Japanese RPGs get a really bad rep everywhere you go, except for Japan, of course, where the air is minty fresh and the trees grow used schoolgirls’ panties. They’ve generally been criticized for their bad voice acting, hammy plots, linear gameplay and storytelling, and for just being rather cliché. If they don’t take place in a weird alternate fantasy universe where a boy must find his place in the world, then they’re about high school students getting together to solve a mystery, Scooby-Doo-like, while also trying to make sure that their high school lives continue to be totally rad! In the past, I’ve reviewed two Japanese games that break that mold: Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, and Yakuza, and both of those turned out to be really good games that forge their own paths in artistic expression.
That being said, here’s a review of another Shin Megami Tensei game called Persona 4. It’s a game about high school students getting together to solve a mystery, Scooby-Doo-like, while also trying to make sure that their high school lives continue to be totally rad.
Oh Atlus, you hilarious bastards you. You had me going there. Now if you would be so kind as to bring out another real Shin Megami Tensei game, I would be happy.
What’s that? There are no new main-series games currently being developed? Because the Persona series sells so well, we’re only getting two more of those, instead, which exchange the dark and metaphysical concepts of Shin Megami for Degrassi-like after-school special values?
OK, it’s not that bad. Let’s just start from the beginning, all right?
Shin Megami Tensei:Persona 4 is the fourth game in the Persona sub-series. The sub-series aims for a more mainstream audience, meaning that there are no angels, demons, demi-gods, questionable morals, intriguing religious beliefs, or anything else that might have been interesting; instead, it’s been given the anime makeover and is set in a Japanese high school.
You play an eternally unnamed high school student who is sent to live with hisuncle, Detective Ryoutarou Dojima, in the small podunk town of Inaba for a year. After getting to know your uncle and his daughter, Nanako, you soon start having some weird dreams involving everyone’s favorite long-nosed hunchback freak: Igor. Igor makes a return appearance from Persona 3 in order to handle and fuse your Personas once more, but he’s traded his elevator office for a spiritual pimpmobile. Seriously, he rides in the back of a purple stretch limo that’s got a mini bar, leather seats, and a hot blond woman as a servant; the amount of pimptitude he has is amazing. All he needs is to install a hot tub and get that servant in a bikini, and Snoop Dogg could shoot a music video in there.
After a couple of cutscenes and Igor raving on about Personas, you are introduced to two of your party members: Chie, a kung-fu-movie-loving tomboy, and Yoskue, the “best friend” character. You know who I’m talking about; he’s the character that inexplicably becomes friends with the protagonist and usually gets slapped by one of the female characters because he’s supposed to be the comic foil. He’s actually a surprisingly deep character, having being forced to move here by his father, who is the owner of a department store that is running all the local shops out of business. You do find him face down in a trashcan when you first meet him though, so he’s still a dork.
Not long after, a series of odd murders starts to take place around the small town, and you suddenly realize that you have the power to go into television screens, which lead to an alternate dimension where your inner self can be manifested into cool-looking monsters and demons called “Personas.” You then find a talking hollow bear suit who tells you that someone is throwing people into this world so that these beasts called “shadows” will kill them, and since you and your friends are the only ones who can enter this mysterious realm, it’s up to you to thwart the murderer, shed some light on what the TV world is, and somehow find a way to ask the girl out to the prom! High school! Yay!
…OK. I know the plot sounds really bad. Like, textbook japanime bad. But the characters are the true gem of this game. They are well developed and interesting enough that you actually want to discover more about them. From your uncle Dojimatrying to make his way in the world as a detective while raisinga daughter all by himself, to a widow who believed that her attempt to live the fairytale married life lead to her husband’s death, these characters are just that: ACTUAL characters, with hopes and dreams, and not the creepy alien things that try to mimic human emotions that come with most JRPGS. I would even go so far as to say that some of these characters are more interesting than in most games period, if only because so many stereotypes are broken.
The gameplay this time around is like AC/DC’s new album: different, but still keeping with what made them good. Combat is still turn based, but it’s a little more hectic, in that each character generally takes their own turn based on their agility, and there is no push-turn system like in Nocturne. If you hit an opponent’s weakness, they are knocked on their ass, and you get another attack. This happens every time you or your opponents hit a weakness, so one character can wipe out an entire team in just one turn.
As mentioned before, you and your buddies are able to summon the manifestations of your true natures, called “Personas,” which basically are monsters that EXIST IN YOUR MIND. The Personas of your party members are set, each having a certain strength and weakness to an element, but your character has the ability to command multiple Personas and switch between them at will, meaning that you can have an entire brigade of demons sitting in your mind who will fight for you on command. Man, there’s gotta be some housing issues there. The Personas range from representations of mythical creatures from many different religions to some original monsters. And by original I mean fucked up. On my team I have a magical multicolored snake, a skeleton matador, and a powerful demon who just sits on a toilet and casts thunder and lightning spells. Yes, that’s right: I have a character who is a living fart joke. But that’s not the worst of it, oh no; but I’ll talk more about the designs a little later on.
