Friday, June 26, 2009

REVIEW - Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4

Bold colours, excessive style and perfect localization.

Yes, they're still making PS2 games. By "they" I mean, well, everyone - but if you have an eye for quality, your best bet is currently to look for the Atlus logo. While other companies are risking millions on developing for the high-def systems, Atlus is quietly doing what they do best - localizing unique Japanese titles and pumping out spin-offs to the Shin Megami Tensei franchise.

Never heard of Shin Megami Tensei? Well, here's a crash course and a gooey analogy. SMT games are a bit like Parmesan cheese. After a lifetime of eating the sandy, white powder your family sprinkled over spaghetti dinners and mixed into gritty alfredo sauce, one may be fortunate enough to discover The Good Stuff - and once you try real Parmesan cheese you will never deny yourself the opportunity to have it again. So it is with the Shin Megami Tensei series, which has clawed its way out of obscurity to be recognized as some of the best RPGs for the mature palette.

The series neatly sidesteps the swords-and-sorcery locales of its peers, and sets itself in near-future or modern-day Japan. Combine the very adult themes of religion, sexuality, and the occult with a muddy gray line between good and evil, and you've got games that you won't let your child play any time soon.

Persona 3 was widely considered the best RPG of 2007, so keep that in mind when I say that Persona 4 improves on its predecessor in almost every way. Not only has the questionable party AI been dramatically refined, but you now have the ability to take direct control of each member. A confusing vocabulary of spells and abilities (smarecarm, zionga, marakukaja, traesto?) is much easier to manage with the simple option of identifying the spells as you select them mid-combat. As much of an eye-opener as Persona 3 was, Persona 4 is simply astounding because it makes the previous effort seem like a practice run.

Of course, it's not perfect. The story-telling is much improved - discovering the secrets of a separate reality for yourself, instead of having it explained to you by folks already in the know is much easier to digest - but the plotting seems a bit stretched at times. Often you must wait until a specific day to progress the story (just like P3), but in P4 it seems more arbitrary - perhaps compounded by the fact that the game reminds you "You'll just have to wait until ______" every day after school.

It's still a dark meditation on the true desires of humanity, but Persona 4 takes itself less seriously than earlier entries in the series. While (unlike P3) I never teared up, I can't recall the last game that made me laugh so much. The humor never feels forced - it's a product of character, of your understanding of their conflicting personalities, and it would be impossible if they felt like what they are - pixelated protagonists. Without such an attachment to the characters and their quirks, half of the game - spending time with them - would be a chore, but more often than not you'll find yourself hanging out with Chie after school not because it has a direct impact on combat abilities, but because you discover you've become very fond of the girl.

While (in keeping with Atlus's reputation for localizations) the voice work is excellent across the board, you will notice lower quality audio than you're used to, the 's' sounds occasionally fuzzy with static. The storage capacity of the PS2's media is showing its age, but the choices made in the music department are as strong as ever. Often during a dungeon crawl I would find myself waiting before I attacked the next enemy, simply because I wanted to hear more of that zone's theme song. The musical stylings of P4 take some getting used to, but after a time you may find yourself guiltily listening to the sountrack CD, terrified that someone may discover your burgeoning secret affection for bouncing, retro J-pop and faux-opera.

It's a bit like Metal Gear Solid 4. If you enjoyed earlier entries, you can be assured of pleasure at the newest installment - but unlike MGS4, Persona 4 makes an excellent introduction to an excellent series. If you're prepared to dip your toe into uncharted waters, this is the game. If you've never enjoyed RPGs, this may well be the game that allows you to fall in love with the genre.

It's a relaxed experience, like sitting down with the new (seventy hour) novel by your favorite author. Through sixteen years of refinement, Atlus continues to hone their mechanics and style. After the monumental Persona 3, these folks looked at their achievement and said "we can do better." And then, they did.

-stellar localization
-mature narrative
-endearing characters
-fun battle system
-great soundtrack
-in many ways, it's much better than Persona 3


-it's on the PS2
-in some ways, it's not as good as Persona 3

An RPG that may make you love RPGs.

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