Persona 4 is meaty enough that I can actually liveblog it. Be warned this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good, just that, unlike mainline SMT, it has content.
Fun fact: I initially planned to watch the anime adaptation instead after how disappointing P3’s gameplay was, but after comparing the first few episodes with YouTubed cutscenes I noticed the anime is a terrible adaptation that cuts out a lot of really important nuances. So don’t watch it. I was also promised by the fandom that the game does exactly what I said P3 should have done in regards to resource management, so I chose to play it instead of YouTubing it. Let us hope this was not a mistake.
We have bespoke difficulty setting this time! That’s great, more games should do that. I initially tried playing on hard mode, but the damage scaling is absurd and led to me getting one- or two-shot constantly, which is a non-starter when this game still has a load-bearing protagonist. So I’ll be playing on normal mode, but with money rewards reduced, as I’ve heard this version of the game broke the economy by massively boosting money drops.
(I was tempted to enable “retries in battles” to avoid wasting time due to unlucky game overs, but it doesn’t actually restart the battle from the beginning, it just revives everyone and the battle keeps going, effectively making battles impossible to lose. I guess it’s for people who just want a story mode.)
We open with the Velvet Room this time. Farla saw some red flags in Igor’s design, but after a bit of discussion we concluded it’s likely meant to evoke a tengu rather than a Jewish caricature. (Note that his eyebrows look like feathers.) Please don’t make me regret this, Atlus.
IGOR: [This] is a room that only those bound by a “contract” may enter… It may be that such a fate awaits you in the near future. […] In the coming days, you will enter into a contract of some sort, after which you will return here.
Igor is now the one who talks about your “contract” instead of Pharos. Unlike in P3, you apparently sign your contract in the future, which is currently affecting the past because of some timey-wimey nonsense. I don’t understand why they chose to make this so confusing when it was so straightforward in the previous game.
IGOR: Now then… why don’t you introduce yourself…?
I usually choose Chara for PC names because names are hard, but for a life sim I feel like the player is implicitly more invested than just making numbers go up. For the previous game I chose “Daichi Tanaka” (rough translation: “Rice Farmer Rice Farmer”), but for this one I decided to spice it up with a wacky foreign name:
(I notice that despite playing the PC port with mouse support, I can’t just type in the name, I have to click the letters. Seems like a rather obvious oversight.)
Igor then does a tarot reading, because the series is determined to milk that motif for all it’s worth. He claims “Each reading is done with the same cards, yet the result is always different,” but of course the cutscene is fixed (you get the Tower followed by the Moon). Farla says it would be funny if they were actually random; changing the plot would be unfeasible, but this could easily be used to determine your difficulty level based on if you got good or bad cards. Don’t like your randomly-assigned difficulty? Reset and try for a new reading! It would be terrible from a design standpoint, but it would be pretty funny.
Igor then introduces Margaret, who I presume will be filling Elizabeth’s role this time. That’s good, I hated Elizabeth.
Why is her hair color visibly different than her model’s? This ends up being the case with several characters, not just her. Was there zero coordination between the art teams? Fortunately, there’s a mod that fixes it, because nothing says professional game development like outsourcing your QA to unpaid modders.
Then the opening movie plays, which begins with softcore porn of a bikini lady at the beach getting doused in water. But don’t worry, it’s actually an in-universe commercial, so it’s social commentary on sexualized advertising! Except they are definitely also using it as unironic fanservice, because the game, too, understands that sex sells. This is confirmed by the porn getting followed immediately by an unrelated program. Unless the story is going to take a deep dive into the nuances of sexualized TV and advertising, which I highly doubt, this was not necessary.
Then the main plot starts. John Smith is a high school student transferring from the big city to the sticks, where he’ll be staying with his uncle Dojima. I assume this is an intentional contrast with the mainline SMT games always taking place in Tokyo.
In their introduction scene your baby cousin Nanako blushes by lighting up like an LED, which Farla was flabbergasted by because she wasn’t numb to it from P3. So I see they’re continuing that odd design choice. I assume the reasoning was that anything subtler would be too hard to see on a big TV screen, but I’m not sure this was a good solution.
We are also introduced to an NPC the game labels as an “unfriendly-looking girl” even though she is perfectly friendly to us through her entire introduction. Why are you being weird, narration?
The uncle stops to fill up gas on the way home to give you an opportunity to walk around and explore the city… except the game refuses to let you into any of the stores so this doesn’t actually provide you any useful information. Dojima also asks the attendant to fill his tank instead of doing it himself; I don’t know if that’s the norm in Japan, but if self-service is actually prohibited, it may be a subtle hint that this backwater has enough trouble with employment it needs to artificially inflate the job market.
DOJIMA: Good a time as any for a smoke.
