Persona 4: Conclusion

The opening of my first draft, back when I thought I’d be doing this in a single post, was “Persona 4 is better than Persona 3.” That was very naive. I’m now quite confident the opposite is true: Persona 4 is so bad it makes Persona 3 look good.

Probably the most damning thing here is that P4 is much, much worse on characters than P3 — which is especially bad when the plot is also more character-centric this time. We’ve multiplied from one anime horndog to three, all of whom are worse than Junpei and one of whom targets the player specifically with sexual harassment. Never thought I’d be nostalgic for Junpei but wow did they restrain themselves with him. Despite all that, the characters have nothing to make up for it; most of them are just incredibly flat and bland and few of them have any interesting relationships with one another.

  • I will give Yosuke credit for being significantly smarter than anyone else, including the cast of P3… but that doesn’t make up for the fact he is such a deeply awful and unpleasant person to be around. He is consistently cruel and mean to every other character, especially Kanji, either because he has a hair-trigger temper or just for kicks. He is incredibly petty and whiny about everything, in addition to being Horndog #1. The only way I could maintain my interest in him is by reading his behavior through the lens of a sociopath, which isn’t even that interesting because I know it’s completely unintended by the writers.

 

  • Chie was unobjectionable up until her subplot resolved into the standard “Strong Female Character isn’t allowed to do anything on her own and needs a Strong Man to rein her in” trope. None of the girls in P3 had this plotline, why is it happening now? Why did the writers get significantly worse on writing women in-between games? And tying into my “no chemistry” complaint, it really irks me that she’s never allowed to end up with Yukiko despite all the shameless queercoding around them. All the characters must first and foremost revolve around the player, so the idea of letting them prioritize a relationship with someone else is inconceivable to the writers. (You didn’t even have to deny the players the chance to bang her, writers, bisexuality exists! Oh, but I suppose Kanji demonstrates you didn’t know that.) Once again, this is baffling when P3 had no trouble letting Yukari and Mitsuru have a (admittedly platonic, but still) relationship completely unrelated to the protagonist.

 

  • Yukiko is a blob. Like I said in the main review, her Shadow’s plan of sitting around as a damsel in distress managed to be more proactive than what she was actually doing. I liked that she seemed to try being proactive in her social link, but of course that had to get kneecapped because status quo is God. Her character arc has her ending up right back where she started but now she’s got the rebellion beaten out of her so everything’s better. What a pointless, empty character.

 

  • Anything interesting about Teddie got crushed into irrelevance when he was made Alpha Horndog. Why did the writers think this character was remotely acceptable outside of a literal porno? Are they personally getting off to this, or do they just think this is what the teens want? Or are they not even thinking that coherently because they’re manchildren who never matured past adolescence?

 

  • Kanji is Best Boy and none of these losers deserve him. He is also the only character in the entire cast with an actual nuanced personality and character development. He honestly reads like a character from a completely different story who had the misfortune of wandering into this one — his behavior is so much more grounded, he reacts to things so normally instead of with comical anime overreactions, and he’s the only one aside from Yukiko who doesn’t immediately read sex into everything. He’s only incongruous because he’s a sane man in an insane world.

    Unfortunately, the writers also tried to Take On The Issues by making him gay only to bungle it so badly they accidentally made him bi because they didn’t understand bisexuality existed. Everything about his backstory is so bafflingly incoherent — in what world are gay boys more scared of girls than boys? What girl looks at a hot athletic guy who loves his mom, can contribute to housework, and demonstrates co-parenting skills by making dolls for kids and says “Ew, get out of here with that gay stuff”? By any reasonable metric Kanji should be Yasogami’s most desirable bachelor. This isn’t even borne out in his actual interactions — every time we see him interact with girls, they’re scared of him. Where are all the girls who are somehow sticking around long enough to make fun of him?I honestly don’t know if it would have been better to remove that aspect of his character entirely — it gets into the “is bad representation worse than no representation” debate, I suppose. Although now that I think of it, him being gay is probably the only reason they didn’t make him another horndog, so it was worth it on the whole.

 

  • Where’s my restraining order, Rise? Horndog #3’s entire character appears to just be predicated on the “joke” of “Most people want to sexually harass idols, so what if an idol sexually harassed you?” And that’s it. She has nothing else. Her Shadow was a complete non-sequitor that had nothing to do with her behavior before or after and was blatantly just there to show her off in a bikini, which wasn’t even necessary because she did that in the beach episode anyway. There are vague sputters of the writers using her to commentate on idol culture, but they love jerking off to teenage girls too much to actually criticize it. She could be completely erased from the narrative and nothing of value would be lost.

 

  • Naoto doesn’t live up to the hype. She’s a better detective than the rest of these idiots, but her attempts at in-person interrogation are so bad I can’t understand how she managed to solve 24 cases before this. “Let’s tell the prime suspect we don’t suspect him and will believe anything he says before interrogating him!” Sherlock Holmes you are not, Naoto. The gender thing was interesting and actually ties into the themes about personas and personal identity, but it doesn’t go anywhere because the writers’ attitudes towards women and gender identity are too deeply regressive for that. I don’t see any reason for her to exist at all, honestly; there’s nothing she contributes to the plot that Dojima couldn’t.

 

  • Speaking of which, Dojima is so awful, oh my god. I’m glad that you can eventually call him out, but even then the game does not seem to recognize just how awful he’s being and the resolution sets everything back to square one, just framed as a good thing this time. What on Earth were the writers thinking here. Also, he honestly feels pretty extraneous to the plot given how much screentime he has — despite ostensibly being a detective working on the main mystery, he’s never allowed to make any progress on it or make any meaningful contributions because teenagers have to do everything. He really, really should have been a party member, maybe in place of Naoto. I don’t know why that’s so unthinkable when P2 did it fine with Katsuya.

 

  • Adachi is possibly the most disappointing villain they could have gone with. I honestly can’t say I’m surprised they went with a motive as scintillating as “just ’cause”, given the past villains in this series, but I was still hoping for something more after all that buildup. Of course, I should have known the writers were completely creatively bankrupt. Though Adachi is human, he’s the human equivalent of a spooky demon man — the psycho slasher, the rapist in the alley. Real people like that do exist, sure, but they’re vanishingly rare. He’s not holding a mirror up to humanity, not making us question how our fellow man could fall to such depravity or what similar darkness might be lurking within us, he’s just an Other for us to use as a boogeyman. (And of course they had to follow him with a fully inhuman spooky demon man, because even this was too mundane for them.)The lack of self-awareness in these misogynists making their villain an over-the-top misogynist is also staggering. Yosuke and Teddie display the exact same creepy, entitled behavior towards women as he does, but when they do it it’s just funny, not threatening. The complete lack of awareness that the only separation between Yosuke and Adachi is how far they’re willing to go, and how the person on the other end has no way of knowing where that line is. Any Yosuke could become an Adachi at any time. But the omniscient writers know their special boy would never, so the girls magically know it’s all harmless fun when Yosuke does it.

    Honestly, I have to wonder how much of Adachi’s misogyny we’re actually supposed to disagree with, and how much we’re supposed to think he had a point but just went too far? The characters only ever express disgust at his violence and callousness, not his baseline creepiness and possessiveness towards these women. Maybe I’m wrong and he is supposed to be relatable. “Obviously we all hate girls who refuse to put out, but remember it’s wrong to actually kill them for it!” Or he’s just supposed to be a boogeymen for misogynists to point to and say, “At least I’m not like that!” The misogyny of the overall narrative removes my ability to read him in any kind of good faith.

