The West is waiting patiently for the April release of Persona 5 to the PS3 and PS4, with new and seasoned fans alike putting in their pre-orders. The Shin Megami Tensei series has been schooling gamers in folklore/the occult and giving them the heebie jeebies in equal measure since 1992, but it achieved particular cult status with the release of Persona 3 on the PS2 in 2006. It was with the release of Persona 4 in 2008, when the PS2 was already on its last legs, that Atlus cemented its status as the prime source of the slice-of-life/dungeon-crawling combo. Atlus have been gearing up to release Persona 5 for four years, knowing full well that it is the first time a Shin Megami Tensei entry is likely to receive the same amount of attention on Day 1 as the Final Fantasy series and other A-grade RPGs in North America and Europe.
This, combined with the January PSN sale, is all the more reason to revisit Persona 4 or to try it for the first time. The Golden re-release for Vita is on sale for £3.99 or your currency equivalent, which is frankly a steal for a minimum 60-hour RPG which is in many respects timeless. Despite its reputation as a grind-fest, Persona 4 Golden is perhaps one of the most user-friendly SMT games to date, with a few neat additions to make dungeon crawling accessible to new players while still offering challenge in welcome places.
I am now completely burnt out on Persona 4 after spending my Christmas break getting from the beginning to the final boss, so no asking for my help in the TV world, mmk?
One of the crucial elements of any SMT game are the characterisations. Atlus prides itself on weaving convoluted stories which still manage to suck the player into a concoction of high school drama and netherworlds; a cornerstore of any compelling story is characters that are portrayed in interesting, sympathetic and believable ways. Even with the Persona 4 Golden edition of the Inaba storyline, I think characterisation is where Atlus bites off more than it can chew, meaning I ultimately prefer the characters in Persona 3 by a small margin. So, where does Atlus triumph and where do they fall down? Of course, this will contain spoilers, so if Persona 4 or Persona 4 Golden is on your PSN wishlist, you may want to check back later.
Portrayal of LGBT+ characters: the good, the bad and the Teddie
Persona 4 has gained a reputation in some of my social circles as being the game which is really bad at handling LGBT issues, while others herald it as forward-thinking for engaging with the issue on any level as a game from 2008. Fundamentally, I think that the game's handling of the issues is a mixed bag, with many missed opportunities.
Kanji Tatsumi, a man after my own heart due to his love of knitting, is continually made fun of by Yosuke Hanamura for his girly predilections, and for the fact that his Shadow intimates that he is gay. Kanji's response after defeating his Shadow is that "it ain't a matter of guys or chicks... I'm just scared shitless of being rejected ". In other words, Kanji doesn't feel comfortable around girls because the taunt him about his hobbies, but he is rejected by men for his lack of masculinity too. The issue is never really clarified beyond this, and the game then swings between implying Kanji is straight and that Kanji is perhaps bisexual/pansexual.
The problem with this is that Shadows turn into Personas when the main characters go through a transition, this consisting of accepting an aspect of their true selves. Kanji gained his Persona after the bathhouse dungeon, and yet Kanji and Yosuke still remained trapped in the cycle of Yosuke displaying homophobia in the very literal sense of the word and Kanji lashing out in response. The game appears to suggest Kanji hasn't come to terms with his sexuality, even though it was at least a core aspect of his Shadow manifesting in the first place and that Shadow has since been defeated. Not only is it a missed opportunity to have an openly bisexual or pansexual male in a video game (which I would have relished due to the Social Linking opportunities) but it creates incongruencies in the plot. Unfortunately, to me it plays off as if Atlus, despite daring to reference shocking subjects such as Nazism in a previous Persona game (admittedly not in the West), lacked confidence and felt the need to shroud canonically queer characters in vagueness, even when this disrupts the plot.
While Kanji's Shadow is directly about him enjoying feminine pursuits, it is undeniably linked to fears about his sexuality. This is bolstered by the fact that if his Shadow were purely about his love of textiles, his inner self would be clumsily similar to Naoto; Naoto feels the need to act more male to get further in her career, while Kanji feels the need to be more male to fit in and get on in life in his own way. While Kanji and Naoto, as romantic interests, are clearly supposed to mirror each other, I'm sure Atlus didn't mean for there to be so many similarities that they had close to carbon copy storylines. As I will discuss later, there are mutually exclusive Social Links which are highly similar to one another, but these never involve party members, who are far too important to share an Arcana with someone else.
Moving onto Naoto, I actually think that her character touches on gender identity and trans issues in a quite sensitive and successful way. Unlike with Kanji, Naoto's reasons for why she doesn't want to be male don't feel like a cop-out. Her breakthrough that she has been wrongly viewing success in her job as intrinsically linked to masculinity and age is something that may plausibly garner sympathy from young female professionals, and it ties in nicely with the very real issue of workplace prejudice. It all feels like it has its place and it makes sense for Naoto to go on a journey of realising the infinite permutations of what it is to be a "girl", rather than going through a gender transition. Unlike with Kanji, there is a satisfying, full answer to Naoto's dilemma. This is perplexing given that Naoto's dungeon and storyline are rather late on in the game, at a point when you'd think the backstories of new party members might lack depth.
