Saturday, 5 March 2011

Review of Persona 4, or how to harness the power of your repressed self...

Trying to articulate the premise of Persona 4 in a single blog post is like trying to explain the plot of The Usual Suspects through the medium of interpretive dance. Although the central mechanic can be boiled down to "JRPG meets Social Simulator", the threads of plot, theme and gameplay are so intricately woven that they cannot really be discussed separately.

Persona 4 Inaba High School
The protagonist arrives for his first day at Insbs High School

That's a good thing for the player, of course, if not the writer. The major gripe everyone (myself included) has with videogame narratives is that plot is all too often separate from gameplay, a meaningless appendage rather than a vital organ. Consequently, when a game comes along that truly makes use of the delicate relationship between the two, we get really excited, but our lack of practice in dealing with such a well-formed entity can make it hard to discuss.

Persona 4 is set in modern-day Inaba, a fictional small town in rural Japan. The nameless teenage protagonist moves to Inaba to live with his police detective uncle Ryotaro Dojima and small cousin Nanako when his parents' jobs take them elsewhere. Only a few days after his arrival, two murders take place in Inaba, and he and his new school friends find themselves in the midst of the investigation.

Unbeknownst to either Dojima or the authorities, the teenagers discover that the killer has been kidnapping victims and throwing them into a parallel universe, or "TV world" before conspicuously hanging their dead bodies from real-world television antennas. The group find a gateway to the parallel world through a large television in the local department store (as you do), and set about saving potential victims by battling through imaginary dungeons created by the victims' subconscious minds.

Yukiko's dungeon in Persona 4
The gang battle shadows in Yukiko's subconscious

The dungeons themselves are much like those in other JRPGs, in that they are corridors littered with monsters and treasure chests. The fight system too, is nothing too out of the ordinary. Monsters are generally weak to a specific element (ice, wind, fire, electricity, light, dark), and the more complex ones require strategic statistical wrangling to defeat. Killing a monster results in increased experience and the acquisition of rare items.

The game begins to wander off the beaten JRPG track through its use of "Personas", physical manifestations of each character's personality. The protagonist's friends each have one Persona who is responsible for all their magic and "special" attacks, and using them is much like summoning an aeon/eidolon/esper/whatever in a Final Fantasy game. The protagonist, however, is able to collect multiple Personas, the range and strength of which are dependent on the relationships he forms with his friends and family.

In practice, this means that you have to spend time with the various secondary characters in the other game, listening to their problems, playing sport with them or just watching the world go by. After you've spent sufficient time with a person, a significant moment will pass (they let slip an insecurity or tell you a secret, for example) and your relationship will become a little stronger.

Chie Persona 4 girlfriend I love you
Chie shares her true feelings with the protagonist

As each character represents an "Arcana", a category of Persona, improving a "real life" relationship will improve the protagonist's ability to create strong varieties of relevant Personas. If you follow.

What's clever about this, from a narrative point of view, is that it draws parallels between the relationships we make and the strength of our characters. Because the only fighting in the game takes place inside an imaginary world, the Personas are representations of the power of the inner self rather than one's ability to do physical battle.

It's not possible to fully develop all the potential relationships in the game, so a player is better off developing six (or so) solid friendships than they are creating a larger number of flimsier bonds because this will enable a strong cohort of focused Personas as opposed to a scattering of mediocre ones. Taken to its symbolic conclusion, this suggests that a few close friendships enable one to develop a "stronger" personality than a greater number of less meaningful ones.

Dojima Nanko Persona 4
Dojima congratulates the protagonist on his social skills

These two mechanics intersect in the fight system, which requires players to create and train "Personas", physical manifestations of the protagonist's inner self (stick with me on this one). The inner self is developed by forming relationships with the protagonist's friends and family. Each character who the protagonist befriends corresponds with a different category of Persona, meaning that the better your relationship with your little cousin Nanako, the stronger the Personas you create within the "Justice" arcana. Got that?

Personas only exist within Inaba's parallel universe, a place with can only be entered through a television in the local department store. They are summoned by the protagonist during fights with various monsters. Personas appear in a variety of bizarre forms, including a unicorn, various fairies, a giant ninja, a flaming leopard, a hydra and something that looks like an apostrophe.

Persona 4 Mara Penis
The Persona "Mara". Incidentally, Persona 4 is rated 16+.

Personas fall into various categories, such as "Justice", "Chariot", "Magician" or "Priestess", each of which corresponds with one of the protagonist's friends in the real world. Summoning them looks a bit like when Ash summoned Pokemon in the TV show, because the background goes all flashy and the protagonist yells "UNICORN!" as they slam the Pokeball Persona card down. Your group of friends grows as you progress through the game, leaving you a wider selection of characters to draw on as you head into battle.

The group of eight friends who eventually form the investigation party is set, meaning that even if you "max out" your friendship with friendly athletes Daisuke and Kou, they never know about the TV world and you can never take them inside. This is because only characters you "save" from the TV world have to face their "Shadow" in the form of a grotesque physical manifestation of their repressed self, thus accepting and harnessing its power to create their Persona. If you follow.

For reasons that may or may not become clear depending on which ending you manage to unlock, the TV world is populated with the "Shadows" of humanity's repressed feelings. These form the monsters that the protagonist and his friends have to hack through to reach whoever it is they are trying to "save". The dungeon takes the form of the subconscious of whoever has just been kidnapped. In the case of sexually confused Kanji, the dungeon is an oppressively steamy sauna.

