In P4G, players take on the role of a silent protagonist high schooler who arrives in the small rural town of Inaba as a transfer student for the year. He’s staying with his Uncle Ryoutaro, a police detective, and Nanako, his 6-year-old cousin. But soon a series of murders and kidnappings engulfs the town, and it’s up to [HERO] and his friends to find the truth!
My first kudos goes to the graphics. The 3D sprites are reasonably proportioned (!), in that everyone looks like a typical Japanese person. The character postures and motions are also very smooth. The developers even captured the teenage boy slouch! While P4G is far from Uncharted: Golden Abyss in terms of beautifully rendered environs, its Inaba is an accurate representation of a small town in Japan. The overworld map, which lets players select a destination within the town, resembles a Google maps satellite image. In other words, everything looks realistic.
The breaks with reality occur within the confines of mundane, everyday activities, which is the game’s greatest strength. In P4G, players can enter another dimension swarming with “Shadows,” which can only be fought off with “Personas.” Personas are basically Summons, and they can be won in dungeons or created through fusion. Typical JRPGs have elemental strengths/weaknesses as a function of power, and this is present in P4G as well, but tarot categories (called “arcana”) play a larger role here. For example, your first Persona is Izanagi, of the Fool arcana, and he’s strong in lightning and weak to wind. Certain NPCs in the real world represent specific arcanas, so establishing “Social Links” with them increases the power of Personas you can create. So basically you’re as strong as your friendship level! It’s all a bit of a learning curve for newcomers to the Persona series, but it's bomb once mastered!
The P4G development team also threw in the mandatory sidequests—which are mostly fetch quests—as well as fishing, planting and harvesting, and model building (?!). In addition, your character can do part-time work after school, and/or join after school activities. And, certain actions will increase your stats (for instance, eating a suspicious item in the fridge raises Courage), which can unlock further actions (e.g. enough Courage lets you enter the shrine at night and talk to a ghost!). A lot of factors are day-dependent, such as soccer practice being on Tuesdays, Thursday, and Saturdays, or working at the daycare center being an option on Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays.
What all this means is that every decision you make—who to have lunch with, how to spend the afternoon and evening (e.g. drama club? Basketball practice? Reading? Working? Eating ramen with someone?)—determines your strength and bonus abilities in battle, the other characters’ development, and the interactions near end game. The game makes it challenging to get 100% because one decision cancels out all others, so for example, if I chose to work as a dishwasher at the pub that evening, I would miss my chance to get closer to a classmate who wants to hang out. And players make these choices every single day.
The best part is that the game rewards players, not just through maxing out a Social Link and getting special interactions and skills, but also through the sense that the protagonist has a personality, based on the other characters’ reactions to your dialogue choices.
The combat system in PG4 is a joy. It's so entertaining to find or fuse Personas and then choose one who has the requisite skills to dish out the most damage. A few rules spice up battles: first, hitting a combatant with a weakness gives the attacker an extra turn--this is true for players and Shadows! Second, a hilarious group attack can be performed if all enemies are knocked down. Third, if you have high enough Social Links with your friends, they provide welcome assistance, such as canceling status ailments, removing one enemy from the field entirely, or boosting stats. Fighting is fun in P4G!
P4G has several themes, the quest for truth being the overarching one. A related theme is the role of television/media, which in the game is both a danger and a means to save trapped souls. Does the screen show the truth, or is it all illusion? Friendship and making connections are other major themes in the game, underlined by their centrality to the gameplay. P4G also invites players to think about what makes a family (blood? Love? Shared experience?). Finally, the game highlights the fleeting time that is youth, and how fun and painful and awkward it can be.
The excellent localization really brings these themes and messages across. Certain original Japanese terms are left as-is, conversations flow well, and the voice acting is outstanding. Not a single voiced character was annoying! Plus, in the thousands of lines of text, I only caught a single error (made by Yosuke during a high-level Social Link interaction, btw). So, well done, Atlus localization team and voice actors!
Lastly, P4G’s music is spectacular. There are plenty of J-pop numbers, jazzy tracks for running around town or being in class, a soulful aria for the Velvet Room (basically the Persona support center), and fun dungeon themes. My favorite track is “Signs of Love,” which is catchy and repetitive!
P4G is such a great game that I’m now intrigued by the series and will pick up Persona 5. Until then, I’ll be on my Switch playing Xenoblade Chronicles 2. The gaming never ends, my friends. Especially not when one's husband has correctly deduced that buying wifey console games = hubby free time for PC games!
TL; DR: A strong JRPG and a solid intro to the Persona series!
This post brought to you by there honestly isn't enough coffee to compensate for two kids not sleeping well. -_-