I first stumbled upon the Persona series when I was 16. Persona 4 was on sale at GameStop and I had to get my mom to buy it because I wasn’t old enough. During this point in my life, I was struggling with a multitude of issues including existential crises, fitting in with the world, and most importantly, my sexual identity. After reading the back label for information on the game, I thought it was perfect. A bizarre murder mystery was just what I needed to escape reality. Or so I thought.
The story begins with the main character transferring to a small rural town called Inaba. Inaba, at first, seems like an ordinary place. Unlike its neighboring city, it doesn’t have a movie theater, café, or pub. Many of its teenage residents describe it as a place with nothing to do. This all changes when two dead bodies are found hanging from antennas while a rumor about the Midnight Channel is spreading throughout the town. The urban legend states that this channel can only be seen at midnight during heavy rain when the viewer is alone and the television turned off. During his time in Inaba, the main character, alongside his classmates, investigates the truth behind these events. How do they do this? By jumping inside the TV, of course. During their investigation, the characters find that there is a connection between this alternate world and the murders. And, to solve the mystery, they must face their hidden selves: their Shadows.
Persona 4’s story borrows heavily from the Jungian psychological concept of the Shadow. Carl Jung declares, “Everyone carries a shadow and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” In this game, the main characters’ Shadows are the primary antagonists. In order to progress, each character must come to terms with their shadow counterpart; they must learn to accept themselves as a whole. In doing so, they awaken the power of their Persona.
In order to execute this concept effectively, this game shows a multidimensional main cast — arguably the best in the franchise so far. At the beginning, Yosuke, Chie, Kanji, and Teddie all struggle with their own internal conflicts. Whether it is an inferiority complex or an existential crisis, each of them initially wears a facade to gain the acceptance they couldn’t receive from themselves. For instance, Chie is overprotective of Yukiko because she wants to feel needed. Kanji over-exudes masculinity to compensate for his “effeminate” hobbies. Naoto, Yukiko, and Rise have insecurities that stem from their environments. Yukiko, being the daughter of an innkeeper, is afraid of having everything predetermined for her. Meanwhile, Rise steps out of the limelight because she is afraid of losing herself in a career that forces her to be a different person in the public eye. These personal struggles and the ability to ultimately overcome them is what makes Persona 4’s cast relatable and realistic.
Persona 4 also has a complex supporting cast that enhances the game’s storytelling, including Dojima and Nanako, the relatives that take the protagonist in during his stay in Inaba. Dojima, a detective in the town’s police force, is often distant from his daughter due to the violent loss of his wife and the unresolved investigation surrounding it. Because of this, Nanako is often left to take care of herself. Throughout the story, the protagonist helps bridge their relationship together and makes them realize their importance to one another.
On the surface, Persona 4 appears to be lighthearted. From a cross-dressing contest to failed cooking attempts, Persona 4 has a myriad of moments that certainly make you laugh. However, it gets darker when we analyze the process through which the victims die. Once thrown into the television world, the victim’s Shadow kills them. This, to me, symbolizes the concept of suicide because the Shadows ultimately are a culmination of an individual’s negative and suppressed thoughts. This allusion to suicide is something that many games don’t touch upon much but Persona 4 does a great job of conveying.
Persona 4’s visual design helps contribute to its lighthearted exterior and helps create a sense of duality that mirrors that of the Personas and Shadows. From the opening cutscene to the game menu, yellow is the predominant color in this game. According to color psychology, yellow represents the mind. Furthermore, color psychologists declare that the color yellow has the “tendency to make one more anxious and critical toward others and themselves.” In the process of self-acceptance that this title highlights, there is bound to be anxiety and fear around resolving these internal conflicts. Inaba’s town design provides a contrasting warm atmosphere. Every building has its own characteristics; each strip of the town has its own specific features. Green and brown color palettes are found all throughout the town. By traversing the environments, there is a sense of familiarity, and by the end of it, I felt like I was a born resident of Inaba.
