Rating: M for Mature
In 2008, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 was released on the PlayStation 2 to widespread critical acclaim, and re-released on the PlayStation Vita in 2012. Now it is back, accessible in the form of a Steam release. Can a game first released twelve years ago still hold up under the weight of its successor’s wide-spread fame, not to mention its own reputation?
Violence: Characters use various weapons and offensive techniques such as swords, daggers, kicks, and elemental magic to dispatch foes called Shadows. When defeated, they usually disappear into a red mist. A room within the TV World features blood splatter all over its walls while a noose and chair are on display ominiously. Serial murder is the main topic of discussion. Scenarios involving bullying take place. People are kidnapped and thrown into the TV World. A Shadow threatens to perform experiments on its host.
Spiritual Content: Social Links involving those around the town of Inaba all correlate to a specific card in a tarot set. Shinto gods are the main driving force behind the plot. Various gods are used as Personas by the player. One social link involves helping a fox in a shrine fulfill wishes that will help with the upkeep of the shrine.
Language: Characters use various curse words and exclamations such as a*s, b*tch, sh*t, d*mn, and what the hell.
Sexual Content: The option to be in multiple romantic relationships at the same time is possible, but ends poorly for the protagonist come Valentine’s Day. One of the female characters appears on The Midnight Channel and proudly states that she is looking to “score a hot stud,” and to her chagrin, one of her team members brings up the subject often. The Investigation Team goes to bathhouses and hot springs at various times throughout the adventure, and a couple of the male characters intentionally try to sneak a peek on the girls. A misunderstanding in scheduling has the guys unintentionally walk in on the girls bathing when it is men’s hours in the open-air bath.
A trip to the beach has the cast in swimsuits where one of the males loses his speedo. Personas such as Succubus and Incubus and various others are shown with cleavage, exposed breasts, phallic heads, torsos, and nether regions. While not overly graphic, it is obvious what they are supposed to be. Their descriptions describe sexual activities such as seducing men and women. One dungeon is based around a strip club where the boss is gyrating on a strip pole; another is a men’s bathhouse where the boss is a character’s Shadow with two flamboyant men on each side. A homeroom teacher bears major cleavage, and speaks frankly about her figure. A cultural festival starts with a cross-dressing pageant for the boys, and a regular beauty pageant for the girls. Swimsuits are an option for dressing the Investigation Team when exploring dungeons.
A male and female party member both struggle with gender norms and how their hobbies and interests are seen by their peers and the opposite gender. The main character and another male treat their friend in a way that can be described as “gay panic.” A school trip has everyone stay in what is obviously a sex hotel where the earlier-mentioned buxom teacher gets a good nightly rate.
Alcohol/Drug Content: A part-time job involves working at the bar and is optional. Half of the Investigation Team gets drunk off the atmosphere at a club they go to in their off time on a school trip. No actual alcohol is consumed. Ryotaro keeps a pack of cigarettes on him at all times, and is seen with one in his mouth frequently. A teacher is obviously drunk during a separate school trip while the students are to be sleeping, he is seen vomiting profusely the next day. A separate incident involves a teacher stating he is hungover after consuming too much alcohol while performing a New Year’s ritual, this is implemented into a school lesson about Japanese culture. Yay?
High school is a tough time for many. People grow in multiple ways, friendships are created, renewed, or torn apart. Hobbies start to blossom and turn into possible career interests. That one girl that was really weird last year is suddenly not so odd and maybe a little cute. The best friend suddenly has matured and is taking his studies seriously now. A football player who used dancing as a way to increase his agility is now instead enjoying it and has a recital in a couple of weeks. It is all hard to navigate, this maze of relationships. No matter whether action is taken or not to grow, life is going on with or without you. It is one of the greatest lessons Persona 4 Golden and even the greater Persona series at large are trying to teach.
Persona 4 is a time management, turn-based combat and social life simulation. Daily life is divided into a few main segments: Morning, After School, and Evening during the week, while weekends and holidays are categorized as Daytime and Evenings. These chunks of time are crucial and must be planned ahead. Sleepwalking is no way to go about life. Time is dedicated between many options: entering the TV World to save the poor kidnapped souls who have been thrown in, spending time with Social Links, side activities and quests, and working part-time jobs. Most activities take one slot of time, and how much that happens depends on the player.
Persona 4‘s main story is all about saving the people who appear on the Midnight Channel. Every segment is started by a program displaying the victim’s Shadow proclaiming the unspoken feelings from within their hearts. Whether it is feeling trapped in their life at home or being unable to express their real selves in front of others, nothing is held back from the harsh truths of their inner selves. To take on such a task, the Investigation Team must take on the TV World’s residents: Shadows. These Shadows are born from humans and their negative emotions. The more negative the emotion, the stronger the Shadow.
Every form varies from dungeon to dungeon, and so do their elemental affiliations. Combating the foul creatures is done turn-based in a similar fashion to Pokémon. There are basic physical attacks and skill attacks. These skills are either physical and cost HP, or magical which have an element/buff/de-buff assigned at the cost of SP. Each of the members of the Investigation Team has their own element and area of expertise. Yosuke has wind, Yukiko has fire/darkness, Chie has ice/physical and so on. Using an element an enemy is weak to will down them, allowing the opening for another attack called a “One More.” If all enemies are down, the able-bodied members of the party rally together and dole out massive damage in an All Out Attack.
The off time from this is used to develop Social Skills. These are made of five categories: Understanding, Knowledge, Courage, Dedication, and Expression. If a character is having a rough go in life, Understanding is crucial. Tutoring is needed for a young man looking to continue his education, Knowledge is the door where Expression is the key. Working a graveyard shift at a hospital builds Courage. Each of these five areas must be developed and balanced in order to help those around the town of Inaba.