They do not, however, ban smoking at gas stations, I see. Perhaps they need to give emergency responders something to do, too. Instead of reacting to this, the attendant gives us exposition.
ATTENDANT: Does it surprise a city boy to see how little there is out here? There’s so little to do, I’m sure you’ll get bored fast. You’ll either be hanging out with your friends or doing part-time jobs.
Well, that’s very on the nose, and a weird thing to say when it this was also the case in the bustling city life of P3. (It’s also not true; as in P3, you can spend time going to clubs and restaurants as well.) It’s also weird to phrase this like you’ll have trouble filling your time when managing your extremely limited time is a major mechanic here. You also can’t take any part-time jobs for quite a while, so I’m not sure why we’re learning about that now. (The attendant even finishes the conversation by saying the gas station specifically is hiring, even though they are not. Was the timing moved around during development?)
Oh, save points are Philemon’s butterflies now. I’d rather pretend P1 and P2 didn’t exist, but okay.
We learn Dojima is a detective, so he’s constantly working late and rarely at home, forcing his daughter to be raised by the TV. The only thing that makes her express any emotion is the commercial jingle (which honestly sounds pretty clunky to my ears). This poor kid. I hope we can be a good big brother to her.
…I keep mentally pronouncing the store name “joon-AYS” instead of “joon-ESS”. That even works better with the rhyme!
The English voice actors proceed to have an incredibly awkward time pronouncing Japanese names. There is an audible pause every time a Japanese name appears in the script, as if the actor had to stop to sound it out. The main characters’ lines don’t have this problem, probably because they were allowed multiple takes. Anyway, a local politician has an affair with a reporter, so obviously one of them is going to end up dead. We proceed to go to sleep while leaving Nanako staring at the TV, so I guess we will not get to roleplay being a good big brother. Jeez, game.
Next we have a weird dream that ends with a weird battle against “???”. We can use weapons and personas even though the story hasn’t formally introduced either yet. Why is this here?
The next morning, Dojima is nowhere to be seen and Nanako has made us breakfast. She claims our schools are in the same direction and asks to walk with us, only to reveal that actually her school is in the opposite direction of ours, meaning she just jumped at any excuse for human contact. This poor kid.
On our way to school, another student crashes his bike. (He has a portrait, so he must be important.) We don’t even get the choice to help him, John just ignores him and keeps walking. What a dick.
Spot the protagonists!
The homeroom teacher shows up and immediately starts ranting about how he needs to police the students’ love lives because we’re all such hussies. How is this man allowed within ten feet of children? He proceeds to describe us as having been “thrown from the big city out to the middle of nowhere like yesterday’s garbage” yet follows this up by railing against the degeneracy of the big city. So does he think both the city and the country are garbage? He continues by telling the girls not to hit on us, whereupon Flagrant Dresscode Violation immediately asks us to sit next to her; he somehow fails to read anything into this and lets it happen without comment.
Then the police announce an “incident” that’s totally not a murder and everyone has to go home. The entire class immediately starts gossiping about this, establishing all of them as incredibly nosy and loose-lipped. Remember this, because the game won’t.
The Flagrant Dresscode Violation Ladies immediately pounce on the hot transfer student and offer to walk me home. Green girl is Chie Satonaka, red girl is Yukiko Amagi. The loser who crashed earlier, Yosuke Hanamura, bumps into them and reveals he broke a DVD Chie lent him, whereupon she kicks him in the nuts. Protagonist reaction:
Once again we don’t even get a choice about this! Why are we such a dick?
Outside, Yukiko is accosted by Definitely A Human Man, who in turn gets heckled by a peanut gallery gossipping that Yukiko is impossible to ask out.
STRANGE STUDENT: Um, s-so… are you coming or not?
YUKIKO: I-I’m not going…
STRANGE STUDENT: …Fine!
And he runs off.
YUKIKO: Wh-What did he want from me…?
CHIE: What did he want…? Uh, obviously he was asking you out on a date.
YUKIKO: Huh? Really…?
Then Yosuke shows up to quip that she “Turned down another lovelorn fool, huh? Man, you’re cruel… you got me the same way last year.” Yukiko claims not to remember this, whereupon Yosuke immediately asks her out on a date, which she refuses.
So, from this, we establish that Yukiko appears genuinely oblivious to most romantic overtures, but also rejects people even when she does understand they’re hitting on her. Remember this, because the game won’t. Chie then insists they get out of Dodge because more students have shown up to gawk, once again reinforcing that the students here are nosy and gossipy.
I continue to chat with Chie, who reveals that Yukiko’s family owns a local inn that’s the pride of the town. Oddly, Yukiko makes an annoyed emoji and downplays its significance. This, for once, does get a proper payoff later.
