I got to play an early English build of Persona 4 and three hours passed without entering a single dungeon. The introduction to Persona 4 is long, make sure to save your game in between days long, but I didn’t mind. The story hooked me in. Before I start discussing the beginning of Persona 4 please be warned that this post will contain details from the first few hours of the game. I’m not going to ruin the ending or anything of that nature, but If you want to go into Persona 4 knowing nothing about the story you might want to avoid reading this.
Persona 4 begins inside the Velvet Limo. Igor greets you while you enter your name. An animated cutscene explains the protagonist is leaving his school and moving to a new town. His uncle Ryoutaro and his responsible overlydaughter Nanako pick him up from the train station. Ryotaro is a detective in the rural town of Inaba. Nanako looks like she’s in elementary school, but she can fend for herself. In the morning she cooks eggs for you and at night she tucks herself in. Nanako’s favorite thing to do is watch TV, but she has no interest in the love triangle on the nightly news. The commercial for Junes, a modern shopping complex, catches her attention. Nanako sings the Junes jingle every time the commercial airs. By the end of the introduction you’ll know it by heart. Life in Inaba appears to be peaceful. This should be a relaxing break from busy city for the protagonist while his parents work overseas, but we know this isn’t going to be the case.
The main character meets his homeroom teacher on the first day of school and he isn’t anything like the warm Ms. Toriumi. The homeroom teacher in Persona 4 greets the protagonist by belittling him. You can respond back by insulting him to increase your stats or not. Like the other Persona games you get to pick your character’s responses. Either way Chie invites you to sit next to her and consoles you for getting stuck with a rotten homeroom teacher. The two teachers I’ve seen so far seem to have different personalities than the instructors in Persona 3. You have a comically mean homeroom teacher and a female history teacher who likes to wear extravagant headwear. When you first meet her she’s wearing a Pharaoh’s hat.
Chie, a martial arts buff, Yukiko, a shy and socially detached girl that manages her parent’s famous hotel, and Yousuke, the source of comic relief are the first three classmates you meet. Yousuke is immediately the most likeable, but at this moment the protagonist isn’t friends with him. The main character coldly watches Chie kick Yousuke in the family jewels for damaging one of her martial arts DVDs. An option to help Yousuke or even ask if he’s OK doesn’t pop up. You automatically leave school with the two girls. Yukiko has a mysterious vibe. When a creepy stalker tries to ask her on a date she is oblivious to what’s going on. Her problem seems deeper than simply being shy. Yukiko has some inner, possibly outer, demons you’re going to have to confront since she’s a primary character.
On your stroll home you come across a murder scene. Ryotaro is leading the grisly investigation. A rookie runs off screen to throw up, but the three students are rather calm. Haunting music plays in the background to set up the mood and after a bit of dialogue all of the characters head straight home. That night the news informs everyone the murder is related to the love triangle from the news last night, but who did this?
After the protagonist lays down in his bed to rest he awakens in a foggy corridor chasing a shadowy figure. In the dream the shadowy figure persuades you to search for the truth.
The next morning Yousuke and the protagonist become chums. Yousuke crashes his bike into a trash can for the second day in a row. Being a stand up guy or maybe because the girls aren’t around you decide to help him out. After class Yousuke offers to treat the protagonist to Inaba’s local cuisine. Chie demands Yousuke to pay her back for the damaged movie and forcibly tags along. The three characters toast the protagonist’s arrival by holding soda cups in the air and chat about an ominous television channel. Chie explains if you watch the Midnight Channel late at night you can see who your crush is. All three characters agree to watch the Midnight Channel that night. When the protagonist turns on the TV that night he sees a girl and has his first encounter getting sucked into a TV.
Chie and Yousuke don’t believe the protagonist’s wild story about partially phasing into the TV. Who would? They think he was just tired and fell asleep. At the Junes electronics section the phenomenon occurs again. Yousuke and Chie are shocked and during their confusion all three characters fall into the TV world is polished, which is polished with a neat noise filter. Underneath the glow of spotlights you can see chalk body outlines on the stage. Dozens of body chalk outlines. The trio frantically search for an exit and a bathroom. A door illuminated by light pouring out of the cracks is up ahead. Everyone enters the room to find a noose hanging from the ceiling. Red blotches are splattered on the floor. Posters – with the faces ripped out – are pasted on the wall. These visual cues and eerie music work well together to create a tense moment for the frightened high school students. They’re not hardened paranormal investigators. What happened here?
