Persona 3 and 4 on the Playstation 2 are not only underplayed, they were criminally ignored by the west. Critics held hands, and banded together in universal praise when they hit the shelves, awarding scores rarely dipping below solid gold nines.
Sure, they’re niche titles, but it doesn’t make me any less P*SSED that so few played ‘em. Any player even slightly inclined to the odd RPG, can pick them up immediately and get immersed in their strange but credible worlds. There is so much quality and freshness in these titles, the kind that has been lacking since the SNES and PSone era of Japanese role players
Before I start with the love-in, I just want to clarify to all of those sniggering at the back, that the Persona games are NOT dating simulators; they are not necessarily aimed at people that masturbate furiously to Hentai. I am not a weebo; Japan freaks me out and amazes me in equal measure.
Keep an open mind weary gamers, because Persona 3 and 4 – the two pretty similar to one another, bar refinements – are some of the most absorbing, stylish and innovative games around, and one of the best things to emerge from Japan in recent times.
The Persona series is an offshoot of the risqué and fairly popular (in japan mind you) Shin Megami Tensei franchise. Not afraid of thrusting themes including the occult, cannibalism and teen suicide in your direction. Developers Atlus USA are a twisted bunch; they probably have a penchant for bondage too (that’s just how these guys roll).
Persona 3 in particular is a dark and devilish tale. Your fresh-faced teen protagonists will actually shoot themselves in the head with perverse frequency, to tease out their ‘Personas’ in battle – anthropomorphic beasts that represents the characters’… well, persona. They cast spells and do your bidding, a bit like a Pokémon, but replace the cute plush toys with psychotic abominations.
The idea behind Persona is an intriguing proposition – half social simulation, half dungeon crawler. You play the role of a mute but strangely popular high school student, where you will try to carve out a normal life in modern Japan, and save the world in the process.
You will probably want to keep on top of your studies at High School, socialise, entertain the local womenfolk; get a job sealing envelopes; go fishing, and attempt to eat the biggest bowl of beef and noodles you’ve ever laid eyes on – providing your stats are high enough, kid.
In the other part of your secret double life, unbeknownst to the regular folk, you and your band of hormonal schoolmates combat the rather creatively named shadows; otherworldly demons that are causing all kinds of problems in the world as we know it.
Love it or loathe it, you’ll be taking part in the JRPG stalwart of turn based battles on a regular basis. But before you do a runner back to the Ben and Jerry comforts of Gears of War 3, take note that the fights are brief and straightforward, and one guy even fights with a folded chair! Enemies can be spotted on the field, also.
The randomly generated dungeons you’ll be tackling will take a sizable chunk of your time, but you’ll rarely need to grind through the levels to progress. You’re actively discouraged from spending too much time wandering though them, as cleverly there is no ability to save in the dungeons themselves (though in Persona 4 there are save points before bosses.) When you’re low on HP and curative items, every fight becomes a gamble, so you need to know when to call it a day.
Normally the lack of save points in such a life or death scenario would be the meddling of an utter douchebag, no? In this case, I think it simply keeps boredom to a minimum. There is so much to do in Persona, that players solely focusing on only one aspect of the game would be neglecting half of the fun.
The appeal of the design as a whole, is that there is so much variety. One minute you’ll be struggling against a punishing boss that can wipe your party out in two turns, the next you’ll be going to the pictures with a girl, while she confides to you her ‘problems at home.’ Jeez…
These two existences are directly interconnected with each other. Socialising with people, and developing ‘Social Links’ directly affects the development of your character and his or her Persona’s.
You need to be conscientious of who you spend your time with; even if you think a character smells vaguely of donkey, you need to take into consideration that talking to this person develops a specific type of Persona that you’re interested in powering up – eyes on the prize and all that.
So you can have multiple Persona’s, you inquire? No? Well ANYWAY, yes you can. You can collect a bundle of these things from battle, with the maximum amount you can possess increasing with every ten levels. You can even fuse them with each other and create more powerful freakazoids.