It’s all just such a disappointment. When I heard the premise of this game, I was hopeful that we would get more involved character studies. But no, despite handling nuanced and complex characters just fine (well, mostly — hi Ken) in the previous game, they completely phoned it in for this one. Except for Kanji, the characters are all schlocky, trite anime cliches whose plotlines go nowhere interesting (or sometimes nowhere at all). Despite the game making such a huge deal out of the Shadows and the characters’ “true selves”, in practice they’re almost completely disconnected from the main plot — when characters acknowledge them at all, it’s as a footnote. Chie is the only exception to this, but she still doesn’t bring it up very often and I see no indication she wouldn’t have ended up in the same place without that push. The Shadows should have been central to everyone’s subplots, using them as a springboard for personal growth after acknowledging these are flaws they need to work on, but they’re just irrelevant. I honestly have to wonder if the main plot and social links were written by different people, they’re that disconnected.

The Shadows themselves are also just so weird and over-the-top. There’s at least a better justification for them than in P2 (yes, “it’s magic” is a more coherent justification than one that directly contradicts the point you’re trying to make), but it still fails to sell me on them. The shadows are all literally cackling evil lolcrazy, which manages to simultaneously be over-the-top and dull. Peoples’ manifested personalities should be, y’know, personalized, rather than all having the same behavior. I don’t understand their motivations, either: They all want to kill their original selves so they can become the real self (?), except that if they succeed the person just dies and the shadow becomes a mindless monster, so what are they getting out of this? Why do they proceed to lash out at everyone in the vicinity after they’ve gotten what they wanted? I mean, the obvious answer is because we needed an excuse for boss battles, but a video game writer’s job is to make the gameplay and story elements mesh together, and they didn’t even try. The sheer amateurishness of these writers employed by a major media company continues to stagger me every time.

I think the game would have been a lot better if they had ditched the school setting completely and made Dojima the main character. Imagine what this game would look like if we spent our days doing actual detective work instead of studying for exams. Imagine if the protagonist’s Persona being Izanagi had any connection to their character whatsoever. This would have even made the Adachi reveal actually mean something, if he was a major character and friend instead of a random comic relief character. (In theory, you could even make the misogyny work well — if he was the only horndog in your party, you could hide his villainy in plain sight under the guise of “Well, it’s just an anime trope.”) Imagine if they one-upped killing off a party member in P3 with revealing one of your party members to be the villain in P4 instead of… not doing anything unusual with the party lineup at all. They already did adult protagonists in P2 so it’s not like it’s impossible, why are these writers incapable of reusing their few good ideas?

But even then you’d need a good plot to make it work, and that’s a bust too. P3’s plot was weak (mainly because it was hella backloaded), but it at least had some idea of what it was trying to say. It had an overarching theme in mind — death — and committed to it pretty consistently. It got lost in the weeds at the end when it abruptly pivoted from loss to mortality, but those two themes are at least in the same ballpark and I can see why the writers conflated them. What even is the theme of P4? I had to look it up on the fan wiki because I was so uncertain:

Persona 4‘s theme is “truth”, as the characters overcome their own problems by facing themselves, helping them see past rumors and falsehood. All of these problems come together once the party confronts the conductor of the murders, Izanami, who outright believes in blissful ignorance, forcing the view that humans can never truly attain the truth due to their limited people they can meet in their lifetime, and hence their inability to truly find and define themselves. Even then, the protagonist would see past her overwhelming facades by grasping the bonds he got to know and understand, even if very few compared to all of humanity.

Except no, not really. The characters don’t actually overcome their problems by accepting their Shadows because they still need room for character development in their social links, not that the social links actually make use of it. And as I’ve repeatedly complained, the Shadow sections and the social links have such a disjoint with one another they sound like they were written by different people.

Then there’s the absolute absurdity of saying “Yeah, it ends with the teenagers killing God with the power of friendship like every other anime, but this time it’s thematic!” No, they wrote generic anime cliches and then pretended there was a theme to it. I know this because the story does absolutely nothing with this theme of “truth” beyond the most superficial and painfully shoehorned of takes. Characters acknowledging their flaws and self-actualizing isn’t a deep commentary on the nature of truth, it’s just a character arc. They’re just taking the simplest of story building blocks and pretending they connect to a theme (if you stretch that theme’s definition to breaking and squint really hard). Half the time they couldn’t even manage that level of superficiality in the social links and just used the previous game’s theme instead, because I guess that’s what they actually wanted to write about.

