Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 has random dungeons, but they aren’t like the cubicles in Persona 3. The dungeons in Persona 4 feel more like mazes since they have narrow corridors and doors to open. Each dungeon has a theme too. You see different tile sets here, not just the same twisted tower for 100 levels. However, you can’t jump into dungeons right away and save people trapped in the TV world. Persona 4 is a murder mystery RPG. Fittingly players have to search for clues in the real world to open dungeons. This means talking to everyone, but since Persona 4 also has a time system sometimes you need to wait for the right day before the right person pops up.
While you’re digging for facts you haphazardly talk to NPCs that give you rare item fetch quests. These quests are like Elizabeth’s requests from Persona 3, which had players explore old dungeons and fight particular monsters in hopes of getting an item drop. Monsters in Persona 4 almost always drop stuff. After each fight you collect materials that can be sold to the Metalworks shop in town. In addition to getting money the shopkeeper also makes new weapons from your materials. Actually, if you want the store owner to make new weapons you have to sell him materials. Since materials don’t have any other purpose there isn’t any reason to keep them around and the material transfer system is basically Persona 4’s way of preventing players from buying overly powerful weapons.
If you want strong gear you need to look for gold treasure chests. These contain weapons that exceed what you can buy at the Metalworks shop and lifesaving accessories that protect you from certain status attacks. Gold chests have a catch, though. You need chest keys to open them. You get chest keys from completing requests and periodically find one in a regular treasure chest. My main source of chest keys has been from gold shadows. These fights are against rich walking hands that shower you with yen and chest keys if you win. Since you can only open a limited amount of gold treasure chests you don’t want to waste chest keys when you revisit dungeons. Why should you revisit old dungeons? A powerful shadow unrelated to the main story waits on the top floor of each completed dungeon to test your might. Destroy it and you get a courage boost. Also if you search the top floor after you beat the shadow you just might find extra equipment lying on the ground.
Persona 4 uses the one more battle system from Persona 3. It’s turn based and you’re still rewarded with an all out attack that often kills all of the enemies if you can knock them down by exploiting their weaknesses. However, in Persona 4 you can’t see your enemy’s weakness with the analysis command by default. You have to experiment with different spells to see what works. Also, if you knockdown an enemy they get back up and attack on their next turn. If you want to keep enemies on the ground you have to hit them with their weakness twice which makes them dizzy. To make things fair your characters also get up and attack if they are in “down” status too.
Since I could control all of the characters in battle I found fights in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 easier than Persona 3. You don’t have to hope the AI is going to make an intelligent move anymore, you get to pick one. Another reason why fights seem easier is allies get extra abilities when you strengthen Social Links. At the beginning of the game when you make friends with Chie she already gains a skill to sometimes take a mortal blow for you. Get closer to her and she can do a follow up attack and recover other characters suffering from status ailments when you knock an enemy down.
Win a battle and occasionally a mini-game pops up. The card shuffle mini-game in Persona 3 rewarded players with extra money, experience, and new Personas. In Persona 4 it is only used for acquiring new Personas. There are three kinds of cards you need to keep an eye on: Persona cards, blank cards, and penalty cards. Pick a Persona card when the cards magically spin and you get a new Persona. Pick a blank card and nothing happens. But if you happen to get a penalty card you lose all of the experience points, money, and items you would have received from winning the battle.
After you play the shuffle game sometimes you can draw an arcana card by playing Arcana Chance, but this can be risky. Take the Judgement card as an example. It completely restores your SP which are used to cast spells if it’s upright. If it’s reversed it halves your SP. The Death card is even more dangerous. Upright it recovers your SP, but drains your HP. A reverse Death card does the opposite it saps your SP and recovers your HP. You can play the shuffle game and skip an Arcana Chance, but you won’t see an Arcana Chance unless you play the card shuffling game.
Allies don’t get tired anymore and this means you can theoretically clear an entire dungeon in one unit of Persona time. The catch is your HP/SP isn’t automatically restored when you warp out of dungeons. Beating dungeons in one afternoon comes down to SP management. If you intelligently and economically use SP you can keep exploiting weak points which makes fights a breeze. Run out of SP you’re vulnerable. A friendly, but greedy fox can heal you inside the TV world if you handover a large sum of money. You could pay the fox to stay in the TV world longer or you can take advantage of the Invigorate ability. If a persona has this skill you recover a set amount of SP each turn. Invigorate 2 gives you 5 SP each turn. Once you have this all you need to do is go to an easy dungeon and guard until your SP is recovered. Unfortunately, this trick only works for the main character, but if you use him to exploit weak points you can conserve time which is better spent working on Social Links than visiting the same dungeon.
Using this strategy I found myself playing Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 in alternating chunks of dungeon exploring and Social Link building. Sometimes I spent hours leveling up character traits and other times I spent hours inside dungeons. There is one really awesome dungeon in Persona 4 too, but it’s a minor spoiler. Not a plot breaking spoiler, but it’s a good surprise and if you want to get an early peek here you go.
Images courtesy of Atlus.