In this game, making friends doesn’t just have the usual benefits of companionship, support, and extra meat shields when the mob decides to come collect that debt you owe; it also allows you to grow stronger. Persona 4 has a system of “Social Links” which reward you for being sociable, unlike real life. It turns Personainto a sort of dating sim where spending more time with someone allows their Social Link and horniness levels to rise. Why would someone want to do this, especially when the player would probably want to repeat their own high school experience, which is mostly crushing loneliness combined with masturbation issues? Because each of your friends is linked to an “arcana” (sort of like a class), and the higher your Social Links, the more experience points and bonuses you get when you create Personas of the same arcana. Most importantly, you can only get the most powerful ones if you completely level up Social Links, so I get to roleplay what it would have been like to be popular in high school, which turns out to be surprisingly tedious.
So, to sort of round everything off, most of the game involves your characters exploring the other world, battling shadows, and saving people who have been thrown into the TV world, while the rest involves keeping your social life in tact while leveling up your personal stats and trying to make sure all the characters are ready to explore the other world. The game does have a time limit wherein, after several days of rain, the town will be enveloped by fog, which will lift the fog in the TV world, sending the shadows into a frenzy and killing anybody unlucky enough to be on the other side. It forces you to manage your time and work toward a central goal, whether it be grinding the dungeons to level up your characters or socializing with people to beef up your Social Links. You might want to bust out a strategy guide for this game, because some characters are busy on different days and won’t talk to you, but if you’re hardcore like me, then taking some notes is not a bad thing to do.
So, while the game itself is pretty good, there are some problems I have with it. Well, I actually have quite a few problems with it, but I feel like I’m going to get some hate mail for being too nitpicky. So with that I say: “Sit down, take off your little diaper foo foo and STOP CRYING LIKE A BABY.”
I always love it when a game gives me a chance to explore a different culture, but don’t waste time admiring all of the little details, because there’s a quiz at the end. It’s not a major thing, but you quite literally go through high school, and the game pauses every so often to ask you a question you have no way of knowing the answer to without checking Wikipedia. Since being top in your class apparently gets girls wet in Japan, you better have the answer; otherwise, your character is going to do the one-man-show for the rest of his pitiful high school life. OK, how the hell is anyone in North America supposed to know ANYTHING about Japan if they’ve never been there? Quick, without Google-searching it, tell me what a “kage for spring” is. How about the proper procedure for putting on a kimono? Know how many pounds a chi master can lift with his testicles? No? Of course not—no Western gamer could! It would be like asking a small African boy in Kenya about the amount of calories in a cheeseburger; he’s got no frame of reference!
Also, while the characters are developed enough to keep you interested, the potential love interests you have are a bit of a letdown. Well, not the girls themselves. I mean, you can get it on with a teen idol for Christ’s sake; how can you top that? No, I was a little angry at something else. So, after spending hours and hours with one girl, going on a roller coaster of emotions and self-anguish, I only got a blush and a HUG at the end?! What the hell, game?! I know Japan has some weird perceptions on sex and public displays of affection, but come on! Pretending to listen to a woman’s problems while occasionally calling her a dumb bitch were enough for AT LEAST a shame-filled blowjob at my high school. Where are all the emo girls with low self-esteem?
But if there’s something that needs to be discussed, it’s the bloody monster designs in this game. I mean, Shin Megami Tensei is no stranger to messed up character designs, but Persona is like that quiet kid in class who comes unannounced to a party wearing only a chicken suit with a holocaust denial written on it. One of the characters has a Persona that could only be described as a “disco-ninja frog.” Another one has a fat red ball thing with a missile lodged halfway up his ass. I wish I was making this up. I’ve saved the weirdest one for last, but I’m gonna need to set it up a bit.
You know what? I think I’ve figured it out. I think the monster designer for Persona was a gay man who just didn’t know how to break it to his parents. So, instead of sitting them down and giving them the talk, he decided to bring them into his room and say: “Mom, Dad, there’s something important I have to tell you, but I’m not sure how to go about saying it. They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, so I drew this for you. It should explain everything:”
This…is Mara. Yes, you can summon him. And yes, that’s exactly what he looks like.
If your mom walked in on you playing this game, and saw you using Mara, she would put a reassuring hand on your shoulder and tell you that she’ll love you no matter what you do in your spare time.
When it’s all said and done, I really liked Persona 4. It’s very human-interest focused, and it forgoes the larger theological questions for smaller interpersonal ones, but it’s got likable characters, good story, decent humor, writing that flows easily, as well as great gameplay. There are some of the usual JRPG trappings, but I really believe that if the next game took a few more pages from Western RPGs, we might have the next great mainstream RPG series. Even at its most cliché, Shin Megami Tensei is still miles better then most Final Fantasy games, and that’s the truth. If you are into JRPGs and haven’t checked this one out, you have deprived yourself of one of the good mainstream JRPG series and should rectify that situation immediately.
What really bothers me is that if you were a fan of the series, there is a huge shift from the previous three games’ very dark tones and deep metaphysical questions to the teen japanime high school students they have now. You can almost smell the marketing executives’ spunk on this product; they took the concept of God being a prick and the huge punch-ups between deities, threw them in a bin, and shot them into space so they wouldn’t offend anybody and the company could make a game that was more “relatable.” It’s just so idealistic and nice—all of the characters look good and are generally happy with their lives and going to school and-OH GOD WHY CAN’T I STAY LIKE THAT FOREVER! WHY?! *cries in corner*