A Decade of Persona 4

Posted in Kulturecade by - January 16, 2018
A Decade of Persona 4

Just what is it that makes Persona 4 so different from the rest of the series? The fundamentals of the setup remain unchanged, with a group of high schoolers summoning “Personas” to combat a supernatural threat. Nevertheless, Persona 4 possesses some kind of alchemic magic that has made it the most enduring entry in the venerated JRPG series, spawning not just an expanded re-release, three direct sequels (two fighting games and a rhythm game), a midquel, and an appearance in the forthcoming BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle, but also two anime adaptations, an ongoing manga, a light novel, and a stage play. With last year’s Persona 5, the series has taken its first big step forward in over a decade, and while growth and change is a necessary part of any continuing series, it’s astounding just how much material has been mined from Persona 4, and how much of it actually turned out to be good.

Persona 4 (PS2, 2008)

Much of Persona 4’s success can be traced to a change in tone. Persona 3 finds players voyaging into a world where ordinary citizens turn into coffins during the “Dark Hour” every night, a massive, twisting tower dominates the sky, and characters shoot themselves with “Evokers” to bring forth their Personas. While Persona 4 does deal with a series of grisly murders, most elements of the game have a lighter touch. The alternate dimension featured in Persona 4 is mostly trapped behind a TV screen instead of invading the real world on a regular basis, and said dimension, while still harboring enemy Shadows and a thick fog leans into mystery more than outright hostility. Gone too are the Evokers, replaced by tarot cards that hold Personas in standby mode. These are subtle changes to the established formula that amount to little more than differences in presentation (although Persona 4 had several mechanical improvements from Persona 3, as well), but they do wonders to make the game feel more adventurous and light than its predecessor. This tonal shift only serves to enhance the solid core of the game that has caused so many people to fall in love with the series.

Of course, these factors may help explain the enduring appeal of the game itself, but to what can we attribute the spread of Persona 4 into spinoffs and other media? The answer is simple: Persona 4 has one of the most distinctive casts in the series, both visually and in terms of personality. The characters that form the self-proclaimed Investigation Team are all well-rounded, with their own unique strengths, weaknesses, and senses of humor. They face struggles that are human and sometimes uncomfortable to discuss, from wrestling with the knowledge that wanting to be a hero comes with the unsaid condition that others have to first be placed in danger, to reconciling one’s own insecure sexuality with a distaste for traditionally masculine interests. Even the game’s typical blank-slate protagonist takes on a life of his own in subsequent media, gaining a deadpan sense of humor and intense dedication to any challenge that makes him into a likable, almost-parody of JRPG and anime protagonists. These well-developed characters that subvert archetypes lend themselves well to adaptations and the continuing character arcs in the sequels, and the solidity of the characterization means that even in the most outlandish of situations (like dancing in order to save the world), the core of the characters remains intact.

Persona 4: Dancing All Night (PSVita, 2015)

And now, Persona 5 is here. The newest game has received almost universal acclaim, and while the new cast of characters gives off a decidedly different vibe than the previous one, they’re generally well-liked by fans all the same. The upcoming BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle could very well be the swan song for the Persona 4 cast, but to say that they’ve had a good run would be a massive understatement. And who knows? The Persona Arena series brought back older versions of the Persona 3 cast as supporting characters, so there’s a good chance that we’ll see the Investigation Team yet again if Persona 5 gets the fighting game treatment. As beloved as Persona 4 is, the time has finally come to refocus on the future of the Persona series and say goodbye, if not forever, then at least for now.

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