Allow me to paint the time that was my discovery of Persona 4. I was basically locked into writing for and building three websites at once, plus my second book, for life. Even when taking a family member for medical treatment, the work followed me. Free time was fleeting and video game playing was strictly business. Luckily, I had cocaine and chocolate milk to keep me going (one of those is a joke – guess which one!).
Anywho, while I was digging up dirt for a feature, I kept tripping over Persona 4 praise and I decided to take a taste. That taste turned into a full submersion wherein I was basically doing this with the story.
Never before had I felt for so many characters inside of such a cliched environment. You’re a Japanese teen going to school with tests to take and relationships to cultivate – it’s every anime ever. You’ll find it so often because it’s such an endearing showcase, I believe especially to us Western connesoiers. The grass is ever greener in the simplicity of the majority of these setups in anime. You school, you home, you study, and there’s such a lack of resentment in the whole cycle. Everyone seems content…until, of course, the twist comes and yanks the protagonist into the chaos of a new life.
That conceptual juxtaposition is exactly where Persona 4 lives and breathes, and jesus christtttt does this game, and Atlus as an extension, know how to inflate the mundane with personality. The opening section where your character comes home to a family friend, is introduced to the local and wider world, and is pulled into said chaos lasts for as long as the Kingdom Hearts 2 prologue. That’s about 4-5 hours, kids and friends. The difference is that KH2 is a slog of chores and hooks that the game pretends aren’t obvious for hours. Persona 4 is the opening 100 pages of a well-crafted novel that puts most other young-adult series to shame.
From the beginning, your character is beset with the outsider’s curse that is a wary eye from every direction. He’s not quite the troublemaker as the protagonist in 5 but he’s no less immediately unwelcome. Your uncle is a police officer with too much on his plate already while your small cousin has trouble opening up to people. The city of Inaba isn’t much better save for some smiling faces. Everyone’s a stranger with no time for new people. This feeling we can all relate to is where you call home for this opening to such a focused, well-delivered effect.
Eventually, you meet Yosuke Hanamura as your first companion, who is undeniably the worst of the supporting characters. He’s the loud stereotypical, bone head male friend who’s still loyal beyond belief. I really wish I could say he was given more depth as the game goes forward but he’s one of a few characters that stays unfortunately one-note throughout. On some level, I understand him as the anchor that keeps you buoyed. He is the character that’s “played safe” as familiar and comfortable to help the player understand what’s happening. That’s just not exactly what I’m looking for from the supporting cast.
Through Yosuke’s help, you eventually discover you both have Persona capabilities, which you’ll certainly need seeing as how there are unsolved murders the two will naturally become involved with. One aspect of Persona 4’s story that makes it legendarily well told to me is the absolute fearlessness of the topics. Each of the monster-infested dungeons represents the deepest desires of the target’s minds and, because this is a Persona game, no punches are held back. You will see pain and confusion in raw form that you will have to help your friends overcome, or risk losing them forever.
The story is as unspoiled today as it was when I first played it. There’s a timeless factor to each of the modern Persona games to where the only aging aspect will be the visuals, which still look pretty good thanks to some accenting hand-drawn sections. Mainly, you play detective between your school work and job (and friends etc.) to solve the Midnight Channel murders that weaves you through a straight, uneven path. There is a chance to screw the whole thing up near the end, so you better pay attention if you want to see the full journey through. Even if you don’t, the “true” ending is worth a look-up on Youtube to grab some much-needed closure after the highly emotional build up.
Day-to-day structures are stapled to available blocks of time in Persona 4, as one would expect. There aren’t quite so many exchanges of “You’re too tired, go to bed,” as there are in Persona 5, which feels so very nice. That gives you more time to work, play, and collect inside of the small-ish Inaba. You have plenty of confidants that…well, maybe…it’s a tough call between this group and that of Persona 5. There are a lot of similarities to be sure, but the subtle differences do begin to bloom when you put in the time and effort to get to know the cast. Again, it’s all there, just a few more pages into this lengthy tome.
Dungeons are rock, paper, scissors with elements and Persona types that doesn’t offer a good way to discover new ones on the fly. You’ll view the creatures in hallways as crawling blobs that you’ll just want to smack in the head without nuance to gain the advantage. Your four will take on however many monsters the stage will throw at you using either physical or Persona-based attacks. Thankfully, you can set roles for your teammates that the computer can take over their moves to fulfill. Battles feel evolved as a result from Persona 3 without messing with the central mechanic…at all.
That’s not the best approach in the grand scheme of the series as the incremental steps taken don’t feel substantial between entries. Persona 4 though, as a lovely little sun in its own universe, feels smooth on its own except in the late game. What ultimately breaks down the experience slightly is acquiring Personas, balancing for later dungeons, and maneuvering for secrets on a precise level. Everything surrounding the collection of the titular Persona-mon feels too detached from combat to stay at the pace you want it to. Persona creation involves leaving dungeons sometimes to grab the best attacker/defender, highlighting that wide gap.
In the midst of battle, you have the hand that you have with your only chance at addition being a Shuffle Time game that can give you a new monster. This doesn’t completely cover the hole though thanks to the randomized nature. The loop is there for gameplay in a loose way, but there’s an undeniable vacancy in your party as far as acquisition is concerned.
Let’s drop the funny business and just say what we’re both here to say: Persona 4 is an accomplishment as thick as a Lord of the Rings novel. Each character has care and disorder to the harmonic hypnosis of society sewn into their bones by the end in a way that makes you feel like a pure disrupter. The gameplay has its small issues for sure with the structured approach getting slightly old, but Persona 4 is an echoing masterpiece down the longest school hallways.
Persona 4 Score: