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If you're reading this, you're no doubt a fan of Persona, Atlus' controversial demon-summoning school-sim dungeon hack. And that's part of the problem. See, after spending 10 hours with the recently released Japanese import, I want to tell you how awesome Persona 4 is. The problem is that I don't want to tell you precisely why it's so awesome.
First things first, though: If you haven't already done so, I suggest you read my recent interview with Atlus localizers Nich Maragos and Yu Namba to get up to speed on the latest info. The gist of the story is this, though: Persona 4 takes the franchise to the Japanese countryside, eschewing the (perhaps overdone) Tokyo-like setting of the previous game.
Now, if you want specific plot spoilers, go somewhere like the GameFAQs message boards, 'cause you sure as hell won't find 'em here. But I will say this: While it's clear the game's built on the same tech as the previous incarnation, Persona 4 doesn't simply graft the conventions of the earlier games onto a rural setting. Yes, the touchstones of the series -- summoning demons, exploring a randomly generated labyrinth, and getting to know the various players in this captivating high school noir -- are all here, but they don't unfold quite as you'd expect. Just know that it's filled with awesome twists (you'd send me scores of nasty e-mail if I revealed exactly what they were) and that Persona 3 strategies won't necessarily transfer over -- you'll have to completely rebalance your social schedule this time around, for one.
In the aforementioned interview, Namba said that Atlus Japan staff traveled to the Japanese countryside in order to get the rural backdrop right, and it shows. If you've spent any time in the inaka -- and, yeah, I know it's unlikely that too many of you have -- the setting will definitely tap into your sense of nostalgia. You'll see students biking along rolling hillsides, kindly octogenarians strolling past Shinto shrines, and a whole lot more open space than you're probably used to seeing in a typically cramped Japan-based setting. The played-out Tokyo backdrop has become so familiar that it's really second nature for a lot of gamers, even those not so well versed in Japan, so this should be a welcome change of pace for most. My one concern: It might play a little too true to its rural inspiration, leaving the player straining to find enough to do -- 10 hours in, I only had access to the high school, a food court, a main-street shopping area, and a riverside country road...though more areas may well open up later. Also, while certainly intriguing, the opening few hours might be a tad too heavy on plot development -- though Persona 3's prelude was itself a slow burn, Persona 4 severely ratchets up the expository dialogue, which is why I can't recommend importing the title if you're not close to fluent in Japanese.
A few aspects I do feel comfortable discussing in greater detail, since they're not exactly spoilers -- especially given Atlus' own silence on the subjects -- are the dungeon, combat, and exploration portions. First of all, the one major complaint most players had with Persona 3 was its clunky, unnecessarily complex interface. In general, all of the menus are much more user friendly now, and you won't have to endure a series of submenus just to equip a comrade with a new piece of armor. Furthermore, travel's been streamlined: With just one button, you can instantly teleport anywhere you want in a given part of town, and in dungeons, you can quickly adjust your companions' strategies or even turn off their A.I. controls and command 'em yourself. That means that should you fail -- and, in the holy name of Amaterasu Omikami, you will fail! -- you'll feel like it's due to your own mistakes and not because an A.I. teammate was too dense to notice that you were sprawled on the ground, near death.
The major change you'll notice when trekking through the labyrinth, though, is the new behind-the-back perspective (in fact, the school exploration also features a similar view). While this would seem a mere aesthetic change at first glance, I found it had the added effect of making it far more difficult to catch enemies off-guard. In battle, foes seem quicker to exploit weaknesses, and bosses are far more ruthless in their aggression. In fact, the whole experience feels much more frantic and stressful, especially given the game's backdrop -- every action has grave consequences, and I came to feel a gnawing, palpable sense of dread. In Persona 3, I'd often kick back and enter cruise control -- and go cruisin' for the ladies. Persona 4's pace may well slow down later on, but I sure didn't feel it in the first 10 hours. The game plays out like an "expert" version of Persona 3, and it never stops to hold your hand.
For many players, Persona's unique appeal lies in its social-sim aspects -- and for simpletons who might thoughtlessly deride the series as simply playing out lonely otaku fantasies, it goes much deeper than simply "dating anime chicks." For example, Persona 3 featured potential friendships with characters as diverse as a nightclub-frequenting Buddhist monk and a young girl coming to terms with her parents' divorce, and Persona 4 appears to continue this trend. Don't expect to see Persona 3 favorites like class clown Junpei and academic marvel Mitsuru replicated in whole, either -- though they certainly embody familiar high school archetypes, Persona 4's cast feels fresh, energetic, and wholly charming. Most importantly, though, they're all intriguing enough that you want to get to know them better.
While I immediately gravitated to most of the cast, one character's shrill, screeching demeanor failed to charm. If you're a Japanophile, you're no doubt familiar with Doraemon, a cyborg feline who's been an ubiquitous presence in Japanese pop culture since his late-'60s debut (in fact, the Japanese government even recently "appointed" him its international anime ambassador). Spend even a little time on the archipelago and you'll soon become regrettably familiar with this time-traveling cat's constantly flapping gums and piercing, shrieking, unbearably annoying vocalization (can you tell I've never been a fan?). Now, imagine an even more irksome version, and you've got a good idea of what to expect with one of Persona 4's ancillary characters. Doraemon's always been huge in Asia, but since we don't have a history with him in the West or an equivalent character to draw inspiration from, I seriously worry that what invokes childhood nostalgia in Japanese gamers might seriously grate on American ears. We prefer our anthropomorphic animals cynical and sardonic -- see Garfield and Brian from Family Guy -- not overly shrill and creepily earnest. I'm pretty confident that Atlus can nail the rest of the localization in spite of Persona 4's intrinsic "Japaneseness" -- if they can successfully pull off this character on the other side of the Pacific, though, I'll be truly impressed.
The game's North American release is still a little under five months off, so if you're a series neophyte, I'd highly recommend tracking down a copy of Persona 3 or Persona 3: FES before jumping straight into Persona 4 this December. And if you're a veteran of the franchise, it sure wouldn't hurt to revisit the earlier games and sharpen your demon-summoning skills. Trust me -- you're gonna need 'em.
Looks very good & I'm sure they'll change certain things about that jpop character when it gets translated.
All in all looking forward to it.
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