Sunday, March 29, 2009

Review :: Persona 4

Last year, amidst all the blood and sweat, all the claw scratching, biting, and eye gouging of the current gen consoles' battle to emerge amongst consumers as the best gaming option, a battle that took shape as Microsoft launched their New Xbox Experience (NXE) and Sony desperately tried (and failed) to make Home sound interesting, and finding itself thrust into the gore-slicked frontlines against the likes of Grand Theft Auto IV, Metal Gear Solid 4, and Fallout 3, titles that were supposed to redefine gaming and take it to new heights, titles that had gamers the world over blogging furiously and screaming blood-curdling murder against those who might appear indifferent or unconvinced... shrugging off all these corporate plottings and technological wonders and fanboy rantings was a little Playstation 2 game, Persona 4.

Persona 4, or Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 if you want to get all technical and geeky about it, is, as far as I can tell, the Playstation 2's last contented breath. This is the way the console ends... but not with a whimper, no sir... with a bang. A big, bloody fantastic bang. On a console noted for its outstanding JRPGs, Persona 4 is one of the best. Never receiving the same level of attention or coverage as the by-now-bloated Final Fantasy franchise or the phenomenally popular and probably demon-inspired Pokemon species of game, at least not here on North American soil, the Persona series has been quietly building up a niche of faithfully devoted fans or, as I like to call them, the upright heart and pure. Amongst those who know, there is hardly a franchise out there that inspires as much affection and devotion, which either means we are a faithful remnant sown on the rocky soil amongst weeds and serpents... or that we're all bonkers in need of long-term institutional care. I'm an optimist (and an egoist) so I maintain the former.

So, Persona 4. You play as a young teenager recently transferred from the bustling and as your are quickly and often told utterly corrupt big city into a small rural town, a small rural town soon shocked out of its foggy malaise of would-be innocence and naivete by a series of brutal murders. When one of the victims turns out to be a fellow high school student, you and your recently made new friends set out to catch the killer. All is not Nancy Drew here, however, as you discover that, far from being a case of routine homicidal mania (few things ever are in video games), the killer is actually... um, well this is strange... killing people by throwing them into a world that exists inside the TV! These victims soon show up on the ominous Midnight Channel, a Videodrome-style* program that only appears on televisions on rainy nights at, yup, midnight, after which their bodies are soon discovered in bizarre locations. However, mercifully, you almost immediately discover that, for some reason (sometimes things don't need reasons, you know), you possess the ability to enter this television world by climbing into the screen, and you soon make it your mission to save as many of the Midnight Channel victimes as you can. Inside the TV, the true Persona raison d'etre takes hold, and interiors become exterior. You see, everyone, all people, have more than one side, the side they present to their friends and to society, the good and acceptable side, right? and then the dark, creeping, perhaps Freudian but let's not push that idea too far side of them, the side that contains all their unspoken, perhaps unspeakable, desires. In the world inside the TV, these sides become separated, and the dark sides, the Shadow selves, reek havoc. Tamed and defeated, however, these Shadow selves become Personas, powerful manifestations of that characters personality, which are able to perform combat moves and cast spells. It's a surprisingly rubust gameplay system and an even more surprisingly sophisticated theme for a game to tackle. Soo... I guess think Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Silent Hill meets Final Fantasy.

