[GAME REVIEW #200!!] Persona 4

Introduction

Atlus’s long-running Shin Megami Tensei metaseries had always been popular in its native Japan. However, the first games were released on Nintendo’s Famicom and Super Famicom consoles. The developer’s North American branch had a strict policy that prohibited any religious symbolism. Because of the series’ frequent use of Christian symbolism, these games had no chance of making it past Nintendo of America’s censors. Fortunately, the series was able to travel overseas when Atlus, like many third-party companies, jumped ship to the PlayStation line of consoles. Even so, the series was still largely invisible in the West. This changed in 2004 when Atlus released a localized version of the main series’ third installment, Nocturne. Though not as successful as many popular, contemporary JPRG series such as Final Fantasy, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne found an audience, becoming a cult hit for the PlayStation 2 era.

The PlayStation era marked the beginning of a Shin Megami Tensei spinoff series named Persona. It was one of the first games in the metaseries to be localized, though it quickly fell into obscurity. Consequently, when its first sequel, Persona 2, was split into two separate releases, the second failed to debut overseas. However, with the momentum gained from the positive critical reception of Nocturne, Atlus wound up localizing Persona 3. Because most Western fans had never heard of the two games preceding it, Persona 3 ended up being a gateway entry for anyone seeking to delve into the metaseries along with Nocturne. Indeed, many Western critics praised Persona 3 for providing a unique take on the gameplay Nocturne pioneered.

With the series finding its way into Western markets and Persona 3 proving to be a domestic hit, a sequel was inevitable. Katsura Hashino, who had directed many installments in the metaseries, including Nocturne and Persona 3, found himself in charge of leading a new team. Many of the people who worked on Persona 3 returned for this project. A significant portion of the new personnel consisted of fans of Persona 3. With this new installment, Atlus sought to improve both the gameplay and the story so as to not retread old ground. Development began shortly after the release of Persona 3 in 2006, though ideas had been thrown around earlier according to Mr. Hashino. Development of this game, simply entitled Persona 4, took place over the course of two years. It saw its initial release on July 10, 2008 in Japan for the PlayStation 2 before debuting in North America the following December. The game saw the the light of day in Australia and Europe in March of 2009. Despite being released two years after the launch of the PlayStation 3, Persona 4 was even greater hit with the metaseries’ new fans than its predecessor. It is considered one of the greatest games of all time and an exemplary swansong effort for the then-aging PlayStation 2. Was Persona 4 able to give the greatest-selling home console at the time a worthy sendoff?

Starting the Game

WARNING: This review will contain unmarked spoilers throughout. Spoilers for Persona 3 will be kept to an absolute minimum.

The year is 2011. A second-year high school student by the name of Yu Narukami has been sent to the town of Inaba due to his parents working abroad. Picking him up from the train is his uncle, Ryotaro Dojima, and his younger cousin, Nanako Dojima. A far cry from the large city he hails from, Inaba is a sleepy, rural town lying among floodplains that is utterly unremarkable in every way. A gas station attendant Yu meets on his first day in Inaba even admits there isn’t much to do in this town. That night, Yu has a dream wherein he chases a figure through a wall of thick fog. Although he is unable to determine their identity, they teach Yu how to use his Persona – which is to say, a manifestation of his personality used to face a hardship. His takes the form of Izanagi, a deity from Japanese folklore.

Shortly thereafter, Yu attends his new school – Yasogami High – for the first time. His homeroom teacher is a foul-mouthed, pugnacious man named Kinshiro Morooka. Making the best out of his situation, Yu quickly becomes acquainted with three students: Chie Satonaka, Yukiko Amagi, and Yosuke Hanamura. From Chie, Yu learns of a rumor commonly passed between Yasogami’s students. It is said that anyone who stares into a television set at midnight on a rainy day will espy a strange figure. Intuitively, this phenomenon is called the Midnight Channel.

On the way home from school, the students are shocked when a television announcer, Mayumi Yamano, is found dead by third-year student Saki Konishi – a close friend of Yosuke’s. Her body is found hanging upside-down from a television antenna. That night, Yu tries to look out for the Midnight Channel himself. He is then shocked when he realizes his hand physically enters the television.  After reporting what happened, Yu along with Yosuke and Chie, travel to the local Junes department store branch to test out his power on a larger television set. The screen is large enough that they all are able to physically enter what turns out to be a portal to another world. There, they are greeted by a strange bear named Teddie, who quickly shows them the way out.

Tragedy strikes the town of Inaba once more when Saki is found dead in the exact same fashion as Yamano – upside-down on a telephone pole. Recalling that the figure they saw in the television greatly resembled Saki, Yu and Yosuke decide to enter the television world to find any clues as to who murdered her. Chie is on standby with a rope to act as a lifeline.

Inside this world, they find a distorted version of Inaba. The duo realizes that this realm was created by Saki’s true feelings. While Yosuke had a crush on Saki, the feeling was not mutual. Saki held a lot of resentment for Yosuke, for he is the son of Junes’ manager. She, in turn, blamed him and his father for ruining her family’s shop. Unable to come to grips with Saki’s real thoughts, a clone of him manifests. This Shadow taunts Yosuke for entering the realm to go on an adventure rather than to investigate Saki’s death, which the genuine article denies. Yosuke’s denial causes the doppelgänger to transform into a gigantic monster. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Yu confronts the Shadow.

It is here you are formally introduced to the mechanics of the game. Like its predecessors within the Shin Megami Tensei metaseries, Persona 4 is a turn-based role-playing game. Combat works on an action-by-action basis. This is to say, after entering a command, the selected character carries it out immediately. The player is introduced to the combat engine in a short skirmish before fighting Shadow Yosuke, but they would be in for a nasty surprise when the boss takes the first move. It then wastes no time signposting to players the importance of the series’ trademark elemental system when it casts Garu – a wind spell – on Yu. As wind-based attacks happen to be Yu’s initial weakness, this is a problem.

In most JRPG series, elemental attacks only really exist in order to potently inflict bonus damage. In Persona 4, exploiting weaknesses carries a secondary benefit. Doing so knocks the target down. This allows whoever – or whatever – exploited their opponent’s weakness to move an additional time. The fight against Shadow Yosuke demonstrates the importance of exploiting the enemies’ weaknesses along and working around your own.

Indeed, Persona 4 stands out from many popular JRPGs from the genre’s golden age in that it gives players a definable reason to use the “defend” command. In most JRPGs, the “defend” command is situational at best and outright useless at worst. There is no purpose of reducing the damage your party takes in half when you could be spending the effort getting rid of what is threatening them in the first place. Certain encounters would require players to place their characters on standby in order to survive a powerful attack or avoid attacking an enemy when it can’t be damaged, but these were the exceptions rather than the rule.

If you use the same mindless, overly aggressive tactics you would reserve for many classic JRPGs in Persona 4, even the easiest bosses will utterly destroy you. The “defend” command in Persona 4 not only reduces the damage your character takes until their next turn, it nullifies their own weaknesses as well. You can use this to your advantage when fighting Shadow Yosuke by defending on key turns while exploiting his own weakness to thunder in order to gain an additional move. After Yu vanquishes the malevolent Shadow, the real Yosuke accepts his true feelings. The Shadow then transforms into Yosuke’s Persona, Jiraiya.

Sometime after their adventures in the television world, a shadowy figure appears on the Midnight Channel. Said figure greatly resembles Yukiko Amagi, who recently appeared on the news following the murder of Yamano. This is a source of much confusion to Yu, Yosuke, and Chie, for Yukiko is still present in the real world. Unfortunately, this doesn’t remain true for long when Yukiko goes missing. That night, the images of her on the Midnight Channel become much clearer. This time, Yu and Yosuke leap into action. Chie, having long been friends with Yukiko, joins as well despite Yosuke warning her that she doesn’t have a Persona. Chie ignores him and the three of them along with Teddie end up in a large castle.

As they venture through this dungeon, Chie’s own Shadow manifests. She reveals Chie’s jealously of Yukiko, which she denies. Just like Shadow Yosuke before her, this creature transforms, leaving it up to Yu and Yosuke to defeat it. This causes Chie to come to grips with her hidden feelings, causing Shadow Chie to transform into Tomoe: her own Persona. With the three of them now well-equipped to face the dangers ahead, they form an Investigation Team, determined to solve the mystery behind Inaba’s double murder.

As in a standard JRPG, winning battles grants experience points to conscious party members. Gain enough experience points, and your character will ascend a level. Higher levels allow characters’ Personas to gain new abilities. These abilities are divided into two categories: action commands and passive bonuses. Action commands encompass magic and other special techniques, and are therefore activated by selecting them from a menu in battle. Conversely, passive bonuses are abilities that always benefit your character simply by being in their repertoire. A character’s Persona can have up to eight abilities in their moveset – both types of abilities count toward this total. Once they surpass this total, the player must delete an old ability to make way for the new one.

Non-physical abilities typically come in one of six elements: thunder, wind, ice, fire, light, and darkness. The usual Shin Megami Tensei nomenclature persists in this installment. Respectively, the basic abilities are called Zio, Garu, Bufu, Agi, Hama, and Mudo. How many combatants an ability affects is predetermined; it’s not as though you can disperse a single-target spell amongst every enemy on the field. Personas and Shadows have varying relationships with these elements. They can be weak, resistant, or immune to any element. In extreme cases, they can absorb an element, which heals them when struck with one instead. Hama and Mudo are notable for instantly dispatching any target they hit. If a combatant bears a weakness to light or darkness, the spells will have a 100% chance of connecting. Conversely, a resistance makes these spells far less effective whereas immunities render them useless. Unsurprisingly, most bosses are immune to both light and darkness; it simply wouldn’t make any sense to have what is supposed to be a long, drawn-out fight trivialized due to a crafty player spamming an instant-death spell until it hits.

It’s also important to note that physical attacks factor into damage calculation as well. You could very well happen upon a Persona – or even a Shadow – that is weak to physical attacks. The opposite holds true as well; certain Personas or Shadows resist or outright nullify any physical attack thrown their way. Certain abilities can inflict physical damage. However, while magical abilities require Soul Points (SP), special physical attacks are typically fueled by the caster’s HP.  There is also a seventh family of spells called Megido. This spell and others in its family inflict Almighty damage. They are non-elemental attacks, meaning there are no Personas or Shadow weak to or resistant against them. They typically cost a lot of SP to use, but if you’re facing off against an enemy horde with an inordinate number of resistances, they can help immensely.

Similar to Persona 3, this game provides an inverted take on the usual Shin Megami Tensei formula with the protagonist’s Wild Card ability. Whereas early installments featured protagonists recruiting a group of monsters to fight alongside them, Yu can change Personas. This is helpful because his default Persona will cease learning new abilities before too long. New Personas can be obtained through various methods. Upon winning a battle, the player has a chance of playing a card minigame called Shuffle Time. Depending on how you play, you can gain a Persona or invalidate your battle rewards. Which Personas are available depend on the dungeon, and the game will not generate ones already in your possession. As Yu levels up, the number of Personas he is allowed to carry increases.

Just like his predecessor, Yu appears in the Velvet Room – a realm inside his subconscious – before his journey begins, though he isn’t made to enter a contract quite yet. Yu can access the Velvet Room shortly after defeating Shadow Chie. Here, Igor and his new assistant Margaret allow Yu to gain new Personas by fusing the ones he has on hand. The resulting Persona typically inherits certain skills held by one of the materials used to create it. Personas have a level separate from Yu’s. Yu is, in turn, not allowed to create a Persona with a level that surpasses his own. The player can also purchase any Persona registered in the compendium for a fee, so it isn’t too much of an issue if you discarded one you need somewhere down the line.

