Duality is a fairly common trope in entertainment, yet still remains as effective as it ever was. It's easy to understand, yet moral complexity can be spun from it simply by showing how similar both sides are. It's especially effective in video games. The light and dark worlds in A Link To The Past, Present and past in Dragon Quest VII, the friendly Doshin contrasting the malevolent Jashin in Doshin The Giant, all of which take one gameplay mechanic and distorts it in a mirror. Mirrors are never a 1 to 1 reflections of the world, with distant objects appearing blurred as a result of the distance the light has to travel. Duality, like mirrors, oftentimes are also not 1 to 1, for better and for worse. Sonic The Werehog isn't exactly as fun as Sonic The Hedgehog in Sonic Unleashed, nor is Zero as fun to play as X in Megaman X3. Persona 4, however, manages to pull it off. Every aspect of this game is drenched in two's. The Town of Inaba and the TV world. The people we know and the darkest version of themselves. The JRPG and the life life sim. The person you were when starting this game and the person you became at its end. Yes, Persona 4 is constantly showing two sides to everything, all the while muddying where one begins and the other ends. The game is able to consistently present two opposing ideas, and make them work together extremely well, if not better than most games out there. Persona 4 is a perfect mirror. So all they could do for a remake is polish it even better.
You are Yu. Sit down, Abbot and Costello, it's not that hard to grasp. You play as Yu Narakami, the mostly silent protagonist who gets a fresh life in Inaba, which is like the Japanese equivalent to Indiana. For one year, you must put up with your depressed detective uncle, his six year old daughter Nanako, a colorful entourage of high school buddies you'll make, and doing every day life things like studying for exams and entering in beauty pageants. A string of murders happen right after you get into town, as well as you learning the ability to go inside TV's to find a parallel world filled with monsters called shadows and symbolic manifestations of peoples secret desires. From there, the main plot takes more of backseat role behind the main gameplay loop, occasionally responding "yes" when you ask if its still awake or not. It's a tense murder mystery that allows long bouts of relaxation to lull you into a false sense of security. The threat of the killer looms over the plot like a fog, even when the group is going for a swim at the beach. You never know when it's going to come back up, and sometimes, you won't even know it did until later. So even if nothing significant happens in the story, the player makes a mental note of everything that did happen, because it could very easily be important. So not only does the plot get to take long breaks building the tension, it also spends that time filling it with character development; which is easily the highlight of Persona 4.
Every single character is written so exceedingly well that I could just watch them in random situations all game. The way they work off each other is quick witted, and they have genuinely complex ambitions and emotions. The best part, however, is each character’s shadow. Their shadow is an over exaggerated manifestation of the darkest parts of themselves; a subconscious way of thinking that is horrible and they know it. The only way to truly overcome a shadow self is to accept them as a part of you. It's pretty heavy handed symbolism, yes, but it's the kind that sort of makes me smile. More obvious in hindsight, like a "I see what you did there" rather than a "I saw that coming a mile away". I got to the point where I wanted to push through to truly understand the character. The characters and the world are absorbing. Which mirrors the absorbing nature of the gameplay itself.
Life simulation is easy to get into because it simulates routine, and routine is very natural to slip into in and of itself. Most of the game is spent going day by day, choosing what activities to spend your two main time slots with. Basically, you have one after school activity, where you can do social things like spend time with friends or go to the demonic netherworld to beat up demons, and one evening activity to do at home, like hang out with your uncle or read. Eventually, planning out your day becomes second nature, but loops are thrown in to keep the routine from getting stale. From an event that skips some days, to just a friend who asks to hang out on a day where you planned to hang out with someone else. It dips on an occasion, like when the main plot goes a bit directionless for a week, so the day to day life routine feels mundane, but it’s the exception more than the rule.
This is all for the sake of increasing your stats for the dungeons. The TV world is a series of floor by floor dungeons, with goodies to collect and underling shadows to kill. It’s a turn based battle system that relies mostly on knowing your enemies strengths and weaknesses. Some reflect basic physical attacks, some are weak to fire, some are healed by ice, and so on and so forth. It’s always good to go in with a diverse line up of attacks and just experiment to see what works and what doesn’t. The sense of style also helps make the encounters more enjoyable, with battles feeling almost rhythmically in time with the music. In fact, let’s get that out of the way: Persona 4 is a beautifully stylized game. It goes for a late 60’s/early 70’s vibe, with the bright, rainbow colors and old fashioned tube TV’s. Details like the slight television fuzz on the edges of the screen in the TV world, and the way every screen animates into the next without slowing the pace. The music is great across the board, with a lot of the tracks being upbeat and playful in a way that underlines how much fun the party is having just being with each other. It’s an absolute visual dream that enhances the experience even further. Every dungeon has some sort of unique theme to them, and with the games presentation, it was a treat to get to experience each and every one.
Everything I have said so far applies to both the original PS2 release of Persona 4 and the specific version I played, the PSVita remaster Persona 4 Golden. Golden essentially rebalances the game and adds a lot, including a couple of new social links, a new optional dungeon, a new area, and extra time on the calendar filled with events. This is, by and large, the best way to experience Persona 4, but that does come with an asterisk. Persona 4 Golden has almost too much. The parts of the game that dragged before now drag even longer thanks to the extra time, and without wishing to spoil, the game goes on for a while after you beat the final boss. A bit of a mood killer, really. I recommend Golden more to fans of the original who want to play it a second time, because I think this game was meant for them. For the first time player, it’s still the best version to start with from a gameplay standpoint, but the longer narrative might be distracting. This was my first time playing Persona 4, and I still thought it was excellent, but you can sort of tell the parts that were added to pad out the game. Still, if my only main problem with a game is that it might have too much stuff, then that’s the most backhanded critique in the world. Like going to a job interview and claiming you shouldn’t be hired because you are overqualified.
Persona 4, Golden or otherwise, is an exceptional game. The JRPG genre is one that I do quite like, but it’s hard for me to keep with one for very long because of how demanding they are. This is one that was able to sink its teeth into me, and I’m grateful for that. It’s a game I was able to come home to and reflect upon my day with. Like I was coming home to Inaba to meet up with all my friends, just like the protagonist after a long school day. Something about this world drew me in. Perhaps it was because I was able to see myself in the characters; the way they reflected real world people with their authenticity. Persona 4 presents the struggles of youth that many of us, at some point, related to. It shows the world through those youthful eyes, with its unrelenting optimism even among the darkest of times. It is a mirror of the world we used to see reflected from the world you see today. Maybe you see the same thing, or maybe you see something else. But either way, Persona 4 is still a perfect mirror. You may just have to face your own shadow to see it.
FINAL VERDICT: Sublime
ONE SENTENCE REASONING: Persona 4 Golden is the definitive way to experience one of the best JRPG’s ever made, even if it is a little bloated from the update.
(Nick Miller is a video game historian and collector based in Cincinnati. You can reach him at [email protected])