To begin with, I thought it prudent to mention properties that almost all games in the series have in common. There are exceptions, and I'll mention them when it's relevant. MegaTen is a truly massive franchise, with multiple side stories that have become franchises themselves. Despite this, they are all descended from dungeon crawlers, being some of the unconditional titles in that genre. To begin with, the games are time sinks, typically taking between 60-80 hours to complete the basic story. Very difficult turn-based combat is the mechanic of choice, and the MegaTen franchise was one of the first to have a mechanic popularized by Pokémon: the ability to convince enemies to join your party and fight for you. In addition, you can also fuse these demons (it's usually demons, but even when it's not the fusion mechanic is still there). Fusion is vital, as you can't recruit all enemies and the skills you've grafted to your new demon may not be learned normally. The stories of MegaTen games are also significantly darker than the stereotype of the happy-go-lucky JRPGS, often featuring apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic settings. With all that said, let's get to the games!
Persona 4: The Popular, Mainstream One
|This game is very yellow, color-wise|
LGBT? In my video games?
With all the focus on character development, there are some that stand out from the rest. Kanji may be one of the more sensitively handled depictions of homo/bisexuality (it's debatable) in modern video games, without ever being preachy or stereotypical. While it may not be the best presentation of these issues, the fact that he has a character outside his sexuality (a really good one, at that) really surprised me, which is in retrospect kind of depressing. Also, though I won't spoil which character it is, there is a character that really struggles with their gender/sexual identity, something you almost never see in modern video games. In fact, even among the straight characters, the deep dark secrets they hold are very often linked to their sexual identity. The constant theme is dealing with your problems and choosing an identity, which makes the game more worthy of a "mature" rating than any number of bloody shooters. The Persona side-series is actually rather infamous for homosexual characters, as Persona 2 even let you have a same sex relationship, in 1999. This is probably the reason why even in 2012(!!) its rereleases haven't been ported to the US. Hopefully this will change in the future.
|Kanji Tatsumi: Total Badass|
TV Crawling (no seriously, you climb into TVs)
Man About Town
The real-world aspects--going to school, hanging out with friends, buying items--are more like a visual novel, and is the other half of Persona 4. Outside of cutscenes, this is where all the plot and character development happens. It's vitally important to talk to people and befriend them, as it raises your "Social Links" which let you summon higher-level persona and give them more experience. Plus it's actually a lot of fun, and tends to be more down-to-earth than most anime-style hijinks you find in these sort of games. One disappointment is the fact that despite the interesting use of LGBT issues, you can only have the protagonist date women; a missed opportunity. There are also sidequests to get, which give you useful items or unique persona to summon. You can pick up part-time jobs for extra cash, too. This all runs on a pseudo-real time system: you can do an action in the day and one in the evening, and then it's on to the next day. You never really feel like you don't have enough time (only some actions "use" time), which is a big improvement over previous games in the series. The biggest problem with this is, after you finish a Social Link, is that character development just sort of stops. You are supposed to develop them in a balanced way, but if you min-max your way to powerful attacks the plot suffers, so the whole thing can be zero-sum occasionally.
For those of you who have only played traditional JRPGs, Persona 4 will have a style like no other game in that genre. The game comes with its soundtrack, and Shoji Meguro's latest work is some of his greatest. The art style is also very different, making the whole package unlike anything most gamers have ever seen. Just watch the intro, you'll see what I mean:
But what does it all mean?
Though longtime fans of the series dismiss it because it's easy and popular, there really is a reason it's the first to gain wide recognition. It's a solid game, and is the least frustrating of any MegaTen games I've played. This can be a problem, though, if you want to further explore the series. It can very hard to play some of the older games if your first is Persona 4, but I do encourage it. Persona 4: The Golden, the updated rerelease for the PS Vita, rebalances the characters and adds several new scenes (and a new character), and makes it even easier to play. Both are some of the best games for their respective systems, and are worth checking out if you want a polished, new JRPG experience.
Next post, I'll talk about the game that's responsible for Persona 4 being released stateside, Persona 3. Stay tuned!