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Spoilers Persona 4 From a Total Noob

Content of the article: "Spoilers Persona 4 From a Total Noob"

Spoilers ahead

I heard about this game mostly through osmosis and other friends who were more into JRPGs than I was, the kind of thing where you see the fanart and the memes before you really get an idea of what it is. Going into it, all I really knew was that it was about a bunch of anime teenagers who solve mysteries, and I came out of it with one of the most memorable experiences in games I've had in years, all from an 8 year old port of a PS2 game where the character models might as well be the felt friends from Blue's Clues. It's a stylish, breezy, but at the same time very dense game that occupies a transitional niche on a few different levels that make it interesting to pick apart even if on the surface it seems like your average spikey haired jaunt through some anime tropes.

I like anime, in the right doses, and this hit that Goldilocks sweet spot between endearing can-do spirit and outright cringe (though that comes with some big caveats). The soundtrack embodies this to the fullest, opening with a colorful, splashy intro that perfectly sets the tone of the adventure to come. I love the music in this game. Shadow World, Heartbreak Heartbreak, Time to Make History, Signs of Love, etc are now permanently burned into my brain and were so infectious that I found myself humming along when I was driving or doing laundry or whatever for weeks, whereas most games become blurs a few hours after I put it down.

I think you kind of have to be familiar with the tropes it's throwing out there to enjoy it, because if you come into it hoping that it gets less anime as time goes on, that ain't gonna happen. I liked some characters more than others, but I think the main cast is nicely well rounded overall. The main plot is meandering by nature, as the pace is largely dictated by your Scooby Doo gang of teens with attitude reacting to a string of mysterious murders and abductions in a small town, but the real magic I think is in the interstitial moments shared between them.

Inaba has a strong sense of time and place, framed as a town that is being forgotten, dead and decaying for as many economic reasons as supernatural ones. Your character is implied to be from the big city, moving to a one horse town out in the sticks where Nothing Ever Really Happens. The scope of the town as limited to (for the most part) the high school and the main street, where most shops are boarded up and shuttered, with the denizens cursing the big box store for stealing all the local jobs. I haven't ever been to Japan, but I know towns like Inaba, and I've seen that resentment. Persona 4 came out in 2008, in the wake of a global financial crisis, which intentional or not imbues the setting with a sense of melancholy nostalgia of warm memories of youth even in times of desperation. I was the same age as the protagonist in the set year of 2011, and I remember well playing Modern Warfare 2 or couch co op Halo 3 even while it seemed like the world was crumbling outside, which I imagine resonates with teens now.

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There's a carefree touch to the writing that makes the little scenes between the characters really sing, little adventures like trips to the beach or trying and failing to pick up chicks together that bring to mind the kind of dumb shit you'd do with your friends, if to an exaggerated degree. Where my patience for dumb shit ran out, however, was with a few characters in particular.

It seems natural that in a game about misfit teens on a journey of self discovery and possible romance called PERSONA, that you would explore different sexual identities, but the game handles it in the most clumsy way possible. Maybe I'm not the most knowledgeable guy to speak on this, but it actually bothered me how the game treats Kanji and Naoto. It feels like there were two camps of writers, one that wanted to approach these themes with some measure of nuance, and one that wanted to write haha funny jokes about a chick wearing dude clothes or really bad gay jokes. The worst are from Yosuke, who I actually like as a character and has one of the best Social Links in the game, but once Kanji is introduced, just becomes a font of terrible, cringeworthy skits that make you wish you could just take him aside and just tell him to chill the the fuck out for a while. It gets really weird later on in the story where it's like they pull a "gotcha, they were actually normal the whole time because of this weird loophole" and then never really touch on it again.

Overall, the game's writing vacillates wildly between touching and relatable to just ass. I'm no stranger to offensive humor, but it hits different when these people are supposed to be your friends, and the game just constantly uses them as punching bags. Even so, I still really liked Kanji and Yosuke and they ended up being some of my favorite characters in the inner circle, along with Nanako.

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On the gameplay side of things, I wasn't so hot on the dungeons. I loved the music and the themes, but the actual experience of slogging through 10 floors of samey looking procedurally generated dungeons feels like some brain dead 10th circle of hell that just saps my enthusiasm to play. Add onto the fact that you can't save when you're in there, and it's just this war of attrition on your SP that I couldn't take anymore on Normal. Add onto it the half assed stealth that doesn't even feel like it belongs because you pretty much have to fight every enemy on every floor just to go toe to toe with the boss at the end. Undoubtedly, the best way to play this game is cruise control on Easy so I never had to spend another minute grinding in there than I absolutely had to. I heard that the Golden and NG+ content consisted of more dungeons and I was like nah, no thanks. I've never played a game where I was so at odds with how much I liked the story bits where the game part of the game was so draining. I realize that is has to be there to add context to the struggle that the cast is facing but I'll be honest with you, my game crashed halfway through Adachi's dungeon, and I have not felt motivated to go back.

As a final aside about the ending, the way it's decided is just plain stupid. All along, your dialogue choices rarely if ever have any impact aside from choosing which girl you wanna date, but right at the climax, the only way to get a non shitty joke ending that boots you right to the credits is to choose the correct, exact string of like six responses with no deviations, in which case it might as well be on rails. It sucks because the context around the choice is a fascinating moral quandary where everyone steps up and makes complex, impassioned pleas to emotion that highlight their characters, but your paint sniffing protagonist is reduced to meaningless five word prompts that say nothing beyond "hurr guys wait a second" multiple times in a row. It ruins what's otherwise a great scene and honestly kind of killed my drive to finish the game. The final villain is also pretty weak. I don't need to hear some sob story about how he became a murderer, but it would have been neat if Adachi was some sort of foil to the protag by highlighting how social isolation allows bitterness to fester and making friends with different people is what allowed the group enough insight to solve the case and learn to rely on each other, and that's what gives them strength. Instead, he's basically a WE LIVE IN A SOCIETY BOTTOM TEXT meme brought to life with no real depth to speak of.

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Keeping in mind those caveats, which weighed down on my experience as it wore on, it was still a pretty good ride, and I would recommend it if you have interest in the series and don't know where to start, just be aware of some hard left turns it can take. However, if you do have access to a PS4, definitely play 5 instead, as it's a straight upgrade in every way.

I also picked Yukiko and Chie, but since I decided to forgo the ending I choose to believe they carried on happily as a "me, my wife, and our girlfriend" type situation.


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