I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to write this review. As a university student, I don’t have an incredible amount of time to spend gaming alongside schoolwork, and as such investing a large number of hours into a long RPG is something I haven’t done since I was about 15. The online Persona fandom was something I was very aware of, being a fan of JRPGs, but I don’t feel like the series has great exposure here in the UK. Regardless, my American comrade by the name of smangold insisted that I play Persona 4 as soon as humanly possible, which was naturally during my exam period. As bad an idea as that may have been, I both did pretty well in the exams and got to experience a truly wonderful game, and regret nothing.
So, what is Persona about in general? It’s a series of JPRGs all produced by Atlus, known for other works such as Demon’s Souls and Riviera: The Promised Land. The series usually follows a group of high-school kids, with the player controlling a central silent protagonist and their murder-mystery adventures of self-discovery and the entities known as Personas. It’s particularly famous for the Social Link aspects introduced in the third game, a social integration simulation feature which helps the Personas change and evolve over time as relationships become deeper.
And Persona 4 is no exception. Our story takes place in Inaba, a rural area in Japan where our protagonist has moved from the big city. You are met by a mysterious old man named Igor, who sets up the premise - you have one year to solve a mystery. And you are told very little else. The story gradually unfolds itself over time and requires little in terms of intervention from the player. Essentially the way the system works is you go to school every day, naturally, go to classes, maybe get asked a question in a class, hang out with friends, that kind of thing. In the evenings you can choose what you want to do, maybe investing time in studying which will pay off in the exams, earning money through a part-time job to buy new weapons or items, or hanging out with friends and enhancing your social links.
"The story gradually unfolds itself over time and requires little
in terms of intervention from the player"
But why would you want to do that? Well, Persona 4 involves fighting creatures called Shadows, which is accomplished either yourself by using weapons, or summoning inner aspects of your personality known appropriately as Personas. Increasing your relationships with certain people in the game world will make it easier to summon more powerful Personas and get through harder areas of the game - these sequences are basically optional, but you’ll be skipping an incredible amount of very well-written character development if you miss them out.
Visually Persona 4 is nicely pleasing, everything feels quite understated in the real world - colours are fairly muted and textures are flat. Everything then changes when you enter the dungeons, becoming much more surreal and exaggerated. Each area has its own distinct theme, such as the first one you’ll come across resembling a castle.
In terms of the soundtrack, Persona 4 represents unbridled aural splendour. Shoji Meguro, Atlus’ resident composer returned to score it, and he did a marvellous job. His ability to blend different genres and styles together seamlessly is well known among fans of the Persona series, and once again he has outdone himself. There’s a strong mixture of orchestral and contemporary pop rock which works to give strong atmospheric presence when required, or give a very light-hearted and airy theme to more relaxed areas.
"Increasing your relationships with certain people in the game world
will make it easier to summon more powerful Personas and
get through harder areas of the game..."
The game’s biggest strength as far as I’m concerned is definitely in the cast of characters. Every single voice actor in this game performs amazingly, and you will undoubtedly find yourself coming to love each and every member of the gang, even as it grows. Their growth and persistence is so well told by Atlus that genuinely you could forget it was a narrative, and certain moments in the story will have you laugh and cry with them, they feel so real.
Their interactions are so convincing and the whole teenagers/schoolfriends thing done so well, that you won’t be able to put the game down. And believe me when I say that the story is gripping, thrilling even. I have stayed away from talking about the plot in this review for fear of spoilers, because you need to play through it yourself and experience it naively.
Do be advised that Persona 4 is not a short game by any means, and my first playthrough took in the region of 60 hours, although truth be told I missed out a lot of the side-missions and Persona collecting. That is improved further if you can find the re-release for the Vita, P4 Golden, which adds a whole other slew of content including a new dungeon, so that’s the version to get if you own Sony’s most recent portable.
Long story short, it’s an incredible experience, full of twists and turns, chills, thrills and excitement - it’s a voyage of self-discovery, and the finest entry in the series, and possibly the very best JRPG on the PS2, which is no small claim. If you’ve never played it, get it as soon as possible, load it up and endure the first few hours, which are admittedly pretty slow. Once it gets going, that’s it, you’re hooked until the very end. Good luck.
Author: Ollie Burton
Ollie is a student at Newcastle University in the UK studying Cellular & Molecular Biology. In his spare time he operates this website, is an avid gaming & film fan and plays in a blues-rock band, as well as editing for the University's student newspaper, The Courier.