Persona 4 is notable for having debuted after the JRPG had fallen out of favor in the West. How this genre declined can be attributed to a litany of factors such as players growing tired of grinding levels and the inherently slow pace of a typical example. Another possible explanation is that while the increased processing power of a typical home console benefited certain genres such as the platformer or the first-person shooter, the JRPG wasn’t one of them. This isn’t to say JRPGs were actively hurt by the presentation upgrade spurred by the 3D leap, but many examples made after the fact could conceivably have been rendered in 2D. Furthermore, in its heyday in the 1990s and early 2000s, the JRPG was notable for being one of the few genres that placed a lot of stock in storytelling. This caused many enthusiasts who would normally shy away from the genre to embrace it for want of alternatives. The advantage disappeared when works such as Metal Gear Solid provided engrossing narratives in action-oriented experiences, delivering them at a much faster pace. Coinciding with Square’s fall from grace, it simply didn’t make any sense to invest more than fifty hours in a game for one story that could potentially toss all of its goodwill away at the last minute when a rival could deliver the same amount of meaningful content in a fraction of the time.

The reason this is important to know in regards to Persona 4 is that it managed to receive universal acclaim despite JRPGs being fairly unpopular at the time. It therefore stands to reason that certain aspects about it address the issues many Western players were beginning to have with the genre. A thorough look at the gameplay reveals that this is indeed the case. Random encounters, which were the bane of many a player’s existence, have been eschewed for this installment as well. Instead, Shadow encounters in Persona 4 take a lot of inspiration from forward-looking works such as Lufia II and Earthbound by having their models appear on the map. You can then hit the enemy with your equipped weapon, which allows you to gain an advantage in battle. It’s best to take these Shadows head-on every time because if they get the jump on your party, they will have the advantage instead.

Another common problem with many JRPGs is that it was easy for players to mindlessly cruise through the experience once they unlocked the most powerful abilities. There may be a difficult boss every now and again, but it was nothing the typical player couldn’t handle with enough persistence. Meanwhile, like a typical Atlus game, Persona 4 actively punishes players for getting complacent. If you’re to have any chance of succeeding, you can’t simply spam basic physical attacks at even the lowliest of Shadows. A majority of the Shadows you encounter have specific attacks you must account for lest they catch you off guard by exploiting Yu or his teammates’ weaknesses. An extra action could very well be the difference between victory and defeat. The opposite holds true as well; the key to ending these conflicts as expediently as possible is to exploit your opponents’ weaknesses. If they are all knocked to the ground, you can execute an All-Out Attack wherein the team gangs up on the fallen enemies, inflicting heavy damage in the process.

Moreover, as you progress through the game, you will gain an appreciation of just how important buff and debuff spells are. In the average JRPG, spells that lower or raise a stat aren’t worth taking into consideration. Persona 4, on the other hand, makes it any modified stat clear whenever you select an ally or enemy. This is because you do not want to get into a prolonged fight with a fortified enemy or a weakened ally if you can help it. Whenever you see an enemy cast a spell to greatly increase the power of their next attack, it is foolhardy not to select the “defend” command. Should any of your allies be weakened, it is always worth expending a turn to reset their stats with the appropriate ability. Lowering the enemy’s stats is equally viable if for no other reason than causing them to reset their own stats. After all, a turn in which they address their debilitation is a turn they’re not spending launching a powerful attack against you. These are but a taste of the factors you must consider in every fight. Fail to do so and you will lose every single time.

This could lead the player into assuming Persona 4 subscribes to an ethos similar to that of the Mario franchise wherein the levels are significantly more difficult than the boss fights to which they build up. Anyone who jumps to this conclusion will be in for an especially rude awakening when they have the Investigation Team fight their way through the castle only to come face-to-face with Shadow Yukiko. Unlike her two predecessors, she has no weaknesses and summons a minion capable of healing her. When her health gets low, she begins using a powerful Agi spell to exploit Chie’s weakness to fire. This hammers the point home that anyone who doesn’t take the challenges seriously will spend a lot of time staring at the “Game Over” screen.

Although the combat is largely unchanged from Persona 3, there is one option that allows the player to rise to the challenges presented in its sequel. If you head into combat immediately, you may notice that Yu’s teammate, Yosuke, will act of his own accord. This is consistent with how Persona 3 worked; you only had control over Makato’s actions, leaving other characters up to the whims of the AI. Although this proposition wasn’t as bad as it sounded, it didn’t change the fact that you left your success to chance – even if the odds were typically biased in your favor. Possibly because they realized that Persona 4 is quite a bit more difficult than its predecessor, Atlus allows players to have direct control over the actions of Yu’s teammates.

Needless to say, this is especially helpful in situations wherein Yu is temporarily incapacitated, though the game still ends if his HP is depleted. This means you must exercise caution whenever Yu is using a Persona with a weakness to light or darkness lest you run the risk of getting vanquished in one turn and losing all of your progress. The AI is smart enough that if one of your characters has a weakness, you can count on the enemies to exploit it every time. Luckily, party members will dive in and take a hit intended to finish off Yu if the need arises. You still must be aware of abilities that hit multiple targets, however.

Lastly, I must praise how dungeon exploration is handled in this game. On average, the dungeons consist of ten floors or areas. A majority of these floors are randomly generated. Although one could make the argument that a randomly generated dungeon doesn’t carry the same amount of personality as one crafted by hand, this facet works exceptionally well in Persona 4. Similar to Tartarus, the world of the Midnight Channel has a very surreal atmosphere to it; the laws of reality clearly don’t apply. In fact, when it’s later revealed that these dungeons are borne from a person’s insecurities, their constantly fluctuating state complements the victims’ inner turmoil. It also means when you go through these dungeons a second time in order to face the bonus boss that appears in the original’s stead, you’re never going through the exact same motions. In a game that runs on a strict formula, this was an especially important design decision.

Exploring the World

Although Persona 4 is, at its core, a turn-based role-playing game, it’s actually very difficult to pigeonhole it into a single genre. Whenever the Investigation Team is not in combat, Persona 4 features several slice-of-life, mystery, and even comedy elements. Outside of exploring the Midnight Channel, the members of the Investigation Team must keep up on their school work and fulfill any other obligations they may have. As with most teenagers’ daily lives in the modern world, Yu is allowed to perform various activities after school. He can then perform an additional activity at night, though due to a strict curfew, his choices are much more limited. A serial killer being on the loose certainly doesn’t help matters either. Because the cast cannot perceive the Dark Hour, it requires a day to explore the Midnight Channel, though Yu can still perform an activity at night later on.

Like its predecessor, Persona 4, is in many ways, a triumph in minimalism. Although the game requires a large investment of time to see through to the end, a majority of the plot takes place in Inaba. This town is somewhat reminiscent of the title community from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks in how it’s fairly run-of-the-mill, yet there are many strange elements at play behind the scenes. Nonetheless, even if the scenery changes in many subtle ways throughout the year, going back and forth between the same few areas would quickly become monotonous. The good news is that Persona 4 allows players to press a button at any time to bring up a fast-travel menu. This is a welcome change from Persona 3 in which you had to manually guide Makoto everywhere.

The Personas available to Yu fall into one of several types based off of the Major Arcana in Tarot decks. There are few limits as to what Personas he can use at a given time, but the primary factor is his current level. Because the time you have to level up your characters is fairly limited, you will want to be as efficient as possible. As it turns out, the Personas Yu can create can receive a substantial amount of bonus experience points. Yu receives these bonuses exactly as Makoto did – by creating Social Links. These are established whenever Yu makes friends with a character. Each of them represents their own Arcana. Many of them are created as a part of the plot while others can be established by performing extracurricular activities. By spending time with a character, you can strengthen the bond. The stronger the bond, the more bonus experience points you receive whenever you create a Persona of that type.

During these interactions, you are frequently given varying dialogue options. Some cause the Social Link to strengthen itself faster than others, though the optimal options can be deduced by exercising a little common sense. It’s not prudent to be apathetic towards your friends’ plights, after all. It’s important to know that Persona 4 greatly streamlined the Social Link mechanic by making these relationships easier to maintain. In Persona 3, Makoto had to romance five different female characters in order to maximize their respective links. It could be done, but the player needed extensive knowledge of the game mechanics to pull it off without angering anyone. Yu isn’t under nearly as much pressure because he doesn’t have to romance any potential love interest. As it is, only unwise dialogue choices can damage a Social Link – and these tend to be exceptional cases.

It’s a good thing that maximizing Social Links is made easier because doing so confers a lot of benefits. Maximizing a party member’s Social Link causes their Persona to undergo a metamorphosis into a much stronger form. This second form typically sheds the weaknesses originally holding them back. Along the way, they gain various other abilities in battle such as performing follow-up attacks or reviving Yu if he is knocked down by a critical attack or weakness exploitation. If you are at all interested in using a given character in the long term, this helps out a lot. However, there is a reason why it’s important to maximize all of the Social Links. If you see them through, you can fuse the ultimate Persona associated with the associated Arcana. As one would expect, most of them end up being very powerful, so it pays to be empathetic.

However, even if you don’t end up using these ultimate Personas, one of the most satisfying aspects of this game is watching the Social Links progress. Although one could infer the sessions mar the story’s pacing, I feel it is through these character interactions that Persona 4 outshines its contemporaries. In a typical game that has any kind of action, you only see characters bond through surviving combat together. Although this does meld well with the medium’s conventions, it also means that character interactions were fairly limited. Persona 4, on the other hand, expands upon the various platonic and romantic relationships Yu can pursue. By supplementing the various trials and tribulations the team goes through in the Midnight Channel with these low-key, mundane interactions, the narratives go a long way in showcasing the comradery between them.

The first true friend Yu makes is Yosuke Hanamura. He is associated with the Magician Arcana, which represents ability, willpower, and determination. With Yu being a silent protagonist outside of dialogue options, Yosuke is the closest thing Persona 4 has to an everyman. He is usually the one to comment on the strange circumstances in which the Investigation Team frequently finds themselves. Amusingly, in spite of this, he is very quick to accept a majority of the bizarre developments life thrown his way. Then again, he is also saddled with an inordinate amount of bad luck. Within minutes of his introduction, his bicycle breaks and he is kicked in the groin by Chie. This is reflected in how his Persona has great stats across the board, save for his abysmal luck. After these embarrassing events, entering a world behind a television set would seem downright tame.

Before you can formally recruit Yosuke, you must fight his Shadow. The process begins anew for every subsequent character who joins the Investigation Team. Fittingly, their Shadows represent the inverse reading of each Arcana. These can be thought of as a dark reflection of the standard reading – not unlike the negative aspects of the zodiac signs. The reversed Magician is indicative of one with power, but uses it to a selfish, often cruel end. Shadow Yosuke claims Yosuke puts on a clownish act to mask his boredom of living in such a small town, wanting something more interesting to do. Over the course of the game, he learns to channel that determination to catching the criminal.

Yu meets Chie Satonaka shortly after he begins school. Chie’s Arcana is the Chariot, which represents bravery, conquest, and victory. With her tomboyish streak and love of martial arts, she is one of the team’s physical powerhouses. As Shadow Chie’s presence demonstrates, her friendship with Yukiko has a dark side to it. She stood by Yukiko because it felt good to have someone of such a high social standing depending on her for support. Indeed, the reversed Chariot is associated with the vices of pride and envy. Combined, they create a lust for abusive control. Appropriately, Shadow Chie’s design and personality brings to mind a dominatrix.

During the Social Link events with Chie, it’s revealed that she is seeking a purpose in life. A lot of her insecurities are borne from the fact that her sole talents, eating steak and practicing kung-fu, do not translate to any obvious profession. Notably, she is the only member of the team who doesn’t have a job. As the Social Link progresses, she eventually decides she can use her skills to protect the weak and wants to join the police force after graduating, staying true to the upright reading of the Chariot card.

Yukiko Amagi is the first character Yu and his team must rescue from the Midnight Channel. Whenever you’re given a dungeon to explore, you must reach the end and defeat the Shadow awaiting you at the end in a timely fashion. Specifically, you have until the next significant rainstorm before you must complete the dungeon. If you fail to meet the deadline, the person in the Midnight Channel will be murdered. This could be a problem because if you’re trying to see everything the game has to offer, you might inadvertently lose track of time and find yourself unable to proceed. Fortunately, there is a safety net if you fail to rescue the victim. Should you prove overly negligent, you are given the option to rewind the clock by one week, though everything you accomplished during that time is undone.