There’s so much to do and keep track of, that it’s a miracle that Persona doesn’t fall on its arse from the weight of its own ambition. But Persona 3 and 4 never skips a beat. Your precious time in Persona world is broken down into segments. For instance, you have morning, daytime, after school and evening. There is no active clock, so there’s no need to dart around like an overworked and receding salaryman in rush hour.
Time management is a totally different beast here. Some activities won’t pass the time, but others such as spending time with your ‘Social Links’, going to work or chowing down at the sushi bar will elapse that part of the day.
So you need to be methodical with how you utilise your time; should I go to the nightclub and speak to the bitter, sarcastic monk that hangs out there, or study for the upcoming exams and work on my ‘academics’ rank? These will be the constant questions you’ll be asking yourself.
It quickly becomes open-ended in the way you can develop your character. And if you think this sounds like a gruelling, slow-paced kind of game, think again. Shortcuts allow you to skip around town with ease, and if there is no event occurring during school time, time will skip until after school. Wasted time is kept to a minimum, and no single activity or event usually drags on for longer than is necessary – which makes everything all the more addictive.
For the most part JRPGs wouldn’t be much fun without a strong narrative, story and characters – and Persona 3 and 4 grab you by the neck from the off; Persona 3 is a surreal and nightmarish story about an enigmatic and demonic tower that appears in a hidden hour, unknown to regular folk, where savage creatures emerge from to rampage around Japan, while all but Persona users sleep unknowingly though this period in coffins. Solving the mystery of the tower and other bizarre goings on in the city drives you forward. Crazy, but a good kind of crazy.
Persona 4 is a bit more upbeat, and has its feet on the ground in comparison. The plot plays out as a whodunnit murder mystery, in a sleepy Japanese town out in the sticks. This may sound a little formulaic, but when you find that the first victim of this mystery brute has been impaled on a rooftop TV aerial, and when you find that there’s another dimension, chock full of nasties to beat down INSIDE televisions, things quickly take a turn for the insane.
Thanks to some excellent writing, characters in both titles are unique, charming, even empathetic at times. In Persona 4 particularly, you may even feel as if you know someone like a specific character. Teenage issues such as sexuality, isolation and jealousy are deftly handled. While lessons learned along the way rarely stray into melodramatic territory, unlike a lot of corny Anime out there.
The Persona games look and sound brilliant. Put aside the fact that you can only play them on the wussy PS2 and the PSP with Persona 3 Portable; the pop-art stylised presentation is gorgeous throughout, whether it’s the minimalist but striking menu screens or the likeable character design.
The 3D graphics circumvent the PS2′s lack of junk in the trunk, by producing vibrant, colourful locales that are more bold than detailed. The artists clearly went to town on the more surreal sections of the game, treating you to some pleasingly abstract visuals, with some depraved symbolism for good measure.
And another thing, the soundtrack is the balls. Yes, the balls. J-pop with mangled, barely comprehensible engrish lyrics from Japanese singers always gets my vote. But never before has this artform been so moreish to listen too: “WE ARE LIVING ON MAAARRSSS!” “From the homo-men to now break awaaaaay!” are but examples of the stunningly evocative vocal work.
I’m going to be honest here; me and my friend like to blast the Persona 4 soundtrack from his car stereo, quite often. It’s awesome driving music. It’s the soundtrack to my life. I’m listening to it right now as I type, and I will continue to be hooked to it in the foreseeable future. “Your affeeection!” indeed.
I also have to mention that Persona 3 and 4 are extremely lengthy. About a hundred hours can easily be invested into both games on your first playthrough. So blackmail your boss with compromising photographs, or just simply say f**k you to the system. You need to set aside a lot of hours to enjoy these games fully. Do what you must; Persona is seriously worth your time.
If you become obsessed with the PS2 Persona games, like me. You may find that you’ll see life a little differently than most. Friends will become ‘Social Links;’ if you say the right thing you’ll see colourful visual cues and your social rank will increase; If you eat a vindaloo curry your ‘courage’ and ‘understanding’ stats will improve; items you obtain from your girlfriend will actually be useful in battle… Think about it.