Persona 4 – “Pop-tastic”
While the J-RPG genre continued its long winding spiral into mediocrity, last year’s “Persona 3” managed to turn the tables around, thanks to its ingenuous new take on its genre roots. A twisted hybrid between the hard-core dungeon crawling experience of the Megami Tensei cannon and a Japanese social sim, “Persona 3” proved that the genre needed not be confined in its ever more claustrophobic tropes. Alas, with only one year separating “Persona 4” from its predecessor, one could never hope that such a innovative trend would continue for the newest iteration. But that is by no means the same as saying that “Persona 4” is just another derivative sequel.
Granted, structurally, “Persona 4” is exactly the same as its predecessor, with only some minor adjustments and additions to the successful game design template. But for once, that comfortable familiarity with the game-design model actually allowed its designers to invest in the areas where “Persona 3” was lacking. Despite its brooding occult themes, the last “Persona” already attempted to re-envision its traditional Gothic aesthetic (from Kazuma Kaneko) with Shoeji Meguro’s more upbeat, pop art vibe. The result was thus transitional, being somewhat mixed and convoluted, not only on a purely aesthetic level, but also in terms of its narrative expression, with the overall plot featuring a darker tone than each of the social sim’s quirky slice of life meets Japanese existentialism mini-stories. This is where “Persona 4” comes out as more mature and consistent work, with a more coherent body of aesthetic work, and a scenario (Yuichiro Tanaka and Akira Kawasaki) with themes that perfectly match the social sim structure and the pop aesthetic.
“Persona 4” has a very dense back-story, a sumptuous layered cake filled with twists, surprises and undertones. There’s a plot-twist heavy, occult crime mystery on top (in the vein of the popular “Death Note”); a reflection on human society’s unwillingness to face its true self, with each slice of life story providing lots and lots of nuances and variations on this same theme; and finally, under it all, there’s a deep philosophical reflection on the role that modern media (personified by the TV) plays in our lives, in the way that it shapes our perception of reality and ultimately, reality itself. Characters are funny and endearing, and since you get to spend so much time with them, you’ll establish an effective bound with them, just as you would while watching a small Anime TV series. There is still a lot of the old Anime J-RPG silliness, but it’s so in tune with the themes and style of the game, that it becomes thoroughly enjoyable (of course, the good localization job also helps the comedic lines to shine through).
But more than everything else, the most pleasurable addition to this new “Persona” is its wonderful ambiance, which attempts to faithfully portray living in a Japanese town for whole year. You get to listen to all the rumor brewing of rural towns’ inhabitants, attend to religious celebrations, explore traditional and modern commerce, with all the kinky items and eccentric oriental cuisine, etc. It’s a true delight to watch the scenery as the seasons slowly turn with Mount Fuji in the background: the changing sky tones, as weather oscillates from day to day, and sunlight’s hues blend differently with the setting according to each season, the ever present cherry blossom trees either reflecting the vivacious light of spring and summer, or the melancholic brown of autumn. Though the establishing of a coherent Japanese reality has come a long way from “Persona 3“, it’s not as consistent and well translated as in “Shenmue” or “Yakuza”. Nevertheless, it’s still very aesthetically refreshing when compared to its high fantasy peers. It’s for all these reasons that, despite being basically the exact same game as its forbear, “Persona 4” is still an engrossing experience. In fact, it’s so intricate and unique in its visual and narrative expression, that you can’t help but think that “Persona 3” was just an experiment to pave way for the fourth iteration. But “Persona 4’s” success effectively sucks this game-design path dry, leaving the difficult task of reinventing the wheel (again) to its hypothetical successor.