|STEP! ON! UP! TO THE PLAAAATE!|
Some context for the uninitiated, then. Persona is a sub-series of Shin Megami Tensei, a grim and gritty JRPG brand from Atlus which deals with harnessing the power of demons and angels to stop other people with demons and angels. More often than not this is set against the backdrop of post-apocalyptic Tokyo, and you can side with the forces of Law or Chaos... or decide the entire system is fucked and tear it all down with Neutrality and kill everyone in charge. I've dabbled in the series but never truly beaten a "mainline" one. The closest I got was... oh, 20 hours or so into Shin Megami Tensei IV on the 3DS? That's a rough estimate because the 3DS is on the other side of the room. It's a series I'd like to get into, but it's a tough nut to crack. As befitting of a mega-RPG series, SMT has a whole bunch of spinoff games. (Amusingly enough, the first SMT game to actually see release outside of Japan was a goddamned Virtual Boy game starring series mascot demon, Jack Frost.) There are quite a lot of these, but the Persona series is what we'll be focusing in on for now. The first two were on the PS1 and still retain a lot of the hardcore aspects from mainline SMT. The third, though... this is where things changed up. Persona 3 fused a roguelike-esque dungeon crawl with an almost visual novel/dating sim-esque aesthetic of living life as a high school student in modern Japan, and having to balance both this normal life of making bonds with friends and colleagues and keeping up on your studies with climbing a hell tower full of the negative aspects of humanity and battling them with your own inner power, the Personas (which take the form of many of the SMT series' demons and angels). Persona 3 is neat and I've dabbled quite a bit in it many years ago... but it's the next game in the series we're going to be talking about in depth. Persona 4 took what made Persona 3 great and improved on quite a lot of it, in my eyes. We're going to do a deep dive into it and reach out to the truth of why it affected me so damn much, so let's get into it.
Persona 4 takes place in Inaba, a sleepy little small town in rural Japan. Already this appeals to me personally because I'm from a small town as well... but our protagonist man is not. You can name him whatever you like, but the anime adaptation (and subsequent spinoffs) give him the canon name of Yu Narukami. I named him Hajime Hinata, after the protagonist of Dangan Ronpa 2 (another "10/10" game that changed me for the better, for those of you keeping score at home) and went on my way. For the remainder of this word exercise we'll refer to him as "protagonist" or "hero" or some form of neutrality to that effect. Our hero's parents are off working overseas for a year, so you're sent to Inaba from the city to live with your uncle, Ryotaro Dojima, and seven year-old cousin Nanako Dojima. Your arrival is poorly timed, though, because a major murder occurs in Inaba not long afterwards. Soon after that the girl who discovered the body also disappears and dies. The peaceful days of Inaba are being shattered, but things will be further shattered once you and some of your new high school acquaintances fall out of the world. Crossing through the CVE of a flatscreen TV on display at Inaba's big chain department store, Junes, you discover a twisted hell landscape shrouded in fog. There's a strange mascot bear named Teddie who's hollow inside his costume, and he leads you to a dark reflection of Inaba's shopping district. Shadow creatures come forth to ruin your day, but you awaken the power of Persona inside you and summon a hidden facet of your soul, the Persona Izanagi, to defeat them. Things do not go so smoothly for your pal, Yosuke Hanamura. A copy of him soon walks forward, revealing deep resentments and fears of being lonely and alone. Yosuke denies this darker self, but this turns out to be a mistake. Denying the dread beasts within us only give them more power, and the Shadow of Yosuke, the True Self, becomes a terrifying frog ninja monster. After beating its face in because it's a JRPG boss, Yosuke accepts this facet of himself. His darker thoughts now manifest in the form of inner strength, and Yosuke gains a Persona of his own.
