There’s only a handful of games that have gripped me completely. Knights of the Old Republic is the first that comes to mind, for its tremendous story and gameplay. Ocarina of Time is up there, simply because it was the first game in which I felt completely immersed in a 3D world. Half-Life 2 is up there, partly for its story and gameplay and partly because when you talk about "cinematic" gameplay, no game does it better. And then there was Persona 3 FES, which caught me completely by surprise, but melded elements of RPGs and dating sims so perfectly, and so addictively.
Yet, there was something about each of those games that left me wanting. Most games don’t do a good job of wrapping up the loose ends. I guess it’s as hard to "let go" when you’re creating a 40+ hour epic, as it is when you’re playing it. So what you end up with are things like a very lame ending sequence (KOTOR), a time-travel copout (OOT), a never-ending story (HL), and in Persona 3 FES’ case, a solid, but very bittersweet ending to a long journey. There’s nothing worse than spending hours and hours on a game and finishing it and thinking "what? that was it?"
But this is where Persona 4 shines. Not only did the game address all the minor flaws of P3, but it upped the ante on the characters and the story-writing. And without giving anything away, the "normal" end is satisfying, but still leaves some questions open. But if you get around to the "true" ending, suddenly everything comes together, all the loose ends are tied up, and the 70+ hour journey truly feels complete. It’s a perfect end to an unfailingly entertaining journey.
With all that said, in somewhat backward fashion, here’s some more specific (spoiler-free) thoughts about Persona 4.
If you’ve played P3, getting the hang of P4 should be no sweat. They’re essentially the same game, but with a new story and a new set of characters. But to leave it at that would be selling the experience short, because the minor improvements they made, make the game that much more fun to play.
The most obvious (and important) change is you can now directly control your friends in battle. So no more wasted moves. Another great feature is, as your social links with your teammates grow, their abilities in battle grow as well. So they’ll start out by just being players in battle, but will eventually get the ability to follow up an attack of yours to lay down a critical hit, heal your characters of status effects in between turns, sacrifice themselves in battle for you, and withstand a mortal blow. I don’t know if I could go back to P3 having experienced these benefits in P4.
The dungeons are also better laid out and better set up. Tartarus felt like a slog, because it was. Nothing really changed. This is no longer the case with the dungeons in P4. Every one is unique, so the battles stay fresh.
Difficulty-wise, I played on the normal setting, and I thought it was pretty much perfect. It’s not hard, but it’s not necessarily easy. The game gets easier as you go along, but the battles can be unforgiving. If you walk into a battle carelessly, all it takes is a string of attacks hitting you or your teammates weaknesses to cause game over. I learned this the hard way in the early going (although those kamikaze dice are bullcrap, IMO).
The writing is great. The translation, the dialogue, it all feels very natural. Story-wise, it’s less grandiose than the P3 story, and even though it’s a murder mystery, it feels more straightforward than P3’s story did. Nevertheless, it’s extremely well written and very engaging. I figured out who the final villain was because I checked out the artbook (whoops), but the journey was no less enjoyable.
The characters are fantastic. I thought I loved the P3 characters, and was a bit skeptical when I read reviews saying that P4’s characters were better. But man, they were right. If it feels like you’re out in the countryside, it’s because the characters make it believable. I loved everyone of my team members and their stories. Unlike P3’s more… science fiction-esque characters, the P4 characters feel much more like real people. And while there were a couple social links I didn’t get to max out, the side characters were great as well.
I don’t think I can offer a better compliment than to say that when you finish the game, it really does feel like you’re leaving a close set of friends behind.
*sniff* I miss those guys.
Beautiful. Just beautiful. The bright color pallette, the detailed environments, the 2D and 3D character models, all of it was fantastic. I would’ve loved to see this on HD. The only knock is the animated sequences looked cheap and washed out. They’re a little better than P3’s were, but still look out of place compared to the rest of the game. It’s a little disappointing, because I think A-1 animated it and they’ve done some good-looking stuff recently.
The soundtrack, composed by Shoji Meguro, leans towards a more poppy and straightforward sound compared to P3’s more eclectic mix. They’re not that far off though. If you liked P3’s music, you’ll like P4’s. The OP/ED are very catchy and the intro/load screen music surprisingly addictive.
The next best part of the game, besides the story and characters, is the voice acting. P3’s voice acting was very good, but uneven in spots. P4 is near perfection. The translation and voice work is amazing – on par with the voice work for games that are developed in English. I’m not very familiar with most of the the English cast’s names, but I’d say Yuri Lowenthal (Simon in Gurren Lagann) really stood out as Yosuke, and I came to love Danielle Judovits as Chie, which was surprising, because I remember thinking she sounded way too mature when I watched some preview clips before (especially considering Yui Horie voiced Chie in the Japanese version). The only character voice I didn’t love was Yukiko’s – not necessarily because of the sound – but there were a bunch of times where I thought the delivery felt a little off. But besides that, everyone sounded exactly like you’d expect them to, from little imouto Nanako (kudos to Karen Strassman, who pulls off a rare occasion in which an English voice actor successfully pulls off cute without being obnoxious) to teen idol, Rise (whom I much preferred Laura Bailey’s performance over Rie Kugumiya’s) to all the random characters on the street.
It would’ve been great to have a Japanese soundtrack option, especially considering all the big names involved (Horie, Kugumiya, Ami Koshimizu, Tomakazu Seki, Romi Paku), but the English voice work was top notch, and from what I heard, in some cases even preferable compared to the Japanese voice work.
I can’t say enough good things about this game. I bought it back in December and kept putting it off, because I knew I’d get addicted and wanted to play it during a time where I knew I’d have a pretty good stretch of free time, and it didn’t disappoint me in the slightest. The worst part about this game is that it eventually ends.