It's been raining for a few days, non-stop, in my little corner of Colorado. The flooding is so bad that I had to build a dam. The fog has already begun to set in, and it's supposedly going to continue through the weekend. It puts me in the mood to stare at a TV screen at midnight, and maybe write about an RPG series I have only recently had the pleasure of experiencing. Spoilers ahead for Persona 4.
I haven't even finished Shin Megami Tensei IV, yet (I'm debating whether participating in the tournament and being unwilling to finish my opponents while being just fine with beating the shit out of them makes me a hypocrite). I enjoyed it so much that the fact that I never played one of these games, despite my early gaming life being spent primarily on the PS2, really started to get to me. The series is often compared--erroneously, I think--to the Pokemon series. The mere existence of the fusion mechanic undermines this, however. Sure, there's breeding in Pokemon, but it's possible to fuse any old demon with any other (until you get to the higher levels, then there are some restrictions). On top of that, in the latest iteration this can be done at any time. This freedom, combined with the (once you learn it) clear skill naming system and the ability of demons to receive skills from their progenitors, makes for a metagame that adds more strategy to the experience than any RPG I've yet played, at least at first (more on that later).
So I found some copies of SMT III: Nocturne, Persona 3 and Persona 4. Since the latter had already been spoiled for me by hiimdaisy comics, I decided to start with that.
Persona 4 left me with tastes both bitter and sweet once I had reached its true true ending. While the "friendship is power!" bullshit is all too common in the world of anime, it really fits the spirit of the game. After spending all that time [s]maxing out my social links to skip the grind[/s] forging lasting bonds of friendship with the many characters in the game, I would expect that to have some relevance to how the game ends. Unfortunately, cliché anime bullshit is standard in the game as a whole.
Take Yosuke's social link capstone, for example. In anime, male best friends beat the crap out of each other because that's manly or something. In real life, I can't recall ever asking my closest friends to punch me in the face for any reason, and I don't think they would if I asked. They're friends. Bully characters aren't even characters at all, they're there so that the main character can help Chie be a defender of justice (and get under her skirt, more on that later). Of course, we have to go to a hot spring, and no anime is complete without loud conversations about breast size. As for the narration, it's common in many anime series for the characters to relate to the player, verbally and at length, a summary of the events that have just occurred, like it's a play and you're sitting in the cheap seats. This is the role the narration serves. Of all of the things anime producers have a habit of doing, this is the most annoying, and it is prominent in Persona 4 in a big way.
I don't know. Why don't we find out instead of sitting here talking about it?
What Persona 4 has going for it, though, far outstrips what marrs its otherwise beautiful complexion. The graphic design is the best I've seen in any context, really, and every part of the UI is fun to just look at. That's good, there's a lot of UI to look at, and I wish more RPGs would make such an effort. The music is famously excellent, my favorite being "Heaven", and surprisingly doesn't grate. It's a soundtrack you can enjoy listening to repeatedly, which is exactly what you'll be doing.
Most of all, the game is fun, which isn't something I thought I could say about the whole of an RPG. The combat can quickly turn in your favor or very much against you with a single decision, debuffs are critical to success in many cases and some battles I have won only because I successfully inflicted a status ailment on a foe that was about to slaughter my party. The characters are likable the story engaging, blah blah blah. Those social links can be a mixed bag, though.
For those who don't know, social links are essentially stats that you upgrade by hanging out with certain people linked with the 22 major arcana of the most popular version of a tarot deck. The "personas" (retooled demons from the rest of SMT) are also associated with one arcana each. Upgrading your social links gives bonus experience to fused personas linked with the same arcana as that social link, enough for a few levels, and most of the unlockable skills that persona has. This is a brilliant feature: it removes the grind of leveling up your demons and trades it for a more varied grind with interpersonal relationships. However...
...some of them are just not interesting (more on that later).
The game has me awash in opinions, too many for one post, so I'll be blathering on and on about it for some time, there's a lot to be said for and against it. That aside, Persona 4 Golden has me going to Vita land, and once I play that, I'm sure there will be even more to say (starting with the inconsistency of Atlus's voice acting direction; "Inaba" is pronounced three different ways throughout the game, come on guys). If you haven't played one of these games, do yourself a favor, especially if you like or used to like JRPGs.