Pursuing your true self.
It may not have been known at the time, but Japan (in July 2008) and North America (in December 2008) received what would be remembered as one of the greatest role-playing games ever made. Over the course of a decade, Persona 4 has become more than just an incredibly fun RPG with a refined battle system and quirky characters, though. A story about Japanese high school students confronting their worst fears, fighting for what's right, and becoming the best of friends spawned a lasting legacy that has empowered the people who played it and continually inspired new games. Our love for Persona 4 has kept it alive for so long with several fighting games, two anime adaptations, an adorable (and difficult) spin-off RPG, and even a rhythm game. And after 10 years, we're still seeing our good friends from Inaba in a new light.
For the uninitiated, Persona 4's foundation closely resembles that of its predecessor, Persona 3. You're a transfer student new to a school surrounded by unusual circumstances; supernatural phenomena that endanger your new hometown is the crux to the overarching mystery. On a typical day, you go to class, do extracurricular activities, and try to grow closer to those around town and at school. Better yourself through hobbies or take on a part-time job, it's up to you how to pass the time. In particular, Persona 4 takes you to a fictional rural town of Inaba where the biggest thing to happen before your arrival was the opening of a Junes department store (think Super Walmart, but with an infectious jingle). Even your little cousin Nanako is utterly convinced that every day's great at your Junes, and begs you and her dad to take her there like it's the greatest place on earth.
Sure sounds like all fun and games until you and your new friends become the centerpiece for a dark murder mystery and an absolutely perplexing world that lives behind TV screens. At first, it's not quite clear why outlandish versions of certain townsfolk inexplicably pop up on TV sets and go missing on rainy midnights. The one way to get to the bottom of this is to actually jump into a TV screen to enter the shadow world where you and your friends of the Investigation Team fight evil with makeshift weapons and the ability to summon powerful magical incarnations of your inner selves.
While dungeon crawling and sneaking up on shadows through randomly generated floors make up the exploration, an intricate turn-based combat system is where you'll find excellence in gameplay. Most enemies have elemental weaknesses which factor into how you construct your party and devise a tactical approach. Sounds par for the course in an RPG, but the unique press-turn system that Shin Megami Tensei is known for shines brighter than it had previously by giving you full control to pull off flashy, effective attacks. Receiving a bonus attack after targeting a weakness before enemies get a turn is endlessly satisfying, especially as dungeons become inhabited by trickier, stronger shadows.
A story about Japanese high school students confronting their worst fears, fighting for what's right, and becoming the best of friends spawned a lasting legacy that has empowered the people who played it and continually inspired new games.
However, nothing in battle matches the joy of seeing your crew team up for the most adorable, yet devastating All-Out Attacks, a franchise staple. Everyone in the party piles on heavy damage that usually puts an end to the fight, and you sense their ferocity in character portraits that pop up just before everyone jumps in. A cloud of dust erupts as they whale on enemies, sometimes popping out of the chaos only to jump back in for another hit, and all you need to do is watch as they take care of business. If you're lucky, someone will offer a follow-up attack turn-free; and it should be taken as fact that nothing is as absurdly cute as Chie's galactic punt where she literally kicks an enemy into outer space (her kung fu DVDs really paid off). Even in battle, everyone's distinct personality isn't lost or put off to the side, which highlights Persona 4’s greatest accomplishment: its commitment to a relentless charm embodied by this cast of misfits.
So effortlessly does Persona 4 merge the two pillars of a social simulation and traditional RPG; nothing feels disconnected, and how days are spent matters. These two realities feed into each other, and Igor--the series-long, omniscient owner of the ethereal Velvet Room--alludes to this up front: true strength is born from the bonds you form. The power of friendship is a prevalent trope in similar stories, but to have that power manifest as a tangible benefit in combat gives us further reason to invest in relationships. I call back to how Rise came in clutch to buff the party or cast healing during tough boss fights, or when Yukiko dealt the final blow casting Agidyne using her final-form persona with the last bit of SP: moments like these solidify the feeling that my companions really do have my back in times of need.
From the mother who wishes for acceptance from her stepson to your basketball teammate who finds it impossible to live up to his adopted family's legacy, these vignettes serve to tell very human stories. We help Nanako open up to her dad about his lack of presence and break through Uncle Dojima's hard-boiled temperament to reveal an empathetic father who constantly struggles with his wife's death and his job as a detective. In the end, a heartwarming father-daughter scene results in a newfound commitment to family. Other social links struck a more personal nerve.
This cast harbors the painful secrets that so many teenagers and young adults repress, and it carries the perceptions and labels society puts upon them. These are the burdens everyone bears throughout Persona 4, but burdens that no one has to bear alone.
When Yosuke overlooks Inaba, the town he once hated, and realizes that what makes him happy is the people he's surrounded by rather than big city glamour, I felt that. Even though Kanji maintains the tough guy attitude, he eventually embraces his sewing skills and love for cute plushies--as he began to handcraft toys for kids around town, I sensed a big, cathartic middle finger to societal expectations for masculinity. Naoto's strive for justice, as the genius detective, makes a firm statement against workplace gender discrimination. Life as an idol sure sounds great, until Rise decides she needs to walk away from stardom for her own sanity. As endearing as Chie's and Yukiko's friendship, their dynamic evolved and reached new heights after confronting their shadow-selves, leading to more open and honest relationship.
