Some awful flaw nearly killed this game, but luckily it has a solid core.
What makes Persona 3&4 stand out among the thousands of games and animations about Japanese high school students saving the world? In my opinion, it is that Persona shows enough respect to common things. Common people, common place and common life do not give way to the fantasy world and super power heroes. Instead, they are emphasized every where from plots to battle systems. You buy weapon and medicines from common local shops, get some of the most precious items in the game from your common classmates and neighborhood and improve your ability to fuse persona by talking and listening to people with common pains in life. There is not a secretary writing down everything for you, in order to complete some of the quests, you have to listen carefully and think as if you are in that world.
Your partners feel believable and touchable, though some of them has very unbelievable set up. Even someone as weird as Naoto, there is enough well written dialogue and events to support her, and you will finally see that she has so many personality similar to people you know in real life. The game’s loyalty to common life helps here, as for most of the small events they experience, you can recall your memory and feel what it is like.
In addition to the universal theme of “Friendship can beat all evil” for JRPG, the specific theme to this game is about the contradictory state of people’s mind which wants to see the truth of outside world but meanwhile lies to itself. Persona 4 did a great job in bringing out this theme. Television is the window for people to know about outside and also becomes the container of the desire to hide everything with fog. The fog, driven by most people’s desire, become out of control and invades the world. The atmosphere where destruction approaches gently but overwhelmingly is awesome. On the player’s side, each dungeon in TV ends with one of your partners breaking their own cage and revealing an important part of himself. Throughout a year’s struggle, you feel the desire and fear for the truth at the same time. Lastly, with fog blocking your sight for future, you have to make up your mind to explore the ultimate truth or just give up.
However, the plot suffers from its averageness. As a detective story, there is not even a serious deduction throughout the game. The people can be ridiculously smart or ridiculously stupid depending on the mind of director. You can mostly predict what is going to happen if you are familiar with some anime cliches. The way the crime is conducted turns out to be laughable and it would make a better novel if they just explain how the police managed to not notice them earlier. The end game resorts to a deus ex machina to save some of the loopholes, but it itself is unimaginative and boring.
Unsatisfying the plot is, when I said something nearly killed this game, I am thinking about dungeon crawling. The whole thing feel like a routine to complete the game instead of an exploration. This game use random generated dungeons without pouring in enough elements to make those dungeons interesting. Every dungeon is a tower around 10 levels high, and each level is filled with same bunch of narrow corridors. Each dungeon has a unique theme but that only changes the wall paper of the corridors. Loot is not very abundant, and most of them is unexciting and just some standard things you expect in any RPG. Accompanying this is some terrible side quests, which asks you to fetch something dropped by specific monsters in the dungeon. You can never see these things drop before you talk to the right NPC and trigger the mission. What often happens is you get that mission after you have passed that part of dungeon and have to go back (there is no fast travel) and grind.
Battle is supposed to be fun and intense, but not in reality. I know that Persona’s battle system always emphasizes the importance of exploiting weakness. But it is overdone now by punishing players simply for their bad luck. There are rarely weakness-free persona in early game, so you usually have to bear some weakness in your body and enter the battle without information about the monsters. Many normal monsters can wipe you out by one round if they happen to hit your weakness, which means game over as your teammates will not heal you and Rise, a supposed supportive member in the game, will just watch this happen without saying anything helpful (This one is strong! XX is in low health! Be careful! Oh no!). This has nothing to do with skills or experience, just plain luck. If this is really a game where death is supposed to be everyday life, there should be a respawn mechanism. But no, you simply loose everything between death and your last save. On top of that, there is no saving points beside the entrance and the last level and even no short cut to load your last save when you die.
All these elements mentioned above resulted in me playing the dungeons like this: having GameFAQs (really want to shout out for it, excellent site with great authors) opened in my cell phone, checking every monster’s profile before issuing orders, using items to go back to saving point in every level, never trying any risky things. It is like ending a holiday and go back to work every time I figure out that I need to go to the dungeon to proceed the game.
The dungeon crawling is saved a little by the boss battle in its end. The boss battles hit the sweet middle point between “impossible” and “trivial”. If you do not terribly grind your level, mostly the Boss’s attack seems to be end of the world at first glance. Your job is to find solutions to Boss’s attacking pattern in your pool of persona. The solution is usually diverse but you will not sustain long if you did something wrong. What is different from dungeon crawling part is that the saving point is just behind you, so it is affordable to throw away the guide and do some trial and error. The only flaw is that it is possible to walk into a dead end if you do not intentionally stock SP healing items which is difficult to obtain.
Wish all the best for Persona 5. This series is too unique to be overlooked. Under its coarse surface, it contains codes on how to make today’s games and anime better. Yet it need to be improved in many aspects to be a fun game itself.