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Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Persona 4.

This week's Kamen Rider Drive hasn't been subbed yet, which works out perfectly for me, since I've been meaning to get this review done for ages. Drive E26 will be reviewed tomorrow or later this week.

Persona 4.

It took me sixty-one hours to finish this game. Sixty-one hours. Over two and a half days. Much as it threw off my posting schedule, I am quite glad of that, because in a sea of six to twelve hour triple A games, you don't see all that many games that are that meaty any more. 

Set in the sleepy Japanese town of Inaba, Persona 4 sees the protagonist, a city boy sent to live with his uncle, form a team of teenaged investigators when a television announcer is found dead, an event shortly followed by the body of a fellow student being found in similar circumstances. In the course of investigating, the protagonist and his friends discover a mysterious and dangerous world that can only be accessed through Inaba's televisions, and start to unravel the mystery of the TV World, the murders, and the rumoured Midnight Channel.

By 'unravel the mystery', though, what I really mean is 'absolutely not unravel the mystery', because the investigation team really are almost comically inept at actually investigating anything - not only does most of the game pass without them making any headway on their case, but they so frequently jump to conclusions that there are no less than four bait-and-switch final bosses, each one accompanied by the team insisting that this time, this time, they have the true culprit. When the team does manage to induce a conclusion from the available evidence, it is invariably wrong.

High school gossip.

But that's fine, because the game isn't really about investigating murders, and investigation comprises almost none of the gameplay. Instead, it follows the same formula set up in Persona 3, in which you divide your time between engaging in visual-novel-esque high school drama to improve your social links (which brings various benefits in battle) and turn-based RPG gameplay in which you make your way through various dungeons in the TV World, usually with the intention of rescuing a potential murder victim.

The RPG stuff is, all told, nigh on identical to Persona's parent series Shin Megami Tensei, bar that your party is made of people instead of the denizens of Hell. Certain party members specialise in different elements of magic (with a few having a slightly greater focus on physical attacks), and monsters are usually weak to one element or another - hitting a monster with their weakness or scoring a critical hit knocks them down, allowing the character who scored the hit an extra move (and if every monster on the field is knocked down, then the party can execute an all-out attack where they basically just wail on the poor monsters). What this means is that most dungeon crawls come down to a balancing act of hitting monsters with their elemental weaknesses while trying to protect your own from being exploited, and conserve SP (which is not easy to renew, as SP-healing items aren't sold anywhere) for the long haul.

Bosses - which after the first few tend not to have elemental weaknesses - require slightly more complex strategies, usually involving knowing what Persona to use, what their attack pattern is, when to guard and how often to heal (again with that conserving SP problem). 

Okay, that's a cool looking Persona.

A lot of people trumpet the SMT style of gameplay as being very difficult and all about strategy - it's not, and in both SMT games and Persona 4 you can charge through the battles by just levelling up massively, but even if you, like me, are massively underleveled for a boss, you can still beat them through judicious use of exploiting their attack patterns.

The dungeons all have very fun design aesthetics, being based on things like a bathhouse, a tokusatsu villains' laboratory, and heaven, but since the dungeon layouts are mostly randomly generated (with the exception of boss floors and a few others), every dungeon feels functionally the same, just with different skins on, and that kind of saps the fun out of it a little.

But only a little: The RPG gameplay is still addictively fun, being simple enough to easily get into while possessing enough depth to not get boring, and the social gameplay - although it's a little more difficult to get into - is pretty fun as well, taking you through several storylines where you can assist your friends on the path of self-discovery. I only managed to complete about four of the optional social links, but they were all great fun.


In terms of storyline, it's a good story that a lot of care has clearly been put into - but gosh is it cutscene heavy. When you start the game, you get literally hours of cutscenes with very little gameplay between them, and there are other points in the game where you might be sitting and watching cutscenes for thirty minutes or more, with your only intervening the gameplay being to head back home and go to sleep. 

(There is also one extended spate of cutscenes which was very uncomfortable to watch. I'm looking at you, school trip.)

It helps that it's very easy to become invested in the characters, all of which feel like - well, anime stereotypes, but very well-fleshed-out anime stereotypes. They mystery plot, sadly, isn't up to snuff, as there's very little opportunity to figure out who the murderer is, or even form theories - while one of my colleagues immediately and correctly guessed who the murderer was (without actually seeing any of the game, I'll note), they did so by applying Father Knox's Decalogue (or some of it, anyway - I doubt #5 factored into their guess, and #2 certainly didn't) to the story, which is at least twenty percent cheating. But it's still fun.

Kamen Rider theme faintly plays.

That said, in a game that opens with telling you that you have a year to solve the case, I am astounded that it actually pans out that you have about nine months, as the game cheerfully skips forward three months towards the end, missing several important dates in the High School Anime Calendar. I'm informed the re-release corrects that error, allowing you to play through January, February and March.

All in all, Persona 4 is a very good game, and having spent several weeks devoting large chunks of my free time to it, I'm wholly uncertain what I'm going to do with myself now that it's done and dusted. Write a symphony, perhaps. Play Persona 3.

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