As inspiring as gaining this inner power is, there's still something rotten in the state of Inaba. Someone with the power to delve across the CVE into the world behind the TV is tossing people into it. Letting the fractured dark thoughts that lurk within the human mind that take the form of Shadows kill the unlucky, manifesting their dead body in the real world. There are some corners of the human mind that have bred the most terrible thoughts. Thoughts which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought. We have our mission in the world of the extraordinary; watch the mysterious Midnight Channel which foretells who will be lost within the world of the TV next, prevent those people from being murdered by their darker sides, and maybe even catch the no-good son of a bitch who's masterminding this entire killing game. That is your mission in the world of the extraordinary, but let us not forget how the previous game blended the ordinary with it. Plenty of your downtime will be spent in Inaba, attending school and spending your time as you see fit. A major system that faciliates this blending is the Velvet Room, Personas, and Social Links (hereafter called S.Links). Our hero's friends in battle all possess a singular Persona formed from vanquishing and accepting their darker sides, but you have the power of the Wild Card and can possess multiple Personas, each with their own powers, strengths, and weaknesses. By visiting a special place outside of the ordinary world known as the Velvet Room, you can fuse these Personas into new and stronger forms and retain some of their powers. Each Persona corresponds to one of the High Arcana, and this is where the S.Links come in. The bonds you form in Inaba with key individuals create Social Link, and the more time you spend with them the higher the link. High links grant bonus experience upon Personas fused of that arcana, and can also unlock new buffs and skills for your party members or discounts for services or other good things of that nature. Here it is, then. The key to the entire experience. The dungeon crawling is okay in this game, and I appreciate the change from a singular hell tower in Persona 3 to multiple smaller themed dungeons based on the dark side of the person you're rescuing in Persona 4. As fun as that is, that only makes Persona 4 a fun game. I played Breath Of The Wild last month, and that was a fun game! I expect many will put it on their Game Of The Year lists as the best of 2017. Not me. It was a fun game, but you'll notice that it didn't get a thousands-word exorcism in which I spread my good feelings about it into the world. Persona 4 is getting that and you're reading it right now, and the S.Link system is why. It encourages you to make friendly with these people you engage with every day in-game, to learn about their hopes and dreams and fears and insecurities in far greater detail than just seeing their darker side pop up in some twisted hellspace inside a TV and spout mean thoughts. This is what made Persona 4 an unforgettable experience for me, and now we'll go through all the friends I made.
The strongest bonds I made ended up being most of the Investigation Team which forms as you delve into the TV world and rescue people from it. We mentioned Yosuke Hanamura but I hardly hung out with him much after I made more friends. Chie Satonaka, tomboyish martial arts master with a love of kung fu films and steak, accompanied us into the lavish nightmare mindpalace created when her best friend, Yukiko Amagi, went missing and fell into the TV world. Yukiko's Midnight Channel broadcast cast her as a princess searching for her prince, and Chie's doubt at the words of Yukiko's other self awakened her very own Shadow self for us to beat down, granting her the power of the Persona Tomoe. Yukiko herself, teenage heir to her family's traditional Japanese inn, harbored secret anxieties about being trapped into one way of life and wanting some "prince" to whisk her away from all responsibility, her Shadow manifesting as a literal bird in a cage before becoming Konohana Sakuya. Something I should mention as an aside; given that this is a Japanese RPG with the dating sim elements of increasing personality stats and making friends with all manner of high school pals, there exists the possibility to romance any girl you make a high S.Link with. I went with Yukiko for this. Outside of the S.Links her dominant character traits are "laughing too much at shitty puns" and "can't cook for shit" but within them you get a glimpse past her reserved self to see her decide to leave home after graduation and not run the inn, before changing her mind on that and (for me, anyway) falling for you. What I'm saying is Yukiko is Good, Actually, and you'll not change my mind on this. Moving on we have Kanji Tatsumi, a delinquent punk type whose darker Shadow side is... gay thoughts. Yeah. His entire mind dungeon is a steamy sauna with his Shadow pelvic thrusting in a towel, and the Shadow fight has him surrounded by roses, holding male symbols, backed up by two musclemen. I don't feel qualified saying any more about that but his S.Link is good and involves his love of sewing and making little stuffed animals for this one kid and accepting his hobby. That's nice, and he (along with Yukiko) were mainstays on my team. Yukiko is your typical "mage" type with lots of SP, fire attacks, and more than enough healing to keep you on your feet. Kanji is a heavy hitter with low SP thanks to his Persona, Take-Mikazuchi but he ended up being a main damage dealer for me at the end of it all.
