Fog blankets the sleepy little town of Inaba, hiding a secret and a killer. On rainy midnights, the televisions in the village show strange images of citizens who have recently disappeared. Days later, when the fog lifts, these people turn up dead. Only a small group of teenagers know the truth: inside the televisions lies a perilous world where the hidden aspects of a person’s soul become murderously real. Someone is kidnapping the town’s citizens and forcing them into that world, and only the main character of Persona 4 can save the victims and nab the killer. By himself, this would be impossible, but he has an amazing skill that guarantees his victory: he’s a good friend.
The world inside the televisions of Inaba is crawling with monsters, and in order to confront the powers that are behind the disappearances the characters must defeat these creatures in turn-based battles. Alone, they’d never stand a chance, but the teen heroes of the game are assisted by “Personas”, spiritual manifestations of their personality that have enormous power. The main character, named by the player, can acquire hundreds of these in battle or by “fusing” other Personas, thus gaining access to new abilities and stronger attacks. His friends, however, have just one Persona each, and that can only be obtained by traversing a dungeon and confronting their own souls in the form of a “shadow” born from the suppressed or disliked aspects of their personality.
The characters’ shadow selves lack subtlety and nuance — one reflecting a young man’s uncertain sexuality runs around in a towel and lisps outrageously — but they’re not supposed to have those things. They represent the clumsy stereotypes common to the worldview of teenagers, and the oversimplifications of mass culture. In a game that depicts television’s numbing effect as a world-obscuring fog, they’re completely appropriate, though they can (and arguably should) make a player feel uncomfortable. Typical forms of teen angst, from jealousy to power struggles, inform most of the shadows’ behavior, though the early dungeons are dominated by expressions of uncertainty about sexuality. Persona 4 also reflects on the inadequacies of its own medium in these dungeons. One of the game’s antagonists is a disturbed, game-playing teen; his shadow takes the form of an infant cocooned in armor representing the hero of an 8-bit era RPG.
Persona 4 requires a significant time investment due to the level grinding in these dungeons. The relative ease of escaping and re-entering them means this can be discretized into play sessions lasting an hour or less, but the repetitious trekking through empty, uninteresting hallways to fight the same enemies over and over again will wear on many players. Losing your focus can lead to a frustrating game over, however. Like most Shin Megami Tensei games, battles really depend on correctly identifying elemental strengths and weaknesses. High-level monsters can be toppled easily if you know their vulnerability, but routine battles can quickly turn into disasters if the enemy exploits yours. Selecting the appropriate Personas and allies for a particular area or battle is a critical strategic task — the right friends make the difference between a long, difficult boss fight ending in victory and a short, frustrating boss fight ending in defeat.
Persona 4 also invites the character to develop relationships and explore problems outside the TV world through the social link system. In deference to traditional RPG mechanics, each key relationship has a “level”; by spending time with your friends and talking through their problems with them your relationship levels up, bringing you closer to resolving their problems. In terms of the game mechanics, your reward for success in the relationships is that you are able to create more powerful Personas. In reality, the social link conversations become their own reward. They’re believably written, moving, and diverse, though the majority are built around repairing relationships or coming to terms with events or situations that cannot be changed. The main character makes a pretty good emotional facilitator, however, and in their culmination most of the social links give the impression that he’s done something good for these characters just by listening to their woes and being supportive.
The mini-plots of these relationship arcs work better than the central story, which plods along predictably for the first 2/3 of the game or so, coming across more as an excuse for changing scenery and enemies than an actual mystery. Late in the game the pace picks up, with layers of double-crossing and deception that actually manage to elicit the feel of a caper. The eventually-revealed culprit (who the player must pick from a list in order to avoid the game’s bad ending) manages to surprise, but this is only because the clues to the murderer’s identity amount to only a few sentences of dialogue out of a game that can last upwards of 100 hours. As a result, forcing the player to choose the solution feels a bit unfair. Yet this reveal has its own reward; the story the culprit tells about his exploits gives the impression that he’s someone who never faced down the dark parts of his personality. One gets the impression that all of this could have been avoided if he’d had a friend like the main character to help him.
Don’t let Persona 4‘s demons and monsters fool you — this is a game in which the mechanics and story are built around the positive power of friendship. The main character supports his friends through hard times and tough decisions. In return, they fight beside him and give him the strength to fight on his own. All the creepy imagery and uncomfortable situations disguise a core message that comes straight out of an after-school special, and you’ll only realize it when the game’s warm (and yes, somewhat hokey) finale puts it right in front of your face. As the train rolls out of the station, you may find that the fatigue of Persona 4‘s long hours fades away, and you’ll find yourself wanting to play it again, just to spend a little more time with your friends.