I'm pretty sure the Persona series wasn't the first JPRG to pair off dungeon crawling with high school - but whoever first had that idea deserves a freaking medal. High school is all about routines and drudgery; why shouldn't your RPG experience match that in length, anxiety, and tedium?
Persona 4 perfects the high school dungeon crawling formula, spacing dungeons out with story-driven themes and adding more plot points and suspense to angst over. Also, now you can go fishing, which is exactly like fishing in most other RPGs that make you fish - except for your have to button mash quite a bit more. Essentially, Persona 4 is Persona 3: it looks the same, plays the same, and most of the enemies and Personae are exactly the same. And it's on PS2, which is kind of lame, because the PS3 has been out for a while now and sooner or later Atlus will have to catch up (and not with another Operation Darkness, please.)
Some tweaks have been made to gameplay - you can now edit your party's battle tactics such that you control their every move. This is great if you get a bum AI character who likes to waste time casting Makajama when they should be casting Recarm on the other idiot AI that just died. But you probably won't have to worry too much; the AI in Persona 4 seems just a bit smarter than it was in Persona 3. And maybe it's just me, but the school seems smarter too. I do not remember having to answer any questions about nautical dawn or Egyptian face makeup in high school...
The biggest change of all, though, is the plot. Persona 4 is about one gray-haired angst-bucket (that would be you) transferring to a rural high school so he can live with his detective uncle while his parents go off on a yearlong business trip abroad (great parenting, that). Funny you should be living with a detective, as the sleepy town you've come to seems to be experiencing a spate of murders. They all seem to be tied into a strange phenomenon called the Midnight Channel. To see this crazy thing, you have to wait until it rains at night and then stare at your TV screen exactly at midnight. If someone appears, they're marked for murder.
Your job, of course, is to save them - since you have this magical ability to enter the TV (courtesy of one long-nosed creepy guy from Persona 3). You extend this power to several high school chums you acquire in the first few hours of gameplay, and before you know it, you're off crawling in dungeons in TV land.
The dungeon crawling feels different than it did in Persona 3 because you're watching the weather, not the moon. After a victim appears on the Midnight Channel, you have until the next foggy day to find them and save them. If the fog rolls into the town before you've saved them, the victim dies and it's game over. The routine of dungeon crawling centres on the victims' inner evils - each dungeon is themed based on whatever angst they're dealing with. For example, we went to a dungeon modelled after the victim's inner dreams of having a prince come carry her away from her boring everyday life. This dungeon shaped up to be a huge castle with posh red carpets and stained glass windows.
If you played Persona 3, it's no secret that the entire game revolves around symbolism (come on - shooting yourself in the head?), and that symbolism represents more things the more vague it is. The symbolism in Persona 4 is not as vague as it was in 3 (and you won't be shooting yourself in the head to summon Persona), so to me, everything makes way more sense and the dungeon crawling doesn't feel as monotonous because there's a clear goal at the end of each multi-floored area: save the angsting teen!
In the castle level, we were out to save a girl named Yukiko - a modest mousy girl who helped her family run the local inn. Inside the TV world, her inner self manifested as "Princess Yukiko" - a pink-clad princess with a penchant for red lacy panties. Oh Japan, I love you so. Our grey haired hero went into the castle to save her, accompanied by his newfound friends Yosuke and Chie, Yukiko's best friend. Our party got a little help from a weird teddy bear-looking thing called - wait for it - Teddie. Teddie lives in the TV and gives our hero some emo-looking glasses to help him see through the "fog" of the TV world so he can save his friends.
From there, it was all Persona 3 gameplay, right down to trying to whack the roaming monsters before they got you from behind so you'd get a two-turn advantage in the battle. Combat moves at its usually snappy pace - even snappier, if you're calling all the shots for your teammates. You can mash on the Triangle button to perform rush attacks; and mercifully, the weakness system has been updated so it's easier to exploit multiple enemies without having to give up your turn. (Oh, and the dog-pile option is still there - awesome.)
At some point, Chie ran ahead and we had to catch up with her - only to discover that she'd encountered her own inner self which then became the mini boss when Chie spazzed out about it not being her. Again, I'm going to stress the symbolism: Chie is a tomboy who wants to be the best at everything, but she's secretly insecure. Her inner self, then, appeared as four of her - three washed-out grey zombie versions stacked on each other's shoulder to support the fourth one, a gold-masked dominatrix with a whip.
Symbolism - gotta love it.
The mini boss fight went down okay and the inner self became Chie's Persona Tomoe. Yay, now let's go save Yukiko! But no! We have no more
We backtracked out of the dungeon and returned to the entrance point of the TV world. Teddie led us back to the other side (conveniently located in a Walmart-style store with TVs big enough for three people to warp through) and our little band of merry high schoolers disbanded. Back at the detective's house, there were few options besides going to bed, socialising with the uncle or his little daughter, or eating random food out of the fridge (raises the Courage attribute). Normally, you could go up to your room and do tons of stuff to build different attributes (study for Knowledge, work for Diligence, read for Expression, etc.) - but on days when you've done the dungeon crawling, your character is too tired to do anything but eat, talk, or sleep.
The PR rep loaded in a new save that was later in the game. While that was going, he answered a few questions about the weather system - where you can check forecasts and what times the fog will come (usually after two days or more of rain). He also explained that the weather will have an effect on fusing Personae in the Velvet Room; special bonuses may apply during fusion, which could change a Persona's move set or stat levels.
The new game loaded in at some point after Yukiko had been rescued. It was summer, and there was some kind of school camping trip on. The next half hour was spent listening to voiced dialogue and watching all kinds of high school-related hi-jinks (girls can't cook curry!). I gather the game tries to balance these cute scenes with the angst you get from dealing with murder mystery issues; time will tell if they succeeded at this.
We ended the demo with a lecture on social links (gotta have 'em, gotta nurture 'em if you want those cool Personae) and then were given swag:
1 Teddie plushie
(My cat was having none of either.)
Look for our review when the game comes out December 8.
And look for the screenies on the link.