Over time, the Persona series has gained incredible popularity in both North America and Japan since the release of Persona 3. Even with that in mind, no one was quite prepared for how popular the next entry in the series would be. Persona 4 took the world by storm. The game streamlined a lot of Persona 3 while focusing on a completely new group of teens in a very different setting. Let’s take a look at the cultural phenomenon that is Persona 4.
Persona 4 was released on December 9, 2008 on the PlayStation 2 in North America. The game received an enhanced version on the PlayStation Vita entitled Persona 4 Golden on November 20th, 2012. This version of the game boasted a number of enhancements over the original release, including two completely new social link with a new character, new story elements, new Personas to summon, and character outfits. There is also a network feature, allowing players to connect with each other via the internet to call for healing support during dungeon crawling sessions. The game also featured additional voice lines and animated cutscenes. Many fans and critics alike consider Persona 4 Golden to be the definitive version of the game.
Persona 4 takes place in the sleepy town of Inaba. The main character transfers from his old high school in the big city to this rural setting. Once he arrives in town, he finds out about a rumor that if you look at the television at midnight while it is raining, the TV will automatically turn on and show you your soulmate. As the main character and his friends look into this rumor, it becomes clear that the image being shown on the TV is actually showing the next potential victim in a bizarre string of murders. Eventually, the heroes discover a secret world inside the TV where they must use the power of their Personas to solve the mystery of the TV world and find out who is committing the murders.
Tonally, Persona 4 is significantly lighter and more upbeat than Persona 3. While there is a strong sense of impending doom and nihilism in the previous game, this title is much more about facing your true self and finding hope in a hopeless situation. The town of Inaba is a small but incredibly charming town. The town itself is basically a character itself. While playing the game, you will become intimately familiar with the various areas, the town folk’s lives, and the many activities the town has to offer. Inaba is full of kind-hearted, complex and interesting townsfolk who have their own problems they are trying to solve. Their stories are what really flesh out the setting and make this town feel like a populated place. As the events of the game transpire, the townsfolk will comment on what is happening. More interesting is their deep and compelling social like quests. Just like in Persona 3, You get to know these individuals quite well. The Social Link system returns allowing you to create more powerful Personas as you deepen your relationships with people. Inaba has to be one of my favorite settings in any JRPG.
The Jungian influences in this game may be strongest in the series up to this point. Each dungeon has you literally face off against your friends’ shadow selves. In Jungian psychology, the shadow represents the hidden animalistic side of ourselves that we often keep below the surface. The shadow is not inherently evil, but it can be a both creative and destructive force within ourselves. It is often a side that is in conflict with the persona that we present to everyone else. In Persona 4, the shadow manifests itself in physical form and lays out the characters’’ insecurities before going berserk and turning into a twisted monster. It is only when the character accepts this shadow version of themselves that they are able to reach a true sense of self and awaken to the power of wielding a Persona. Of course reaching a true sense of self is a major goal of achieving true unity within one’s own mind and sense of being in Jungian psychology as well. This is a strong theme throughout the game. Without spoiling anything, there are a few characters that also strongly represent the concepts of anima and animus. Anima is the concept of feminine tendencies within males and vice versa in the case of animus. Certain characters struggle with this dichotomy and go through significant development as a result. Save for one person within the game who has a pretty boringly cliched reaction to the characters in question, this topic is handled with respect and an open-mindedness rarely seen in mainstream games. Another major concept that is actually present in all the Persona games is the idea of the collective unconscious. This concept explores the idea of the unconscious mind that is shared amongst all people across cultures. Like many works of fiction, by the end of Persona games, the stakes are high and the world is at risk of facing destruction. The difference here is that the sense of destruction is more related to existential doom. Again, without reaching into spoiler territory for any given title in the series, there is often questions regarding whether humanity deserves to exist as well if collectively humanity wants to die. It can be pretty heavy stuff. The interesting part is that Persona 4, along with the other games in the series weaves in Carl Jung’s concepts of phycology so seamlessly into the story. This is impressive because even if you are not aware of these ideas, the story and themes are still ring true.
The characters within Persona 4 are some of the deepest the series has seen. Each of them has a level of depth that most games only hope to achieve with a single character. Their journey as young people accepting themselves for who they do not simply end once they face themselves and discover their Persona. That denotes the beginning of their journey as you slowly get to know them throughout the social links as well as the progression of the game’s story. Spending all this time with these characters makes the emotion significance of both happy and sad moments in the story much more poignant than they would be otherwise. This is further complimented with a fantastic localization and generally strong voice acting.