While Yu had a few extended interactions with Yosuke and Chie before fighting their respective Shadows, Yukiko doesn’t get much development until she is freed. Instead, her Shadow gives a preview as to what her character arc will entail. Her character is cast from a mold of what many Japanese men consider to be ideal woman: soft-spoken, polite, and motherly, yet with a touch of iron underneath the surface. Because of this, she represents the Priestess Arcana along with its traits of knowledge, inner wisdom, and the female instinct.

Her Shadow is highly promiscuous and her speech highly profane. This is befitting of the reversed Priestess, which denotes ulterior motives, fluctuating emotions, and an inability to make any decisions on one’s own. To showcase this, Shadow Yukiko’s true form resembles a caged bird. Much of this strife is brought on by Yukiko being unable to escape a responsibility given to her when she was born. Her family has owned an inn for several generations, and she is slated to inherit and manage it. The pressure only worsened when Yamano was last seen alive at the Amagi Inn, which resulted in a few people suspecting Yukiko for murder. After working up the courage to tell off an intrusive reporter, she decides to stay with the inn – not out of obligation, but rather to preserve her family’s legacy.

On days in which Yu and his team aren’t exploring the Midnight Channel, he has the prime opportunity to interact with people outside of his immediate circle of friends.  The most obvious way to do this is by partaking in extracurricular activities. The sheer amount of deep interactions Yu has with the other Investigation Team members is impressive in of itself, but Persona 4 goes the extra mile by giving characters otherwise unimportant to the plot an arc.

To establish the Strength Social Link, he can join either the basketball club or soccer club. This leads Yu to meet two students named Kou Ichijo and Daisuke Nagase. Strength, called Fortitude in older versions of the Tarot deck, is about discipline and control, and both characters have arcs expressing these virtues. Kou goes on a journey of self-discovery spawned from a struggle between doing what he wants in his heart and respecting his disapproving upbringing. This journey is then inverted when he is suddenly freed from these responsibilities. In the end, that which his brain and heart desired were completely different from what he originally thought.

Meanwhile, Daisuke’s Social Link expresses the Strength Arcana through an interpersonal relationship. Specifically, he had been dumped by a girl who believed “the real Daisuke was on the [soccer] field”. Since then, Kou has been concerned that Daisuke isn’t giving soccer practice his all. It turns out that he has been holding back in order to control himself and never hurt himself again with emotions. He eventually gains the strength to come to terms with his crush and, to everyone’s shock, proceeds to take the sport much more seriously.

Shortly after joining a sports club, Yu meets the manager of his team, Ai Ebihara. From the minute she enters the scene, she comes across as cold and condescending. She also doesn’t take school very seriously because in order to even start the Social Link in the first place, Yu must cut classes to meet her somewhere private. Hers is a Social Link that is notoriously difficult to strengthen because while she seems to be looking for love, accepting her as a girlfriend at the first opportunity will result in a shallow relationship that is doomed to fail. If you go through the Social Link sessions correctly, however, you find out that she is a deeply troubled young woman. During one meeting, she cruelly tells a young man who confesses his love that he is not nearly attractive enough for her standards. She is a person who judges people based on their looks – and she herself is no exception. She hails from a nouveau riche family. Before her family advanced their social status, she was often teased by her classmates for her less-than-desirable appearance. Once her family struck gold, she resolved to tidy up her appearance to ensure her tormentors were left with egg on their faces. After meeting Yu, she is able to realize that true beauty is on the inside, and she begins to dispel the harsh front she once affected to appear high and mighty. Her arc fits in nicely with the Moon Arcana’s emphasis on the projection of one’s insecurities and the hidden depths lurking beneath the surface.

Establishing the Sun Social Link involves joining either the music club or the drama club. In either case, drawing the Sun card in Tarot readings indicates optimism and expanding one’s horizons. Music club member Ayane is a very timid person who constantly doubted herself. With Yu’s guidance, she is able to overcome her anxiety and decides to take opportunities that come her way as opposed to letting them fall by the wayside. Meanwhile, drama club member Yumi expresses the Arcana in a different way. Her father abandoned her when she was young. He has recently been hospitalized and, to Yumi’s immense frustration, her mother takes care of the man who walked out on them. Her father eventually succumbs to his condition, leaving Yumi with conflicting feelings. She hated the man all of her life, yet she realized she never thanked him for fathering her. When all is said and done, she quits the drama club so she no longer uses it to escape her sorrows.

School activities aren’t the only method by which Yu can establish these Social Links. He can also do so by getting a part-time job. One of the possible part-time jobs he can obtain is that of a hospital janitor. There, he meets a nurse named Sayoko Uehara. Although one would probably associate a nurse with the Priestess or the Empress, Uehara actually represents the Devil Arcana. Entailing restricting one’s perspectives, self-bondage, and other vices, it’s a fairly negative Arcana. Indeed, when Yu is introduced to her, she immediately begins to flirt with him. Though further interactions, it’s revealed that these flirtatious tendencies mask a general dissatisfaction with life. It’s to the point where she has all but forgotten why she even became a nurse in the first place. After Yu reminds her of the job’s importance, she begins to fix the problem, but in a self-destructive way. Eventually, she realizes her mistakes and leaves the hospital to become a volunteer worker in Africa.

Yu can also tutor a young boy named Shu Nakajima. One of the most common mistakes made by those unfamiliar with Tarot decks is assuming the Death Arcana foretells one’s doom. Make no mistake – there is a card for that purpose. That would be the Tower Arcana, the one with which Shu happens to be associated. Shu displays a lot of knowledge for his age, but he also shockingly cynical and world-weary. However, it turns out the large chip on his shoulder belies a superiority complex brought about due to his mother constantly pushing him to study and get good grades. Anyone passingly familiar with stories of parents pushing their children to unhealthy extremes knows Shu’s arc will end in disaster. Fortunately, he eventually embodies positive aspects the Tower Arcana. Once he realizes that meeting everyone’s expectations isn’t an end-all goal in life, he is free from the chains holding him back.

The third job involves Yu helping out at a local daycare. While working there, he meets Eri Minami, a stepmother to Yuuta, a boy who frequents the facility. The Temperance Arcana involves merging opposites, which is reflected in the relationship between Eri and Yuuta. Although Eri cares for Yuuta, the two of them often fail to see eye-to-eye with the latter refusing to accept the former as his mother. Much like how Yu acts as the voice of reason within his own Investigation Team, he is able to help the two of them unite. Once she gathers the courage to face Yuuta directly, the two of them become very close.

It’s not just through school or work that Yu can form strong relationships. By exploring Inaba, he can happen upon an old Shinto shrine. There, he meets a fox. Representing the Hermit Arcana, the fox lives in seclusion, yet is knowledgeable of the lives of Inaba’s citizens. Many of them leave a written wish on ema upon visiting the shrine, and it’s up to Yu to help them. By fulfilling these sidequests, the people are more willing to donate to the shrine, which the fox uses to help maintain it. The fox can give Yu and his party healing leaves, which allow them to recover SP. These leaves cost a certain amount of money, and the price drops whenever the Social Link ascends one level.

The Death Arcana rarely foretells an actual death, so seeing how it is expressed in Persona 4 is interesting – especially after having formed the central theme of Persona 3. When exploring Inaba, Yu can befriend an old woman named Hisano Kuroda. Calling proclaiming herself to be death itself, she reveals to Yu that she is a recent widow. She and her husband had a long-lasting, loving relationship until a disease robbed him of his memory. The disease is never identified, but it is obviously some form of dementia – heavily implied to be Alzheimer’s. Given how often fiction tends to treat amnesia as a minor inconvenience or something to be cured, it is laudable for the writing staff to set that aside and show to their audience just how heartbreaking it is when a loved one is afflicted with such a condition. Hisano’s husband was so far gone that he effectively died twice – once when he forgot he ever loved her and a second time when his heart stopped. Despite this morbid subject matter, the Social Link perfectly encapsulates the meaning of the Death Arcana. Death represents a transformation brought about due to an end of something. After Yu helps Hisano cope with her loss, she is able to move on, thus invoking the esoteric reading of the Arcana.

Indeed, one of the greatest things about Persona 4 is how it demonstrates the effects the central crime had on those close to the victim. Obviously, Saki’s murder greatly affected Yosuke, making him more determined than ever to find the culprit. However, one development reminds you that these circumstances forced the third-year to leave her entire family behind. Yu meets one such surviving family member in the form of Naoki Konishi, the deceased’s younger brother. Even since the day Saki died, he has been showered with pity to the point where he is sick of it. His friends feel sorry for him, which prevents him from moving on. Naoki could easily have represented the Death Arcana like Hisano, yet his arc aligns with the Hanged Man instead, which is about suffering and endurance. Through interacting with Yu, he learns that his self-loathing will afford him nothing and rallies a newfound strength.

In the Velvet Room, Margaret eventually decides she wants to see more of Yu’s soul. To accomplish this, Yu must perform specific Persona fusions of increasingly complex permutations. In doing so, the two form a strong friendship. This process, which involves a desire to create and the resulting satisfaction after one’s hard work makes Margaret a perfect avatar for the Empress Arcana. Her predecessor, Elizabeth, left the Velvet Room after the events of Persona 3. Margaret found this decision curious until she met Yu. She realizes that this individual has the power to create world of his own.

After a hard day of work or school, Yu can choose to spend quality time with his family. Over the course of his stay, Nanako begins opening up to Yu. She often hangs around the Investigation Team to the point where she is practically a little sister to all of them. She is seen as the kind of innocence that the party wishes to protect. She is representative of the Justice Arcana, which seems like a curious choice for such a young child. It would stand to reason to have one of the members of the Investigation Team align with the Arcana. Make no mistake – you will see how fitting it is in the final act of the game. Her Social Link events instead involve her family’s backstory. Her mother died years ago, and Dojima being unable to do basic chores around the house caused her to mature very quickly. Although she retains a positive demeanor, she doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with Dojima and is shown to be insecure at times.

This, in turn, connects to the remaining Social Link outside of the members of the Investigation Team: Ryotaro Dojima. His character design brings to mind the archetypical hard-boiled detective one would see out of a classic film noir piece. However, he is actually fairly laid back when he isn’t working. Therein lies the problem. His wife was killed in a hit-and-run incident. Ever since then, he has been working tirelessly to not only provide for Nanako, but also catch the killer. As a father figure, the Hierophant Arcana is the natural choice for Dojima’s character. It’s a symbol of maturity, respect, teaching, and authority – all of which are traits Dojima embodies. However, his workaholic predilections ensure he has no idea what to do with Nanako. The traits associated with the Heirophant then get reversed when Dojima realizes he was using his wife’s death as an excuse to run away from his responsibilities. When all is said and done, he aspires to be a better father for Nanako’s sake – Yu won’t be in Inaba forever, after all.

Analyzing the Story

Shortly after rescuing Yukiko, Yu and his friends see another strange figure on the Midnight Channel. It resembles a delinquent by the name of Kanji Tatsumi. A majority of his schoolmates fear him due to his violent tendencies, which led to him taking down an entire biker gang singlehandedly. Realizing there is a good chance that he will end up in the Midnight Channel next. Yu, Yosuke, Chie, and Yukiko attempt a stakeout. It fails miserably when Kanji discovers the four of them and proceeds to chase all of them off. Sure enough, Kanji ends up vanishing off the face of the Earth. Knowing exactly where he is, the Investigation Team heads for the Midnight Channel.

Kanji’s dungeon takes the form of a multistoried sauna. Shadow Kanji is highly flamboyant – essentially a walking, talking stereotype of an effeminate homosexual man. The easiest way to interpret this Shadow is that he represents Kanji’s repressed sexual orientation, but the narrative has a remarkably sophisticated take on this kind of arc. To begin with, Shadow Kanji himself subverts the stereotype of gay men perpetuated by homophones by being perhaps the single most difficult non-optional boss in the game. He is accompanied by two powerful allies who constantly increase his stats and heal him. Any player who buys into the stereotype and underestimates him does so at their own peril. In terms of story, Shadow Kanji represents the reversed Emperor, suggesting deep insecurities and a corrupted intention.

