WARNING: Minor spoilers ahead.
The JRPG market has experienced a stagnation over the years. What was once the greatest genre in all of gaming (arguably, of course) has fallen from grace.
They’ve been bogged down by corny writing, reptitive art styles and a lack of creativity or originality. Persona 4 is a game that manages to not only avoid these tropes, but tackle things that haven’t been explored in the JRPG genre, or in any game.
In early 2009, I was browsing my favorite gaming forum when I noticed a trend. People were talking about this obscure JRPG I had never even heard of and was certainly not on my radar.
People weren’t just talking about this game, though, they wereraving about it.
Now, that may not seem like something noteworthy, people being excited about a video game in a video game forum, but this particular game forum was located in a dark and hate-filled corner of the internet. I knew this game was something special when it filled this forum with rainbows, unicorns and some semblance of happiness.
So, needless to say, I picked it up. The first thing I noticed when I put it in my PS3 was “hey, this isn’t working on my PS3.” Somehow I managed to get the one string of PS3’s that didn’t have backwards compatibility. In the end, I had to convince my friend to let me play it on his PS2, and man, was it worth it.
Persona 4 doesn’t seem all too special on its face. It opens blandly, a high school student is moving to a new town. Your parents are off to America, so you’re heading to Inaba, a small and quiet town, to live with your uncle. You go to school, eat dinner with the family and go through other every-day sort of experiences. But before long you’ll be jumping into TVs, solving murders and fighting shadows with a golf club.
The core of Persona 4‘s plot revolves sound a series of murders.
Victims are found hung from TV antennas with no apparent cause of death, and as the town police struggle to make progress in the case, you and your friends take up the task of catching the killer after discovering you all have some supernatural abilities. The mystery plot is pretty good, if a little simple, and it will leave you guessing up till the end. You don’t start piecing it all together until late in the game, which helps.
The games writing really shines through in the superbly written characters and the subplots surrounding them.
Persona 4 has a huge cast of characters, all with well written story arcs of their own. The game excels in down to earth, serious story telling, playing with themes and plots rarely seen in other games, and handling them very well. Homosexuality, the manipulation of loved-ones and the struggles of a single parent coping with loss are all handled with a maturity not seen in many games.
Despite being focused around the lives of teenagers and having a “T” rating, this is a very adult game.
Another thing not seen very often, and done well even less so, is comedy. Persona 4 is, without a doubt, one of the funniest games you’ll play in a long time. Some of the situations you find yourself in are so ludicrous and unimaginable you’ll laugh out loud a good number of times.
You’ll spend your time with P4 balanced between two distinct categories of gameplay: dungeon crawling and social simulation. While dungeon crawling, the combat is your standard RPG turn-based gameplay system. Four party members use various spells, abilities and items, blocking and swapping “Personas” (embodiments of a character’s personality that they use to fight monsters). It’s nothing spectacular, you certainly won’t be begging for more, but it throws in enough interesting mechanics to keep you from getting bored.
It also helps that the dungeons all have a unique feel and interesting enemies. Like every other RPG out there, as you level up, you become stronger, but it’s really just a means to an end to acquire new Personas. As the protagonist, you can fuse Personas to make new ones, with new weaknesses and strengths and new spells along with it. There are an astonishing number of Personas in the game, all with very unique designs (for better, or worse in some cases). Also, some of the Personas can get strange to say the least.
It has a very Pokémon-like feel that makes you want to keep discovering new Personas and build the best team you can.
As far as the social simulation aspects are concerned, the game follows a very particular schedule that can get downright hectic at times. You’ll juggle sports teams, clubs, part time jobs, secondary quests, exams and spending time with people, all while trying to stop a serial killer. Everything you can do has its benefits, and thankfully, nothing is mandatory—for example, you can skip basketball practice for four months and pick up right where you left off.
The entire time you’ll have to dance around a weather system that plays a large part in the game, too.
This game also has a great original soundtrack and absolutely top notch voice acting that breathes life into the characters. The graphics, however, aren’t going to amaze anyone. It is, after all, a PS2 game from 2008.
Why You Should Play It
Perhaps the best thing I can say about Persona 4 is that it’s original. It offers something you won’t find anywhere else. Most modern day games wouldn’t dare go where this game does.
Honestly, I’m tired of generic shooter stories, and while I love Nathan Drake, he’s just a bit too perfect. It’s extremely refreshing to have a game as different as Persona 4 is. The characters are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, every single one of them has a realistic arc that really makes you care about them, and every single one of them is far from perfect.
I’m not going to sit here and lie to you, P4 is definitely rough around the edges, but if you can get past a few cumbersome menus, a lackluster combat system and a few quirks you’ll have a memorable experience that will stick with you for a long time.
That’s not just me spouting feel-good phrases either, more than any other game in recent memory, Persona 4 has stuck with me. The highlight reel that plays through my head is a long one. It involves some amazingly diverse characters, interesting themes, mind boggling events and more than a few laugh out loud moments.
If you can get your hands on a copy, I would whole-heartedly recommend it, even if you wouldn’t consider yourself a fan of JRPGs. I mean, where else are you going to play a game in which a Mysterious Fox sells you magical leaves with healing powers inside a television world?