This cast harbors the painful secrets that so many teenagers and young adults repress, and it carries the perceptions and labels society puts upon them. These are the burdens everyone bears throughout Persona 4, but burdens that no one has to bear alone. The TV world and Midnight Channel work not just as metaphors for the fear of what you think everyone sees in you, but to illustrate the sense of imprisonment and helplessness that's born from it. And by navigating the maze-like dungeons and crushing enemies, the crew breaks through obstacles to finally support each other in overcoming their monumental insecurities. Many of the game's pieces sound silly on paper, but they all come together to inspire you before you know it.
When spread across 100+ hours of play-time, spanning an in-game calendar year, you're given room to breathe and let events, big and small, sink in. Moments of levity work alongside the more heartfelt revelations, which creates an ingenious balancing act. To its benefit, the game never takes itself too serious. Persona 4's greatness lies in its execution and presentation; story, gameplay, visual style, and its soundtrack all complement each other to elevate beyond the sum of its parts.
Persona 4 wouldn't be the same game without the masterful composition of series composer Shoji Meguro. A collection of J-pop, J-rock, and catchy instrumentals make for incredible tracks on their own, but the right song at the right time elevates the emotional impact. As soon as I hear the brass horns start up for the track that plays during social links, I can't help but smile and sense the fun being had between characters. The boss battle theme of "I'll Face Myself" instills a feeling of danger, but also the determination to defeat your worst enemies. And the emblematic battle theme "Reach Out To The Truth" is such an uplifting song that brings back all my memories of this game. Sometimes I look outside my own house and "Heartbeat, Heartbreak" pops into my head on cloudy days and "Your Affection" when the sun shines. Music isn't relegated to just the background, and it cannot be overstated how evocative its soundtrack has been throughout the years.
For all Persona 4's inspirational moments and pushes for social progressivism, we can't turn a blind eye to where it gets things wrong; to truly love something is to also recognize its flaws. By no means is it perfect when it comes to the portrayal of certain social groups and character conduct. Teddie himself exhibits unscrupulous behavior that can easily be interpreted as harassment, and it's never really confronted. Despite the personally uplifting story of Kanji, his sexual ambiguity is occasionally used as a punchline, and his shadow self can be seen as too over-the-top. Certain insensitive decisions can be made in relation to Naoto's struggle with gender identity; the interpretation of her character continues to be a point of contention to this day. And as time has gone on, the less amusing the cross-dressing pageant scene has become. To its credit, a Japanese game from 2008 was willing to explore subjects often seen as taboo; it misses the mark in critical moments, but there's value in its earnest effort. Regardless, some jokes weren't necessary to be humorous and it would've been much better without them.
Despite all its absurdity, Persona 4 is grounded with thoughts and feelings that so accurately resemble our own; it's a human experience, one that many games aim for, but rarely come close to capturing.
The sheer number of games that spawned afterward speaks to the love we've shared for this game. A PS Vita exclusive remaster, Persona 4 Golden, launched in 2012 as the definitive version; it refines core mechanics and includes a slew of meaningful additions. Along with new songs that perfectly fit the original soundtrack, Chie's new voice actress (Erin Fitzgerald) brought a whole new life into an already-beloved character and truly captured the spirit of Persona 4's best girl. A whole extra dungeon, an important new character, additional social link events, and new tag-team attacks round out Golden as the best version of an already-amazing game.
An anime adaptation premiered in 2011, and another based on the remastered game released in 2014. Although it's difficult to capture an RPG in a condensed format, the anime offered a new way to experience the journey. Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth brought along our buddies from Persona 3 into the mix in a wonderfully executed dungeon crawler RPG on 3DS--it bursts with charm as chibi versions of these two beloved casts band together to fight evil and have a good time. I'd also say Q features the best introductory theme and video in all the franchise. If the fan service wasn't already good enough, Persona 4: Dancing All Night leveraged the beautiful soundtrack for a delightful (and admittedly ridiculous) rhythm game--hearing my favorite songs remastered and remixed is a real treat. If all that wasn't enough, Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth recently launched in Japan, a 3DS follow-up to the RPG spin-off that unites the Phantom Thieves of Persona 5 with everyone else; there's currently no word on a North American release, however.
Persona lends itself so well to fighting games that Arc System Works took up creating a 2D fighter in Persona 4 Arena, which remained true to both the developer's fighting game philosophy and the spirit of the source material. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax built on that foundation even further. And just this year, ArcSys circled back on Persona 4 by crossing worlds with BlazBlue, Under Night In-Birth, and RWBY in BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle. Each of these fighters introduced new characters and storylines, and were included in the fighting game community's biggest stages. Rarely, if ever, does a single entry in a larger franchise spin off in so many different directions, but thankfully, it's helped keep our Persona 4 love alive all these years later.
After becoming personally invested in their journey that started it all and pouring so much time into seeing them grow, it was genuinely hard to say goodbye as the credits rolled and the ending theme "Never More" began to play. In the decade since the original game, we were fortunate to see the charming crew of knuckleheads time and time again in so many different games. It's almost silly to think that fictional Japanese high school students could empower us to be better, but Persona 4 has given me, and countless others, boundless joy and also an opportunity for self-reflection. Yes, I played an incredible RPG, but what I saw was a group of best friends pulling for each other to become stronger people and make the world a better place. Despite all its absurdity, Persona 4 is grounded with thoughts and feelings that so accurately resemble our own; it's a human experience, one that many games aim for, but rarely come close to capturing.