As such, the Shadow doesn’t necessarily represent a latent homosexuality, but rather Kanji’s desire to be accepted for who he is. His mother owns a textile shop. As a result, he found that he greatly enjoying sewing, which contrasts with his rough demeanor. The upright Emperor represents a desire for control, dominance, and masculinity in general. To draw attention away from his hobbies, which are commonly considered feminine, he became a delinquent. In doing so, he became unapproachable, and his life began to suffer as a direct result. By the end of the Social Link, he comes to grips with his caring side and shows how one can defy stereotypes.

By this point, the Investigation Team realizes the pattern. First, an indistinct silhouette of a person appears on the Midnight Channel. After that, the person in question will be kidnapped only to appear on the Midnight Channel again – this time much more clearly. This person is invariably someone who has appeared on the news recently. During this time, a young model, Rise Kujikawa, arrives in Inaba. She has quit her job to live a normal life in the countryside, enrolling at Yasogami High. As a rising celebrity who has made multiple television appearances, she would be a likely target for the kidnapper. Sure enough, her silhouette appears on the Midnight Channel shortly after she arrives. The team attempts to prevent Rise from being kidnapped, but a suspicious photographer draws their attention away from her. Predictably, the culprit takes advantage of this distraction and throws Rise into the Midnight Channel.

Rise’s dungeon, much like Kanji’s, has distinct sexual overtones to its design, taking the form of a garish striptease. Her Shadow, whom they confront at the end of the dungeon, resembles a stripper – and even swings on a pole during her boss fight. Although savvy players likely know of the game’s formula by now, Shadow Rise throws a curveball in that the player cannot defeat her. Using an ability to scan the Investigation Team, she becomes invincible, effortlessly dodging their attacks while exploiting their weaknesses. Luckily, they are saved by an unlikely source. Teddie, who had been acting as the team’s mission control, steps in and uses a power he didn’t know he possessed to destroy Shadow Rise. The shock of the attack leaves Teddie completely flattened and barely alive. Just like her predecessors, Rise accepts her Shadow, who transforms into her Persona.

Not so luckily, another threat immerges immediately afterwards. Teddie is a resident of the Midnight Channel. He ended up giving Yosuke a scare when the impulsive young man removed the mascot’s head only to realize there was no body underneath it. It’s clear that whatever Teddie is, he isn’t human. The existential crisis he has after he is rendered hollow causes his own Shadow to manifest. While the previous Shadows had a fairly lighthearted, humorous element to them, Teddie’s does not; he believes life to be empty and meaningless. As the Shadow of the goofiest character in the game, this makes a lot of sense. His true form even resembles his normal self – unlike all of the other Shadows you encounter. Upon vanquishing him, Teddie, to his amazement, gains a Persona of his own.

As one may have deduced from the boss fight against Shadow Rise, the main purpose of Rise’s Persona is to provide valuable intel to the player. Consequently, she takes over Teddie’s role while the mascot joins the fray. This is for the best because while Teddie’s Persona has plenty of handy offensive maneuvers in his arsenal, Rise’s plays more of s support role. At the beginning of every fight, she can detect an enemy’s weakness. You generally can’t determine a Shadow’s weakness simply by looking at them. Even recolored versions of older enemies could have vastly different weaknesses and resistances. Therefore, Rise’s Persona can potentially save the player a lot of time finding them out. She gains levels automatically along with the rest of your team. At higher levels, she gains the ability to heal your party’s HP and SP in addition to helping Yu and his teammates detect treasure chests and Shadows on a given floor.

The other takeaway from Shadow Rise is that she represents the reversed Lovers Arcana. This entails a false, shallow love and poor life decisions, which fits in with Shadow Rise’s attempts to get as many people as possible to notice her. The Lovers has a fairly straightforward reading, involving romantic relationships and love in general. However, there is an alternate reading for this particular Arcana, which involves the diverging of choices. As a pop idol, she has to deal with there being two Rises – her public image and her true self. She sought to be an idol under the misguided pretense that she would gain more friends. Sadly, this did not work. She merely succeeded in drawing the attention of the paparazzi while many people see her as brainless eye candy. It’s not all doom and gloom, however. As the Social Link progresses, she is reminded why she became an idol in the first place: to help those targeted by bullies. Her desire to return to show business is renewed when she receives a letter from a fan, though she resolves to be her own person and not a marketing construct.

With the Investigation Team gaining not one, but two helpful allies in the span of a single dungeon, they seem to be one step ahead of the culprit. This feeling of elation doesn’t last long, for after Rise has recovered, they make a shocking discovery. Yu’s homeroom teacher is found dead – slung across a tall structure exactly like the previous two victims. This comes as a shock because Morooka never appeared on the Midnight Channel. It would appear the killer has caught onto the Investigation Team’s interference and dispensed all notions of subtlety.

What I find interesting about his death is the utter lack of catharsis attached to it. Kinshiro Morooka was a highly unpleasant character, calling Yu a loser upon meeting him and speaking ill of both Saki and Yamano after their untimely deaths. These transgressions among others have led many of his classmates – most notably Yosuke – to dub him King Moron. His suffering of the same fate should logically lead to the cast rejoicing over the karmic justice administered. Instead, these characters talk about how, while he wasn’t a great person by any means, he didn’t deserve to die.

Throughout life, many of us encounter a person that, for one reason or another, we just can’t stand. However, you realize that even if you hated their guts, you never really want them to die. They may be a lout, but in the grand scheme of things, they’re mostly harmless. Indeed, once he’s gone, it’s implied that he belittled his students in an unorthodox attempt to bring out the best in them. Although this really isn’t evident through any onscreen interactions with him, Yu can tell him off on his first day of school, which actually confers a gameplay benefit. Through this interaction, it could be said that there is indeed a method to his madness, though it was still foolhardy of him to think he could apply it to all of his students and expect it to work.

Although Morooka himself never appeared on the Midnight Channel, another figure does so shortly after the murder. It is immediately apparent that this scenario is not going to pan out like any of the preceding ones because the figure taunts Yu, daring the amateur detective to come after him. The Investigation Team learns that the individual is a student from another school named Mitsuo Kubo. The police are looking for him, as he is the prime suspect in the Inaba murders.

Mitsuo’s dungeon resembles something one would get if they took a third-generation JRPG and transplanted the graphics into a three-dimensional title. When Yu and his team reaches the end of the dungeon, Shadow Mitsuo awaits them. The sequence wherein Mitsuo denies his Shadow comes across as a strange inversion of the game’s own formula. In this case, the victim and the Shadow are barely any different; Chie notably has trouble distinguishing them. Mitsuo is shown to be a highly unstable person who desperately seeks attention because on the inside, he is an empty shell. It’s the point where both he and his Shadow represent a reversed Arcana – specifically, the reversed Hermit. While a casting away society for brief periods of time can bring forth wisdom, taken to an unhealthy extreme, it results in isolation, loneliness, and an unwillingness to live in the real world. This can be seen in how his Shadow resembles a fetus that encases itself in a three-dimensional, 8-bit sprite. He dubs himself a hero, seeing Yu and his team as monsters to defeat in a video game. To punctuate the lack of difference between the two, whereas every other Shadow claims to be the true self, Mitsuo’s does not.

The tail-end of the 2000s saw an interesting change in the relationship between game developers and their audience. Many developers at the time had a strange habit of teasing their audience – to the point of outright belittling them. It was a highly inexplicable trend; one would assume that, being a rather niche hobby at the time, alienating their followers is tantamount to career suicide. The exact cause of this trend is unclear, but if I were to make an educated guess, I would point to the critical and commercial success of Metal Gear Solid 2 in 2001. With its postmodern narrative, it completely deconstructed the nature of the roles of fictional characters, developers, and players in an attempt to take an introspective look at what is expected out of sequels. When other writers observed the work’s success, they missed the original context and assumed it was good because the narrative called gamers out for the crime of enjoying video games.

On the surface, Mitsuo appears to be a stereotypical depiction of an otaku – which is to say a fan of anime and other forms of media produced in Japan. In the hands of a typical contemporary AAA writer, Mitsuo would be a transparent shot at the player’s expense. Like the rest of the game, what allows his character to work is that there is a lot of nuance to be found in the writers’ critique. This is primarily because the members of the Investigation Team themselves provide a contrast to Mitsuo in how they too are shown to have hobby associated with otaku. Under the right circumstances, Yosuke even makes a reference to Super Mario Bros. From this, it can be inferred that Mitsuo doesn’t represent otaku, but rather an unhealthy obsession with escaping reality. In the end, he has no interest in making anything out of his life, yet is afraid of being considered a nobody. He killed Morooka for no other reason than gain notoriety for minimal effort. Unlike his predecessors, his Shadow disappears into nothingness once the Investigation Team vanquishes it, showing that he will never come to terms with himself. Mitsuo misses the point of this and assumes he vanquished the Shadow himself.

 

The Investigation Team turns Mitsuo over to the police whereupon he confesses to having killed Yamano and Saki as well. With the killer behind bars, the team celebrates a job well done, which is capped off by a visit to Tatsumi Port Island – the setting of Persona 3. Naturally, the case doesn’t turn out as cut-and-dry as Yu and his friends initially believe. While in a dance club in Tatsumi Port Island, the team meets Naoto Shirogane. Despite being a first-year student, the young teenager is nationally renowned as the Detective Prince. The protagonists’ independent investigation has attracted his attention. Realizing that they had plenty of valuable information for the case, he takes this opportunity to become acquainted with the team. He was introduced earlier in the story talking with Kanji. Although this exchange seemed to play into Kanji’s ambiguous sexual orientation, it turns out the young detective was conducting an independent investigation and merely asked him if he saw anything suspicious.

However, even if Mitsuo was indeed guilty of murdering Morooka, it is through conversing with Naoto that the team realizes he is a mere copycat killer. The exact manner in which this deception is revealed ties neatly into the propensity we have to make random occurrences fit a narrative. Superficially, Mitsuo’s murder of Morooka is identical to the fate that befell Saki and Yamano. The first sign that they are not connected is the sheer abruptness of the crime. While the previous victims appeared on the Midnight Channel before turning up dead in the real world, Morooka did not. A player could be tricked into thinking the killer is becoming more aggressive and arrogant. This fits the pattern of many real-world criminals, but it is not the case here.

The most damning piece of evidence against Mitsuo’s culpability concerns the victims’ autopsy reports. Several months after the fact, police still haven’t deduced how Yamano or Saki died, yet Morooka’s was clearly the result of blunt-force trauma. It’s entirely possible that the killer changed their modus operandi in order to throw the authorities off their trail. The problem is that if the killer had access to means of perfectly disposing of their victims, it wouldn’t make any sense from a pragmatic standpoint to switch to a more violent, overt method. They would only draw attention to themselves for no good reason. Mitsuo is a shameless attention seeker, and that aspect by itself provides a case-breaking contradiction. That he would take so long to confess to a double murder in a quiet town doesn’t fit his profile. He is the type who would take credit for such a horrible feat immediately. When confronted by the Investigation Team, he doesn’t even try to hide his malevolence.

This development illustrates how easily the human mind can fool itself. Once the team had a suspect, they came up with reasons as to why he must have committed the other murders as well. It’s easier to assume that one person is responsible for all of them. At the same time, Yu and his friends aren’t shown to be stupid for believing this. They were so desperate to prevent any subsequent murders that once they had a convincing suspect, they settled for the soundest conclusion available to them at the time. Indeed, part of the reason Mitsuo is a convincing red herring despite all of the evidence against him is that he is completely delusional – having convinced himself he killed all three people. Nonetheless, once he is arrested, the team, in a manner that seems to take after the spirit of upright Hermit Arcana, takes a few steps back and realizes things aren’t adding up.

