TBT – Personifying My Persona 4 Experience
My love of Japan and everything it has to offer has been steadily growing throughout my life. I grew up watching Japanese anime such as Dragon Ball, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Mobile Gundam. I trained in Japanese martial arts for years – constantly moving for a portion of my life prevented me from finding a school that would honor my ranking and such I never received a black belt. I was also a huge fan of the Power Rangers, which, while not Japanese itself, it is an adaption of the Japanese television series Super Sentai. And most importantly all of my favorite video games are Japanese developed; Kingdom Hearts, Legend of Zelda, Dark Cloud, Fire Emblem, Super Mario 64, Tales of the Abyss – just to name a few. Now, most of them are RPG’s but one thing they all have in common is that they take place in a fantasy worlds, so while I had spent years consuming Japanese games, I never played one set in a contemporary Japan setting. That all changed with Persona 4 Golden.
To setup the backstory of how I came to playing Persona 4, I’ll start by saying while I had been aware of the series for a few years, I really didn’t know much about it or have any interest in finding out more. For example, when the first gameplay trailer for the Shin Megami Tensei-Fire Emblem crossover – which would become known as Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE – was revealed during a Nintendo Direct, I saw some people make the comparison to the Persona series (which is itself a spinoff of Shin Megami Tensei), but, personally, I was just confused. I had been looking forward to the game mostly because it had Fire Emblem in its name, but what I was seeing – Japanese high-school students dressed in colorful and goofy costumes breaking out into song as they do battle with ferocious monsters – was definitely not the game I had been expecting. It all seemed weird and maybe a little ‘too Japanese’ for me.
And so, I remained ignorant of the Persona series for the time being. But that all changed after blowing through a different JRPG, Lost Dimension (which is a solid tactical-strategy game with shades of Danganronpa) in a few days on my Vita. During the leadup to Lost Dimension’s release, which I was pretty excited about it to tell the truth, I read that that a few of the developers who worked on the game also worked on the Persona series. The Persona name would pop again a few days later when I was reading a list of what are considered to be the best Vita games, which finally encouraged me to look into the series further. After doing a bit of reading, I decided Persona 4 Golden sounded interesting, and the combination of it only being $20 and me having a lack of Vita games led me to trying the game out myself.
And that’s how I found myself one summer day strolling through the South Carolina countryside watching one of the most upbeat openings ever for a game that centers on a murder mystery.
In retrospect, though, the opening fits the game perfectly. Even with some of the heavier subject matters that Persona 4 tackles, the overarching theme of the story is an optimistic and uplifting one about self-acceptance and friendship. Regardless, the first time I loaded up the game I found the opening video strange and bizarre, and I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself into, but at the same I was mesmerized by it. I soon found myself watching it every time I loaded up the game; the song is catchy and the animations are so colorful and outlandish – I mean, seriously, Yosuke is dancing with a garbage bin on his head!
Anyway, back to my story.
I didn’t get past the opening video before I wound up participating in a game of pick-up soccer in, but once I returned home, I dove into the game.
A lot of people complain about Person 4’s slow opening, and I agree – it is slow, but that’s also why I find it so engaging. For those of you who don’t know, the game takes place in the fictional town of Inaba, Japan and centers on a young high-school aged protagonist who has been sent to spend the year with his uncle and cousin. Okay, sounds generic, right? But as the game slowly builds the story and setting and introduces the characters, I found myself thoroughly immersed in the world, almost as if I really was the new guy in an unfamiliar place, so much so that I didn’t even notice the game was holding back on the gameplay mechanics. In fact, after you enter the Shadow World by jumping through a television (okay, the premise is silly but that is part of what makes this game so GREAT) and the combat finally shows up, I was like – “Oh, right, I totally forgot this was a turn-based RPG!”
One main reason for me getting so quickly engrossed in the story and world is the characters. At first glance they all seem pretty cliché and fall into expected anime archetype roles, but they also are instantly likeable and the more I learned about them the deeper they become. In fact, Persona 4’s cast is without doubt one of the most memorable group of characters I’ve gotten to meet in any medium. Just about every JRPG I’ve played there’s always this one party member I can’t stand, but Persona 4 manages a straight flush – by which I mean features an entirely likeable cast. For a game whose story relies on the stereotypical storytelling trope of strength in friendship, Persona 4 does a fantastic job in showing you these relationships grow and flourish through group bonding events and more personal one-on-one moments. Unlike other JRPG’s where it feels forced or shallow, the friendship between the cast comes off genuine and believable, and left me with an honest-to-goodness connection to these characters and had me invested in their fears, hopes, and dreams.
I think the dialogue options also played a part in my instant engrossment. It might not be Mass Effect or Dragon Age, where what you say could have far-reaching consequences on story, but, at the same time, getting different reactions out of the NPC’s through something as trivial as how you choose respond to your uncle’s greeting gave me a sense of control and made it feel like your otherwise silent character is actively taking part in discussions instead of just awkwardly listening in—à la most RPG’s with a silent protagonist, including Persona 3.
Once the game finally, truly opens up after about more than several hours, it precedes to manage to straddle the line between being a high school social simulator and dungeon crawler perfectly, while also tying both sections of the game together. Living the easy of a life a fictional teenager, by hanging out with your friends, going to movies, and participating in afterschool activities, contributes to building social links, which in return give you benefits that will you help you strengthen yourself on the battlefield. I really enjoyed these social-sim moments not only because they allowed me to spend more time with these awesome characters, but because it gave me insight into aspects of Japanese culture I didn’t even care to spend time thinking about before. It was almost like I was going on a mini-virtual fieldtrip to rural Japan every time I played the game.
Now, I’ve been going on about the story, characters, and even myself for a while, but I’d also like to take some time to appreciate the combat, because if it wasn’t as fun and absorbing as it was then my 80+ hour playthrough probably would have been a slog. I probably spent more time fusing my Persona’s and managing their respective skills than I have with the skill trees in any other game I’ve played. Not to mention the usual grind-fatigue that accompany most JRPG’s was almost nonexistent because of the vibrant dungeons and one of the best battle themes of all time. Instead, when I finally reached the end of the game it was a bittersweet moment – I was glad to see the end, but was sad just the same that my time in Inaba was over.
Looking back now, I was probably a little too addicted to Person 4. It took me exactly two weeks to beat the game with me playing over five hours a day; almost all my free time was dedicated to the game and I began to ignore a lot of things that were going on around me. But, still, those two weeks were some of the best days of my video game playing life and left me memories that I doubt any game will be able to replicate. My experience with Persona 4 also made me more open to trying different games out of my comfort zone that I wouldn’t have before.
Just to recap, I love Persona 4’s soundtrack (the themes are so catchy and really do stick with you), world, setting, characters (yes, even Teddie), combat, and general gameplay. While the story is a bit predictable (although, it did trick me into overthinking the identity of the true puppet master – I seriously thought it was Yosuke for like half the game) and can basically be boiled down to the typical JRPG moral that the power of friendship can conquer all, it is a message that has never rung truer or had a deeper meaning to me than it did here.
And that is why Persona 4 is my favorite video game of all time.