Greetings, old-school gamers, and welcome to Retro Rundown! In this Friday series, I pick a classic video game from my collection – I’m defining “classic” as “PS2 era and earlier” at this point (I know, it makes me feel old too) – and give it the Big Brother treatment, exploring the game’s history, themes, and legacy. I’ll even throw in a few personal memories with the game along the way, and see if I can touch on the shared experiences that make so many of us remember it fondly.
I’m currently neck-deep in Persona 5, a hit JRPG released recently (1.5 million copies sold, 94 Metacritic score), and loving it. It’s been a long time since I bought a game on launch day, given my ever-present backlog of classic and semi-modern titles, but this has been well worth it. My initial entry into the series, however, was the previous title, which came out long enough ago to now be considered a retro game. So in honor of what might be the most popular JRPG of the current generation, let’s take a closer look at Persona 4!
It’s impossible to discuss the history of P4 without examining the Persona series as a whole, which is itself a spin-off from Atlus’s Megami Tensei franchise. What most US gamers don’t realize is that this series actually started as a contemporary of powerhouses Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest way back in 1986 – just one that never gained much popularity outside of Japan until recently. Atlus has been around in one form or another since those days, but it’s changed hands within the last decade and is barely recognizable from its original form. Persona: Revelations was the first Megami Tensei RPG to make it to the West, and while it took some time to get off the ground (the earliest PlayStation titles are valuable collectibles now), things changed around the time of 2006’s Persona 3, leading up to the series’s peak right now.
This was when the games started mixing the typical JRPG system, which had already succeeded in the States and was still going strong in the PS2 era, with elements from Japanese simulation games. The player would take on the role of a high school student and attempt to build relationships with the people around them, while intermittently experiencing supernatural events centered around the exploration of the human psyche and the various facades our real selves hide behind, along with varying degrees of mystery. Got it? Good. Persona 3 moved about half a million units globally (200,000 in the US), which was solid but not spectacular – certainly enough to keep the series moving along. It was a niche title, but it did what it did well and started to gain a cult following in the US, just as Atlus USA was becoming known for bringing niche titles over from Japan (including the same year’s Rule of Rose!). And as a very Japanese series, the stories take place in modern-day Japan, have heavy aspects of cross-cultural mythology (a major interest in the country), and are delivered through bright anime visuals and beautifully rendered anime cutscenes.
This is where we pick up the story of Persona 4, my entry point to the series. Here’s a game that takes everything the previous title did right and builds on it: Where P3 had a diverse cast of students and an absurdly well-trained dog, P4 introduces a character who’s actually born from the supernatural side of the story. Where P3 featured an unfolding story centered around a detective agency (or, as one redditor perhaps more accurately put it, a “varsity demon-killing task force”), P4 became a straight-up murder mystery. And where P3 had a very likable cast, P4‘s characters felt like real friends, to the point where you’d return to the game again and again just to spend more time with them. The game rewarded you for doing so, too; the Social Link system, carried over from the previous title, allowed you to create special connections with over twenty different characters or groups. Pursuing these relationships – particularly those with your party members – is central to succeeding in the game, and continues the theme that it’s essential in life to form strong bonds with other people.
Combat in Persona 4 is intuitive and fun. The traditional JRPG system is spiced up by a need to exploit enemy weaknesses; executing the right elemental attack against a particular foe will result in an extra turn in addition to the bonus damage. This simple tweak keeps players engaged even after hours of grinding, because a momentary lapse in concentration can lead to a considerable loss of progress. The main character has a chance to collect new personas as a post-battle reward (as opposed to other party members, who have a single persona with a locked ability set), and there’s a rich fusion system to develop new ones; the player uses their persona collection to filter the protag’s combat prowess and can switch between them on the fly depending on the situation. Dungeons take place inside the “TV World”, accessed through televisions and revealed in the real world by a “Midnight Channel” that beams a target’s darkest secrets across the airwaves. The team’s goal is to save this person from their own dark side, as well as whomever ultimately plans to kill them.
Director Katsura Hashino revealed after the game’s release that the murder mystery and small-town setting of Persona 4 were in fact clever ways to skirt hardware limitations while still serving the game’s needs; they’d put so much memory into social links, the Pokémon-like persona collection system, and the hand-drawn cutscenes, that they were limited on what they could do with an open-ended story or a large environment. So this story was in part developed to continuously give the player a definitive goal to juggle with their many after-school social options. And I do mean “many”: In addition to developing one of the myriad social links, players can perform daily activities to gain items or level up their personal social stats (which unlock further options), including visiting points of interest, participating in school clubs, and even getting a job. Each task is accompanied by creative dialogue (“portal to the meat dimension”, anyone?) and players are subtly encouraged to do as many different activities as they possibly can – but it takes serious planning to hit them all, because this is one of a few games to treat time as a resource that’s even more limited than money.