For his part, Naoto, realizing the Investigation Team has likely not caught the true culprit, willingly puts himself at risk by making as many public appearances as possible. Although Naoto’s strategy sounds reckless, his repeated appearances do indeed result in his silhouette appearing on the Midnight Channel. Once his figure clearly appears on the television screen, the truth is as clear as day – the killer is still at large. When the team enters the Midnight Channel, they are taken to a strange underground base that resembles a laboratory.

The confrontation with previous Shadows always involved a heated confrontation between them and the person they’re based off of, so Naoto smoothly commenting on how long it took for the team to reach him is an amusing twist on the formula. He even seems more annoyed than perturbed by his Shadow. Nonetheless, Shadows reveal a dark aspect about the human they copy, and Naoto’s is no different. Specifically, this Shadow reveals that Naoto is actually female. In a parallel to Kanji’s Shadow, Naoto’s was borne from the detective’s insecurities of being a woman in a male-dominated field. Shadow Naoto’s childish outbursts represent her frustrations of about not being taken seriously due to her young age. These outbursts succeed in angering the real Naoto, who rejects her Shadow, causing the being to transform.

This Shadow’s true form resembles a toy robot version of herself, which, in turn, display these insecurities. These negative emotions brought about by misfortune, a lack of control, and various external expectations make Shadow Naoto the perfect expression of the reversed Wheel of Fortune Arcana. Once Naoto accepts her Shadow, Yu can begin interacting with her outside of school. She differs from most of the previous recruits in that the protagonists interacted with her quite a bit before she formally joins the team. Considering how late in the experience she joins, this is a great way of preemptively addressing the issue. Even better, to make up for how late in the game her Social Link is established, it can be advanced on rainy days.

With Yu himself representing the Fool Arcana, Naoto being the final member of the team creates an interesting bit of symbolism. The Wheel of Fortune naturally represents luck. No matter how smoothly the Fool’s journey progresses, it is still subject to the whims of fate. This can be a good or a bad thing, but in Naoto’s case, her very gender creates several contradictions in her life. Her hobbies and interests are in fields that are highly conservative and male-dominated. In a bit of dramatic irony, her attempts at dressing as a boy caused her peers to judge  her for her age instead, rendering the effort moot. Regardless, one gets the sense that she has to work extremely hard just to get the kind of recognition a middling male detective can effortlessly command without even trying. This creates an interesting arc in how an otherwise logical person must fight a random variable that causes her accomplishments to be dismissed.

One thing I really admire about the story is that the various interactions aren’t limited to Yu hanging out with the members individually. Every now and again, there will be a special event that the entire team attends. In addition to the aforementioned visit to Tatsumi Port Island, the team goes on a camping trip, attends a festival, and visits a traditional hot springs. Outside of a few dialog options, some of which do occasionally provide minimal benefits such as making Yu closer to a certain member of the team, these sequences advance automatically. They invariably make for the funniest moments in the game, and it is great seeing this side to these characters. My personal favorite moment within these sequences is the King’s Game, which is essentially the Japanese equivalent of Truth or Dare. These scenes serve to remind the player that, even if the members of the Investigation Team have accepted a great responsibility by investigating a murder, they’re still teenagers. Seeing them cut loose like this enforces the subtle intricacies of comradery they’ve built up through fighting Shadows that most games would only imply. In fact, if one were to show these sequences to the uninitiated, they would be forgiven for believing it to be a third-person visual novel with a mundane, slice-of-life story. It almost makes the supernatural elements seem out of place when they’re reintroduced.

I do have to admit that as much I like Yu’s interactions with his friends and family, seeing all of them through successfully can be daunting. If you want a chance of using every good Persona in the game, you need to choose the best dialogue options every time. In practice, maximizing every Social Link involves keeping to a very tight schedule you cannot break for any reason. Because many of Yu’s friends are only available on certain days of the week, you really need to plan things out in advance lest you risk wasting a day. This is especially strict when you realize – with the exception of Naoto – none of them are available on rainy days. You weren’t able to complete the dungeon and defeat the boss on the same day? If resting permanently disrupts your schedule, you must tough it out.

This can be made all the more difficult because of Yu’s personal traits. Yu has five different parameters outside of his proficiency in combat: Knowledge, Understanding, Expression, Diligence, and Courage. Picking optimal dialogue options or even just establishing some of the links require Yu to have increased these traits to a certain level. This means if the best dialogue option requires a leveled trait, you are better off saving the associated interaction for a later date, which you wouldn’t know until you see it play out. Even worse, the story events that kick off the endgame result in you being unable to advance Nanako and Dojima’s Social Links any further. This requires players to maximize these links before a certain date, though the time limit is admittedly generous. However, the worst part about all of this is that said events constitute the single most poorly written sequence in the entire game.

Discussing the Ending

WARNING: Have you really experienced everything this game has to offer? Make absolutely sure before reading the following section.

The decidedly lighthearted interactions between Yu and his friends belie the sheer gravity of their situation. Sure, they’re able to prevent the would-be victims from suffering a terrible fate every time, but the price for failure is extremely high. This isn’t even getting into the fact that they are risking their lives every time they enter the Midnight Channel. Their mission’s enormity hits home in late October after rescuing Naoto. Yu receives a letter with only three words inscribed upon it: “dont rescue anymore” – a terribly crafted, if laconic threat if there ever was one. Sixteen days later, Yu receives another letter, which reads “if you dont stop this time someone close will be put in and killed”. During this time, a familiar, childlike figure appears on the Midnight Channel. To make matters worse, it was mentioned in passing that many kids were interviewed recently – among them, Nanako.

Unfortunately, Dojima espies the second letter and takes Yu to the police station. He had suspected his nephew was somehow involved in the case, and now wants to get the information from the horse’s mouth. Realizing that Nanako is in danger, Naoto races to the Dojima household, but isn’t able to prevent her from being kidnapped. There is a silver lining this time, in that the Investiagtion Team is at last able to deduce the culprit’s identity. One of the first suspects of Yamano’s murder was Taro Namatame. He had an affair with the announcer, which would give him the prime opportunity to commit the murder, yet the district attorney couldn’t mount a case against him. He makes a living as a deliveryman. His vehicle would be a perfect way to kidnap people because it doesn’t draw attention to itself. Because there were no signs of forced entry, they had to be someone Nanako knew – and the local deliveryman would, at the very least, be acquainted with her and most of Inaba’s population given what a small town it is. When Dojima learns of this, he quickly gives chase to Namatame, resulting in a collision. Dojima is severely injured, and when they open the truck, both Namatame and Nanako are gone, having disappeared into the Midnight Channel using the television inside the vehicle.

I will say upfront that I don’t have a problem with this development per se. If the player was becoming complacent with the game’s formula to the point where rescuing people didn’t seem that special anymore, Nanako’s kidnapping is a wake-up call. I also must comment that this plot point is handled a lot better than in many works. With certain authors, you get the sense that whenever they kill off a young child, it’s purely for shock value. Although the death of a child is indeed a tragic thing, in the realm of fiction, it can fall flat when you realize the pathos is empty. This is because in particularly bad cases, you can tell the tragedy of the child’s death lies more in what they are rather than who they are.

Persona 4 doesn’t commit this error. Nanako appears to be a regular innocent child on the surface, but as Yu interacts with her, it turns out to be something of a façade. After her mother’s death, she had to mature very quickly, and Dojima doggedly chasing after his wife’s killer only succeeded in driving a wedge between the two. To put it another way, despite having all of the surface-level appearances of the “innocent child” character, there is much more to Nanako’s character than that. The pathos that results from her kidnapping is consequently much stronger than had the game started off by killing a character like her, but with no bearing on the story outside of their death. By this point, she is the little sister to the entire team, so they approach her dungeon, which has a heavenly motif that suits her backstory of having lost her mother at a young age. As a fascinating contrast, this dungeon carries a far greater sense of dread than any of the six that came before.

Although I find myself intrigued with the story beat, the proposition falls apart when you realize it was brought about due to sheer, unadulterated incompetency. It does make a degree of sense that Yu and his team would withhold information from the police this entire time. The killer is likely still in Inaba, so drawing any sort of unwanted attention to their crime would cause them to – at best – skip town. At worst, they would begin targeting people close to the Investigation Team. The problem is that this premise doesn’t hold water when Dojima is directly confronting Yu about being connected to the case. Having no idea of Yu’s adventures in the Midnight Channel, he doesn’t believe his nephew when he tries to convince him of the world’s supernatural elements. Even worse, for his part, Yu doesn’t try to place his hand in a nearby television to give Dojima a firsthand demonstration of his powers.

Because none of this makes any sense when parsing the narrative diegetically, one must transcend to meta levels to understand how it came to pass. According to interviews with the development team, early drafts of the script saw Dojima as the true killer. The writers backpedaled from this after testers felt that the protagonist and killer living in the same house clashed with the tone of the game. He was intended to be somewhat sympathetic even when he turned out to be the killer because the death of his wife tied into his motivation. As it stands, I have to say this early idea explains a lot. It would make more sense if Dojima dismissed Yu because he wanted Nanako to get kidnapped for some reason. From there, he could use his authority as a police officer to ensure Yu had no choice but to follow him to the station. He also likely wouldn’t have been a Social Link, which provides a solid reason as to why maximizing it does not change the outcome of this sequence.

The mystery’s original answer is even referenced later on when you’re prompted to identify the true killer. During that time, you are given a long list compassing almost every major and minor character of the cast. Some choices are obviously impossible and cause the game to rightly mock you for selecting them. If you choose Dojima, the text does briefly make a convincing case that he could be the culprit. After all, he could easily have planted the threatening letters himself, having access to the household. Not only that, but because of his profession, he is capable of moving around Inaba without arousing suspicion. Moreover, he had easy access to both victims, being one of Yamano’s bodyguards and having interrogated Saki after the former’s murder. The case is irreparably damaged when you realize he nearly got himself killed attempting to save Nanako’s life. Had he planned her kidnapping in the first place, that action would have been extremely counterproductive. As a result, one wonders exactly how far into the development process the writers elected to change the killer’s identity.

Regardless of how poorly Nanako’s plight is written, the end result is the same – Yu and his teammates must journey into the Midnight Channel to save her. Unlike the previous victims, Nanako is a little too young to have formed a Shadow. Instead awaiting them as a boss fight is an unhinged Namatame. He appears to have gone completely insane because he rants about how he is saving people when the Investigation Team confronts him. Still enraged at him, the group prepares to apprehend him.

At that exact moment, a Shadow forms from Namatame. Anyone who has played Earthbound may be amused to see the Shadow take the form of a large, demonic hippie – complete with numerous peace signs adorning his design. Keeping true to this game’s pattern, he is significantly more difficult than his visage would suggest. In fact, this Shadow has a unique name: Kunino-sagiri. He considers himself a hero and savoir, and emulates the tactics of a charismatic cult leader when he takes control of your party members twice. Considering the amount of time Yu spent with his friends, this is one of the most distressing moments in the game. While the narrative certainly had contributed no shortage of great story beats, Persona 4 demonstrates that it can continue to do so during gameplay as well. That the narrative doesn’t expand upon this Shadow’s ability and merely lets the player grasp the enormity of having Yu stand on the opposite side of his friends makes the moment all the more powerful.

Now, I can imagine that after this sequence, some people would lose respect for the story. After all, many works of fiction that involve having such plot contrivance begin the final act means the ending is doomed from the onset. This isn’t even getting into propensity many writers have to start out with a lot of energy only to burn themselves out in the later phases, abandoning the aspects that made their narrative so intriguing one by one until there is no goodwill left. Persona 4 has an advantage over quite a few works with a similar missteps in that the actual story beat is perfectly fine; only in the path taken to get there does a problem lie. The reason I say that is because if one were to stick with the game after this transgression, the hypothetical player would be astounded at the narrative’s ability to not only recover from it, but successfully stick the landing.

