And Teddie should probably be in jail or something.
This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of. This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of. Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not. Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad. Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about. Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.
This episode was guest-written by Anthony Spivey.
Since the good doctor needed a break from giving his opinions on videogames that you love, and Jay is still reeling from the backlash of that Other M video, I have taken up the cause to give you the Second Opinion that nobody expects. And because I’m an unfeeling bastard, we are going to be discussing the many flaws in the stories and characters of one of the most beloved modern Japanese role-playing games, Persona 4.
While Persona 4’s gameplay and soundtrack are stellar no matter how you look at them, a closer look at the game’s story and its effects on the teenage stereotype squad starts to show some cracks in the armor. To be fair, the premise – a game whose story spans an entire year of solving a series of mysterious paranormal murders – is absolutely inspired. Unfortunately, from the very beginning of the game the story begins to veer away from supernatural heroism to take a sharp left at “schoolboy bullshit boulevard” instead.
In the very first dungeon, after finding the first couple of other teenagers to join your crime-solving crew (more on them later) the game gives players a set amount of days until the next victim will be killed by Shadow creatures. Instead of stressing just how important saving someone’s life is (you know, like most people would do in that situation) the game in no uncertain terms tells you that making sure that people live is not really that important, and that you might as well save it until the next wave of game-ending fog drifts in. Really, Persona 4?
Right away, the game strips away any sense of urgency its narrative could have had. It seems to be saying that it doesn’t really care about its plot or who gets hurt over the course of it. And if the game doesn’t care, why should you? That school idol that everyone loves is trapped in a striphouse? That strong-looking badass got stuck in a bathhouse and all his evil thoughts are trying to slaughter him? Hey, forget it, let’s spend all our time shooting hoops with our bros and acting in a play with a girl with daddy issues. Pretty much every dungeon is like this, and even when you do end up saving the lives of those around you, your character has absolutely no interest in figuring out the villain behind all this after the first couple of hours. Sure, you may stake out a person of interest, but that quickly falls away for a school mountain trip and the absolutely necessary trope-a-licious anime game beach trip.
Some fans may try to claim that the game’s lackadaisical approach to, y’know, murder is actually the point of the narrative, but I don’t know how anyone can justify the jarring switch from talking about bodies hanging from telephone wires to actual hours of your generic anime friends whining about cooking problems. If you don’t think that’s the freaking definition of “tonal whiplash,” I just don’t know what to tell you.
Wait a minute. Did I just use the word “generic?” Did I dare to suggest that the other main characters of Persona 4 are dull, overused tropes that are done much better in every other iteration of the Persona franchise? Do I hear the cries of those who cry out in fear of me not liking their precious meat-eaters and laughter maniacs? Yes, weeb scum, I am coming for your waifus.
Fans love to talk about how “realistic” the game’s cast is, but that’s a load of – if you’ll pardon my French – hooey. For one major example, let’s take a look at the meat-guzzling Chie Satonaka. At first glance, she is a major tomboy who just loves to eat meat, and at second, third, fourth and every other glance…she’s still the same character. After maxing out her Social Link (a measure of how close two characters are to each other, for those who haven’t played the game) the only deeper insight you get into her personality is that she’s awful at cooking and that when everything’s over she wants to become a police investigator.
And honestly, she’s the one with the most personality, especially as we move on to Yukiko. This poor quiet sap is the epitome of obliviousness, with a patent in laughing at terrible jokes. Even having played Persona 4 many times, I can’t see any reason to give her attention besides the fact that she’s the only good healer in the game. Her whole “arc” (if you can call it that) is that she wants to be let free from her responsibilities at her family’s’ inn, something that’s represented by showing her as an actual bird in an actual cage. Reaaaally subtle there, Altus. And after you spend some head-rubbing time with her, you learn that she actually does like her home after all, and…that she can’t cook. Really, Atlus? Not being able to cook is not a personality trait! At best, it’s like a real-life stat deficiency.
