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Let's be honest, Persona 3 is a hell of a hard act to follow. Great gameplay, a fantastic story, and an ending that could make a sufferer of Bell's Balsy weep like a Japanophile being told their Holy Land ain't all its cracked up to be. To those unfamiliar with the series it belonged to (which was just about everyone at the time) it came out of nowhere, grabbed everyone's attention and became everyone's new favourite series. Critical acclaim, the endless appreciation of fans everywhere... yeah, a hard act to follow by anyone's estimation.
Persona 4 opens in much the same way the last game did: new student transfers to a new town and school, wackiness occurs. Yeah, it's a cliche, but it's a classic, and it works, so we'll let it slide. Our hero (who, for the sake of this review, we'll refer to as Jotaro Tenryu) quickly makes new friends, who tell him about a local urban legend. It's said that if you try watching a TV that's been switched off on a rainy night, you can see something: another reality, your true love, whatever, the reports vary depending on who you ask. So, bored one night, Jotaro tries it out. And finds that he can not only see something, but he can also physically enter the TV itself. The group, disbelieving at first, start to wonder if it has anything to do with the recent spate of murders in the formerly quiet town. And then, one of them goes missing, soon appearing on the Midnight Channel.
Persona 3, while a fantastic game, was not a game without its problems, primarily in the realm of combat. Having your teammates act for themselves, while a nice idea, often proved more trouble than it was worth. While you still have the option of letting them do their own thing, most people will head straight for direct control and never look back. The damage types have been pared down as well, presumably to make things less confusing: now, there's only one type of physical damage, as opposed to three, and the main character can only equip swords, rather than whatever the hell he wants.
Outside of battle, the music has been given a major overhaul. Fans of the original will be pleased to find that themes no longer restart from scratch every time you enter a new area, praise be to Philemon. The world map theme also changes depending on the weather, so you're not stuck listening to the same piece of music for months on end, another welcome change. The main battle theme, Reach Out To The Truth, isn't quite as catchy as Mass Destruction, but it does the job well.
The dungeons have been given a major overhaul as well. Now, every dungeon not only has a distinct look, it has its own music too! Each area ties in to the person lying at the heart of it. So a shut-in game-freak's dungeon is styled after an 8-bit RPG, the girl missing her deceased mother has hers looking like a storybook version of Heaven, the guy struggling with his sexuality has a very suggestive screamingly gay bathhouse, and so on. An infinite upgrade from the atrociously bland dungeon(s) of the last game.
So then, The Big Question: is it a better game than Persona 3? In sheer gameplay terms, yes. Developers, take note: when designing a sequel, this is how things should be done. All the rough edges have been smoothed off, virtually every problem I had has been fixed or improved, and the whole thing has been tuned to perfection. This is everything I had hoped for in the last game, and it's a testament to Atlus that they've delivered in spades. Outside of the gameplay, however...
It's ironic in a way. P3 had a great story, but the gameplay was lacking. And now, here comes its sequel with the exact opposite problems. They've managed to avoid the trap of having identical characters, thankfully. Yosuke is kinda similar to Junpei, in that they're both your buddy and co-pilot for the game, but in terms of personality, they're fairly different. Same goes for Yukiko, who outwardly resembles Mitsuru from the last game, though she's a lot friendlier than Mitsuru ever was. The problem comes with their social links. Every party member has them, and raising them gives them extra abilities in combat, such as being able to knock you out of harm's way when low on health, or being able to stand up again after taking a fatal wound in battle. Fair enough, except this is the only way to unlock their ultimate Persona. Honestly, I preferred it when it was part of the story. Seeing Akihiko's determination to live up to his friend's memory, or Junpei laying the smackdown on Strega with his upgrade gave you a real feeling of pride in your characters. Here, it feels more arbitrary. "Oh, well done, you've maxed me out, have a cookie and a Suzuka Gongen."
Then there's the music. It starts off strong, sunny day theme Your Affection quickly becoming one of my favourite pieces of music in the game. The first couple of dungeon themes are also good, the music for Yukiko's Castle being a standout piece. But as it progresses, the music becomes more and more lackluster. The last couple of dungeons are quiet, sedate pieces when you should be gearing up for a major no-holds barred fight. The final boss theme aims for symphonic fierceness and falls waaay shy of the mark, landing squarely in hum-drum mediocrity. The call back to the battle theme is nice, but not what I was looking for. Honestly, this is probably the first final boss theme I've encountered in a Megaten game that's outright sucked. 'Disappointing' is not the word.