Gameplay is also divided into two types. In the real world, Persona 4 is essentially a social sim. You make friends, attend class, participate in school clubs and activities, take part-time jobs, gather together with your team of friends to solve the case, and, um... date girls (some critics have crudely described the game as a dating sim... bah, I say. Bah!). In the television world, however, Persona 4 is a strong, though let's be honest not the best, JRPG combat game, in which you fight peoples' Shadow selves, often grotesquely themed versions of their hidden desires, and a host of smaller Shadows who are just there because... well, because you need some monsters to fight, dammit! But while the gameplay mechanics are functional and at times addictive, they are not the star of this show. Rather, startlingly unlike almost all other games, Persona's real charm lies in its characterizations, narrative, and themes. Though there are a few cultural hurdles to clear, and though there are some things you just shake your head at and write off as "Japanese," the characters here are some of the most well-defined, best-executed I've ever seen. It approaches cinematic quality (well, surpasses it actually, depending on what you hold up as your cinematic standard). Some of it is quirky, some of it is strange and bizarre, some of it is just a little too precious at points... but it all comes together to form a cohesive whole, one that feels psychologically and emotionally authentic. These aren't caricatures, aren't stock characters, aren't game cliches, but rather are fully formed characters, many of whom I enjoy spending time with, a rarity in games. So often game developers focus almost exclusively on mechanics (which are important, don't get me wrong) and end up ignoring, or simply tacking on, character development. Not Persona 4.

There is also quite a bit to enjoy on the thematic end of things. The Persona series has never pulled punches. It's solidly rated M, and for good reason. I mean, in Persona 3 the characters summoned their Personas with "evokers," gun-shaped tools with which they shot their own heads. You could actually see what I guess is sort of a psychic debris coming out the other side as their Personas appeared. (The teen suicide motif was not lost on critics, nope, no siree.) Persona 4 continues that mature tradition, though unlike many other M-rated games, Persona never feels as if it were exploiting its rating when it comes to things like violence of profanity. It feels more as if they simply made their game and accepted whatever rating they were given, which, given some of the games sexual themes (the Midnight Channel version of the biker gang member's repressed homosexual fantasy comes to mind), is, naturalich, M for Mature. And some of the things here are deftly handled. This isn't a clumsy or ham-handed treatment of repressed personality. In one particular confrontation, a friend's Shadow self, who had already revealed all that person's deepest and most embarassing romantic feelings, confronts her friend, a standoff that dives into the awkward depths of how friends really feel about each other. The sort of thoughts we all have - my friend is better than me, so I hate her; he's holding me back; he's the strong one, I'm the weak one - get played out. It's not as metaphorical as in, say, Silent Hill 2; some of the things are a bit on the nose. But the game gets credit just for going there, for setting up a sort of arena of the interior and allowing characters to battle it out and hopefully find some peace not only with each other but also with themselves. It's horrifying and touching.

(Um... that trailer might be enough to scare off some people... sorry.)

Persona 4 is simply a fantastic game. Its characters and themes are some of the strongest and most fleshed out in the industry, its combat is quick and fun, its storytelling is, even considering everything it's up against with the current gen releases, outstanding, add to all that a compelling art direction, some great anime cutscenes, and a snappy, hip soundtrack and you get not only of the best JRPGs in a long while but one of the best RPGs in a long while. It puts things like Fallout 3 and even Mass Effect to shame (though it's really not all that hard to shame Fallout 3... especially in the character and narrative departments). It's not without a few annoyances: the game does rely on some heavy grinding** in some parts, and it has a frustrating habit of making you click through a number of information screens a hundred times over, but those aspects are negligible. I should probably also point out that I haven't actually finished the game yet. It takes something like 50 to 70 hours to wrap this one up... so at least you're getting your money's worth.

If you like RPGs, and can handle a tolerable dose of some JRPG stylings (oh, sorry... an RPG is a "role-playing game" and a JRPG is a "Japanese role-playing game... and believe me, there is a distinction), Persona 4 is a must-play. I don't really want to get too deep into RPG theory, but Persona 4 breaks nearly every convention and improves, and I mean dramatically improves, on the already established Persona style. After playing it, I've had to rethink my choice for 2008's game of the year. Sorry, Dead Space. But any game that challenges Silent Hill 2 as one of the most psychologically and emotionally compelling games of all time simply must have my recommendation.

*Isn't that just the most bizarre trailer you've ever seen? Seriously, what the hell!?

** Grinding, for all you non-gamers, is a mechanic in which you simply fight battle after battle in order to advance not the plot but your character's level. It can turn some people off.

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