In addition, Shoji Meguro’s musical compositions help in giving Inaba its distinct character. While walking around the town ‘Your Affection’ and ‘Heartbeat, Heartbreak’ play based on the weather. Both are upbeat J-Pop songs which I found myself bobbing my head to on more than one occasion. ‘Heartbeat, Heartbreak’ reminded me of a Nujabes song called Counting Stars, so I was pleasantly surprised when I heard it. Also, ‘Reach Out to the Truth’ is probably my favorite battle music from any video game I have played. It’s an extremely catchy track that makes grinding in the dungeons much more fun. Collectively, Persona 4’s soundtrack is relatively diverse, ensuring that there is something for everyone.
Shigenori Soejima returns as the character designer for Persona 4. What more can I say? Soejima does well in creating designs that fit the character personalities and the overall atmosphere of the game. I particularly like Chie’s and Kanji’s designs. I love how he incorporated a green track jacket on her to complement her athletic personality. Kanji is shown wearing a black long-sleeve shirt with a skull at the center and his uniform jacket slung around him to depict the overcompensation related to his masculinity.
I feel like Persona 4 has exceptional character models for a PS2 game. Each of the main characters has distinct and detailed models, from their clothing to their hair. I am slightly disappointed that they didn’t add any of this variation to the NPC models. The students at Yasogami High all blend into one another, aside from the main characters and supporting cast. It detracts from the theme of individuality that Persona 4 conveys.
As for the gameplay, Persona 4 definitely improves upon its predecessors. I had more than my fair share of screaming at the television screen because the AI wouldn’t heal me when I needed them to in earlier games. Thankfully, they added an option to manually control the characters in Persona 4. The player can choose to control all four party members in this game, allowing for better strategies. Furthermore, there is no more “tired” status. Characters no longer leave you for shadow fodder after becoming tired. There is also a Guard command that protects party members from attacks they are weak against. This is incredibly useful in later battles since chain attacks from Shadows can prove to be fatal.
Each floor of the dungeons is still randomly generated like Persona 3. However, unlike Persona 3’s single dungeon tower, multiple dungeons exist in Persona 4. Each dungeon’s theme is based on an individual’s repressed emotions; the first real dungeon of the game is a castle because the person is hoping a prince might come take them away from their fate, for example. This is a welcome change from a single tedious location, but the interior design is still the same: treasure chests randomly placed, doors that lead to nowhere, and dead ends. Having the dungeons in Persona 4 reflect the hearts of the characters is essential in connecting them with the overarching theme of the game, despite the floor plans.
Outside of dungeons, the rest of the game plays as a school/life simulation. There are many things to do that change based on the time of day or specific date. There are club activities depending on which club the player chooses to join, and even a fishing minigame. The most important of these activities is developing bonds with the party members and other town residents through social links — those bonds directly affect your Personas and subsequent dungeon progress.
In the social link system, each character is given a specific Tarot card, and their stories relate to the meaning of that card. Tarot is essentially energy, and in every tarot reading there can be one of two outcomes: an upright or a reversed card. An upright Tarot card can be interpreted as energy that is shown to the world. A reversed Tarot card, on the other hand, represents energy concealed within. In Persona 4, the reversed reading is similar to our ‘shadow’ selves while the upright reading is what we are striving to achieve. At the beginning of each Social Link, each character has traits that pertain to the reversed reading of their Arcana. For instance, the Emperor social link involves an insecure man throwing his weight around because he is unsure of his sexuality. Only when you progress through his social link does he find that liking traditionally feminine things does not erase his masculinity. While this is only one instance, it’s these connections that truly drew me into the series.
Persona 4 is one of those games that I wish I could go back and experience again for the first time. I didn’t want to say goodbye to the characters I got to know so well; I wanted to stay with them forever. I bought a game that I was hoping would help me run away further from my problems, but, in the end, it gave me the courage to face myself. A few weeks after finishing it, I decided to come out to my mom about my sexuality. Prior to experiencing this, I struggled to find worth within myself. But Persona 4 does not showcase perfect characters; it shows that you don’t have to be perfect to have worth.