Persona 4 continues to tighten its grip on me, casting me back to "oh my god, it's 3am!" RPG sessions of yore. ("Yore" being the days when I could function on three hours of sleep). P4 does so many things right that I feel a bit guilty picking at its flaws without properly celebrating its virtues. I'm sure I'll get around to those later; for now I want to focus on what I consider to be P4's achilles heel: pacing.
Pacing is one of those design elements we rarely praise because, unlike graphics or level design, we don't tend to notice when it's handled well. By its very nature, pacing remains invisible to us until we stumble over it, and P4 has me stumbling more than I'd like.
P4 is an RPG wrapped around a murder mystery (or maybe it's the other way around), with a plot full of requisite twists and turns. I love the idea of unraveling a complicated story, especially from the perspective of an avatar who pieces things together from within the story as I'm piecing them together from without.
Unfortunately P4 struggles to gather and maintain storytelling momentum. The problem isn't caused by the narrative interruptions that occur when you enter the Midnight Channel to fight the shadows. Chalk it up to genre conventions, but I accept the idea that P4's narrative is punctuated by many hours of dungeon battles that deliver virtually no story at all. I'm willing to suspend the story in my mind while I'm being challenged and entertained by these gameplay experiences. It's an RPG thing.
But when it's time to return to storytelling, P4 too often bogs down in repetitive conversational rehashes of plot points that assume I haven't been paying attention. "Let's review what we know so far," occupies an inordinate amount of time in P4 - a game already fully loaded with conversation necessary to build all-important Social Links. Nearly every plot development in the game is delivered, reviewed, and then rehashed - and occasionally rehashed again - in what soon comes to feel like X-button-forwarding madness. The game is fully voiced, but my experience plowing through these sequences has transformed me into the jerk we all know who won't let anyone finish a sentence.
You also spend a lot of time in P4 doing things that repeatedly relegate murder-solving to the backburner. Making friends, joining clubs, working a part-time job - all require time and attention. You might say these activities help build suspense as you level yourself up to tackle tougher bosses, all moving you ever closer to solving the mystery. But suspense can only be sustained so long before the air goes out of the balloon, and P4 deflates that balloon pretty quickly.
All of this, of course, kills the game's narrative pacing, and no storytelling genre relies more on pacing than the mystery. Well-constructed mysteries understand when to push and when to slow down. They play us like a fiddle, provoking us with bits of information (sometimes unreliable), turning up the pressure with action or intrigue, setting us off-course then back on, and otherwise taking us on a roller-coaster ride where we can only see the track just ahead of us. As a murder mystery / social-dating sim / JRPG, P4 succeeds beautifully on two out of three counts; but the third is undermined by the other two.
Persona 4's shortcomings as a mystery make me wonder if video games can properly function within the genre. Games like System Shock 2 or the Silent Hill series contain elements of suspense, but I don't think they qualify as mysteries. Other games like Hotel Dusk focus on gathering clues, but as a mystery that game was tepid at best. Maybe I'm splitting hairs or too wrapped up in semantics, but it's hard for me to think of a modern video game that succeeds as a mystery. I'm sure you'll let me know if I'm wrong. :-)
None of this should dissuade you from playing Persona 4. It's a wonderfully stylish RPG from a developer (Atlus) that has done more to move the genre forward in recent years than any other. It's a terrific game, and there's no mystery in that.