Shadow Kanji Gay Sauna
Kanji's fear of rejection leads to a repression of his sensitive side

Kanji is actually one of the more sophisticated portrayals of a character with homosexual tendancies yet found in videogames. As a teenager, his desire to explore his sexuality is at odds with his desperate need to fit in with his peers. A Shakesperean incident with a cross-dressing detective (of course!) tips poor Kanji over the edge, and he falls victim to the overwhelming power of his repressed subconscious.

Shadow Kanji Gay Sauna
Kanji's Shadow

What's clever about Persona 4's use of "Shadows" is the fact that unless they are only dangerous as long as the character in question denies that their Shadow is part of them. At the end of each dungeon, the party reach the final room where the kidnapped person is being threatened by their Shadow. At this point, the Shadow is simply an identical version of that character, just with yellow eyes. As the shadow rants and raves, expressing the character's repressed thoughts, the embarrassed and confused character begs them to stop. Ultimately (because the alternative would make for a rubbish game), they yell:

"No! You're not me!"

At this, the Shadow gains tremendous power, transforming into a giant beast which somehow represents the character's darkest thoughts. The gang then have to defeat it, whereupon the character whose Shadow it was accepts that they were in denial about their true feelings. Following this, the power of the Shadow becomes the power of that character's new Persona, and they can join your party.

This idea really appeals to me. There's something inspiring about the fact that the worst parts of yourself can be the source of your greatest strength as long as you acknowledge them as being part of you. It's the things that you try to escape that ultimately end up having the greatest hold over you.

Further to this, if you choose to develop your in-game relationship with the characters whose Shadows you have defeated, they and their Persona grow more powerful in battle. Friendship, therefore, is a two way street which strengthens the inner self of both parties.

Although it makes practical sense to develop your friendships with the whole team, the only one you have to form a strong "bond" with is Teddie, the mysterious hybrid of carnival mascot and dandy who Yosuke and the protagonist meet on their first trip inside the television.

Teddie Persona 4
Troubled Teddie, Inaba Teddie and TV World Teddie

Teddie comes from the TV world, and the compulsory development of his relationship with the protagonist forms an interesting counterpart to gang's deepening understanding of what the TV world really is. When Yosuke and the protagonist first meet Teddie, they unzip the head of his costume and find him completely hollow. This discovery begins to eat away at Teddie, who eventually becomes overwhelmed by the fact that he doesn't know who or what he is.


Shadow Teddie Persona 4
Shadow Teddie

Teddie later grows a human body after spending time in the real world. Phew!

The psychadelic insanity of the TV is emphasised by the muted colours of real-world Inaba, a rural town populated with (generally) normal people. Time's passing is marked in the most mundane way imagiable - by the school calendar.

This being Japan, Inaba High School is open six days a week, and closes for festivals. Within this rigid schedule, the protagonist must balance his schoolwork, friendships and extracurricular activities with saving humanity's subconscious. With the odd exception, the protagonist has a block of time free every day to spend as he wishes. It's not always easy to choose how to spend this.

Certain activities (studying, working, reading, eating curry) will improve aspects of his personality, which in turn enable him to form relationships more quickly. My favourite example of this is the way that eating suspicious-looking food in the Dojima family refridgerator can increase your "courage", thus enabling you to ask the snooty but vulnerable Ai if she wants to spend the afternoon with you.

persona 4 fridge currry courage
The protagonist avoids food poisoning, but misses out on some "courage"

Likewise, studying for school will raise your "knowledge", meaning that you'll do well in the exams that take place every term at Inaba High. This will make you more well-known and respected amongst your peers. It also means that you'll be in a position to offer sage advice to various characters, meaning that certain relationships become available to you that would not otherwise have been offered.

Besides studying, knowledge can also be raised when your teacher asks you questions in class. In general, these are multiple choice questions which are genuinely tricky to answer on topics as diverse as montains in the solar system, Socratic quotes and anaerobic respiration (honestly). Even if you get these answers wrong, it's a good idea to remember what the correct response is (the teacher will tell you) because they're likely to come up again in the exams. Whoever said videogames couldn't be educational never played Persona 4. I now know more about platypi than I ever thought possible.

persona 4 inaba shopping district north

There is far more to say about Persona 4. The meta-game level, where the gang have to rescue a shady character from a videogame created by his subconscious is a definite high-point, as is the heart-breaking development of your relationship with the stoic Nanako. The reactions of the small-town villagers to the arrival of young celebrity Rise is also interesting when one considers her confusing relationship with both real-life television and the TV world.

In fact, the entire game suggests at a rather fraught relationship between rural Inaba and whatever happens to be broadcast on television, but that's a whole different article.

For now, let me suggest that if you still have a Playstation 2, there are few more interesting games you could be playing on it. Persona 4 is a triumph of narrative gameplay, so if you've got the time (yes, this game took me two months to complete) and the inclination, you'd be hard pressed to find a game more deserving of your time.

I would only suggest that you save often, because there are multiple occasions in the final ten hours or so where a wrong conversation choice might result in the game ending prematurely and tragically. The "true" ending is so utterly fulfilling that it seems a shame to slog through the entire game and finish with anything else.

If you're a purist, or you intend to play the game through more than once (which you may well want to do just to see how all the different relationships pan out), then you'll probably find it more rewarding to play it by ear, but if you're as pressed for time as me, then you might find a few spoiler-free pointers helpful.

Either way, Persona 4 succeeds because the characters are wonderful, complex creations who will stick with you long after the final credits roll. That your relationships with them are the focus of the game rather than an afterthought is what makes Persona 4 so special.

Persona 4 group photo investigation team
The gang: Teddie, Yosuke, Naoto, the protagonist, Chie, Rise, Kanji and Yukiko

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