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Persona 4 Review [Game Overview/Sony]
May 29th, 2009 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

When I was a kid I became saddled with the unfortunate notion that Japan did pretty much everything better than the United States. I don’t think I would have gone so far as to call myself a Japanophile, but it was definitely close. Their video games were all sweet (FF VI and Chrono Trigger!) and their cartoons sure beat the heck out of the asinine stuff I was sometimes watching on the Disney Afternoon. This may have had something to do with the fact that I was watching Bubblegum Crisis and Ranma at a time when the best cartoon I could watch was Timon and Pumbaa, but it would be foolish to think that the allure of the unknown didn’t factor into it too.

This persisted up until I got to high school and I realized, “Hey, I’m never gonna get laid if I keep this up…” Your mileage may vary with that statement, but at my school the anime crowd consisted of one fat lesbian and a bunch of greasy, socially maladjusted dudes. Clearly a situation not conducive to meeting the ladies. So what did I do? Push a lot of it to the hidden background and pretend like I played video games and watched anime a lot less than I did.

Here I digress for a few moments about the absurdity of anime culture in the states compared to Japan. We grow up rationalizing that the obsessive, smelly, cosplaying kids we see on this side of the the Pacific would fit right in the Land of the Rising Sun, but the truth is otaku is almost a dirty word in Nippon. The most hardcore devolve into hikikomori and become paralyzed with social anxieties preventing them from even leaving the apartment. Yes, I know it’s naïve to associate the hikikomori exclusively with anime, but it’s also totally fair to say that a good degree of them do obsessively collect or exhibit some sort of obsessive otaku behaviors. Meanwhile, the term is romanticized in the West as a badge of pride. My brother uses DJOtaku as a handle online and even to actually DJ. It’s bizarre in the way that the Japanese attach firmly Western ideas like Christianity or Western names to their anime characters. It kind of fits, but then you realize that this nun-training school is part of a hentai dating sim and it leaves you scratching your head.

And so my love-affair with Japanese media remains mostly a secret, but even I have become disillusioned with it. The over-reliance on moe, the bizarre obsession with girls who look like they are eight (I realize this is part of moe, but this is creepy enough to warrant its own entry), same-y plots, and damn-near interchangeable characters make the whole thing feel kind of like a waste of time. Among all of this unoriginal crap that was flooding my brain, I managed to run into Azumanga Daioh. Guess what: this is the most realistic, if you can call slapstick realistic, seeming representation of Japanese high school life. It’s also entirely incomprehensible to anyone who just doesn’t get Japanese humor. Aside from all the insanity, what did I learn? Japanese high school sucks.

Let’s start right from the entrance requirements: Japanese high schools are not compulsory. Here in the States the local governments provide school for us knuckleheaded Americans to attend as required by law (unless we decide to stop going at age 16). The Japanese, on the other hand, have to test into their high schools, rather like some of us do for private schools. Then they suffer through three years of rote memorization all while stressing out over college entrance exams, attending school on SATURDAY(!), spending time obsessively devoted to their clubs, and, if they’re trying to get into a sweet university and they’re not brilliant, attending cram school to help study for those entrance exams. Meanwhile I coasted through public school, hit on girls as often as I could, and spent my afternoons swimming, hanging out with my friends, playing video games, and maybe doing some homework. One seems clearly better than the other, but then again, who am I to judge? Plenty of Americans probably can’t find Japan on the map much less remember the quadratic equation. I counter that we also don’t deny raping and pillaging China and Korea, so I’ll call us even for now.

So now you see that if you weren’t in a private boarding school with super-strict academics, your life was probably a lot easier-seeming than your counterparts out East. Enter the Persona series, which for the past two iterations has, yes, simmed having to attend JAPANESE high school. Persona 3 has you attending high school in an urban Tokyo-analog. Then you move onto Persona 4 which takes place in rural Japan where everyone is quick to tell the protagonist, heretofore referred to as Dan, since that’s what I named him, that “Boy is life gonna be boring now that you’re out here with us country bumpkins after living the high life in the city.”

I say all this to point out that Persona 4 comes at the non-Japanophile from an unexpected angle. It is an unapologetically Japanese 80+ hour RPG about going to school in the countryside. Yet, as I write this, I am listening to Vinny Caravella and Jeff Gerstmann comment on the game, MSTK 3000-style, in one of Giant Bomb‘s most successful video features, the Persona 4 Endurance Run. So not only did I play this game, I take about 20-60 minutes each day, on average, to listen to people play the same game I spent 80 hours on and crack jokes about it.