I think what’s most damning here is that despite TV being used as such a prominent motif, the player and main cast never interact with actual TV. The very first shot of the game is a TV advertisement, Nanako is introduced as being raised by the TV, the first victim is a TV announcer — and then nothing. Those threads are completely dropped. We only watch the news, the weather, and the shopping channel — the channels directly relevant to the case. It’s not like this is supposed to characterize the protagonist as super focused, because we can waste all the time we want catching fish, reading books, and folding envelopes — just not watching TV. We constantly hear NPCs talking about what was on TV, but we never see it ourselves.

You know what would have made a lot of sense? If Nanako introduced us to the Midnight Channel. Like so many neglected kids, she discovered that if she stays up till midnight, her special friends in the TV give her the attention Daddy never does. That would have made the Midnight Channel metaphorical for a real thing that ties into broader themes about media and pop culture — if you rely on the TV to raise your children, you relinquish control of your child to the media. But that would require actually caring about media as a theme — and moreover, criticizing it, which as Rise’s social link demonstrates they are not willing to do.

(Oh, and the theme summary on the fan wiki ends by saying the game has Shinto themes on the grounds it uses the names Izanagi and Izanami, which, LOL. LMAO even. If the writers cared one whit about mythology they would have swapped the big bads of P4 and P3. Nyx is the god of secrecy and obscurity while Izanami is the god of grief and mortality — they would have had so much relevance to the other game. Instead they’re just random, because the SMT writers treat mythological figures like little boys playing with action figures. I’m honestly starting to wonder if they have as superficial an understanding of Shinto as they do the other mythologies they butcher, because the use of Izanami here was just baffling even without getting into the definitely non-canonical genealogy. Like, okay, I guess you could view the Izanami myth as Izanagi being unable to accept a horrible truth? But the horrible truth he can’t accept is death, that’s kind of the bigger theme there!)

I suppose I can say this: The pacing is better. Pretty much the entire first half of P3 was just setup, with no significant developments happening until autumn. Here, every Shadow is engaging as its own self-contained little episode, while also providing clues to the overarching mystery. Unfortunately, that’s a double-edged sword, because the denser plotting just makes the calendar system even wonkier. In P3, the glacial pace of the overall plot didn’t clash too much with the weeks and weeks of meaningless downtime (though it definitely still did). Here, we have a better-paced plot but it’s still getting constantly interrupted for stupid garbage like the campout or weeks of nothing happening at all. Like, hey, “investigation team”, the murders? Maybe we should do some, y’know, investigating instead of goofing off just because there’s no active threat that we know of? Maybe we should try popping into the TV world just to make sure no one else is going to be murdered by the fog instead of assuming everything’s fine? They’ve replaced vapidity with whiplash, and I’m not sure which is worse.

Honestly, I have to wonder if this is another example of a series being pushed past its natural lifespan. The staggering drop in quality here makes me think that maybe they used up all their good ideas in P3 and didn’t know what to do next. The franchise demanded they pull out a second set of complex, nuanced characters and another plot with a strong thematic throughline and they just couldn’t. They fell back on safe anime cliches for the characters, and for the plot… Well, it sure looks as if they threw together a janky mess of a plot, realized what they had was a jumble of stupid anime cliches, then tried to pretend it was metacommentary by going, “Uhh, the reason everything’s stupid anime cliches is because TV is the real enemy!” P3’s central theme is consistently interwoven through the whole thing from the start, but P4’s just feels tacked on.