After that we get a double header of people joining our team, as the next person to get hurled into TV land is Rise Kujikawa, recently retired idol. Her Shadowland is dripping with sexuality in some sort of strip club, and her other self parades about in a little bikini, promising to strip and show the "real" Risette. Risette, though, is only Rise's stage name... and the confusion over who she really is leads to a giant poledancing woman with slippery rainbow skin and a satellite dish for a head attacking you. Its powers of analysis and prediction leave your attacks ineffective, but your mascot pal Teddie who's been helping you through the dungeons as navigator ends up blowing himself up and becoming a flattened cutout of himself in order to defeat it. Rise's claims that there's no "real me", though, awaken Teddie's own self-doubts and create a Shadow version of himself for us to beat. Teddie then joins your team on the front lines with his Persona, Kintoki-Douji while Rise's, Himiko, is built for pure support and analysis. I was a little disappointed that Rise wasn't a frontline party member, but in ranking up her S.Link you both get her regrets and sadness over giving up the idol life as well as great supportive buffs for her to use on you in a fight. Teddie is a fun character though, and after this he comes into the ordinary world and gains the cute human form of a blonde boy. There are missteps, but more often than not I found him a charming and fun pal to be around. Your final party member is Naoto Shirogane, a clever detective who deduces that you and your group are up to something involving the murders and ends up getting willingly involved in the whole thing. Naoto is a good character and all, but like Kanji there are some things going on involving gender roles and other such issues that I really don't feel qualified in giving a critique on. I'll just summarize Naoto's whole character arc and let you be the judge on it. Naoto presents as male and is referred to with male pronouns when you're first dealing with them, but their Midnight Channel Shadow self speaks of THE AMAZING TRANSFORMATION OF THE DETECTIVE PRINCE in front of some sort of lab/medical room. Quel surprise, Naoto is actually AFAB (and from now on in-game is referred to by feminine pronouns). Her Shadow is built on the self-doubt of wanting to prove herself to the other members of the police squad, resentment at being looked down upon because she's so young, and wanting to emulate the detective heroes of her youth by presenting as a man. Japan and gender issues at work, everyone. Despite all of that, Naoto ended up being one of my favorite characters in the whole game. She's competent; not only in her deductive skills and reasonings to help figure out the mysteries of the TV world and who's trying to kill people, but her Persona Sukuna-Hikona actually has no weaknesses and several useful instant-death attacks to use on enemies. I think she's pretty cool, and she became part of my endgame team because of it.
These, of course, are only my ingame party members. There are many more S.Links to be had. I didn't max out many more beyond that because of the hell juggle that is balancing hanging out with friends, boosting my personality stats, and all of that fighting Shadows in a nightmare TV landscape. I did max out Dojima and Nanako's and they were great in their own right. Dojima's a hard worker who's often out late, and Nanako is rural Japan's most adorable seven year-old. There are lots more out there, of course. A basketball team member at high school with a strict family. A drama club member who resents her birth father. A fox at a shrine who requests for you to grant the wishes of those praying at the shrine (and goes into the TV world with you as a healer of SP and is very helpful). Dojima's goofy dork of a detective partner. The list goes on and on, and I suppose it's possible to max out every S.Link but I sure as hell didn't do it. There is one more big one added into the remastered Vita port that I'm playing, but we'll get to that. You don't just delve into the TV world to save people who become party members, though. There are some twists and turn to be had, and now we're going to get into them and delve into the endgame and the mythic and all that. Between saving Rise and Teddie, but before teaming up with Naoto, your homeroom teacher is found dead in a similar manner to the first two murders. Notably, he never appeared on the Midnight Channel to have his death foretold... nor did he show up on TV beforehand (which your Investigation Team has determined is the connection between both murder victims as well as everyone who's been lost in TV land so far) so something is off. You eventually pinpoint fellow high school student Mitsuo Kubo as your teacher's killer, and he laughs maniacally about killing them all like it was a game to him. True to form, then, his dungeon is a big voxel retro throwback with all sorts of Dragon Quest homages. His Shadow manifests as a small infant which creates a shell around it... and the shell is itself a voxel creation not unlike a Dragon Quest hero with about three frames of animation that Shadow Mitsuo withdraws into. Now THAT'S WHAT I CALL METACOMMENTARY!