Even though Persona 5 improves upon the battle system, visuals, and daily life simulation of P4, I believe that Persona 4 marked the height of the series’s characterization. In this game, the player controls the silent protagonist, cleverly retconned with the name “Yu” Narukami, as he grows a potentially vast social network with the choices he makes. But the real victory of this game’s characterization, even beyond the characters themselves, is the fact that players join in the experience of each party member confronting their suppressed self before adding them as an ally:
Yosuke, your first companion, hasn’t lived in the small town of Inaba for long. His father is the manager of the big-brand department store that’s putting local shops out of business, and he’s resented for it, even by the girl he has affections for (and who is one of the earliest murder victims when the plot kicks in). He hates the rural life and believes that nothing exciting ever happens, a feeling shared by many kids who are thrown into a new environment. Chie, the tomboy of the group, is secretly jealous of her close friend Yukiko’s femininity and has to come to terms with her desire to keep her friend down. Yukiko is heir to a business position she doesn’t want and feels powerless to change her lot in life. Teddie, your otherworldly helper, harbors his own concerns that he isn’t real.
As the game progresses, we’re introduced to three more party members: Kanji, a younger classmate who carries a reputation as a thug but has suppressed his own feminine tendencies and possible attraction toward men; Naoto, a brilliant female detective who’s been posing as a young man in order to more easily gain the respect of the misogynistic police and public, and has started to internalize those feelings about being worthless as a woman; and Rise (my personal crush when I played), a former teen idol who left that life behind because she wants to be known as more than a sex symbol, but is worried that her public persona is all there really is to her.
Every single one of these characters is hiding something from themselves, and it leads to the creation of a powerful Shadow that they must accept as really being a side of them – the “other self” is the terminology that the game borrows from popular psychology. Their resistance to that idea (despite your help) leads to most of the boss battles as a gameplay function, but more important are the strong ties you build with these incredibly well-written characters, and the deep understanding you gain by delving into their psyches. This was truly the masterstroke of Persona 4, and the reason it’s the highlight of this excellent series for me. It’s hard to believe there’s a player out there who doesn’t empathize with the plight of at least one of these characters, which quickly makes these experiences memorable. It’s also worth mentioning that this game was ahead of its time in seriously addressing issues of gender and sexual identity, a subject that seems to face more and more young people today.
The setting and music of P4 are also among the best of the PS2 era. Points of interests around modern-day Inaba are brought to life through creative visuals and catchy J-Pop tunes, and are populated with interesting characters that bring the scenes to life. Immersion is at an unbelievable level for an RPG; I like to recount the tale of the time I started playing in the evening and the next thing I knew, my wife was heading out the door for her morning job. I just didn’t want to put the controller down!
Of course, not everything about Persona 4 is perfect. To me, the biggest flaw in the game is its ending(s); while there are supernatural elements throughout the game, accessing the True Ending involves a series of Guide Dang It choices that lead you down a path of facing off against a mischievous(?) demoness(??) who believes that all humans desire to cease their suffering through death. The meaning behind the whole thing is opaque to most gamers (it relies pretty heavily on Japanese folklore), and it’s a disappointing bait-and-switch compared to the first reveal of who the human killer is; the game should have ended there, because the excessively otherworldly (and difficult to access) real thing, complete with battling the Giant Space Flea From Nowhere (Final Fantasy IX style), is an unsatisfying resolution. The good news is that this is definitely a case where it’s all about the journey; it took me around 100 hours to play the game to completion, which is just a crazy amount of time for a game that doesn’t feel like it has too many dull spots. And if you’re not sold on a Persona game after the first few hours, it’s fair to say that this isn’t your cup of tea.
Persona 4 was the game that really launched the series as an RPG heavyweight rather than a cult favorite, and Persona 5 cemented that status this year. Unsurprisingly, it’s experienced overwhelming popularity in Japan and now has its own manga and anime series. The characters of Persona 3 and Persona 4 were brought back for Persona 4 Arena, continuing the story within the context of a fighting game. Further creative spin-offs Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth (also using the P3 cast) and Persona 4: Dancing All Night serve to underline just how transcendent this cast was; players have proven again and again that they don’t want to say goodbye to Yu and the gang.
Since it sold so well, it’s relatively easy to obtain a copy of Persona 4 for the PS2, unlike the earliest games in the series; a complete copy should run you under $15, an excellent value for a game this deep. There was also a PS Vita port in 2012, Persona 4 Golden, which added a few features to the game and is worth tracking down for a similar price if you own that system.
Persona 4 remains a must-play for fans of RPGs and/or Japanese culture at large, and a fine place to start if you’re not sure about either. While I maintain that Persona 3 is the best entry point into the Persona universe (Personaverse? Can I patent that?), since playing this one first will limit your enjoyment of that game, I believe it works just as well as a standalone title. The unique mix of gameplay elements, and some of the best characterization I’ve seen in any media, let alone video games, makes P4 one of the greats.
That’s it for this issue of Retro Rundown! If you enjoyed it, please check out additional offerings from yours truly. If you have a strong opinion about other games I should revisit in this series, hit up the Dashing Nerds on Twitter or Facebook, or leave a comment below!