I don’t remember JRPGs being like this. When I was a kid in a family of meager means, a new Squaresoft game was the perfect companion to a long unsupervised summer while my parents were off at work. Most games would take a day or a weekend to beat, with frenetic gameplay and complex art, but it would be over soon and I would need a new game. There would be no story of note to remember, only the sequence of inputs and logical steps to achieve victory, and my only option was to play it again or hope I could find something cheap after trade-in at Funco Land. Final Fantasy 2 was the perfect solution to this problem. Instead of jamming buttons non-stop for half a dozen hours, I was on a grand adventure that lasted weeks. I met pirates and ninjas and wizards, and we all came together to save the world. I couldn’t tell you today the story of Final Fantasy 2, but my experience wandering from castles to mountains to the moon with Kain Dragoon – I thought the classes were last names until the game told me otherwise – is an experience games have yet to recreate. I was hooked on JRPGs. Every summer through my high school graduation when I wasn’t working or chasing girls or smoking weed, I would find a JRPG to sink a hundred hours into.
Then, I inexplicably lost the bug. It may have been dealing with limited time (although I managed to play 10 hours a day of EverQuest), a series of bad buying decisions (Hoshigami: Ruining Blue Earth?), or simply a change in my personality, but JRPGs didn’t do it for me anymore. On August 2, 2013, I gathered all the equipment to run a live stream (PS2, microphone, capture hardware, webcam) and set out to play Persona 4 and document the process. I was determined to play a JRPG to completion and see if the poor fat kid sitting cross-legged on the living room carpet was still there. It was great. Persona 4 is great. But the JRPGs of my youth were never like that. They were never so local, so personal, or so serious. Sure, you were always defending the very existence of the world from a Big Evil of Prophecy, but there was always something whimsical about your journey. Your victory was always inevitable. You knew it, the population knew it, even your enemy knew it.
Persona 4 isn’t like that. The fate of the world is not in your hands. In most ways, telling the story of Persona 4 sounds like reciting the plot of a bad TV movie heavily inspired by Cronenberg or Lynch, or a worse game created by a too-ambitious amateur. You’re the new kid, there’s a serial murderer loose in this small town, and your band of high school detectives are the only ones who can stop them. It sounds silly, but the strength of the character writing is what makes Persona 4 a great game.
All of the people you meet in Persona 4 are real. They’re the same sympathetic, selfish, foolish people you know in your personal lives. They worry about their work, friends, and the future. They get excited about bad movies, vacations, and the chance to be heroes. Some of them are good people turned bad by neglect or rejection, and some are bad people turned good by affection and attention. This is what sets Persona 4 apart from other games, including other JRPGs – the characters.
he story and gameplay hooks in Persona 4 are not especially compelling. Your group shares a kind of supernatural connection and leverages that to solve a series of murders that persist throughout the game, and you do so via monster hunting and turn-based menu battles – it’s all the most standard of JRPG fare. As the story progresses and characters develop, the magic of Persona 4 becomes apparent – you see your friends grow in a way that most games never approach. Yosuke discovers that adulthood is not something to be feared, and that the best way to escape the shadow of your successful father is to be your own person. Chie realizes that depending on people who care about you is not a sign of weakness, and that independence is not always the best policy. Kanji finds that others will only respect you when you’re honest with yourself, and that compromise is a more effective tool than fear. Nanako learns that a parent’s love is unlimited, and that family is a bond that cannot be broken. All of the characters in Persona 4 grow to learn these universal truths and apply them to their lives, and the greatest joy of the game is in seeing your friends discover that loyalty to friends and respect for others is the best measure of a person.
While I have some issues with the way the story wraps up via a standard JRPG final boss bait-and-switch, and would prefer a more dynamic gameplay loop, Persona 4 is not to be missed. The music is excessively catchy J-Pop, the art effectively conveys a remote fishing village under silent attack from the unknown, and the world is populated with an impressively large cast of carefully-written characters. I don’t remember JRPGs being like this.