Rise fares slightly better (and no, I’m not just saying that because Dr. Coleman has an incriminating photo of me.) Over the course of your interactions with her to learn that she wants to regain her former status as an idol because she misses the chance to sing to her fans aaaaand that she also can’t cook. Was Persona 4 trying to combat the harmful stereotype that women belong in the kitchen by suggesting that no woman on Earth can actually cook? I swear, it’s like the head writer’s wife burned a pot roast once or something and he just can’t let it go. I guess he decided that if he had to suffer, so did everyone who played his shitty game.
The males in Persona 4 – yeah, remember that there are guys in the game? – are just as bad. In the first hour of the game, you see Yosuke smash his nutsack into a telephone pole, and that pretty much sets the tone for his entire character. Apparently, that blow did some serious brain damage, because he’s supposed to be the quote-unquote “cool guy” but his antics just come across as annoying. Even the game’s own characters just ignore his antics, and not in a way that’s interesting or humorous, but in a way that once again just feels like Persona 4 can’t be bothered with its own characters.
Still, as annoying as Yosuke is, at least he’s bearable. What’s not bear-able is the character of Teddie, the worst videogame mascot since Bubsy the Cat first farted his way onto our television screens. This insufferable taint of a bear gets on my nerves so goddamn hard that every time I see him my only desire is to wring his fuzzy little neck. If I said I couldn’t “bear” him, would you laugh? No? You think bear puns aren’t that funny? Well then you’re going to hate this game, because every second he’s on the screen he’s either making an equally creatively bankrupt bear pun or molesting somebody. Because perverts with absolutely no redeeming qualities make for endearing, lovable mascot characters, right guys? Everybody wants to see an adorable teddy bear constantly swiping at teenage girls’ bouncy bits and constantly talking about “getting lucky”, right guys? Ted is the funniest movie of all time, right guys? I know Teddie’s supposed to be the comic relief character, but the only time I felt relieved was when the annoying little turd wasn’t onscreen.
I will give credit where credit’s due – both Kanji and Naoto are mostly well-written characters. Kanji’s still a bit of a missed opportunity, as Japan apparently hasn’t updated its idea of what gay people are like since the stereotypes of the 70s and 80s, but having him learn to embrace his feminine side was one of the lazy story’s more well-developed aspects. That is, until Yosuke shows his pretty-boy hair and suggests that he sleep in a different tent, for fear of the “Gay” getting to him. Naoto, too is great as she learns more about how to be a girl since she usually acts more masculine for her job as a real detective. If everyone was written as well as these two, I wouldn’t have nearly as big an issue with Persona 4.
And even as it is, I get it. Like I said, the battle mechanics and music are among the best in any RPG, and Persona 4 is still one of the best games on both the PS2 and the ever-content-starved Vita. But there’s other RPGs with good mechanics and much better stories – in fact, two of them are called Persona 3 and Persona 5. And you might think that griping about all the individual characters is just nitpicking. But the thing is, it all comes back to that idea of narrative urgency. The bare minimum any game story is supposed to do is provide a context for your actions – a reason for you to care about playing the game beyond the thrill of watching some numbers go up and some other numbers go down. Persona 4’s story is so badly-written and so utterly apathetic towards the events that occur and the characters that take part in them that it actually manages to do the opposite, making the game hard to sit through.
While the third and fifth games in the series use their stories to keep you engaged right up to the very end, Persona 4 just feels like a slog. Why would I play through an 80-hour RPG experience when my only reward is going to be another godawful scene with Teddy? Or a joke about “lol, Kanji’s gay and that’s scary!” Or a continuation of the game’s bizarre obsession with women who can’t cook? Why would I care about these utterly generic, personality-free random character generator “friends” of mine? Why should I bother to save the lives of the Shadow creatures’ victims when they’re going to die anyway and the game seems to think basketball is more important than human lives?
The answer is simple. I shouldn’t. Persona 4 doesn’t seem to think it’s worth playing through, so who am I to disagree? No amount of catchy tunes can fix that.