After a grueling battle, the team is able to recover both Nanako and Namatame, and they are taken to the hospital due to their injuries. Namatame’s mental state prevents the police from questioning him while Nanako is hooked up to life support. Persona 4 had done such a great job seamlessly incorporating slice-of-life elements into its urban fantasy story that the worlds colliding makes for a sobering realization of the stakes at hand. This is especially true when Yu returns home upon leaving his family at the hospital. The background music is very melancholic and the house has an overall empty feeling without Nanako there to greet him or Dojima at the coffee table.

Exacerbating matters is a strange fog that has descended upon Inaba. Throughout the game, the team needed a special pair of glasses provided by Teddie in order to see through the fog permeating the Midnight Channel. Without his help, they never would have made it as far as they did. Once the fog lasts for a long enough time, they get the idea to use the glasses in the real world. To their horror, the fog disappears from their sight as soon as they put them on. To make matters worse, the fog appears to have a strange effect on the citizens. Some act irrational while others seem to be under the impression the world is about to end. Regardless, the message is clear; something serious is about to happen.

In early December, Adachi calls the Investigation Team with terrible news – Nanako’s condition has worsened. In what is the single most heart-wrenching moment in the game, the team arrives just in time to watch the electrocardiograph machine register a flat line. Blinded by sheer rage, Dojima attempts to murder Namatame in cold blood, but he is restrained by security. As they take him back to his room, Yu and his friends enter the suspect’s room. He is as indecipherable as ever, and appears to be attempting to jumping out of the window to end his life. At that moment, the television springs to life. A Shadow version of Namatame appears, telling the genuine article that he is deluding himself and how he is not a hero.

In light of this damning piece of evidence, Yosuke contemplates throwing Namatame into the Midnight Channel to avenge Nanako’s death. Even if the measure is extreme, it is easy to see where he is coming from. Namatame never once expressed a single lucid thought since the Investigation Team confronted him. Claiming that he was attempting to save Nanako when his actions accomplished the opposite effect only succeeds in reinforcing his delusions. Worse, according to Adachi, there is no evidence the police can use to convict Namatame or even detain him for any longer. Not only that, but while Yu could have conceivably convinced Dojima of the Midnight Channel’s existence, an entire court system would be far less likely to believe him.

This is the game’s most significant turning point. With Yu’s team convinced of Namatame’s culpability, he is at a crossroads. The decision he must make is an expression of both the Justice and Judgement Arcana. If Yu decides to honor Yosuke’s request, they murder Namatame. Nanako is confirmed dead and Teddie returns to the Midnight Channel. The fog continues to envelop Inaba three months later as Yu leaves town, and Dojima resolves to find a way to begin a new life without a family. Obviously, this isn’t the true ending, so if you see it, you must go back to the dialogue tree and make different decisions.

Even if Namatame is a more convincing red herring than Mitsuo, a savvy player will realize there are plenty of loose ends yet addressed. It’s a little suspicious that, for a murder mystery game, you aren’t allowed to name the culprit yourself. If Yu can convince his friends to continue the investigation, the Judgement Social Link is established, symbolizing the climactic decision of the Fool’s journey. By refusing to conflate justice with vengeance or acting upon their base impulses, the Arcana’s upright readings are allowed to ring true. Mercifully, once the team has calmed down, Nanako’s heart begins beating once more.

Two days later, Yu and his friends visit Namatame to rationally discuss what happened. Partly because Mitsuo’s actions have muddied the truth quite a bit, they ask him to identify the first person he attempted to “save”. To everyone’s collective shock, he points to Yukiko. Namatame shares the same odd ability to interact with the Midnight Channel as Yu. The problem is that his direct observations of the Midnight Channel led him to draw the exact wrong conclusion about how it operates. The death of Yamano particularly affected him because he had a terrible relationship with his wife and the announcer was the only person who understood him. Once Saki died, he deduced that the killer targeted those who appear on the Midnight Channel. Upon seeing Yukiko make an appearance on it, he cast her there to protect her. Because he never entered the Midnight Channel himself, he was completely oblivious to the fact that the people he attempted to save nearly died.

If successfully diffusing the situation is an expression of the Judgement Arcana, Namatame’s plight represents the reversed reading. This is characterized by a lack of reflection or self-evaluation – both of which describe his actions perfectly. Because he neither knew how the Midnight Channel worked nor that only Yu and his team prevented anyone else from dying, he assumed his accidental victims were protected in the realm. It serves to demonstrate what may have happened had Yu or his team jumped to wild conclusions about the Midnight Channel. I especially like how there were also segments leading up to this moment in which a figure commented that nobody died. This occurs after certain victims are saved. The player is likely to interpret this as the killer being frustrated with Yu’s interference, which coincides nicely with Mitsuo’s less-than-subtle crime. After all, if the killer realized their methods weren’t working, it’s only natural to assume they would radically change their modus operandi. In reality, it was actually Namatame expressing relief that he saved the people on the Midnight Channel.

With Namatame having been exonerated, the moment the player likely has been waiting for since the Investigation Team formed arrives: it is now time to identify the killer. The game gives the player a list of twenty-six suspects and three chances to accomplish this task. Due to the format of the game, it is obviously not going to be any member of the Investigation Team. It’s also not going to be any of Yu’s Social Links because having it break at such a critical moment would be highly inconvenient. This leaves only a small selection of characters remaining. Using a method employed by the most famous fictional detective of them all, Sherlock Holmes, by eliminating the impossible, only the truth remains – no matter how improbable. Upon doing this, there is only one possible answer.

Adachi, a friend of both the family and the Investigation Team, is the killer everyone has been looking for this entire time. Naturally, having concealed his true self for such a long time, he denies culpability when the Investigation Team confronts him. Unfortunately for him, he made a crucial error when they recovered the list of kidnapped people from Namatame’s truck. Rather than acting confused as to what the list could mean, he indicated that it provided some kind of closure. This only makes sense if we project ourselves onto Adachi. When we go by what he himself has observed, he may as well have confessed to the murders right there and then. The people on the list were rescued by the Investigation Team before they could be murdered, thus causing the authorities to describe the incidents as isolated disappearances. Only the Investigation Team could possibly know they had anything to do with the murders of Yamano and Saki. In light of this, Adachi shoots himself in the foot one last time when he exclaims that Namatame “put them all in”, thus revealing his knowledge of the Midnight Channel.

At face value, this twist appears to be a fairly standard one. After all, the murderer turning out to be the one the audience is least likely to suspect is only slightly more original than making the butler the guilty party. What makes this twist more effective than most examples has a lot to do with the game’s length. Taking roughly one-hundred hours to complete, the game manages to firmly establish Adachi’s character – or more accurately, the façade he projected. While not being a Social Link could cue savvy players into suspecting Adachi, it’s still very effective simply because they won’t want it to be true. Then again, the staff did entertain the idea of making Yosuke or Yukiko the killer, but rightly decided that solely being motivated by self-pleasure would be trite and cliché. Either way, as enforced by the game’s central themes, one must reach out to the truth – no matter how much it may hurt.

Around this time, Teddie has disappeared, blaming himself for being unable to protect Nanako. Yu manages to find him in the most unlikely of places: the Velvet Room. It is here you realize that as strange as it may sound, Teddie is the Persona 4 equivalent of Pharos from Persona 3. The two characters couldn’t be any more different in terms of personality or plot relevance, yet they have one striking similarity in how their respective Social Links progress. This is because both automatically progress at scripted intervals. Even if you decide not to advance any of the other Social Links, Teddie’s will be maximized before the end of the game. In Persona 3, Pharos was associated with the Death Arcana. Making his Social Link events mandatory for the plot therefore enforced the Arcana’s status as the game’s central theme of endings and what happens afterwards.

Teddie’s Arcana can be deduced based off of the nihilistic platitudes espoused by his Shadow. Depression, self-doubt, and a fear of isolation are all readings of the reversed Star Arcana. The biggest turning point for his character is when he gains a Persona of his own. Once he has, he ventures outside of the Midnight Channel for the first time in his life. As it is in the middle of summer when he emerges, he soon complains about the hot weather. Eventually, he can stand it no longer and takes off the top half of his suit. To everyone’s shock, they see a human body occupying the costume. Somehow, some way, Teddie was able to grow one ex nihilo.

From here, his character undergoes an intriguing arc. Before he gained a human body, he was fairly shy and antisocial, tending to crack jokes at inopportune times. Once he leaves the Midnight Channel, he becomes vaguely narcissistic, which can be attributed to an understandable lack of social skills given his background. However, his propensity to indulge in earthly pleasures and gaining others’ affection masks a frustration over his own failures. Even after gaining a Persona, he doesn’t know who he is. When he finds out, he is at a loss for words. Just like a majority of the creatures that originated in the Midnight Channel, he is a Shadow.

This Shadow gained an ego, and in doing so, he spawned a Shadow of his own. As the one Social Link that progresses automatically, the Star Arcana ties into the game’s central theme of reaching out to the truth. Once Yu helps him out with his existential crisis, he is able to use his newfound confidence to help the Investigation Team find Adachi. They confront him in a corrupted version of Inaba within the Midnight Channel known as Magatsu-Inaba.

As the game’s primary antagonist, Adachi makes for an interesting conversation piece. Once the Investigation Team shatters his mask, he reveals himself to be a misanthrope who believes humans only believe what they want to believe. He is also the kind of person who thinks the world owes him success and an intimate relationship, having worked hard in his youth. His reaction to lacking both indicates someone who is completely incapable of performing any kind of deep introspection or accepting the accountability of his actions. Indeed, he attempted to force himself upon Yamano, but by a freak accident, discovered his ability to access the Midnight Channel at that exact moment. Once Yamano turned up dead, he tested the ability a second time while interrogating Saki. Adachi then manipulated Namatame into throwing Yukiko, Kanji, Rise, Mitsuo, and Naoto, creating a perfect scapegoat in the process. He did this all to watch the Investigation Team futilely try to chase after a red herring.

It is because of these traits that Adachi is a perfect metaphor for the reversed Fool Arcana. This Arcana is notable for being the zeroth card of the tarot deck. Zero is a concept that sounds empty and unpromising on paper, but it can actually be a sign of great things to come. After all, when someone has nothing, the potential for growth and personal change becomes infinite. If there is no higher purpose to life, then you get to make one for yourself. Yu arrived in Inaba with almost nothing to his name, yet made something out of his circumstances. He now has a group of close friends, and their determination led them to at last identify the true killer.

By contrast, Adachi represents the nihilistic interpretation of having nothing – that life is empty and meaningless. Because his hard work amounted to nothing, he sees humans as boring, dull, and hypocritical – the last of which is ironic given that he himself is quite the accomplished hypocrite. As a result of his extreme immaturity, he is unable to grasp truths that contradict his worldviews and makes wild extrapolations. Because the Midnight Channel is shaped by humanity’s feelings, he claims everyone is responsible for the deaths of Yamano and Saki – all he did was put them there. The team rightly points out the gaping holes in his logic. Yosuke is especially furious that he would murder two people for such tenuous, self-serving reasons.

More than anything, what I like about Adachi’s role as the primary antagonist is how much of a different experience a second playthrough becomes as a result. Obviously, knowing that the comic relief character is an unrepentant serial killer makes for a shocking reveal in of itself. While his default expression changes to a creepy grin after the reveal, he occasionally reverts to his normal smile at times. What was originally a benign smile now carries a level of smugness that didn’t exist when he kept his façade. It is an extremely effective way of giving a previously established fact a new meaning now that the audience can see the big picture.

Considering his sheer levels of smugness, it is highly appropriate that, as a boss, Adachi ends up being a paper tiger. It is fairly shocking seeing him use a Persona – Magatsu-Izanagi, a dark reflection of Yu’s initial one. He has a fairly respectable damage output, but he is otherwise easily dispatched. This sequence could be read as a subtle critique on his philosophy. He is the type who believes that natural talent outweighs hard work in determining where one ends up in life, having studied all his life only to become a policeman in a small, boring town. Although he has a Persona with which to combat those of the Investigation Team, he didn’t spend the past few months fighting Shadows in the Midnight Channel. The result is a boss that can dish it out, but can’t take it – a perfect description of his character.