You arrived in Inaba in April, and over several months have uncovered mysteries, made friendships, and saved people from their darker sides. You've likely fallen in love with your friends and family, and at least one of them has fallen in love with you because of it. It was Yukiko for me but it could just as easily be Chie or Rise or Naoto for you. Or, going outside the heteromonogamist coding of the game's system, it could be any or all of them! The point is, you've grown close to them all... and now the mysterious killer is threatening you with anonymous letters. "Don't rescue anymore.". The implicit threat of hurting a loved one is there, and once your uncle sees one of these threatening letters he hauls you to the station due to the suspicion. While in there, the Midnight Channel airs again... and it is Nanako on the dark TV screen. In your absence she is kidnapped by a suspicious delivery man, and Dojima gives chase on the rainy streets of Inaba, both vehicles crashing. A TV is found in the delivery van and the implication is clear. Nanako is inside, and she needs your help. This is not the hellscape of teenage anxiety. Nanako's dungeon, Heaven, is a pleasant and bright place (that still has Shadows inside it) with a soothing and calming theme tune. At the end of it all you find the delivery man, Taro Namatame, and he is holding Nanako hostage. He is the one who has been throwing people into the TV, and his life tangles with the first murder victim and by extension the second. He sees himself as a savior, and you manage to wrest Nanako free from him as his Shadow appears. Except, something different happens to him. Something that is not a Shadow appears. This being Heaven, it appears as more of a god. Kunino-sagiri appears, a beast draped in white robes with a huge halo-like contraption on its head. You've no idea what or who it is, but it's between you and getting your little cousin out of the TV world and back into safety, so you defeat it. Of course, we here know what is going on. Mainline SMT is infamous for throwing us into the sights of actual gods and demons. We have been using them throughout Persona 4, as visual facets of fractured thought given inner strength. Now, near the end, actual gods have descended down upon us. Kuni-no-sagiri is an actual god in Japanese mythology. Everything has changed, and with the defeat of a god, things begin to get bleaker.
Nanako's abduction happens in early November, and you have time to save her. I, of course, did it within two days in order to protect rural Japan's most adorable seven year-old. She was still weakened from the ordeal and hospitalized, with Dojima also stuck in there due to injuries from his car crash. As November passes and fades into December, a strange fog lingers around Inaba. The fog shows up before, of course, whenever someone who's been on the Midnight Channel would die. No deaths have occured due to our heroic efforts to prevent such things, but the foggy nights have shown up. Now the fog is ever-present. People are beginning to get sick. Gas masks are worn regularly. Having faced down a god, we're now faced with an escalation of bleakness. Our idyllic days can still happen, and it's here where I spent lots of time with Naoto and Kanji to know them better despite the death fog. Then, December 5th. Nanako's condition worsens. Her father is called. You hold her hand and tell her it's going to be okay. She is not okay. Still holding your hand, she slips away for good. Rural Japan's most adorable seven year-old has died, and as it so happens her killer is in this very hospital. The group confronts Namatame and it is Yosuke who suggests karmic vengeance for everything we've gone through and everything we've lost. Justice cannot charge him for anything, as his TV world crimes are impossible to prove. We must hurl him into the TV world and let his darker side sort him out. You can do this, of course. It will net you a bad ending. You can reject it as well, which I did and got a neutral ending. To truly progress, you have to let a cooler head prevail. Nanako wouldn't have wanted this. More to the point, there are... inconsistencies. Loose ends. Deciding to spare Namatame and investigate further will let you progress. Nanako will make a recovery and not die after all, and later you will question Namatame. It turns out, in fact, that Namatame was spurred into action by seeing the Midnight Channel. He reasoned that people who appeared on it were killed, and that using his power to enter the TV world and place those on the Midnight Channel inside it would save them. He was too late to save the first two victims, but his first attempt to save a person was Yukiko. Namatame, in the end, was a pawn in another game. Our true killer. Tohru Adachi, Dojima's detective assistant. He threw the first two victims into the TV world, and when Namatame called the police about the Midnight Channel it was he who planted the suggestion into Namatame's head. As the chaos unfolded, Adachi sat back and watched it all go down, knowing full well that Namatame's "savior" antics would end in murders. We ruined all of that, and we expose Adachi for who he is. He flees into the world of the TV, promising that everything will be erased by the fog invading Inaba. By Christmas Eve, Inaba and the real world will be no more... but not if we can help it.
