It’s been a fucktastically long time since I’ve mustered the strength to hunker down and write a video game review. My reasons range from straight-up apathy to personal distractions like “moving” and “pools” and “gyms” and other semi-active activities. But the big reason is Persona 4, a crooked-ass, super-silly, super-serious oddity of a Playstation 2 game that made me embrace video game addiction for the first time in decades. And embrace it with a very aloof, goofy smile on my face. It’s the first Japanese RPG that I’ve given half a damn about since the current generation of consoles were released, and I don’t know whether that says something about modern developers, myself or the universe in general.
Part of the innate genius of Persona 4 is that it plays and dances with all sorts of negative Japanese anime archetypes in a way anyone but the most bigoted can get behind. A hodgepodge of divergent-personality high school students are saving the world from a supernatural threat by using supernatural powers and weapons purchased at the corner store. Underaged girls are overtly sexualized in a manner that makes themselves and all parties involved feel very embarrassed. The grown-up police force is very inept. The good guys have a teddy bear mascot because they can.
The actual plot places a nameless, kind-of-voiceless protagonist in a small town, where people have a tendency to get thrown into televisions and come out all nice and murdered. Protagonist Man learns that he and his precocious high school friends can enter the TV land and use magical powers by summoning their outlandishly-dressed super-alter-egos. Protagonist Man and friends decide they are more competent than the police force and take justice into their own hands.
This is a Japanese RPG. So there are heaping flows of text dialogue. Characters tend to feel obligated to summarize the plot over and over again (and ask if you’d like another summary.) Even if the word barrage is a bit much, it’s hard not to be magnetized and charmed by the bevy of unique and personable characters filling the town of Inaba. Not too many small towns house bikers, pop idols and a fox with a heart of gold, but it feels more fresh than what most other RPGs have been delivering lately, Japanese or otherwise.
There’s a whole socialization system built around the idea that having strong social links strengthen your teammates and let the player build stronger monsters. But bulking up your alter-egos is really a secondary reason at best to explore these side-stories. What happens is your protagonist hangs out with either a party member, family member or any of the few people in Inaba with a full name. These side-stories can be cute, quirky, funny, serious, sedimental, melodramatic, but are never not flat. The big flaw with the system is that players are given multiple dialogue choices, with certain choices speeding up the progress in which these events can occur. The only way to find out the correct answer is by way of the internet. Also, the player must have a Persona that matches the same Arcana type as the person he’s trying to socialize with to move things along (oh, Personas and people are categorized by Tarot cards in one of the game’s rare brushed with pretentiousness.)
So I did find myself almost always having a FAQ booted up on my computer at all times, largely because I wanted to get the most out of all of my social events. The game gives the player a calendar with a finite number of days to build your social links and finish the next dungeon, but doesn’t do a proper job of communicating just how much time remains. The path to maximizing all of your social links can be a very specific one that can’t be intuited by the player on one playthrough (if that.) It’s especially frustrating when rainy days happen, and nobody but the sappy drama girl wants to come out and play. What is the pollution like in Japan as to trigger such bouts of acid rain?
Oh, yeah, dungeons. This is an RPG, after all. You can spend your days in the TV land actually rescuing those innocent people from the brink of death. On one hand, this segment of the game represents a welcome return to traditional RPG mechanics. In the post-Final Fantasy 13 world, RPGs have gotten needlessly complex with their convoluted terminology and byzantine gameplay mechanics in an attempt to make newcomers not want to buy their games. Persona 4 feels like a welcome return to the days of “Attack, Magic, Item”, all the while adding its own brand of depth. The game encourages players to strike down your adversaries’ elemental weakness in succession to trigger a super attack. (Which, appropriately enough, is a dust cloud cartoon beating.) It’s a simple concept, but one that works here.
At the same time, the game thematically plays its own twist with those dungeons. There is no fire dungeon or ice dungeon. There is, however, a hot sauna dungeon and a strip club dungeon. The enemies in those dungeons vary from giant lips-and-tongues to S and M freaks to Hulk Hogan. The bosses get even more strange. Even the summoned Personae wind up being real oddities. I don’t feel obligated to tell Persona 4 jokes in this review just because the game itself is an oddity in of itself. One of the key gameplay mechanics is that the main protagonist can equip different Personae, each with their own set of stats and spells. The strategy part of choosing Personas is really just limited to “have the spells the rest of your party don’t have”, but it’s more the spectacle of equipping Personae based on different religions, mythologies and legends that intrigues me. By the end of the game, you can have a stable consisting of Thor, Satan, Beelzebub, Ganesh and a Ghost Rider knockoff.
Persona 4 is a weird game to recommend to other people, just because of the loopholes I had to jump through to get to the sweet center. I had bought this game in 2008 and subsequently sold it because I couldn’t penetrate a kind of difficult first dungeon. It wasn’t until this recent playthrough that I became wowed over by the game’s charms. That it took some internet assistance could be considered something of a condemnation.
But I can’t ignore the effect the game has had on my summer. I spent a combined 130 hours on two consecutive playthroughs. Another 100 hours were spent watching two grown men play through this game and comment on their unusual experience over the internet on a popular website. Not since Chrono Trigger have I made an honest attempt at 100-percenting any RPG. The game’s wonderful J-Pop fight music is my ringtone. This game’s J-Pop soundtrack is on my cell phone playlist, saddled between a lot of Metallica. That’s a rare accomplishment and I don’t know how I feel about that. I do know that I feel really good about Persona 4.
4 ½ stars