Much like Persona 3 before it, this game has a unique style to it. While the previous title’s main color was a somber blue hue, Persona 4 goes for a much more vibrant and cheery yellow color. The town of Inaba itself if much lighter than the port city of Iwatodai in Persona 3. Everything from the dungeons to the menus oozes a cohesive style that persists throughout the game. Even with its dated visuals, the game is still quite easy on the eyes. The music in the game also follows suite. It distinguishes itself from 3 by going for a much more upbeat and poppy music style. The themes are generally quite catchy and fit every situation perfectly. While not as immediately striking as Persona 3, 4 has some incredibly standout tracks. Again, Shoji Meguro has outdone himself. Some tracks that really speak to this are “I’ll Face Myself -Battle-”, “Backside of the TV”, “Heartbeat, Heartbeat” and “The Almighty”.
Mechanically, Persona 4 is quite similar to 3, but much more streamlined and refined. The game still features the slice of life activities during the day and dungeon exploration at night. The dungeons are now different areas, themed according to the person who you are currently trying to save in the TV world. While they provide a little more visual variety than Tartarus from Persona 3, the actual dungeons are probably the weakest part of the game. They are procedurally generated and tend to be fairly bland. Luckily the combat continues to be engaging and quite quick paces. You now have direct control over your party’s actions from the very beginning, which is a welcome return to form. Persona 4 is less challenging than the last title, but as always if you are unprepared you can easily get your whole party wiped out within minutes. The game now includes part-time jobs that can not only raise your proficiency in certain areas but can also get you some extra cash.
More so than any SMT game before it, or even after it at this point, Persona 4 has spawned a dizzying amount of spin-offs. On top of the two versions of the game, there are two fighting games based on this game called Persona 4 Arena (2012) and Persona 4 Arena: Ultimax (2014) released for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. These game were developed by Arc System Works (Guilty Gear) and featured many characters from Persona 4 as well as party members from Persona 3. The games also introduced a couple new characters as well as a full on story mode that actually takes place after events of Persona 4. Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth was released for the 3DS in 2014. This game is actually a combination of Persona elements mixed in with an Etrian Odyssey game. The game actually features the characters from Persona 3 and 4 teaming up to explore a strange alternate reality that they somehow get trapped in. The game also features a pair of new characters that are connected to this strange world the heroes have entered. Perhaps the most puzzling spin-off is Persona 4: Dancing All Night. This is a rhythm game released for the Vita in 2015. The game also features a full on story mode that has the heroes dancing in order to fight shadows. This game also features some great remixes to the already iconic music from Persona 4. The game also received two anime adaptations in the form of Persona 4: The Animation (2011 – 2012) and Persona 4: The Golden Animation (2014). Among other media includes manga adaptions, light novels, drama CD’s multiple soundtrack remixes and even stage plays. Needless to say, this game had a huge cultural impact in both Japan as well as the West.
Let’s get one thing straight; Persona 4 is basically a slice of life anime with dungeon crawling mixed in. While there are some dark themes and moments in the game, this is undoubtedly the happiest Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) related game out there besides the Devil Children series. Some veterans of SMT find Persona 4 a tad too saccharine for them when compared to the much darker tone the majority of the games are known for. As a fan of the SMT series, I feel that this game is an incredible entry into the series, but I do understand people’s resistance to its more upbeat attitude. The main SMT series, as well as the past Persona games, are significantly more dark and depressing. In some ways, that tone is a staple of the games. Having said that, I still feel that Persona 4 fits in well into the greater SMT universe. This game’s tone may be much lighter, but the themes and characters are still quite mature and intense. The divide between “true SMT fans” and Persona fans” seemed to widen with the release and positive reception of Persona 4 due to this major tonal difference. There is more than enough room for both styles of SMT games. The series is facing a bit of renaissance right now as developer and publisher Atlus has been remaking and re-releasing various titles in the series. The mainline SMT series has recently been relegated to the 3DS, but both Shin Megami Tensei 4 and its direct follow-up Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse have seen critical success. The SMT brand is currently stronger than ever.
With that in mind, Persona 5 has been released and is doing very well in both critical reception as well as sales. This highly anticipated game seems to be a great follow-up to the series that constantly streamlines its mechanics while exploring different themes and settings. While you do not have to play previous games in the series to enjoy Persona 5, I would highly recommend taking the time to play Persona 4 and 3. These game still hold up very well and are worth the time of anyone who is a fan of JRPG’s.
With that, I bring this Persona Primer to a close. If you have taken the time to read all of them, you certainly have my thanks. Persona is an incredibly unique JRPG series that should not be missed.