Adachi's dungeon is unlike most. He has control over this nightmare space, locking the door to his hideaway and doing things like forbidding you from encountering Shadows. You and your group will press on, of course, defeating the source of his power and eventually encountering him. Adachi knows, somehow, that the fog will turn Inaba and the real world into something resembling the real world, and humanity will become Shadows. Filled by despair and nihilism, he wants this to happen and tries to stop us. Adachi has a Persona of his own, somehow. Has he faced his true self and accepted the darkness of a murderer within? We don't know, but what we do know is that his Persona bears a suspicious resemblance to our original one, Izanagi. A dark mirror of the true self, weaponized against us. We kick his ass and then another god engulfs him. Ameno-sagiri, Lord Of The Fog, a literal Great Eye inside the TV World watching and waiting for the fog to transform us all into Shadows. We battle the Almighty one and beat his eye in. The day is saved, Adachi is arrested, the fog vanishes, and you spend Christmas Eve with a possible beloved. Everything seems fine, and yet... there are still loose ends to be untangled. For one, thanks to new content in the Vita release, there is Marie. Marie is a new friend you make inside the Velvet Room, an amnesiac cutie who ventures out into the real world to discover it and try to uncover her own memories. As you work with her S.Link you introduce her to your group of friends and they all regard her as an acquaintance. January passes by as a peaceful winter in Inaba, and everything seems fine... but for Marie vanishing. Margaret, another denizen of the Velvet Room, promises to search for Marie's whereabouts and keeps you updated periodically by calling you up. February comes and you and the group go out for a skiing trip. You and another friend are caught in a blizzard and seek refuge in an old shack. The group finds you, but a TV in the shack pulls you inside. It's Margaret, and she's taken you to where Marie is, inside the TV world in a place of lost memory. Marie plans to lose herself here, and you have but one day to delve into this world and save your friend from wiping herself away from the world.
If there is a weak point in Persona 4's gameplay, it is here. The Hollow Forest of Memories in which Marie has secluded herself introduces gimmicks. The game has been light on gimmicks up to this point, content to just let you dungeon crawl, but here it dabbles. First, you lose all of your items when you enter and have to hunt for new ones. This I don't mind so much. The second is far more of a hindrance; after every single battle you lose half of your SP. The game does give you items to restore it and starts you off with accessories that restore some every turn in battle, but these good graces are undone by the reality of the situation. You will want to save those items in the possibility of the boss being really hard (as both Sagiris have been no pushovers) and you needing them. The alternative to keeping your SP up so you can engage in skill use and healing and whatnot is leaving one enemy alive and guarding for 20 or so turns to regain all of it and then lose half of that again on completing the fight. Because of this, a dungeon that should have taken me 2-3 hours at most took me six to clear. It's a bad dungeon for this, yes, but its emotional beats pay off once we find Marie. Marie, our mysterious friend, is a goddess; a goddess whose goal was to blanket our world in fog. With the defeat of Ameno-sagiri, all of the fog that vanished from Inaba funnelled into her body and is threatening to overtake her. To counter this, she has gone into the Hollow Forest to erase herself from the world and destroy the fog herself. We reject this. We will save Marie, even if she turned out to be a goddess of fog. We don't know her as Kusumi-no-Okami, Dread Goddess dedicated to spying on the human world for her Lord Of Fog. To us she's Marie. She has a cool hat and neat stockings and she loves steak skewers. She is our friend, and we'll be damned if we let a friend kill themselves like that. Despite this, Marie tries to fight us head-on. Melancholy as it is, we fight back. Marie, seeing our strength, willingly lets the power of the fog manifest in the hopes that we can destroy it and restore her to her original self. We face down Kusumi-no-Okami with all our might, win, and save Marie from her own destiny.
