blurry and it gets a teeny bit distracting, but it is something that I got used to quickly and never became a huge problem for me when I played through the whole game.

Persona 4’s story, for the most part, it is pretty good. To briefly sum it, it is a detective story about high school students trying to solve a case of people vanishing into the TV World and getting murdered afterward. I really liked how Personas represented a character’s true nature and desires that people are afraid of showing and characters embracing their true self would release their inner power, their Persona.

There is also fluff in the story where characters simply have fun and interact with one another through festivals, parties, or vacations. I get real enjoyment out of them as the characters themselves have many memorable moments, which helped me forge a closer relationship with these characters as the story progressed.

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The story was interesting enough to get invested, but the way the mystery narrative is told can be problematic. At many points, it can feel like solving certain mysteries drag on a bit too long. This can be the case in the sections where you have to gather information from people to gain access to a dungeon. Fortunately, these sections are not too tedious to do since you only have a few areas to explore. The way the true culprit was revealed and how the culprit shared his/her intentions was also a bit disappointing, and I feel that could’ve been executed better to make him/her more fearing.

For other problems I have with the narrative, I feel there could be improvements to flesh out the narrative to make the plot feel more significant, especially near the end-game with how the true culprit was revealed. Pacing in points where the main characters are trying solving the mystery could have been better. And a quick-save function during the middle of a long dialogue event would have been very convenient. What is lacking in the narrative does not matter much, as there is a driving force that keeps the game interesting the whole way through.

Music: A Stylized One of a Kind

With the soundtrack of Persona 4 (which can find here for reference), there are some tracks stand out, particularly ones with vocals, but other non-vocal tracks do not have the same solidity. The dungeon tracks, in particular, do a good straight forward job with fitting with the theme while maintaining a unique style, but I feel melody-wise the music could have been more improved.

The only exceptions would be the Secret Base, Heaven, and Long Way track. Those particular dungeon tracks really fit their particular theme while having very catchy melodies and stylized beats. This similarly applies to the main boss battle theme and two particular emotional scene tracks. The boss pretty hummable track on its own and the melody is fine, but I feel there was a lack of impact in the beginning of the track that made boss battles feel a bit lackluster.

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When it comes to emotional scene music, there are only a few I feel are lacking, Who’s There and Border of Insanity. Those tracks tend to feel repetitive with their beginning melodies and do not really give the fearing impact the music is trying to achieve. These tracks make the entire Persona 4 soundtrack feel overall not complete musically. This is not to say the soundtrack is entirely bad.

The soundtrack has this unique J-pop style put into some tracks and the way it is composed gives Persona 4 a strong unique identity of its own. My all-time favorites have to be Never More, Aria of the Soul, Pursuing My True Self, Your Affection, A New World Fool, and The Almighty as they left the most impact to me emotionally. There could be some improvements in certain tracks, but the overall soundtrack is pretty solid.

Gameplay and Time: Every Decision Matters! Manage Your Day Wisely!

Perhaps the biggest positive I can give to Persona 4 is how the game overall encourages managing your time, as every decision made in the game feels like it truly matters. If you wait too long and waste time, you will eventually get a game over for not rescuing a character you were supposed to save from the TV World.

You need to manage your time wisely in each day you spend despite the freedom you have. Do you want to spend time doing certain Social Links in the daytime? Do you want to spend the whole day doing side-quests to earn rewards? Do want to spend time studying or go fishing at night? These were all things that I had to think about in my first play-through and it creates a fun/pressuring challenge I have never seen before in an RPG.

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The key to making better decisions is to check your social stats. These types of social stats consist of Knowledge, Courage, Diligence, Understanding, and Expression. If you do not have enough of a particular social stat, you will not be able to make certain choices or access certain things in the game that could benefit you in battle or help you in social link/story conversations. You can increase your social stats through taking part-time jobs, participating in school club activity, eating at a restaurant, reading a book, or battling certain powerful enemies in a dungeon.

Almost everything decision you make feels like it matters, even in battles with the strategy, fusing Personas (thanks to the fantastic Aria of the Soul track), and dungeons with SP conserving. It also helps that the characters and connections you make with them are also fantastic, which really helps enforce the idea that time management and making the best decisions is important to the player.

Though there is a big problem that comes near the end-game. On 12/24, once you finally solve the case, the game deliberately skips a whole slew of months to the day before you leave Inaba. This is at a point where you would think the game would give you plenty time to max out the rest of the social links, but it does not. In my first play-through, I was pretty close to finishing 3/4 of my social links.

Through research, I realized that there is a deadline to finish all of those before you lose the chance to social link with others again. This had upset me greatly, seeing as to how close I was with my social link progress since I was only really planning to do a single walkthrough of Persona 4 hoping to complete all social links. It briefly made me feel my progress was all for nothing seeing as to how much I cared for each character, but I eventually got over it and tried to complete as many social links in the remaining days I had.

Conclusion

Even though that huge problem exists, Persona 4 is still a very special game to me. It helped me learn so many time management skills that I could utilize in real life. It gave me great battle challenges that forced me to think and strategize. But most importantly, it gave me characters that had great personalities and felt unbelievably human. And by the end of Persona 4, I was sad that I had to let these characters go and move on to play other games. It was a game so special, I felt the need to finish this detailed review before playing any video game at all.

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Even though Persona 4 has a couple of minor problems that overall can bog the experience down sometimes, it can easily forgiven by the social aspect of the game that plays a great role into making Persona 4 a stand-out JRPG. If I could rank this in my top favorite games of all time, I would put at #2, being a better game than Chrono Trigger and MOTHER 3, but behind UNDERTALE.

If you have free time and own a PS2 or Vita, I would heavily recommend checking this game out. Eventually, I will get my hands on Persona 4 Golden and its other spinoffs, but that will come another time. Right now, I am just hoping it comes to the Nintendo Switch so that I will not have to buy a PSTV or Vita just to play one game I am really interested in. If there are any tips I could give if you are going to play Persona 4, I’d say:

Play it blind the first time. I know it is going to very tempting to play a game with a guide, but playing your own pace and making your own decisions is the best way to fully enjoy the experience. Try doing social links at your own pace the first time. In a few cases, you may need help with certain gameplay features such as Persona fusion and test answers. These do not ruin the experience too much and are not explicitly told in-game. Here it is spoiler free:

  1. Fusion Guide: http://persona4.wikidot.com/fusion
  2. Test Answers (U.S. PS2 version): http://persona4.wikidot.com/answers
  3. Test Answers (U.S. P4G Vita version): http://www.ign.com/wikis/shin-megami-tensei-persona-4-golden/Test_Answers

DON’T LOOK UP PERSONA 4 ON YOUTUBE, OR ANYWHERE ELSE WHERE THE GAME COULD HAVE EASY SPOILERS. I was guilty of this myself, and one of the first results that showed up on YouTube was a HUGE spoiler for the game.

Remember 12/24 if playing the PS2 version. That is the last day where you have the chance to do social links when progressed far enough in the story. Persona 4 Golden gives you far more time to spare to get Social Links maxed out, but you still need to pay attention and plan your schedule carefully if you want to max all Social Links.

I hope this review helps a lot and I hope you consider getting Persona 4 if you have not yet. I would love feedback on my review, this is probably the most I wrote in a video game review ever. I apologize if I did not cover other aspects of the game, I might have forgotten some key gameplay aspects important to Persona 4.

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