If a seasoned player suspected that another, more difficult boss was just around the corner, they would be entirely correct. Much like Namatame before him, a powerful Shadow takes possession of Adachi. This is Ameno-sagiri – the entity that created the fog within the Midnight Channel. It seeks to turn humanity into ignorant Shadows because it believes that’s what they want. The rhetoric it espouses is eerily similar to that of Shadow Teddie. As the one who created the Fog of Deception, this was a great bit of foreshadowing.

The Investigation Team triumphs over this entity and dispels the fog enveloping Inaba, leaving Adachi severely injured. Surprisingly, he accepts whatever fate the Investigation Team has waiting for him. He is then taken aback when they intend to drag him out to the real world and turn him into the authorities. This causes the disgraced policeman to wonder if there was any merit to the comradery displayed by the Investigation Team. Indeed, Adachi serves as a warning to what Yu, or anyone else in his situation, could have turned out to be had he not taken this journey to better himself.

Three months pass and Nanako is released from the hospital – just in time to bid Yu farewell. With Ameno-sagiri defeated and Adachi incarcerated, he has one last opportunity to say goodbye to the friends he made this past year. It would appear that everything is well. However, even if the driving question that caused the Investigation Team to form has been answered, at least one mystery remains. How did Yu, Namatame, and Adachi receive the power to enter televisions in the first place? Had they been born with these powers, they would have discovered them much earlier. Only after arriving in Inaba did they gain this ability. What makes Inaba so special? Once the Investigation Team meets up one final time, they realize in light of these discrepancies that Adachi acting as a lone wolf doesn’t make any sense.

As if on cue, the team receives a letter from Adachi, who has just been convicted of the double murder. The detective had suspected from the beginning that a higher being was pulling the strings this entire time. Being who he was, he didn’t care to investigate any further, but his words prompt Yu to retrace his steps. Yu entered the Velvet Room before he arrived in Inaba, yet it seems unlikely that he would have gained his powers in such a fashion, for neither Namatame nor Adachi mentioned it. Upon recalling what he did on his first day in Inaba, he recalls being driven around town by Dojima. One of the very first things they did was stop for gas. The attendant greeted him and shook his hand.

It is through this seemingly insignificant interaction that Yu gained the ability to enter the Midnight Channel. The attendant’s true identity is none other than Izanami. She and her husband Izanagi are deities from Japanese folklore. Izanami died during childbirth, prompting Izanagi to journey to Yomi – the underworld. He was determined to bring her back, but fled upon seeing that she had become a rotting corpse. She chased after him to Yomotsu Hirasaka, the entrance to Yomi, but Izanagi sealed it with a boulder. Izanami stated that if he was going to abandon her, then she would kill 1,000 humans he loved every single day. Izanagi responded to this invitation with one of his own: he promised to give life to 1,500 new humans every day.

It is unknown exactly how much of the legend is true, but one facet about her character that can’t be denied is her inability to understand humans. This along with her pallid countenance would make sense had she been, for example, trapped in the underworld for a significant length of time, but the ambiguity remains. To learn about the creatures her husband adored, she set up a little experiment. She imbued three people, Yu, Namatame, and Adachi, with Izanagi’s power. Respectively, they represent the concepts of Hope, Despair, and Emptiness – all three of which parallel Izanagi’s story. Namatame’s despair over Yamano’s murder is a clear allegory for Izanagi longing for a woman who herself died tragically. Adachi metaphorically traveled down a path to Yomi when he used his powers to impose his nihilistic, empty beliefs upon the world. However, even after all he had been through, Izanagi never lost hope for the future. He washed himself of the underworld’s corruption and brought forth other deities: Susano-O, Amaterasu, and Tsukuyomi.

Unfortunately for humanity, she deemed Adachi the winner of this game, due to having the most significant impact in spite of his loss. This causes Izanami to conclude that humanity wishes to live in self-deception. The only logical solution to her is to turn all of humankind into Shadows. The Investigation Team’s defeat of Ameno-sagiri merely delayed in inevitable. Realizing that they can’t let her plans come to pass, they travel into the Midnight Channel, chasing the goddess through Yomotsu Hirasaka.

This development was somewhat controversial because of how disconnected it is from the main story. Anyone feeling less kind will accuse this section of being needless padding. Although I personally enjoy it, I have to admit these criticisms aren’t entirely invalid. I will say that Izanami’s presence is foreshadowed well enough with Yu dreaming about Yomotsu Hirasaka in the opening sequences and a lecture explaining the myth occurring after Mitsuo is arrested. Even if they were extremely sparse, the story beats did exist. Similar to Adachi, the writers waved key details in the player’s face long before they realized their importance. The only problem I have with this sequence is its potential to throw the player for a loop – and not in a good way. The narrative does what it can to convince you that the game is over and you’re in a playable epilogue. You must deny the option to end the game multiple times before it finally admits you called its bluff.

Otherwise, I have to say that this sequence is a superb way to cap off the experience. Izanami is an interesting antagonist compared to what one would normally find awaiting them at the end of a Shin Megami Tensei game in that she isn’t really evil. She sees all humans equally and inferred from bad information that they desire oblivion. The team even admits that while Izanami isn’t inherently wrong, Adachi was a clear outlier; some of the most flawed humans out there would never want to give up their individuality. She is, at the end of the day, a powerful being who wants to do the right thing and possesses the power to see her plans through, yet acts upon bad information. It’s a remarkable way of writing a villain who must be stopped at all costs, yet isn’t malicious as much as she is highly dogmatic.

With all of the other Major Arcana having played a role throughout the rest of the game, it’s only natural that Izanami represents the twenty-first and final one: the World. Like the other major villains in this game, she is a manifestation of the Arcana’s reversed reading. The World Arcana symbolizes conclusiveness brought about by a culmination of events that transpired before. However, Izanami’s conclusions from what happened in this story are flawed. She is the type who thinks she knows what is best for humankind when she really doesn’t. Worst of all, she gained no sense of gratification from seeing her plan through.

The battle against Izanami is appropriately challenging. She has multiple forms and absorbs lightning attacks – which is bad news if you decided to bring Kanji along. Like her predecessor, even reducing her health to zero fails to defeat her. In response, she drags Yu’s teammates into the underworld one by one before targeting him. All of the Social Links he maximized then come to his aid in an ethereal form, causing him to rise to his feet once again. Izanami attempts to unleash an instantly fatal attack, Yu shrugs them all off. Using the power surge afforded to him by his friends, his initial Persona gains its true form: Izanagi-no-Okami.

Although there are many themes prevalent throughout Persona 4, it also manages to act as an unconventional coming-of-age story. It is strongly implied that Yu moves around a lot, which made it difficult for him to make long-lasting friendships. After this long journey, he has matured considerably as a person, going from an ordinary teenager to a responsible young adult. To reflect this, Izanagi was originally clad in a black outfit one typically associates with Japanese delinquents. When he transforms into Izanagi-no-Okami, he sports a large, white greatcoat to reflect Yu’s newfound refinement.

To designate the end of his journey, Yu now represents the World Arcana. Everything he accomplished with the rest of the Investigation Team is a resounding success, and he now fully understands our reality. In doing so, his Persona’s ultimate power is allowed to manifest. To counteract Izanami’s Thousand Curses, Yu removes his glasses and responds with Myriad Truths. With this gesture, Yu to cuts through the fog of deception surrounding all of humankind using his own power, allowing others to follow his lead. Upon defeat, the goddess congratulates the Investigation Team for their triumph and removes the fog, vowing to allow humankind to grow without her assistance. Now that the mastermind indirectly behind this murder mystery has been confronted, the Midnight Channel turns into a beautiful world. Teddie returns to this land, thanking Yu for restoring it to its rightful form. A little bit later, Yu boards a train to leave Inaba. His friends see him off as he departs from the small town.

Shin Megami Tensei games are known for having plots featuring grey morality usually bordering on black, so this ending could be seen as the ultimate curveball for longtime players of the series. While it could still be considered somewhat bittersweet, the fact of the matter is that Yu and his friends are still alive, the mystery has been solved, and Izanami decides to leave humankind in peace. Not only that, but most of the antagonistic forces were mentally unstable as opposed to outright evil. Adachi could be seen as the sole exception, and while giving Yu the clue he needed to find Izanami doesn’t redeem him, it demonstrates that even after displaying his true self, there is still a little more to his character than he is willing to admit out load. All in all, the writers handled the story’s sense of morality in a very mature manner. It doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to assessing humankind’s flaws, yet acknowledges they have enough redeeming qualities that they can rise above their vices and better themselves if they try.

Finally, even if I do have a problem with the idea of actively preventing the game from ending, it also has one positive impact on the experience as a whole. Because of the series’ reputation, anyone approaching the final act would naturally expect something bad to happen to Yu or his friends. Perhaps Izanami would be proven right. Maybe Adachi would break out of jail and flee the country. It could even have ended with Yu sacrificing his life for the sake of humankind. In a clear defiance of what a savvy audience member was anticipating, Yu is allowed to walk away from this story better off for it. In turn, having to jump through many hoops to get this far makes watching the final sequences that much more satisfying.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Memorable cast of characters
  • Immaculate soundtrack
  • Top-notch writing
  • Tarot motifs are an excellent touch
  • Overall improvement over predecessor
  • Superb presentation
  • Unapologetically idealistic in tone
  • Intriguing mystery drives plot
  • Excellent voice acting
  • Intricate, turn-based combat
  • No random encounters
  • Creative dungeon design
  • Challenging boss fights
  • Provides a great slice-of-life story in between dungeon crawling
  • Social Links allow for deep character interaction
  • |Strong finish|
Cons:

  • Certain story developments aren’t well-thought-out
  • Extremely long – requires a lot of commitment
  • Somewhat difficult without a guide

How Persona 4 was received makes for a fascinating discussion because I find that in many cases, whenever a series goes on for a long enough time, the fan-favorite installments tend to be the ones featuring a memorably dark premise. This isn’t the case with Persona 4. The game is so unapologetically idealistic that even one only passingly familiar with the Shin Megami Tensei metaseries would have a difficult time believing Persona 4 is a part of it. The best thing is that it doesn’t look upon the world wearing a set of rose-tinted glasses. It acknowledges the flaws present in the world and humanity in general and builds itself from there. In fact, it is entirely because of this nuanced approach to its narrative that it comes across as far more mature than a majority of the works unrelentingly cynical in tone.

I have to admit that, taken at face value, Persona 4 is normally the kind of game I would be hard-pressed to recommend. The actual gameplay is intricate and well-thought-out, yet in order to see everything the experience has to offer, the player must have their eyes practically glued to a guide the entire time. This is because the battles are very challenging – particularly the boss fights – and facing them with a suboptimal skill set is a recipe for disaster. Not only that, but because the game runs on a tight schedule, you do not want to waste any time lest you lock yourself out of some fascinating story beats. This means that whether you admire Persona 4 for its gameplay or its story, the requirements to appreciate them in full are the same – another player’s assistance. Exactly how intuitive certain aspects of a game manage to be varies from person to person, but in most cases, a cryptic experience tends to be the result of poor design choices. Therefore, in most cases, I would say such games aren’t worth playing.

The reason this is important to know is because if you’re apprehensive about getting into Persona 4 because of its occasionally unintuitive nature and long length, I can say without any shadow of a doubt that seeing it through to the end is completely worth every hour you spend on it. Around this point in history, video games were truly beginning to evolve past their humble beginnings. Since the medium’s inception, creators had always strived to experiment and push the envelope in various ways. However, by the late 2000s, a major paradigm shift occurred. The first generation of gamers had entered adulthood and while many of them moved away from the hobby, those who remained began seeking out smarter, deeper fare. Some went as far as creating these kinds of works themselves, for this was around the time the independent movement began gaining steam. It is because of this that I can say Persona 4, much like the journey its protagonist takes, is a metaphor for a time in which video games truly began to mature.