Persona 4 is good because it, rather like Azumanga Daioh, represents high school in rural Japan pretty darn well. I say this, of course, as a man who has never attended high school in rural Japan. In fact, my most legitimate experience with Japan comes from working in Okinawa, so take from that what you will. In my mind, it does a pretty good job, abstractions aside. As a student who also has to grapple with the forces of evil, Dan also must balance his social life, do his schoolwork, and work a part-time job, which mirrored my high school experience in America, minus the forces of evil. The plot boils down to this, Dan shows up in Inaba, Japan right before a series of bizarre murders begin to happen on a fairly regular basis. Dan, being the mostly conscientious type, doesn’t really jive with murders, so he and his buddies decide to bring the murderer to justice.

There is one thing I also don’t remember being a part of high school: I don’t remember my posse constantly reminding me of the exact same thing, over and over, using different wording. There’s a disturbing trend in modern games where the player is treated as something of an imbecile. I can’t say I mind the Zelda-esque bold letters to denote something important is being said, but could that possibly be because I find the rest of the dialogue so full of repeated nonsense that my brain starts to shut down from exposure to stupidity? At least I know when to pay attention, right? I would blame the localization staff, but I realize that all the redundancy is actually a problem with the way the game was originally made. They’re just aping all of that empty, redundant dialogue with their translation. It’s also not a case of “Japan thinks the West is stupid,” because this game was clearly meant for Japanese audiences. No, this is what modern game designers do. You can’t trust the player to read the manual any more, that I get. Besides, video games are a visual AND a kinetic medium, as I’m sure you’ve heard me say before (just like you’ve heard me say games are too easy), but it doesn’t mean that you have to talk down to us. The Persona games, 3 more than 4, are way hard when it comes to the battle mechanics, but the storylines and dialogue are at about middle school level.

Don’t even get me started on the dubbing work…I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, if you’re bringing a game over from Japan, leave the Japanese vocal track on there. I don’t care how much money you spent trying to localize and dub it, it just sounds bad. Japanese vocal actors, seiyū, are big business in Japan. Consequently, they’re way better at their jobs. Even if they’re not, I have no idea what poor Japanese acting sounds like, but I’m infinitely familiar with poor English acting (hint: I’ve got experience listening to every thing I’ve ever heard with English dubs). So here’s the pro-tip I’m sure they didn’t even ask for, don’t stick me with just a dub of your game. It makes me mute the volume when they speak. I know Atlus knows better too, because they do leave it on sometimes.

The folks at Atlus do respect gamers when it comes to their battle system. Persona 4 is joyously hard in an era where few games challenge me. I’m not a masochist, I just don’t want my game session to be so simple I can sleep through it. I get that Pokémon is a game for children, but why can I battle, listen to music, and play another video game entirely and NOT LOSE. There is a point, after you’ve finished the quest where Pokémon turns around, takes off its belt, and says “So you think your Pikachu is cute? You think that belief in the heart of your pokémon is going to tump my belief in cold, hard statistics?” and promptly starts beating down the weak, but this is after 60 hours of questing.

No, Persona paces itself brutally. You think you can get away with not having a social life? Your party will be weaker along with the Persona you summon. Think you can have a social life, but not worry about raising your personal statistics like courage, knowledge, or understanding? Guess what, you can’t raise your social links without certain statistical prerequisites met. This results in a game that forces you to do everything it asks of you and to do them at least kind of well, if you kind of want to survive. Grinding got you plenty far in Persona 3. You could buy SP (the MP-analog) recovery items at will. In Persona 4, SP is a commodity. There are three main ways to restore it: 1. Blind luck, 2. SP recovery items (now available through chests as a random drop or as a reward for helping people out), and 3. One of your social links. It seems like the third option would be beneficial, except that social link needs to be damn near maxed out for the cost of SP recovery to be manageable (oh yes, he’s your friend, but he don’t heal for free. Nope, daddy’s gotta eat too). So this SP system manages just how long you can survive in the dungeon because the monsters are pretty tough and won’t go down with physical damage alone, not without a strong fight. In fact, some are even immune to physical damage. You could try picking on weaker enemies in earlier dungeons, but their EXP yield eventually drops to drops in the ocean the further you get away from them in level.

I like Perona 4 because of its hard, no-nonsense battle systems. I like it because its story, embarrassing as it might be in front of girls you want to impress, because it deals with social anxiety, isolation, angst, and belonging, a little less than Persona 3, but you get what you can. I like it because it looks at Final Fantasy’s huge budget and beautiful CG graphics, flips it the bird, releases on PS2 when the PS3 has been out for two years, and uses a heavily stylized interface with anime style graphics and anime cutscenes. I also like it because I like being called Mesa-senpai and Mesa-kun. Not in real life, mind you, but it’s funny in-game.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go watch some Naruto while eating curry and Pocky and building my Ichigo Kurosaki costume for Otakon.

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