An old-fashioned failure to distinguish between gender identity issues and sexuality themes also adds to the argument that Kanji's storyline takes the sledgehammer approach to the LGBT+ topic.
Teddie is an interesting one, since he is not even human, for starters. As the game progresses, Teddie increasingly questions his own nature, opening the door to questions about what the difference is between Shadows and humans. It's really thoughtful material, which is one of the high points of Persona 4's plot. Teddie is also my favourite character in Persona 4 and probably in any game. A lot of people find him irritating, but he's silly, devoid of any knowledge of social norms (or willingness to learn) and is unfalteringly optimistic. I remain unconvinced that Morgana will be fit to fill his furry boots.
Precisely because Teddie is not human, as already mentioned, he has a very poor knowledge of standard human behaviour. As a result, he does not come into the real world knowing much about romance. He is open to display all manner of sexualities without a shred of pre-programmed self-consciousness or doubt - of course, with limits on what is permitted in a 16+ game and permitted by good taste/law. While he does act flirtatiously towards the whole cast (including going in for a practice snog with our protagonist while preparing for Nanako and Dojima to come home from hospital), he is mostly shown chasing after the girls and trying to "score" himself some sort of female harem. It's not a totally egregious way to run with the character, but I would think a blank canvas of a character who clearly has a romantically aggressive spark in that bear suit of his would be trying it on continuously with anything and everything that moves. Funnily enough, in doing so, he ends up acting like the stereotypical teenage human male.
For the record, I think his bear puns are delightful.
Missed connections: Social Links I'd like to have seen
It's at this point where a bit of comparison with Persona 3 is necessary, so you may want to look away if this is on your to-be-played pile. Persona 4, while still at its core a brooding game with a bitter aftertaste, dilutes this mood down considerably compared to Persona 3. As a result, Persona 4 can afford to be more glib with its characterisations and feature more people who are mere comic relief. Having said that, Persona 4 is a slightly poorer game for the fact that it passes on a deeper connection with some quite interesting individuals.
Persona 3 makes very good use of its Hermit Social Link by allowing you to have a secret MMORPG partner (with this storyline making satisfying references to Persona 2: Innocent Sin and Persona 2: Eternal Punishment) who later turns out to be your seemingly stern and bland composition teacher. It's reminiscent of the gamer teacher/gamer pupil relationship in Lucky Star, but with a heaping of self-awareness and taboo added. It brings up really fascinating issues of how there are some figures in society which are seen as indefeasibly grown-up, and how uncomfortable it makes us when these people want to let out their inner child (through the text speak the teacher uses, compared to her usual staid mannerisms).
Persona 4 largely portrays its teachers as conceited, perverted or embittered characters, with very little further analysis. In fact, the most influential teacher in the storyline isn't even from Yasogami High; it's the reappearance of Mr. Edogawa, the spacy magic teacher from Persona 3, when the first and second years of Yaso High go on a field trip to Gekkoukan High School. His lecture, if you pay attention (which I didn't on the first playthrough), foreshadows the climax of Marie's Social Link (the Aeon arcana) if you're playing Golden and also the True ending by extension. I take particular issue with the mutton-dressed-as-lamb homeroom teacher Ms. Kashiwaga, who directly insults students about their appearance and coerces students into appearing in beauty pageants with no consequences. While her storylines are meant to be comical, it comes across as a wasted opportunity to deal with fading youth and jealousy. There was certainly room to have a teacher Social Link in Persona 4, but for whatever reason, Atlus decided not to pursue this route.
Maybe Atlus is having a really harsh dig at public school teachers being less sophisticated, but I think that's giving Atlus too much credit...
Like Persona 3, Persona 4 features mutually exclusive Social Links. With the Chariot Arcana, you can either befriend Daisuke the footballer or Kou, the basketball player, who are best friends with one another. With the Sun Arcana, you can either join drama club and console Yumi, or help Ayane become a trombonist extraordinaire at the school's orchestra; there is no indication that Yumi and Ayane are friends, as far as I'm aware. With this in mind, I would argue that the Moon Arcana could be doubled up, providing a choice between Ai or Hanako.
Yes, Hanako. She of motorcycle-crushing, curry-inhaling fame. As Teddie would say, bear with me.