Just as important to the main story is spending time with Social Links. These bonds between the player and the citizens each have a unique story tied to them. Every person has an issue that must be overcome that allows them to grow into the person they are meant to be. Growing is hard and cannot be done alone, and being there for these people as the protagonist facilitates this growth. No man is an island and this game proves it.
I feel that I know not what there is to say about a game that is eight years old at its original release and even older at its first iteration; there are so many good things to say about something, and the amount of new good things to say is fewer as the days pass. Whether it is because the subject can be seen as outdated, it has been said already, or it just is not worth being talked about. Persona 4 Golden is absolutely worth talking about, especially at its asking price.
SPOILERS! YOU ARE WARNED.
While everything is great in the gameplay, there is some real meat in the Social Links. I did touch on them a little bit in an earlier paragraph, but here is where things are discussed fully and some problems with the game are discussed. This is your mature content warning.
A variety of stories play out in these multi-level events: a young woman named Eri struggling with connecting to her new stepson, Daisuke overcoming his recent heartbreak, Yumi struggling with abandonment, and an elderly woman looking for healing after her husband’s passing. Every story has a new layer to it as they are peeling back one after another.
This game has no qualms with going somewhere and punching you in the gut. After being rejected by a boy she likes, Ai goes up to the school rooftop with the full intention of killing herself. She sees no value in her life because all the student body sees her as is some easy booty. All of her hard work of going from fat to fab was wasted in her mind. As the player, there had to be work put in to show her that her beliefs were not true, and she did matter and have a place in the world.
A young man named Shu questions whether he should have been born after being scolded for cheating on a test. He asks if he can really live up to his mother’s expectations of him.
Even the protagonist’s relatives he lives with, Nanako and Ryotaro Dojima, have issues regarding moving on after the death of Nanako’s mother. Ryotaro struggles with trying to be a great father while being a busy detective. Nanako runs away from home at one point because she truly does not feel like she is loved by her father. Through the help of the protagonist, their lives are forever changed if time is spent helping them.
Marie has a case of amnesia. Through her interactions with the player and company, she realizes she does not need to know who she was, only who she is. If her complete Social Link is complete before Christmas, and she disappears after the New Year. She regains her memory and discovers she is a Shinto god who must die to save Inaba from falling to Shadows. Her dungeon is one of the toughest in the game, as it tracks her despair as a new level is explored. The party sent in after her feel it weigh on them as well as their SP is halved after each battle.
Not every story is as well-handled, however. The biggest issue most of the general player base has had is with two members of the Investigation Team. Remember the flamboyant men and the experimentation Shadows mentioned earlier? They belong to Kanji and Naoto, respectively. This is where we talk the harder stuff.
Kanji is a kind soul in a loud body. He likes knitting, cooking, and playing house. But he is not accepted by the girls or the guys, so he decides to hide who he is. He bleaches his hair and starts fights with people after his father tells him to be a man before passing. His soul is torn; what he sees as his true self is a sissy, something completely from what he thinks a man needs to be. Men do not knit or cook—that is for the girls, or so he thinks. Enter his Shadow, an effeminate and essentially homosexual being, rather than the “man” his father told him to be.
But this depiction is an old stereotype from long ago. His dungeon is a men’s bathhouse where his Shadow, upon Kanji’s rejection, transforms into standing in a bed of roses with two buff men on each side. This is what he sees as wrong with himself. It does not dawn on him that it can be cool to knit until he is told so. After a chance encounter, Kanji offers to make a young boy a bunny doll for a friend. Through his interactions with the kid and his subsequent requests for more dolls does Kanji see that he has a cool gift and can bring joy to others. Kanji blushes when interacting with Naoto before and after it is revealed that she is a woman, leaving his sexual orientation up to interpretation.
Naoto, however, has problems with accepting her gender identity. After being kidnapped, she is inside a secret lab where her Shadow plans on changing her gender and will not take no for an answer. Upon her rescue, she confides that she presents herself as a man so she can be taken seriously by the police she works with to solve crimes. Her problem lies in how others see and treat her. She just wants to live up to her family name, and wishes she was born a man just so she could be treated with respect. But over time, she comes to remember that she does not need to be a man to solve a case. She just enjoys tracking down bad guys and accepts who she is. I personally do not have a major issue with this part of the story seeing as I have not struggled with my gender, but it could be seen as more problematic here in 2020 than in 2008 when Persona 4 first came out.
Persona 4 is symbolically performative. When Personas are summoned, the summoner calls out either “PERSONA!” or the name of their Persona while crushing their arcana’s tarot card. This is symbolic of one rejecting what fate has chosen for them, given that one believes tarot cards actually tell the future. The biggest symbol is the biggest spoiler too—the fog itself. A major part of the story is saving people before the fog sets in as when it does, the Shadows in the TV World get aggressive and kill whoever is not one of them. This fog is symbolic of the comfort of lies in our life that cloud our vision of the real truths we refuse to see. So we hide it in a fog of our own making, and when the truth is revealed to us, we can get aggressive and defensive, effectively killing reality.
The TV World is the collective unconscious of the human mind, covered in the fog of our own lies. So when the secret boss and her dungeon are revealed, she confronts the player about why they would desire the truth when it is easier to settle with falsities. All of this is ended with a singular attack when all hope is lost: Myriad Truths. A little on the nose, but the game earns it.
Even with these possible problem areas, I still stand by my statement. Persona 4 Golden is still a work of art in the JRPG genre and deserves a spot in your library. It is time to make history and reach out to the truth.
The Bottom Line
One of the best JRPGs to ever be released is now in its most accessible form; now go get it and reach out to the truth.