You don’t wait in the room to find out. The group runs back to their starting point where a rotund bear greets them. Teddie (aka Kuma in the Japanese version) is a resident of this world and warns players that someone has been tossing bodies in here, shadows are on the rise, and they should get out if they want to survive. But, there isn’t any escape route! Teddy has to bring them back to the real world by summoning a tower of 1980’s TV sets and pushing the group inside the TV screens.
Back in the real world everyone heads home and the next morning an animated cutscene greets players with a dead body strapped to power lines. This is the girl you and Yousuke saw on the Midnight Channel! The death hits a soft spot for Yousuke since the victim is one of his friends. Determined to solve the connection between the vision on the Midnight Channel and the murder Yousuke requests your help. Chie, Yousuke, and you head to Junes after school with a plan to return inside the TV world. Yousuke ties a rope to himself and hands the other end to Chie. In theory she should be able to pull Yousuke out when he wants to escape. This idea is crushed in seconds when Yousuke realizes the rope got cut during dimensional travel. Good thing you’re armed this time. The main character is equips a golf club. Persona 4 throws out the strike/pierce/slash weapon types found in Persona 3. Weapons are just weapons and seemingly boring real world items can act as weapons. You actually use the golf club in battle. Another character you meet later on smacks shadows with tables.
While standing on the stage looking guilty Teddie approaches both of characters. At first Teddie isn’t pleased to see you again. He correlates the increase in bodies is due to your increased visits in the TV world. You have to convince the hollow bear you aren’t responsible. After Yousuke and the protagonist attempt to prove their innocence Teddy hands both of them glasses. These are not used to summon personae. Even with the glasses the main character is the only one who can call out a persona now. You’re escorted to the first fight against floating shadows with huge tongues. The main character mutters the words “persona” and the fight begins. His persona, and all of the persona, are called out by crushing tarot cards. A few blasts of lightning finish the shadows off which allows Yousuke, the protagonist, and an impressed Teddie press forward.
In the next area you can hear the thoughts, the troubled thoughts of people living in the real world. Small business owners are upset at Junes. The mall run by Yousuke’s parents is threatening their livelihood. Suddenly, the deceased girl’s voice echoes in the shop and she has a different tone towards Yousuke. When she was alive she was friendly, but now she detests Yousuke. Things are about to get more deranged…
Out of the corner another Yousuke appears. He’s glowing purple and notably upset about the move to a rural town. While Yousuke claims to have come to terms with the transition from the city the shadow insists he is bored and boredom is the main reason Yousuke is seeking the killer. The shadow rages out of control and you fight Shadow Yousuke. The giant crab-like creature is your first boss and you don’t have any help. Shadow Yousuke can also hit you with wind spells, which just happen to be your weakness. You can cover up your vulnerability and avoid getting knocked down by selecting guard before Shadow Yousuke uses a wind spell. Shadow Yousuke is weak against lightning so this fight is pretty balanced even though you’re alone.
When the fight with Shadow Yousuke ends, Yousuke realizes he has to come to terms with his dissident feelings. These negative feelings are a part of him and through acceptance Yousuke earns his persona. The persona power is neatly woven into the story unlike Persona 3 where at the beginning of the game the group of teens seemingly got their persona powers out of thin air.
My hands on with Persona 4 ended here. I didn’t reach a dungeon and barely scratched the surface of combat, but I dug the story. Persona 4 gripped me more than any other RPG I’ve played this year. Part of it is the murder mystery setting. Yeah, Sigma Harmonics has this too, but Persona 4 does a better job of creating suspense. Atlus also invests an inordinate amount of time setting up the world and introducing characters. The result is Persona 4 feels more fleshed out and accessible even though the characters are in rural Japan. And you’re going to get to know these characters very well. Each ally on your team has their own side story and Social Link to master. You’re encouraged to grow closer to your party members since they gain combat abilities when you build up their Social Link. Yousuke learns an ability to take a blow for the main character when you start a relationship with him.
Wow, if you read this much you must really be interested in Persona 4. You’re probably a fan of the Persona series. When I stopped by to try Persona 4 out Atlus gave me another yellow Persona 4 t-shirt and instead of keeping it I’m going to pass it out to another fellow Persona fan. Post a comment in this thread with the reason you’re planning to buy or not buy Persona 4 when it comes out this winter. I’ll pick a winner (US / Canada only) next Monday (Sept. 22) at random to receive the shirt.
Please note a winner has been chosen for this contest.
Images courtesy of Atlus.