Time passes. It's the end, but the moment has been prepared for. March 20th. Your last full day in Inaba before you return home. You go and talk to everyone you've formed a lasting bond with, and bid your final farewells... but there's still something left. Upon your first arrival in Inaba, you met a random gas station attendant and made small talk and shook hands. You felt ill afterwards and soon entered the world of Personas and TVs. You find that gas station attendant and realize. You, Namatame, Adachi. They all came to Inaba. They all met this person, and they all awakened to unknown power. The entire game has been a chain of people who claim to be masterminds watching everything play out. Mitsuo Kubo was a mere copycat looking for attention. Taro Namatame was acting as a self-appointed savior, throwing people who appeared on the Midnight Channel into the TV world completely unaware that their own dark sides had the power to kill them. Even Tohru Adachi, who killed two people and watched Namatame's antics with sadistic glee followed by frustration as we foiled them at every turn, ended up being a pawn in a greater scheme. Our true mastermind, the one behind the fog and the plot to turn the world into shadowkind, is the goddess Izanami. Izanami and Izagani are part of Japanese creation myth, and Wikipedia cites her as "a goddess of both creation and death". Oh no. The Nintendo Project and its High Arcana are bleeding in. We have a fusion of the creativity of Valya and the death that the Destructor brings. Izanami is waiting for us inside the TV world, and we brave it to face her down. With an Orb of Truth given to us by the master of the Velvet Room, Izanagi's true form of a monstrous skeleton goddess is revealed. She puts up a fight but so do we, and here is where things get interesting. One of the abilities you get for your party members on doing their S.Links is the ability to take a mortal blow for your protagonist; if the protagonist falls in battle, it is game over. On getting Izanagi-no-Okami down to low enough health, she starts using an instant death attack targeted at our hero. My friends, the people who I faced down Shadows with and formed bonds with, shoved me out of the way of the death vortex and let themselves be swallowed up instead. First Kanji, then my darling Yukiko, then Naoto. All three didn't hesitate in getting me out of the way, but it was for naught. The vortex swallows us, and we fade to white.
In the void, though, we find that we cannot give up just yet. Everyone who you maxed out an S.Link with shows up in this space to cheer you on and will you to get back up. You've helped them express so much, helped them clear their anxieties and fears. You were their friend and you made them better people for it, and now they help you awaken a new power. The Persona Izanagi-no-Okami awakens inside your heart thanks to the power of the S.Links, and you break right out of the vortex. Izanami-no-Okami blasts you for maximum damage over and over, but you say no and remain standing. There is only one command to use, a Skill called Myriad Truths. A main motif of the game has been reaching out for the truth. It's why you've searched for the killer, why you've helped people overcome the darkness in front of them to find the truth, why you've settled for nothing less than finding the mastermind behind the Midnight Channel and the fog. Why you now stand before a literal goddess as she tries and fails to smite you. The truth cannot be destroyed. Izanagi and Izanami are intertwined, and you now have what you need to win; the truth of a God. Myriad Truths eradicates Izanami and fades away, leaving you as victors. The truth has set you free... but that is the cost of your victory. You're free. The game is over, the mysteries have been solved. You have to leave Inaba behind and go on with your life. With tearful farewells, you board the train and leave Inaba for parts unknown. It's not forever in-universe, though. You come back in the summer and everyone looks different but great. Marie is even back and has a job reporting the weather on TV! Your bonds will never be broken... but the cost is merely passed on. For your hero, the friendships never end. For you, it's over. The end credits roll. You can go back in a New Game Plus mode, but it's not the same. There are spinoffs with the Persona 4 cast, but it's not the same. The point is, you can't go back. Your adventure in Inaba is over. Short of wiping your memory, you can never experience this journey fresh again. After 55 and a half hours, I had no need to go back... but it was still wistful watching those end credits and knowing it was over. Inaba remains in my mind as a place I lived in, loved in, and saved from the whim of vengeful goddess playing at wiping the world clean. It has changed me, and for this reason I am certain that it will remain as the best game I play this year. I do want something to prove me wrong and make me feel even more upbeat and peppy, because that's what we all should ask of our entertainment. There will be other "10/10" games that I play. There will never be another quite like this. I will always remember when "10/10" was Persona 4 Golden, and in my mind I know that the friends I made will not forget me.
To Yosuke, Chie, Yukiko, Kanji, Rise, Teddie, and Naoto: I love you. I will always love you. The end has come, and now we must part. I will never forget how you changed me for the better, just as I'm sure you will never forget how I changed you for the better. Know, then, that no matter where we go from here, that we will always travel with each other. We will be apart... never more.