Chie then immediately starts wingmaning, asking if I think Yukiko’s cute. That’s surprising, I expected she was trying to claim the hot transfer student for herself. I gave a “…” response to this, which I intended to mean a flat “What,” but Chie claims I’m blushing. John does not light up like an LED however, so I’m interpreting this as Chie desperately lying for Yukiko’s sake.
Yukiko makes an annoyed emoji and says, “Come on… Don’t start this again.” So not only does she actively turn people down herself, she doesn’t even like it when Chie tries to wingman for her.
CHIE: She’s really popular at school, but she’s never had a boyfriend. Kinda weird, huh?
Why would it be weird, Chie? You’re just gals being pals!
…Oh my god I was joking but Yukiko, unlike the PC, does visibly blush after Chie says that. She gets extremely flustered and babbles that she’s totally had a boyfriend before no wait actually she meant she doesn’t need a boyfriend. Are we… not supposed to get a gay reading out of this?
The characters then stumble over the murder scene. Apparently the gossip queen students get it from their parents, because we get to overhear some housewives loudly gossiping that the body was discovered by a student who left school early.
SHOPPING HOUSEWIFE: I wanted to see it too.
You’re creepy, lady.
SPECTATING HOUSEWIFE: Uh, you got here too late… The police and fire department took it down just a moment ago.
SHOPPING HOUSEWIFE: Well, I think it’s terrifying. I can’t believe a dead body showed up around here…
Or… not? Why is the game contradicting characterization established literally two lines ago?
Dojima is of course here, and proceeds to demonstrate terrible protocol by walking over the crime scene tarp.
You decide to walk away from the crime scene.
Stop telling me what to do, game! Why can’t I be nosy like my classmates? I can finally explore the whole town, so I’m gonna talk to all the NPCs.
POLICEMAN: You must be a student of Yasogami High. You should head straight home for today.
I “must” be? That’s a weird way to phrase it when I’m walking around in the school’s uniform. Or is Yasogami the only school in the neighborhood? In that case, where did the weird student come from and why wasn’t everyone more suspicious of him? He did visibly have a different school emblem, but none of the other students recognized it, implying it’s not local. If he came from out of town just to hit on Yukiko, that’s deeply weird.
Outside Dojima’s house some gossiping housewives helpfully inform me there’s a plot of land next to my house I can use for gardening.
HOUSEWIFE IN FARMING CLOTHES: It’s no big thing. Anyone can start a home garden, so long as they have some unused land to work with…
NEIGHBORHOOD HOUSEWIFE: If [the Dojima family] starts a home garden too, does that mean I can look forward to them sharing the vegetables they grow?
I love how she pointedly says gardening is so easy, but the other housewife’s reaction is “So there will be more people for me to mooch off of, you say?”
That… looks like a grave, not an “empty patch”. I mean don’t get me wrong, that’s good fertilizer, but I have some questions for Dojima.
Back at home, the TV informs us the deceased was the politician’s mistress mentioned earlier. Nanako sits through this whole thing without reaction, only to freak out when she hears the police are investigating because she’s worried about her dad. The police also can’t tell whether it was an accident or a murder, despite the fact that the body was found hanging from an antenna. I’d have liked for them to have shown a picture of the body so we could tell whether that’s a reasonable assessment. Did it look like she could have been electrocuted, or was she strung up? Why aren’t people more suspicious of why a TV announcer was around an antenna in the first place when that’s a technician’s job?
NANAKO: (mildly upset) They found her on the roof? That’s scary…
NANAKO: (immediately perking up) Oh, it’s Junes!
I will give them this, they have accurately depicted the deeply disturbing results of raising your kid by TV. Attempting to rectify Dojima’s terrible parenting by talking to her after the scene just makes the narration tell me “Nanako keeps looking towards the TV with a worried expression… You should leave her alone…” No! You sit down and give your baby cousin human interaction, John!
The next morning Yosuke crashes again on the way to school.
Fortunately, this time the whims of John are in his favor, as I don’t even get the choice to ignore him. (You can, however, be a dick immediately afterwards by only asking if his bike is okay.) Yosuke then decides the best topic for small talk is the murder case. Yosuke, unlike the police, demonstrates he possesses a brain cell by insisting “something that weird” couldn’t have been an accident.
I’m curious if the intended subtext here is that when the reporters say “accident” they mean suicide. It is plausible for such a weird death to be a suicide, but is that too taboo to discuss openly? This would also fit with why the kids seem more confused than the adults. (Again, it would really help if we could see the body.)
After school, Yosuke offers to treat me to some local food. Chie overhears and asks Yukiko to come, who declines because “I don’t want to gain any more weight.” Everyone just shrugs and ignores this obvious red flag because they don’t know what eating disorders are.
Because Chie demands free food in exchange for her broken DVD and Yosuke is a cheapskate, instead of the “local delicacy” he just treats us to some fast food from Junes, the supermarket chain that recently moved in and destroyed the local economy. Yosuke reveals he’s also a transfer student from the city who moved because his dad was assigned to manage the local branch.
