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Critical Reception: Atlus' Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4

This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reaction to Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, an RPG that boasts "unprecedented levels of innovation, character, and outright charisma," according to recent reviews.
This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reaction to Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, an RPG that boasts "unprecedented levels of innovation, character, and outright charisma," according to recent reviews. 2007's PlayStation 2 hit Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 won an enthusiastic reception among critics for its successful blending of RPG questing, dungeon crawling, and social simulation. Persona 3 challenged players to forge friendships and earn passing grades in a high school that transformed into a multi-story dungeon at nightfall -- an odd gameplay mix that many RPG fans found memorable and compelling. Expectations ran high for this week's release of Persona 4, and judging from initial reviews, series fans are not likely to be disappointed. Persona 4 currently earns an exceptionally high score of 97 out of 100 at Metacritic.com. 1UP.com's Andrew Fitch gives Persona 4 an A+ grade. "For all of the restless hand-wringing over how Japanese role-playing games must evolve from their dusty, dated conventions and myopic cultural perspectives in order to appeal to Western gamers," he begins, "I think it's telling that one of the most successful recent Eastern RPG exports is also the most unapologetically Japanese." "Atlus imports Persona's modern-day Japanese trappings completely intact, requiring Western players to juggle myriad polysyllabic Japanese personal and place names, a host of linguistic honorifics, an unfamiliar Japanese academic and holiday calendar, and plenty of exotic cultural conventions," Fitch explains. "Of course, Persona succeeds not because it's intrinsically Japanese -- it succeeds because it's simply so unique." Fitch finds that Persona 4 builds successfully on Persona 3's multigenre gameplay formula. "With Persona 4, you can add one more descriptor to this controversial demon collector/school sim/dungeon crawl/Japanese cultural primer: stylish murder mystery," he writes. "A serial killing spree's gripped the quaint rural Japanese town of Inaba, and it's up to a scrappy band of high schoolers to nab the culprit. So if Persona 3's secret shadow-slaying society played out like Harry Potter in a metropolitan Japanese high school, this adventure's more small-town Scooby-Doo." "What really sets Persona 4 apart, though, is its endearing, relatable cast," Fitch says. "From the moment my spunky tomboy classmate invited me to sit next to her in Persona 4, I felt an immediate connection -- and the sense that these could've easily been guys and gals I went to high school with. They're all normal kids with mundane problems." Over at GamePro, Will Herring scores Persona 4 at 5 out of 5. "I'll be the first to admit that I was a tad skeptical when I heard that Persona 4 was dropping as soon as the end of 2008," he notes. "I couldn't help but worry; would this just be Persona 3 with a fresh coat of paint and a new cast of cookie-cutter characters? I'm happy to report that while Persona 4 does hold quite a few similarities to its predecessor, it proves itself as a brand new experience from the ground up with unprecedented levels of innovation, character, and outright charisma." Herring asserts that Persona 4 lives up to the narrative standards set by Persona 3. "The narrative aspects of P4 are told expertly through astonishing voice acting and simply beautiful anime cutscenes that truly draw you into the game's enchanting story," he says. "Met with a fantastically catchy soundtrack and a series of top-notch character designs, it's obvious that Atlus spared no expense when building the memorable world of P4." Improvements to Persona 3's combat system are also welcomed. "One of the most noticeable changes of Persona 4 is in the game's battle system, where you're now granted complete control over every member in your party," Herring explains. "While the party AI is incredibly bright, the option to offer specific orders to your teammates is definitely appealing and rather helpful during harder battles." Other features provide additional depth and convenience. "Also new to the series are part-time jobs, a vast collection of new extracurricular activities and Social Links, and an amazing assortment of shops and hot-spots around town to visit, all truly bringing Inaba to life," Herring says. "However, my absolute favorite addition to P4, hands down, has to be the new use of the Square button which allows you to fast-travel all over Inaba at any time." "I'll admit: I went in to Persona 4 with some strong reservations, and I came out of it ready to boot up my save file and start the entire adventure over again from step one," Herring concludes. "While Persona 4 isn't revolutionary or utterly groundbreaking, it does so many things right on such a small scale - not to mention so many things that have never been seen before in the role-playing genre - it'd just be a shame to pass on this gem." "Atom" at WorthPlaying gives Persona 4 a rating of 9.5 out of 10, explaining that its mystery angle works well in the narrative's favor. "Persona 4 is a mystery story, and you won't be able to simply wait for the plot to come to you, as you did in Persona 3," he says. "You're given a time limit, and if you can't figure out who the next victim is and save him or her before the next foggy day, the game is over." "It's surprisingly addictive to actually work out the solution to the mystery by piecing together clues," Atom continues. "Tracking down leads does wonders for making you feel like you're influencing the story, even if you only make a few choices that have far-reaching effects." Atom is also impressed with the way in which Persona 4's social aspect mixes with its combat. "As in Persona 3, your character doesn't just gain power from his or her actions in the television world, but also from those in the real world," he explains. "Your character has his own set of stats in the real world, separate from his combat stats, which show his social abilities: Courage, Diligence, Expression, Knowledge and Understanding." "Raising these stats is crucial to doing everything in the game because certain things can only be done if you have a specific level of a specific social stat," Atom says. "For example, earning the highest grade in school exams requires a maxed-out Knowledge stat and yields powerful items and tons of cash. The catch is that it's really quite hard to level up these stats and still leave time for other things." The result is a challenging and altogether satisfying experience, according to Atom. "On the surface, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 may seem like a simple repackaging of Persona 3, but under the surface lies something more," he notes in conclusion. "Everything — from the story to the combat system to the dungeon crawling and Social Links — has been improved. Considering that Persona 3 was already an excellent game, Persona 4 is a true standout. If you're an RPG fan who owns a PlayStation 2, you owe it to yourself to pick up this game. You won't regret it."

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