An entry in the JRPG/visual novel hybrid Persona series in which the player has to harness the power of Personas and fight entities called Shadows by forging bonds with the locals of Inaba, a rural Japanese town thrown into unrest by inexplicable murders committed under cover of foggy weather and rumours of a television channel said to broadcast mysterious images on rainy nights.
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Persona 4 is the fourth entry in the Persona series. It introduces some nifty features to the Persona formula. Bosses have more traits now than "being Hitler" or "I hate it because it cheats and Atlus was a mistake." You can form deep bonds with your full party instead of "the girl in your party you might feel like dating," "the morbidly obese narcissist who hangs out at the mall," or "Kenji." You get to choose between the boring, conventional system of full party control or Persona 3's patented "yell at your friends to sort of generally do things and start to actually cry" system. There are cool dungeons with striking visual designs and plot relevance as opposed to an enormous skyscraper with seven flavors of obnoxious strobe lights.
I thought it was pretty alright. If you'd like to curl up with a pleasant game about a pretty fun detective romp wherein you befriend a likable cast of memorable characters, this is probably for you. It's almost certainly one of the best RPGs on the PS2. Atlus has rarely ever missed. I'd take Persona 1, 2, and 3 over it any day because my brain was manufactured with defective parts. Phrased less glibly, the theme of Persona 4 rings hollowly enough for me that I can't wholeheartedly embrace it and it was just kind of easy after around what was probably a half hour of getting stepped on by a bird.
Not as charming as I had hoped.
It is odd to me that this is the entry broadly considered to be the quintessential Persona experience, given that it is so far removed from the tone of previous entries and other Shin Megami Tensei ventures more broadly. For as relatively saccharine as Persona 3 turned out to be, Persona 4 takes several steps further down that road by removing all macabre elements other than those directly related to the murders both from its presentation and themes. Gone are the (admittedly edgy) evokers, the single-dungeon of Tartarus—as imposing as it is endless—, and the moon and the Shadows acting as a sword of Damocles of sorts, which gave the calendar system a tangible justification and tied the game back to its parent series thematically. In place of that, Persona 4 seems to be more interested in featuring fashionable glasses for each party member, self-contained psychosexual dungeons, and a lower-stakes ‘whodunit’ serial murder as the main attraction. Not a a bad change per se, although as an experience it feels comparatively less cohesive than its predecessor in terms of marring it narrative to its systems.
Sadly, the more grounded scenario does not help improving the writing as much as I had hoped when compared to other Hashino games—if anything, the mundanity of Inaba creates more situations for the writers to double-down on their most off-putting qualities. For as wholesome and relaxed as Persona 4 tries to sell itself, the game can also be incredibly mean to these teenagers in how they are portrayed and in what they say to one another. After the camping trip early on, it becomes increasingly unbelievable that anyone could ever be friends with Yosuke for more than a week; doubly so for Chie and Yukiko, who have been putting up with his attitude since he became their classmate. There is no beat the game misses to put Kanji down, too, either by indirectly calling him as a blockhead or through random bouts of homophobia from the male cast. The most extreme example, however, has to be Hanako, a character that only seems to exist to be laughed at, and whose main characters traits are being fat, ugly, petty and gluttonous.
Of course, there could be a version of Persona 4 in which Yosuke understand that he has a terrible attitude regarding most things, and grows as a person after some tough love. Or one in which the writers actually commit to writing Kanji as a teenager confused about his sexual orientation in a serious way, and not as the punchline of every joke. Or one in which Naoto’s worries are a bit more defined, either by just dealing with masculine presentation and how it relates to power in her job or, more ambitiously, by diving head-on into her apparent gender dysphoria. The version of the game that does exist is content with gesturing vaguely at these issues in a seemingly conscious way only to use them as the setup for a joke in the next scene, and it is incredibly puzzling. And disappointing. So, so disappointing.