Ai's shtick is that she was obsessed with superficial beauty after being bullied as a young child. Through Yu's friendship and/or advances, she begins to form a sense of self and becomes less fake. Hanako is mocked/feared throughout the game for her sheer physical heft, yet maintains an (almost) unwavering and narcissistic belief in her own outward beauty. While Ai's deeper insecurities are probed, Hanako's similar bravado is never explored further. Given that Ai is a pretty detestable character early on in her Social Link and requires perseverance, it's not a bad idea to give her a paired Social Link, even if the other option isn't very palatable either. It also seems quite clever to pair them up, given that they seem so starkly different at the outset and yet can be depicted as having to overcome very similar hurdles.
Deadbeat Dad on the Beat: Dojima-san (and his sake habit)
Dojima-san, Yu's weary uncle who is struggling with raising a young daughter while finding the hit-and-run driver who killed his wife, is a character you can't help but get behind in some form or another. He is a man with so much on his plate that I found it very difficult to be excessively angry at him regarding his failings to parent Nanako and act as a guardian to Yu. Especially further on in his storyline and Social Link, he reveals himself to be a sweet and active role model to Yu and his merry band of Persona wielders.
Swiftly brushed under the kotatsu, however, are the implications that he may use alcohol as a crutch.
The theme of Dojima's Hierophant arcana is that he is so gripped by finding the person who killed his wife that he has been detached from his own daughter for quite some time. You could go as far as to say that Nanako was emotionally and perhaps physically neglected by her father, having to be a miniature housekeeper and deal with her mother's passing pretty much completely on her own. Through Yu's guidance, he realises that what is best for Nanako is a father who lives in the present, rather than one out for revenge at all costs. Secondary to this is hints at alcohol abuse.
Dojima (and Adachi, arguably as his enabler) occasionally comes home blind-rolling drunk after a success or difficult turn with the murder investigation, with Yu and Nanako even having to prepare his bed for him after a particularly rough night. While Dojima is a functional drinker, there are signs of an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, combined with overwork. Part of Dojima putting Nanako at the forefront could have meant moving past his unhealthy forms of escapism, be it hiding behind a bunch of case reports in his office, drinking, basing his social life round the TV or even binging on take-out rather than taking over his late wife's cooking duties. His ventures into irresponsibility are clearly tied with the death of his wife, as he references in the Golden epilogue how he's had to get past Nanako learning the piano like his late wife, Chisato; he may have avoided cooking and stuck to making coffee for the family because the former was his wife's job, and the latter was his. Breaking that pattern is a painful acceptance that his wife is gone and nothing, not even finding the killer, can bring her back. All of this could perhaps have been referenced in a heavier fashion.
A brief discussion of the main characters: Chie's evolution and the deterioration of Yosuke
My history of playing Persona 4 is as follows: I took a long time playing through the vanilla version (about 6 months of savouring it), then hurtled through Golden in the space of a week and a half. Each time, I deliberately made different choices regarding which Social Links I pursued and who my core team members were. Through this tactic, I feel like I learnt the more beautiful and uglier sides of the storyline.
I also learnt to love one character, and surprisingly kindled an intense dislike of another.
During my first playthrough, I thought Chie was hackneyed at best and downright infuriating at worst. Her tomboy personality with a hair-trigger temper is indeed overdone, so I don't think my first impressions were wrong as such. However, the new voice actress in Golden somehow manages to bring life to an otherwise quite unremarkable character. The girly spunkiness in the new voice acting conveys Chie as wanting to appear tough but secretly being vulnerable; the previous voice actress does a serviceable job but it does nowhere near as much to draw those more interesting traits out of Chie. I'd already decided to do Valentine's Day with Chie, given that I was aiming for a completely different run to my first, but I ended up enjoying the path her Social Link took, rather than gritting my teeth through the entire thing.
For your comparison; a lot of people in the comments actually prefer the vanilla voice. I guess it's a matter of preference.
It was a completely different story with Yosuke. I maxed out the Magician Social Link first in Persona 3, since Kenji acts as the bog-standard "best friend" Link. Therefore, it seemed like a natural progression in my first run to make maxing Yosuke a priority, which I managed before the problematic communications with Kanji picked up in intensity; by then, my partnership with Yosuke seemed a done deal and I paid little heed to his boasting and hurtful behaviour. In the second playthrough, I put Yosuke's Link on the back-burner intentionally, giving me room on the calendar to see Yosuke's personality unfold. And boy, is he a dick.
He continues to harass Kanji about his Shadow self, and even appears to be afraid Kanji will try it on with him, well beyond the point at which the issue should have been put to bed. He is lecherous and persistent with the girls on the team, more possessed by the need to show off his masculinity than even Kanji, and pushes for a double act with Yu, referring to him during battle as "partner". Admittedly, his deep concern for Saki and his pursuant kindness to Naoki shows a softer side, but he is a particularly odious addition to the TV world crew. He reminds me of the guy who tries to become everyone's best friend, but just ends up lingering like a bad smell. Yosuke is pretty much the human equivalent Mystery Food X.
Do you have any thoughts on the characters of Persona 4? Is there anything you wish had been changed in Golden? Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments below!