Gameplay-wise, after my second go-around with these mechanics I’m now convinced the life sim elements are an active detriment to everything else. The extremely decompressed timescale makes everything so incredibly bizarre — I frequently pointed out the absurdity of leaving people in the TV world for weeks, but it wrecks the pacing of the subplots and social links too. I said this in my P3 review but it bears repeating: forcing the optional subplots to exist in this atemporal pocket dimension where they can’t acknowledge time passing or the events of the main plot is extremely bizarre and ruins immersion. A social link can end on a cliffhanger, yet I can wait literal months before picking it up again and characters will act like no time has passed. Daisuke will patiently wait for eternity before I give the go-ahead to run his ball game, Yumi’s dad will miraculously cling to life until I talk to Yumi enough times, etc. There’s no tangible, specific time pressure or tension other than the knowledge that my overall time is limited in some general capacity.

The non-social link options for spending time are also really stupid and shouldn’t have existed. “Hm, should I hang out with my friends to gain a magic card that gives me superpowers, or should I fold envelopes?” is the kind of choice I would expect to see in a parody of a life sim because it is an absolutely insane choice, let alone that it is somehow a difficult one. The non-SL options are just such obvious padding and grindy busywork. What, exactly, are they supposed to add to the game? How do they improve the experience? The social link plots are already so painfully decompressed, why did they need even more padding?

The two halves of the game are not remotely balanced, either; the life sim overwhelmingly devours the dungeon crawler. Dungeons made up a minority of my playtime, and the game encourages you to visit them as little as possible, with even commenters on this very blog urging me to power through dungeons all in one go so as not to waste precious calendar days. The dungeon crawling, which is supposed to be the main feature of the gameplay and plot, is an afterthought you squeeze in in-between the life sim parts. I’ve heard reviewers say that the appeal of this game is in how you can switch tracks between two gameplay modes once you get bored of one… but I don’t know what game they were playing, because that’s completely untrue in this one. I always got bored with the life sim parts almost immediately, but I wasn’t willing to ditch it for dungeon crawling because that would make me miss out on social links and I’m always anxious when games impose time limits. Yet again, this is something P4 made worse from P3, since visiting the dungeon is now a daytime slot that competes with social links.

I think a big part of this, and what makes the life sim feel like such a slog, is that there are way too many social links. We didn’t need a sugar mommy. We didn’t need a pedophile nurse. We didn’t need a MILF. For some reason the developers really wanted to commit to the Tarot theme, and as such they had to fill out the whole deck… but that’s completely backwards as a development principle. If they couldn’t write 20+ equally good character subplots (and they couldn’t), they shouldn’t have picked a motif that obligated them to do so. Yeah, P1 and P2 had Tarot motifs, but they also let everyone use multiple Personas and they had no problem chucking that, there’s no reason they couldn’t ditch the Tarot motif too. What do all these extra side characters add to the game, exactly? In P3 some of them at least related to the central theme, but as I said in the social link roundup, it takes effort to even try to see how they relate to the central theme — not helped by the central theme being so bland and general.

And as much as I like it as a form of gameplay/story integration, tying party members’ social links to gameplay benefits makes this problem worse. All social links are no longer created equal; there are now certain SLs that give you significantly more benefits than others, strongly incentivizing you to prioritize them. You can neglect your party members to focus entirely on side characters, but doing so requires deliberately crippling yourself. In practice, a casual player will always focus on party members first and side characters second, so even if they’re willing to replay this tedious grindfest to see different social links that’s still likely to be a constant.

And while we’re on the subject, relegating main characters’ character arcs to optional subplots is really, really bad. A good plot supports its characters and vice versa, which means their personal stories have to interweave with the main story. Persona 3 understood this and was a better story for it. When character subplots are all relegated to the social link pocket dimension that can’t acknowledge or be acknowledged by the main plot, the whole thing becomes a farce. Yosuke repeatedly mentions Saki in the main plot; him processing his feelings towards her should be part of that, not something that you can completely miss. Yukiko’s choice about her living situation is a direct followup to a scene that’s part of the main story; if you don’t do her social link, that plot thread is just dropped. It’s incoherent storytelling. The social links should supplement the main character arcs as they did in P3, not substitute for them.

