I like the newer Persona games. I realize that other Shin Megami Tensei games (Nocturne or any main series entry) and spinoffs (Devil Summoner, Devil Survivor, etc) definitely hold more mechanical horsepower under that aesthetic hood, but sometimes you need a guilty pleasure game. It certainly does not hurt that Persona’s reputation seems without criticism from any mainstream publication; whether that’s due to Persona’s story-based focus remains up for debate, but there’s an appeal, a hidden one.
The cynical me says that Persona 3 and 4 appeal to most people purely by the “high school” related plot. In other words, the narcissist in all of us loves playing out the fantasy of “you’re different and special for no particular reason, and everyone relies on you to save the day”. Action movies of the 1980s and 1990s worked on this premise: a marginal guy whom nobody thought was special actually was special. That’s why Persons names the protagonist (conveniently, an “exchange student”) after you, the player.
I can imagine, without any hyperbole, that most people playing Persons weren’t exactly the most popular person in high school. I’d wager real money that they were the marginal people on the sidelines, excluded from cliques and most social groups in their school environment. In Persona, then, the marginal group turns into super secret hero who really save everyone else in reality from their own doom. Only we know the secrets; only we may see the true danger. One gets to live out the fantasy of a better high school experience (you must know people who think high school was where life peaked and it’s all downhill from there, right?) through the confines of a video game about monsters and mysteries. Cool beans!
Again, that’s the cynical me. The me who doesn’t really care what happened in high school – other than becoming valedictorian so he could go to college debt free – obviously has a different answer. And, by pure happenstance, a different set of priorities! So what’s the central appeal, then?
I would say (as the title might give away) the detective story that underlies both Persona 3 and 4 as the culprit. I didn’t initially realize what happened until I noticed some similarities between the setting, structure, and pacing of the best detective fiction versus Persona, but apparently it noted its lessons well!
First, each one takes place in a different location. Persona 3 predominantly takes place in the “big city”. I assume Tokyo, though I’m sure other Japanese cites could certainly fit the bill. Persona 4, in contrast, sets its story in rural Inaba – the sticks! In both, your character comes as an exchange student from the opposite of their original environment – from the city to the suburbs, or vice versa. Your parents either die/need to work overseas, and thus aren’t there to get involved at all. The protagonist arrives as an unknown outside force. That tropes gets used in many, many, many JRPGs, but the contemporary setting highlights that difference with much more immediacy than racial tension between two imaginary races or something similar.
Secondly, both games start with what I would generously call “slow” pacing. Both titles takes, at least, a 2-3 hour investment to begin the tale while slowly meting out game mechanics. On the one hand, not every person will pay close attention to the tiny details of the setting. On the other hand, if the early story creates enough kinship to the characters and relation to the settings, then Persona will instantly hook you with its mysteries. Even after many, many hours, the central issue will not become clear. If you’re paying attention to the subtle clues, though, there’s a definite possibility to figuring it out. You know the brain-teasing feeling of a good mystery novel, the unsaid solution that lies just on the cusp of your mind’s eye – Persona produces this in spades, if you will engross yourself in the experience.
Thirdly, the humdrum settings mean that you learn more about this world, both familiar and foreign (Japanese culture, for most of us in the West). Does the constant use of honorifics get annoying? Yes, of course they do, but Atlus USA’s adherence to accuracy deserves some respect. The familiarity of Western influence on Japan, combined with the, frankly, weird stuff happening here lend means we can still enter into a new environment. In most fantasy JRPGs, you find a Western setting re-imagined by Japanese culture; in Persona, you see Japanese culture as it is, or at least much closer than possible otherwise.
Who doesn’t like cultural windows? Or Social Links, for that matter? You learn about people at the same time you enhance your abilities; you experience a lovely humdrum high school life while fighting evil monsters at other times. All of this means, in addition to the traditional “Push Turn” battle system, the Persona crafting, and dungeon crawling makes for an incredibly long game and story, yet it rarely becomes boring. The whole set of systems feed into each other, and the aesthetic more than complement it. That’s why the intro’s so long, after all; it’s a staging device that metes out information at a leisurely pace, both helpful, contextual, and unexplained.
That doesn’t mean Persona hits the perfection mark. I suppose I should say I have, at this point, stopped playing Persona 4. after about 15 hours. The time investment does kill you after a while! Quite frankly, dungeons and combat get repetitive after a while, as similar “randomly generated” areas can’t compete with the best-designed obstacles by other JRPGs designers. Many parts simply require a bit of grinding, and you win by default with any modicum of strategy once you hit a magic level cap. Trust me, this happens on Hard Mode too – things just take a heck of a lot longer. The game even tells you that you can’t level up anymore, strangely enough, through some story-related contrivance.
Even with all of this, the combat feels like a notable aside to the story – not exactly my preference, but every once and a while I can indulge with a popular style. If anything, Persona 4 hits the perfect notes of a great detective story in its first four or five hours, and that’s enough to suck me into it. Most people wouldn’t consider that good reason to “indulge”, and I would argue they haven’t read very many good detactive stories. They aren’t “high art”, in other words, and what a mistaken notion that is!
I suppose this means I need to argue for the validity of the detective story, does it not?