At first glance, the modern Persona games seem like a hideous concept. A mash-up of hardcore dungeon crawling and Japanese light novels/dating sims? Isn’t that like the gaming equivalent of drinking those awful coolers? As someone who thought that Persona 2:Eternal Punishment was pretty rad (albeit impossible to beat) I had a similar reaction to the announcement that Persona 3 would be re-imagined along those lines.
Still, I gave it a shot, and was pleasantly surprised at how successfully it pulled the gimmick off. It works like this: the game unfolds over the course of your character’s high school years. Like most plucky teenage anime protagonists, you’re tasked with saving the world, but you have to manage that in tandem with your academic career and your social life.
Still, there were enough minor problems to, in the long run, wear me down, and many hours into the game I burned out without ever finishing my year.
Persona 3 was successful enough for a sequel to follow only a couple of years later (by comparison, there was almost a decade between 2 and 3). It looked like more of the same, and a quick cash-in on P3’s unlikely success.
There’s some truth to this, but the reality is that P3 and P4 have a relationship closer to that of Mega Man and its sequel: the first game proved the concept, while the second one honed it to perfection. Persona 4 wound up becoming the definitive game of my undergrad years, and to date the only JRPG of my adult life that managed to have the same emotional impact as the ones of my childhood.
Now the Persona games are actually a spinoff of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, borrowing its art, assets and core gameplay mechanics. So having had some recent success with titles like Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga, I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit this more lighthearted title.
You see, I had somehow downplayed this game in my mind during the intervening years, convincing myself that it couldn’t be as good as I thought it was, that as a (somewhat) more mature and grounded person this sort of weeaboo wish fulfillment would leave me cold. There was also likely a bit of snobbery in this, what with P4 being a breakout hit that inspired an anime, a dungeon crawler spinoff, a fighting(!) game, a rhythm(!) game, etc. Finding that it had become a whole cottage industry unto itself had sucked out whatever recherche value the Persona games had.
I was wrong.
Anyway, P4 is set in rural Japan, with you, the protagonist spending a year living with your uncle in the small town of Inaba. Within days of your arrival it becomes clear that a serial killer is at large, and bodies start piling up. You also discover that you have the power of persona, which enables you to summon various beings out of your psyche to aid you in battle, and to have access to the TV World, an alternate reality that has some connection to the killings. Thus, you find yourself attempting to save lives and track down the killer while managing your academic career and social life.
The most notable thing about the premise is how low key it is, in spite of all the supernatural stuff. Most JRPGs have you saving the world; this one just wants you to solve a mystery and maybe help a few characters with their personal problems along the way. The lower stakes and the small, mundane setting allow for the characters to take center stage, and characterization really is this game’s strong suit.
Granted, there’s little here that hasn’t been recycled out of well-worn anime tropes. P4 is pretty much every anime featuring high schoolers with magical powers. The difference is in the quality of writing, which is a few notches above most games of this ilk. These are characters who manage to walk the line between being believable teenagers and, well, annoyingly believable teenagers. You actually want to spend time hanging out with these people and see what becomes of them, rather than just putting up with them in order to get to the juicy dungeon-crawling bits.
Yeah, it’s still a naked exercise in wish-fulfillment where you can live a perfect high school life with perfect scores, make friends with everyone, and date the crush of your choice. But there’s genuine heart to its story, and the whole thing is wedded to a theme which is rather thoughtful: the pursuit of the truth at all costs, regardless of how unpleasant it may be.
This most obviously factors into the murder mystery plot, but the character arcs themselves tend to focus on them confronting uncomfortable truths about themselves or the world and learning to cope with it. This is executed with varying degrees of success, though, and the game at times seems to bite off more than it can chew when it starts addressing some pretty sensitive and mature issues (particularly in the realm of sexuality).
But anyway, this thing is a JRPG, and the social stuff factors into that side of the game thus: different characters are associated with different classes of personas (personae?), and so hanging out with them will grant bonuses to their respective classes, so you have an incentive to not be an asocial loner who spends all his evenings grinding for experience.
Dungeons are unlocked sequentially in the TV World, and are randomly generated. So compared to other SMT titles, the dungeon design is very samey and bread-and-butter. While some areas are visually inspired, you’re almost always just running through the same few corridors and rooms rearranged into different patterns. Its the weakest aspect of the game’s design, but also a bit inevitable, given how much content they’ve crammed in.
The combat is the main draw here, with the core turn-based mechanics of SMT in full effect: exploit enemy weaknesses or be exploited. It even runs on a modified form of Nocturne’s Press Turn System (somehow I overlooked this), which has been streamlined into something more player friendly, albeit at the expense of some challenge. It’s a system that prizes strategy over brute strength, and I still haven’t tired of it.
Shoji Meguro’s soundtrack also deserves a mention here. Although I don’t talk much about music on this blog, it really is one of the essential aspects of a JRPG, where you often spend upwards of 30-60 hours listening to the same few tunes ad nauseum. Meguro’s score is very pop inflected, drawing heavily on j-pop, hip hop, rock and disco. It’s all remarkably well done, but your mileage may vary on whether you have the stamina to listen to the same engrish lyrics over what is a rather long game.
All this is to say that I’m enjoying my return to the game so far; perhaps my excitement will burn out in the long term, but for now I feel stupid for not mentioning this on my top five list (which is sorely in need of an update).