To an even greater extent than its predecessor, Atlus truly showcased the medium’s storytelling potential with Persona 4, which stands to this day as one of the greatest works of the 2000s. Anyone who continues to doubt the medium’s artistic merits needs to, in some way, see what this game has to offer because it truly is the full package. Like the games of old, it’s challenging, yet in spite of its occasionally unintuitive nature, there is a sense of fair play in what it throws at players. Writers Yuichiroh Tanaka and Akira Kawasaki absolutely succeeded in breathing life into the characters they created – to the point where even the silent protagonist has quite a lot of depth. A lot of fans of Japanese RPGs consider Chrono Trigger to be the single greatest example of its genre. Doubtlessly do I consider it an all-time classic, but I have to say that a majority of what made Square’s game good is done just a little bit better in Persona 4. Many fans consider Persona 4 one of the greatest games ever made, and that is a pedigree it well and truly earned.

Final Score: 10/10

16 thoughts on “[GAME REVIEW #200!!] Persona 4

  1. Nope, that ‘like’ button still isn’t having it. :/

    I knew this was one of your 10s. Well, I believe you said before this was your favorite game, so it just makes sense. Unfortunately I still haven’t gotten around to this one yet. As you mentioned in the ‘cons,’ it is quite the commitment. My brother absolutely loves the game but has told me time and again that if you’re going to play it, you really have to dedicate yourself to it. Hopefully next year I actually stick to my “limited new purchases” and can finally find the time for this one. I also want to get back into Persona 5, which was great from what I played, but I could tell that too was going to be a commitment and kind of stopped abruptly because of it.

    And congratulations on 200 video game reviews. It seems like you just did Majora’s Mask for your 100th… Also, nice going with the selections of the 100-mark games. You probably remember that I decided on Super Mario RPG for my 300th, and that’s quite likely my favorite game. So it’s nice to know I’m not the only person who likes to do fun little things like that to celebrate milestones.

    Now if I revisit my peculiar habit of guessing someone’s remaining 10s/favorite games, I’m-a guess the rest of your lineup is Dark Souls and Portal 2, with maybe one more (Half-Life 2 and DKC2 seem like strong contenders, but maybe I just want DKC2 because I love it so much and OHMAHGAWD the music is perfect!). Congratulations on being consistent with your 10s as well. I myself am in the mental process of refiguring/reshuffling my 10s. As I’ve stated, it’s not that I like any of the games I’ve given such scores less, but re-evaluating my system. For movies, I think I’ve been (relatively) more consistent keeping 10s reserved for my absolute, tippy-top favorites (to use the scientific terminology), seeing as I have reviewed some of my other favorites and given them 9s, because they aren’t quite on the same level as the ones I’ve awarded 10s. So I would like to keep that consistency for games as well, which I don’t think I quite have (as much as I absolutely love Dark Souls, which I initially gave a 10, I’m not sure if I love it more than Bloodborne, which I gave a 9. Same goes for the Symphony of the Night/DKC: Tropical Freeze situation. If I end up changing any of my “Mario 10s” that’s gonna be a tough decision…). Anyway, I’m rambling way, WAY off subject. Can you tell I’m probably thinking of writing a piece on my site about this very subject? And now I’ve gone and flooded your site with this nonsense in a comment. Maybe I should stop typing now?

    Congratulations again on 200 video game reviews, and nice choice for the big 2-0-0.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I definitely tipped my hand several times, didn’t I? Unlike some of the other 10/10s, I mentioned Persona 4 pretty frequently as my favorite game, so this score was a foregone conclusion. I’d say you should follow your brother’s advice and see what this game has to offer, though I myself need to get around to playing Persona 5 at some point.

      Majora’s Mask was quite a while ago – that was back when 6,000 words was considered a long review. Now, it’s only slightly above average. And you certainly picked a great game for your 300th review; Super Mario RPG deserves the praise it gets. Even if I run out of 10/10s, I make it a point that these milestone game reviews will always be of games I like.

      To be honest, I think I’d be more likely to give Portal 2 a 9/10 (though it would be pretty close to the top of the tier). Dark Souls would definitely get a 10/10, though. As I said, you basically have to do something completely unexpected to get that grade – even going the extra mile isn’t quite enough. Even I’m not entirely sure what someone has to do to get that grade; I just try to hand it out when I feel what I just witnessed is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement.

      And thanks! I’m glad you’ve been there for most of that journey.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Congratulations, and great choice for your 200th review. Persona 4 is one of my favorites. Sadly there’s been a bit of a backlash against it among Megaten fans who are tired of all the endless Persona spinoff games, many of which are based around P4. You’re also right to point out its lighter feel when compared to other games in the series, and definitely when compared to Persona 3, and it gets some negative criticism for that as well.

    But Persona 4 was worth every minute I spent with it. The battle mechanics are more refined, and as much as I didn’t mind the endless slog of P3’s Tartarus, it was nice to see characters get their own custom dungeons in P4. The characters were great as well — it’s interesting to see how each one fits into the tarot scheme and into either the general plot or the protagonist’s life. Even Yu (or Souji as some people know him, his other “official” name) works really well in the cast despite being a mostly silent protagonist. If you ever get a chance to see the P4 anime adaptation, it builds up his character in an interesting way. I do agree that the plot has some holes, though, especially around Nanako’s kidnapping. It’s pretty clear that the game forced characters to suddenly turn dumb at a few points just because if they didn’t, the plot would resolve itself too early, or else to fit the new direction the writers decided to take with Adachi being the killer. On the other hand, the Persona games are pretty good at keeping this kind of “necessary bullshit” as I put it to a minimum.

    Speaking of Adachi, I think he’s been the best villain in any of the modern Persona games so far. You wouldn’t think of suspecting him at first, but once the plot gets around to exposing him (or once the player figures it out, whichever comes first) it all makes sense. Adachi is also kind of relatable. Maybe this says something weird about me, but I can understand where he’s coming from. Feeling unfulfilled, powerless, stuck in a place you hate — it can all eat at you to the point that you might lose your mind. However, as you say, Yu also came over from the city and started at square one in Inaba with no connections aside from family he barely knew, and he managed to forge great friendships at school and bonds with the Dojimas. Adachi is a smart, capable guy with the potential to have a fulfilling life, but instead of making an effort to improve his situation or at least his mindset, he lets his disappointment and bitterness destroy him.

    There are times when I feel so bitter and depressed that I have this kind of “screw the world” mentality, but that feeling always passes as long as I keep some basic perspective. One of the major messages of the Persona games, and I believe even of the Megaten series as a whole, is that life sucks sometimes but it’s still worth living. Persona 4 doesn’t try to hide that message at all; it’s right there in the open, especially in the Izanami battle. Some people might say that “power of friendship” stuff that shows up at the end of the game is a big JRPG cliche, and maybe it is, but the Persona games deliver that message effectively by creating characters that feel realistic, that you can care about. Especially Nanako. It can be pretty hard to write a child character who’s endearing and not annoying at all, but Mr. Tanaka and Mr. Kawasaki managed it. I did find it weird how Nanako just suddenly came to life again after Teddie’s visit and his second Persona awakening, but I was happy that she survived and recovered, so I don’t really have a problem with it. It would have been too much for Nanako to die — no possibility of having a good ending at that point, no matter how the plot proceeded after that.

    Anyway, great review. I’d recommend Persona 5 as well, but that’s another 80+ hour commitment, and I understand why someone wouldn’t have time to take that on. Hell, I certainly don’t have that kind of time anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I definitely think it draws ire from the “true art is angsty” crowd. Those guys need to loosen up a little – maybe play Dancing All Night for a while?

      I have to admit I didn’t play Persona 3, so most of my observations are from secondhand accounts, but yes, everything I heard about Persona 4 suggests it’s a marked improvement. As you say, I really enjoy how much the tarot motifs fit into each character’s arc, and reading up about it has only deepened my appreciation of the story beats. I definitely want to see the animated adaptation at some point. As cool as Yu is unvoiced, I would like to see how the anime characterized him. Well, it’s not quite a plot hole, more like contrived stupidity. It doesn’t technically contradict any established fact, but the damage is real either way. I have to admit I tend to go a little easy on it because it is far from the worst example of collective stupidity padding out a JRPG plot (that honor would go to Mother 3). Indeed, as you say, Persona 4 keeps it to a minimum.

      I don’t agree with Roger Ebert’s (rather cynical) assessment that a story is only as good as its villain. Generally speaking, if a story sucks, the villain is almost always going to suck in turn. If a story is good, however, a good villain is going to make it that much better. And Adachi is a great villain for this game. I think the game does a good job making him weirdly relatable, yet makes it clear he needs to be stopped. He was a man done in by his own fatalistic views whereas Yu found potential in his new situation and created something great out of it.

      That’s precisely why I think Persona 4 has the high ground when it comes to maturity over the nihilistic stuff AAA developers was pushing in the early 2010s. A lot of the stuff it pulls off would normally be rather hokey, but by acknowledging that humans aren’t all bad, it earns every single smile it creates. The writers injected a lot of life into their characters – to the point of rivaling Grim Fandango in that regard. And I think having Nanako recover at the last minute, while a little cliché, was for the best given the tone of the game.

      I really ought to get around to Persona 5 at some point. I actually got it some time ago, but never actually touched it. I couldn’t tell you why, though now I think I’ll wait for the enhanced edition coming out next year.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have had some mixed feelings towards P4 over the years, not because it’s not great mind you, but it certainly feels like the in between game from P3 to P5, obvious as that might sound with the numerics attached. Its gameplay is nowhere near as clunky and dated as a lot of P3 mechanics that really hold the game back nowadays (the whole forced romances and jealousy mechanics are the pits, to mention a few), but I also can’t say I find its narrative as gripping nor the main cast to be as strong despite being less attached to the player by comparison, then in contrast to 5, the gameplay starts to feel a lot more shallow compared to the many options that game added, but the story is nowhere near as dull by comparison (kinda feels like there’s a tradeoff between gameplay and storytelling when one exceeds and the other doesn’t). That’s not even getting into the pre-Hashino era games, where they have aged terribly from a gameplay standpoint, but the P2 duology (especially Eternal Punishment) has one of the most fascinating stories I’ve seen in a videogame.
    Maybe I’ll make another comment some other time going a bit more in depth towards my feelings on P4 as a whole, but while I don’t like it quite as much as I used to and it has definitely been milked for a little longer than it needed (although it’s not like any of the games were bad per se, I really enjoyed the Arena titles), it’s still a great JRPG when the genre was seemingly dying to the international market.

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    • Ah, you see, I’ve had the opposite experience. Ever since I played Persona 4, my appreciation for what it did for the medium has only increased. This was a game that managed to be progressive without being preachy, which makes it feel fresh even eleven years later. I really do want to try out the other Persona games, but as per usual, I stand by everything I wrote.

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  4. Pingback: October 2019 in Summary: Milestone Madness | Extra Life

    • It’s something special, isn’t it? If I were to do another playthrough of that game, I would definitely want it be of the enhanced Golden version. Too bad it’s only available on the Vita. I think I’ll get into Persona 5 once the enhanced edition is released next year.

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  5. I have to say- I never did get into JRPGs. But your review has intrigued me. Of course, I’m not sure I’d get very far. “Mindlessly aggressive” describes my play style fairly well. 😂

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    • This is a game I could recommend to those who otherwise don’t like JRPGs because the journey is worth it. I actually favor fighter classes myself in action-RPGs, but I refrain from using the strategy in cases where I know it won’t work such as a JRPG.

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  6. Pingback: Listening/reading log #1 (October 2019) | Everything is bad for you

  7. Unfortunately I haven’t played P4 yet so will avoid big parts of your write-up. But I loved Persona 5 and would love to go back and play this. I was hoping for a remaster for the PS4 and avoid buying a Vita. How did you play this? Did you use a PS2 or a PSTV?

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