Sunday, February 22, 2009

What I'm Playing: Persona 4

Persona 4 Box art
It seems unlikely, but I am playing Atlus's Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4. Why so improbable? Because, as I've mentioned before:

  • I don't like RPGs,
  • I don't have time to play long games or games that need extended play between saves,
  • And I mostly play portable, not console games

Well, Persona 4 is a straight up RPG on the Playstation 2, complete with points system, level ups, turn-based attacks, etc. Game play consists of long story episodes with few saves spots and intermittent battles. Not exactly my usual type of game.

But I am addicted.

It is not the game play; I have hardly got far enough to have even the barest minimum control of the game. Mostly it is an extended animation interspersed with my pressing X to move mechanically forward in the story. Oh, and every once in a while I get to choose my response in discussions with other characters in the story. Only every once in a while.

And there are battles. But what has me itching to keep playing is the story, the environment, and the presentation.

  • Story-wise, playing Persona 4 is like reliving high school, complete with the plodding pace, the often inane conversations, and seemingly menial activities. The game captures this perfectly -- including the verbal banter that often masks an intricate social dance of half truths, dares, flaunts, and feints. I don't need to relive high school (I am way past that) and there are many movies and TV shows that, sadly, pretend to. But few actually capture the meaningless intrusion of random external events quite like Persona 4.

  • This is made all the more interesting because the story is acted out in modern Japan. This is not a ploy to create a feeling of alienation. It is an artifact of the game's origin; it was developed in Japan and Atlus unapologetically makes no attempt to Westernize it. The result is a fascinating immersion in the smallest details of Japanese culture: the houses, the streets, the furniture and clothing, even the advertising in the trains, all share a distinctly non-western look.

  • Finally, the game is presented in a curious mix of 2D animation, 3D animated game sequences, audio, and printed text overlaid on top of two colored text boxes set at different angles on the bottom of the screen. The text, besides giving an edge to the presentation, also gives a "staged" appearance to the 3D segments (staged as in presented on a proscenium stage, as opposed to contrived) that helps to fit with the distinctly 2D animation. It is not a big deal, but just enough of a quirky -- partially formal, partially "hip" -- presentation to keep the player going through the story segments leading up to game play.

I know what is coming: a whole lot more fighting, dying and restarting, trial and error as I try to find the right combination of attacks and special powers, etc. Will the story be able to retain its interest through this?

Can't tell yet. But for the time being, I'm thoroughly enjoying the change of pace.

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