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Retroactive Posts: Say Persona!: A Soapbox Ramble about Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4

May 8, 2013

(Originally posted on December 25th, 2012)

(This article will be spoiler free.)

PS2CoverSheet10_06It’s end of the year time, which means it’s game of the year time. While I’m not going to make any sort of list, I did do some thinking about what games made an outstanding impression on me throughout the year and I was planning on writing up something discussing what I thought the best of the best was, but the truth of the matter is, as I eventually formulated, I simply didn’t play many truly outstanding games that were released this year.
 There were numerous games of excellent quality that I spent a good amount of time with (Diablo 3, Halo 4, Dust to name a few), but there were quite a few I missed out on entirely (Mass Effect 3, Far Cry 3, Dishonored, etc) either because I had other things going on or simply because I didn’t have the money to spread around.
Because of this, I feel “Game of the Year” wouldn’t be as true as it should be.
But I am prepared to talk about what the best game I played this year was; which is Persona 4. So buckle in kiddies. Recline your chair, pour yourself some coffee, queue up some sweet jazz music (or ska, or Floyd, or whatever), and prepare yourself. We’re going to sit down and discuss Persona for a bit.

Now I hadn’t heard much about the Shin Megami Tensei series, nor the Persona subset prior to Persona 4. I had vaguely known they existed (with the first couple being released on the Playstation), but from a glance they just seemed like your ordinary run-of-the-mill JRPG fare.
But I spend a lot of time on video game related sites, and a decent enough amount of time on streaming sites such as Justin.tv, and while it wasn’t an often occurrence to come across folks playing Persona 4, it did show up here and there. 
Earlier in the year (or maybe it was late last year?) Persona 4 Arena was announced (maybe I’ll talk about that at some point. I have some pretty complicated things to say about that one), which would be a fighting game continuing the story of Persona 4 and would be codeveloped by Atlus (The SMT guys) and Arc System Works (The Blazblue guys [and I did enjoy Blazblue somewhat]).
Then shortly thereafter I read about the various Persona 4  animes and mangas and whatever other illicit non-official offshoots people were making and figured well it’s about time I figure out what all of this fuss is about.

A month or two later (equating to around 95 in-game hours of playtime.), I would never look at RPGs the same way again.  The game pretty much became my free time, and while numerous games before could say much of the same (with WoW, CoD4, and Halo 2 being good examples), no game has crept its way into my psyche with such an audacity as Persona 4 did, and never without the help of post-release DLC or multiplayer.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself though. What is Persona 4? Persona 4 is a JRPG which takes place in a rural city called Inaba. The player takes control of a nameless (and somewhat voiceless) protagonist who is being sent from the city to live with his Uncle and his younger cousin for one year until his parents get home from overseas. Shortly after your arrival, a series of murders start occurring with the victims being found strung up from antennae. The long and short of it is that it’s up to the protagonist and his ragtag band of new highschool buddies to find the truth behind the murders and save the day (or year. or whatever.) 

The gameplay consists of roaming about the city after school to advance your relationships (aka Social Links) with the other characters and then heading into the shadow world (accessed via jumping into a television) to fight your way through dungeons and save would-be murder victims from their fates. The game progresses on a day-by-day basis and each day you’re allowed to choose how you want to spend your time furthering your character, be it spending time with your friends to progress their individual subplots, spend time to boost your non-combat skills (such as Courage and Diligence) which feed back into the Social Link system, or head into one of the dungeons to progress the overall story. Along the way you have the opportunity to gather new Personas and fuse together the ones you already have to create stronger variants (which are then juiced up depending on how high the Social Link is for that particular type of Persona).

The battles are turn-based, and the mechanics are very Pokemon-esque with each character save for the protagonist having a specific strength or weakness against certain attacks (the protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses depend on which Persona he has selected). If an enemy is weak against fire and you hit that enemy with a fire ability for example, the enemy is knocked over and loses its next turn; you’re awarded with an extra turn, and if all of the enemies are knocked over at the same time, you’re able to perform an “All Out Attack”, which brings in your entire party to deal an enormous amount of damage to every enemy.Like every RPG’s combat, at its best it’s incredibly strategic and fulfilling (most notably during boss fights), but it can also get somewhat boring when you’ve outleveled an area and can win fights by simply running up and smacking the enemies over and over.

What makes Persona 4 stand out though, and what has made the game my new favorite RPG of all time (and possibly favorite game of all time) is the story; and not only the story but it’s characterization. While the characters are all memorable and distinct, what makes them work so well is that the game doesn’t rush. The story allows itself time to play out, allowing you to become comfortable with each of the characters. Each of your potential party members has a Social Link associated with them, and while at the start this enticed me into spending time with them with promise of allowing me to create stronger Personas, by the end of the game I was far more interested in each of the character’s individual subplots than I was with what the end reward would be for spending time with them. The end product wasn’t as important to me as what happened on the way to acquiring it. Since Persona 4 takes place in an everyday modern environment, and your party members and other acquaintances are (for the most part) normal everyday people, it allows them to be more relatable than would be possible in an RPG that took place in say, space or medieval times (no, not the restaurant). The appealing facets of their personalities as well their individual weaknesses are things you might have experienced yourself. These problems range from smaller things such as jealousy to much larger ideas such as questioning what it means to exist.

Socializing and hanging out with people I enjoy the company of is something that I’m unable to do at the moment, and Persona 4 was able to fulfill that social need during its ~95 hour duration. I’m unsure whether it’s to P4’s credit or just disturbingly sad on my part to admit that by the time the game’s end credits began to roll, I was legitimately bummed that it had to end.
Despite the games linear design, you develop a feeling of ownership for your particular playthrough; a feat games rarely accomplish even with conceits such as player choice.

I complain about video games nonstop. It’s what I do. While I can nitpick a game to the ground for minuscule, often ancillary issues, I find it much more difficult to talk at length about what games do right. There simply isn’t enough to say in most cases; but I could continue on and on ad nauseum about all of the things this game gets right. (I haven’t even touched on how excellent the game’s soundtrack is.)
And Persona 4 isn’t perfect. The equipment/item interfaces could have used more information, and the need to constantly reroll potential Persona fusions until the right randomly chosen inheritances come up is annoying, but despite any microscopic issue I had with the game, it made such a tremendously positive impression on me that I’ve yet to get it out of my head since July in which I played it.

If you have any interest whatsoever in RPGs or emotionally involving storylines, you owe it to yourself to grab a copy of Persona 4. If you have the time to set aside for it, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry; and by the time you see the story to its conclusion you’ll be sad to see it end. If video games are art, then Persona 4 is a masterpiece.

From → Games

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