Yosuke then notices a girl he has a crush on, so we’re introduced to a new character.
Why does she look like an elf?
SAKI: What’s up, Hana-chan? Boosting the family business by bringing your friends here?
YOSUKE: Madam, you wound me! Kidding aside… you look down. Did something happen?
SAKI: …It’s nothing. I’m just a little tired.
YOSUKE: Hey, if you need to talk, I’m always willing to listen. I…
SAKI: *chuckle* I’m okay. Thanks, though. *sigh* Why’d I leave school early yesterday?
So she’s the student who found the body. This is obvious based on what we heard from the gossiping housewives, but for some reason it’s treated like a shocking twist later.
Saki then smells fresh blood and comes over to me. She says Yosuke “doesn’t have too many friends, so I hope you two get along good. Hana-chan’s a good guy, but he can get nosy sometimes. You gotta tell him right to his face when he starts to annoy you.” I can agree that he’s annoying, which makes her laugh and Yosuke annoyed.
Saki notes her break’s almost over and takes off. Yosuke tries to ask her to stay, but she’s already gone. Yosuke jokes that she treats him like her little brother, which Chie pounces on by joking that they’re star-crossed lovers, as Saki is the daughter of a local liquor store that Junes is running out of business.
Oh so now they can draw blushes properly. His model doesn’t light up, either.
Keep what we have learned from this conversation in mind: Saki is close enough with Yosuke to use a very diminutive pet name, which Yosuke doesn’t mind even though he only ever refers to her with the very respectful “Senpai”. They seem to know each other pretty well, as Yosuke has clearly met Saki’s brother and Saki has noticed Yosuke is lonely. He’s perceptive enough to notice when she’s upset and appears genuinely empathetic.
But right now it’s time to advance the plot: Chie reveals there’s a local urban legend that if you look into a switched-off TV at midnight on a rainy night, you’ll see your soulmate. Yosuke dismisses this as an obvious hoax.
CHIE: Well, it’s raining tonight! Let’s all try it out — then you’ll see!
YOSUKE: Try it out…? Wait, you haven’t even tried it yourself?! Wow, I’m trying to remember the last time I heard something this stupid…
REACTION SPEED [TRIVIAL]: SUCCESS
I’m genuinely impressed, Yosuke, you may actually have two braincells to rub together. You are a genius among jRPG characters.
Yosuke pivots to talking about the murder, and jokes that it’d be spooky if the culprit was still around. This is a relevant character detail… sort of. I’ll explain when we get there.
Back at home, I have “Another dinner alone with Nanako” but surprise, Dojima shows up! Instead of parenting his daughter he tells her to turn on the news for him. The news gives us only one new piece of information: an interview with the student who found the body.
It’s obviously Saki. Come on, TV people, you live in an anime world, surely you know you need to blur the hair as well as the face if you want to hide someone’s identity. Despite this, the narration claims I only “feel” like I’ve seen her before.
REPORTER: Don’t you think it’s scary that someone was killed on a foggy day?
Obviously Saki: Huh…? She was killed?
REPORTER: Oh, err… So did you see anyone suspicious around here?
“You know, like reporters who traumatize children with creepy sensationalist questions?”
The report inexplicably cuts off right after he asks her why she left school early, which is the only question that might yield anything relevant.
COMMENTATOR: It really is a bizarre case, isn’t it? I mean, hanging someone upside down from an antenna…
STOP DESCRIBING IT AND SHOW US A PICTURE. A body hanging upside down from an antenna is something that could conceivably be an accident — perhaps she got electrocuted and tangled up in a wire — but this guy is describing it as if it’s clear someone strung her up. The talking heads go on to say they don’t even have a cause of death, which is deeply suspicious.
COMMENTATOR: Taxpayers’ funds are going to a police force who can’t even figure out if this is an accident or a homicide?
Yeah, I find it pretty inexplicable that anyone still entertains the possibility this was an accident. What is the police’s narrative here? If she wasn’t electrocuted — which should be easy to determine — I don’t see how anyone could think it was just an accident. What, was she strangled by some wires in just such a way that she could also be suspended by them upside-down? That would be one heck of a freak accident. And once again, no one questions how or why she got there. Where was she last seen alive? Did she tell people she was planning to climb the antenna? How does anyone think there is an innocent explanation for how she got up there?
Dojima, instead of reacting to this accusation and maybe giving us some answers, falls asleep.
NANAKO: When I go to bed, I’ll wake Dad up and tell him to go to his own room.
Why wait? Don’t let your dad ruin his back, Nanako! Also, how late is this child staying up if she’s going to bed after everyone else?
We have no choice but to be a bad big brother and ignore all of this to watch some TV.