The whole game absolutely could and should have been compressed into a month or even a week. I think that would be very possible if they didn’t make five-minute scenes take up entire days. There is no way even the longest social link scenes take more than an hour, yet as soon as we’re done night has fallen, even when it’s not a school day! That’s just absurd. It would have made so much more sense to measure time not in days but hours and oh I just reinvented Devil Survivor 2 again. Why does SMT keep making DeSu2 look good?! This would also have allowed them to do the thing I suggested in my P3 review, which is to make dungeon crawling mandatory on a regular timescale. Imagine how much more coherent the game would be if you always mounted a rescue mission every night/week at a specific hour or day instead of whenever you felt like it sometime within a month. That would also make the characters look less callous, as a bonus.

The actual jRPG aspects are also needlessly padded. Why do we need to redo the entire dungeon after the first visit? Why don’t enemies drop quest items before you start the quest? At least there aren’t random encounters, but we still have the jRPG problem of encounters all feeling the same, made worse by instant kill spells letting you wipe entire encounters in a single turn. Why even have them, at that point? Bosses used somewhat clever mechanics for a little while, and then it’s like they just gave up after Shadow Kanji. After that everything just spams all elements, so you can’t meaningfully prepare and the battle comes down to a crapshoot whether they’ll use the element you’re weak to or not. Then in the endgame everything just uses Almighty, which can’t be countered in any way, so it just comes down to a numbers game.

For so long, I have seen so many people hype up this series and this game in particular as God’s gift to jRPGs, claiming that the writing existed on a completely different level from other story-based games. Now that I’ve played it myself, I can definitively say that is just not true. It is no less schlocky, trite, or juvenile than any of its contemporaries — and frankly, Final Fantasy X, a game released a full decade earlier, still blows it out of the water. The only things that truly set it apart from the crowd are the life sim, which actively works to its detriment, and the modern setting, which it could have used for something interesting but was instead used to regurgitate the absolute most fetid of high school anime cliches. I can definitely see some things in here that would appeal to some people, but I don’t understand why so many people pretend it’s more than it is: juvenile pop-psych anime trash.

7 Comments

  1. Act says:

    Do we not find out whose shadow teddie is?

    DO WE NOT FIND OUT WHOSE SHADOW TEDDIE IS

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    1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

      I presume the idea is supposed to be that he’s a “generic” Shadow like the random encounters, rather than a Shadow tied to a specific person. Not that the game ever explained the difference or where the random encounters come from, of course.

      1. KichiMitsurugi says:

        Well, two things
        1. TV World is basically glorified Dark Hour. Yes, P3 is canon to P4 as well, there’s a fighting game spinoff for this and stuff
        2. Shadow Teddie is a fragment of “spooky demon man”- errr, Ameno-Sagiri

        1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

          Are all the generic Shadows fragments of Ame-no-Sagiri, or just Teddie?

          1. KichiMitsurugi says:

            Well, “Shadow” Teddie is basically BIG AMENO-SAGIRI FRAGMENT:tm:, so to speak. He’s just more important than the mooks. Is it stupid? But of course it is! And P4AU…it just gets even weirder, since the “Shadow Selves” are not even Shadow Selves this time

  2. Seed of Bismuth says:

    The hype could be explained by this being many younger people’s* introduction to those anime High school Cliches.
    * and by young i mean they were 4 when Final Fantasy X came out

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  3. Valkiria de la flame says:

    The “truth” in P4 is not really a theme, because you can never figure out without reading the wiki, and half the time it means “The status quo is god never change anything just accept bad things”. I have had fans of the game tell me Junes isn’t *really* running the whole town out of business and it would happen even without Junes, so that tells a bit about what the people that say this game is Just Better are like.

    Needless flame on people aside, P5 has a much better theme and coesion, and I could go on a lot of stuff I like on it, but instead I will give a reason of something you might like instead: They bring back negotiating with the shadows to add them to your library, or ask for items or money if that is more of your thing.

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