Monday, November 14, 2011

games of our lives, part 7: Persona 4

In this fantastic RPG, you play a Japanese teenager (you get to choose his name at the beginning of the game; I used my own, which made it rather funny when a classmate cooed "I...I love you, [sairentohiru]-kun") who has just moved to the small town of Inaba. Your parents have transferred overseas for their jobs, so you move in with your uncle and six-year-old niece. Everyone at school is fascinated by you because you're from the big city, and you make fast friends with tomboy Chie, lovable klutz Yosuke (my favorite character), and shy beauty Yukiko. They tell you about the rumor sweeping school: if you watch the Midnight Channel at (duh) midnight when it's raining, you'll see the image of your soulmate.

Almost immediately after your arrival, weird things begin happening. The body of a famous newscaster is found hanging from an antenna, and soon afterwards, the corpse of a teenage girl turns up in a similar state. People claim that they saw the victims on the Midnight Channel shortly before their deaths, and you discover that you can enter television sets, where you wind up in a strange land populated by monsters called Shadows...and a cuddly mascot character named Teddie. It becomes evident that this place holds the key to the murders, and you and your friends set out to solve the mystery once and for all. Along the way, you add new members to your team: former idol Rise, misunderstood thug Kanji, and amateur detective Naoto.

Now, it may seem like an alternate reality populated by monsters would be a dangerous place for a group of teenagers, and it is, but you have a big advantage. Each character has their own "Shadow": a secret part of them that they're afraid to acknowledge. For example, Yukiko comes across as aloof, but her shadow is a monstrous princess who wants nothing more than to be saved by a man. And Kanji thinks he might be gay, so his shadow is a flamboyant, musclebound, rose-bedecked creature who purrs "Mmmm, give me more!" before pounding on you. Once the characters defeat their Shadows, they accept that part of themselves, and the Shadow becomes a Persona: an ally with special skills who will fight on their behalf.

But it's not enough to just collect Personas. (You're the only character who gets more than one.) You also have to develop social links, which allow you to make bigger and better Personas in a process so confusing that I left it entirely in G's (an RPG vet) capable hands. Social links are created by making friends and spending time with them. You can also form romantic attachments (though, unlike Fable 2 or Rockstar's brilliant Bully, you can't woo other guys, which is a shame), join clubs, and work at part-time jobs to earn money and boost your stats. It got a bit hectic trying to juggle school, extracurricular reading, three part-time jobs, basketball club, music club, chilling with friends, AND killing monsters, but that was part of the fun.

The storyline is intriguing, and there are plenty of poignant and funny moments sprinkled throughout. The music can be repetitive, but it's so enjoyable (especially the glittering J-pop gem "Your Affection") that I didn't mind. And the voice acting is top notch, with the jarring exception of Chie. The other voice actors make up for it though, especially Yuri Lowenthal as Yosuke, Johnny Yong Bosch as bumbling detective Adachi, and Troy Baker as Kanji. (Anyone who watches a lot of dubbed anime should recognize those names!) Aside from fusing new Personas, it's a very user-friendly game, even for RPG n00bs like me. Even the instruction book is terrific; it explains the various honorifics used in the game and certain items which might confuse Americans, like the kotatsu (a heated table used during winter).

Will RPGs ever replace survival horror as my video game genre of choice? Hell to the no. But if more RPGs were like Persona 4, it would be a much closer race.