On a related note, the cast has fewer duds in it than P3 did. The voice actresses for Fuuka and Ken were almost universally derided, but here, even the worst voice is tolerable. Kanji is probably the best on offer here, never once dipping below good, and his actor's delivery of lines is, on occasion, perfect, turning mere funny lines into outright hilarious ones. On the other hand, Naoto's is a poor choice. Massive spoilers that really aren't: Naoto's bag is that she's a girl pretending to be a boy. It works perfectly in the Japanese version, since her VA is known for playing gruff teenage boys like Edward Elric in Fullmetal Alchemist with the twist being that, for once, she's playing a girl. In the Western version, the second she opens her mouth, the illusion is shattered and you spend the next 20 hours wondering if your team is functionally retarded for not noticing that she's quite clearly a girl. The battle quotes are hilariously poor as well. They must've been recorded at the start, before most of the cast grew into their roles, because they're badly delivered ("Let us attack with all our strength" and "It's quite tenacious" being primary offenders) or just plain hilarious - Chie, dear, I love you to bits, but your wimpy little battlecry is abysmal. Seriously, stop it. And maybe it's more of a problem of translation, but they leave in all the honorifics like '-san' or 'senpai', and use them liberally, then have your cousin call you 'big bro' instead of 'onii-chan'. It's baffling why they'd do that, and it's jarring to boot.
And finally, we have the story. For the first 8/10ths of the story, it's fairly good. Great in places. Seeing your character actually get involved with events, rather than just standing there as things unfold around him is much more satisfying. You really feel like you have a part to play beyond pressing the X button to make the conversation move on. Some of the shenanigans you get up to are outright hilarious, such as the disastrous school festival and the camping trip, and draw you in more than the events in the last game. However, it's when you get to the end that things start to unravel.
Persona 3 was an epic story in the old sense of the word. You started out fighting monsters with friends and, before you knew it, you were locked in battle with an eldrich force that existed solely to obliterate all of mankind. You were rarely in any doubt as to what was at stake, and when the time came at the end, you knew damn well what would happen if you failed and were ready to give all as a result. Brilliant. Here, things start small with a serial killer offing people in the town when the fog rolls in. But Persona 4 never ups the ante much. When the fog covers the town permanently towards the end, you're expecting something big to come out of it, but it never really does. You're told there will be dire consequences, but, crucially, you're never shown what they are. And when you go to uncover the true mastermind at the end, it feels like an afterthought. One of the party outright states that you're doing this to give your character a good sendoff. Never mind that you've got a literal god taunting you (who's barely mentioned throughout the game, by the way), forget that a whole bunch of people have died as a result of all this, as long as Senpai gets a glorious final battle, everything else is just gravy. Tell me, did someone replace the cast with Klingons while I wasn't looking? What the hell, guys?! And the final bosses themselves are just so boring! Sure the final final boss looks great, but come on, we went through a fight last time where we battled our way through the Major Arcana of the tarot, then fought the god of death and her harbinger to a standstill! "Big spiky disco ball" and "Silent Hill reject" is a major step back by anyone's standards.
It's frustrating, really. For everything Persona 4 fixes or polishes, it creates another gaping flaw. When it should be increasing the pressure, it steps back and eases off on you. And when it should be telling you to gear up for a titanic struggle, it idly tosses a boss with no real difficulty behind it and tells you to busy yourself. I can understand why they'd want to scale things down after the last game - after all, when you've tangled with the embodiment of mankind's despair, how exactly do you top that - but that doesn't mean they can't make the current threat appear every bit as real as the last one. Just because the scope is reduced, that doesn't mean the danger should be too. Ironically, Persona 4 falls into exactly the same category as Devil May Cry 4: both are games that are great in their own right, both have the bad luck of being follow-ups to leaders in their field, both are kept from greatness by major problems. If we could meld Persona 3's storyline with Persona 4's gameplay, (and maybe DDS' or Maken Shao's OSTs, since I'm bored with the J-Pop by now) I have little doubt you'd have one of the single finest RPGs of all time. I still haven't lost faith in the series, not by a long shot, and it'll take more than a lousy final 5th of a game to do that. Still, here's hoping the inevitable Persona 5 will finally bring to fruition everything the games have promised thus far.