Persona 3 exceeded all my expectations — it’s by far one of the best RPGs on the PS2. I assumed the game would bore me when I first heard it had randomly-generated dungeons, but instead I found them to be liberating. I was free to make progress on my own schedule, and I never had to worry about overlooking some unmissable treasure chest. I expected its high school simulation elements to be obnoxious and creepy. Instead, I found them to be an interesting way to let players dictate the flow of the game’s narrative, and the connection created between the simulation and battle elements strengthened my investment in the story. I thought its AI-controlled party members would frustrate me, but instead they added a new level of strategy to battles and created a stronger sense of identification between myself and the main character. I was suspicious of almost every individual element in the game, but in the course of playing it I came to realize that Persona 3 really was much more than the sum of its parts.
The best innovation of all in Persona 3 was the shift to a narrative that moves temporally rather than spatially, taking place over the course of a calendar year of game time. Being forced to manage your main character’s limited schedule by balancing school, dungeon exploring, and social obligations was incredibly addictive, and it also helped break the game into manageable chunks. So, when Persona 4 came out here in Japan back in July, I rushed out to buy it on day one.
It’s definitely a solid game, and fans of Persona 3 wanting more of the same will enjoy it. But for me, playing through Persona 4 felt a bit like trying to awkwardly rekindle an old relationship. It was fun while it lasted, but it left me feeling empty. Maybe I should have just let it go without looking back.
Many features that I think were intended as improvements to Persona 3 come across here, at best, as two steps forward and one step back. For example, the connections between the simulation and battle portions of the game are strengthened; characters in your party learn new skills as you develop closer relationships with them. However, the benefit for maxing out your relationship with a party member is so great that it feels like a waste of time to interact with any characters who are not already part of the game’s main story. The simulation elements in Persona 3 provided an interesting break from the main narrative, but in Persona 4, it begins to feel like an obligatory extension to that narrative. Sure, you could theoretically choose not to spend most of your free time with members of your party, but it would seriously handicap your characters in battle.
As for the battle system itself goes, your party members are no longer AI-controlled. This certainly makes the game easier, but I’m not sure it makes it better. In both Persona 3 and 4, the main character is incredibly powerful, capable of switching strengths and weaknesses at will and able to use practically any ability in the game. Having AI-controlled party members with more limited skill sets balanced this out in Persona 3, but Persona 4 lacks this balance. Anyone who can’t stand the thought of AI party members will find it less frustrating, but I think it makes for a less interesting game overall. Yes, you can choose to switch to AI if you don’t want to control them directly, but I just couldn’t bring myself to handicap myself like that when I had the option not to do so. This makes Persona 4 feel more like a standard RPG and decreases your level of identification with the main character.
Another disappointing change for me in this game is that characters no longer grow tired when exploring dungeons. This removes an essential limitation in Persona 3’s gameplay that both helped to maintain that game’s brisk pace and forced the player to manage their time wisely. In Persona 4, you can keep exploring as long as you have the curative items or skill points left to keep your party members alive, although skill points no longer regenerate automatically. However, fairly early on, you can encounter a character who will refill your skill points in the game’s dungeon sequences for a fee. This is easy to exploit, and as a result it more or less destroys the pacing and flow of Persona 4. Instead of forcing the player to manage their time between dungeon and simulation elements like in the game’s predecessor, in this game, it makes more sense to largely ignore the dungeon except to jump in once per month of game time for hours on end until you’ve achieved your goals. This makes both the dungeon and social elements seem more repetitive, and the feeling of constantly traveling between two worlds is gone. Yes, you technically could force yourself into the more interesting pattern of Persona 3, but, again, only if you want to consciously handicap yourself by cutting down on your time to strengthen relationships in the simulation portion of the game.
All that being said, I still enjoyed this game. Much of what is good about Persona 3 is still good in its sequel, and I do think people who liked Persona 3 will like this, too. However, I think those who haven’t played Persona 3 will like it more, and I think Persona 4’s changes largely make it less innovative than its predecessor. Removing limitations like AI controlled supporting party members and characters who became exhausted or sick after working too much in one day might make Persona 4 a more accessible game, but I think it also takes away from just what made Persona 3 so unique.