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March 9, 2012

Persona? More Like Bro-Sona! (Part 2)

Minor note -- how freaking long is Scooby's neck?

Many, many comparisons have been made between Persona 4 and Scooby-Doo.  The first five party members you get are a goofy guy who gets no respect, the de facto leader of curiously handsome appeal, a short-haired girl who does a fair share of the legwork, and a long-haired girl of some semblance of wealth and beauty who may be an untapped (?) sexual dynamo.  And to top that off, you partner up with a talking animal with an unusual speech pattern -- adding “kuma” (Japanese for bear) to most sentences in the original version, and making bear puns in the US version. 

Several dozen times more lethal than a snack-loaded Scooby-Doo.

I’d argue that Persona 4 is one of the greatest games ever made…but I’ll save that debate for a later date.  For now, let’s talk about our Japanese Shaggy doppelganger, Yosuke.

(A query: Is he really a doppelganger if there are no underscored implications of drug use at play?  Well, whatever.  Spoilers to follow.)

Yosuke Hanamura (Persona 4)
Broccupation: City Boy, Stooge, and Dark Avenger

When you first meet Yosuke (and indeed, for the first few hours of the game), he’s what scientists colloquially call a bitch.  He crashes after he screws up a bike ride.  He gets stuck in a trash can.  He gets wrecked by one of the girls in class for breaking her kung-fu DVD -- with the lessons therein used to ruin his day.  He endures a “critical hit to the nads.”  It’s hard to take him seriously, between his constant abuse by reality itself and his tendency to fall into the Junpei-isms (i.e. love of fast cars and hot women) typical for someone his age.

But you’ll cut through this shallow veneer soon enough.  It’s not long before you discover he’s the son of a manager of the local Wal-Mart-esque megastore, Junes -- and the fact that their place is driving all the family shops around town out of business is a rather sore point.  And in more ways than one; Yosuke’s from the city, and the move from there to the boondocks depresses him.  The only highlight?  His new crush, Saki, who works at the megastore alongside him.  Isn’t that nice?

And then -- in case you’ve forgotten that you’re playing a Japanese game -- Saki’s corpse is found hanging from a telephone pole, prompting the two-guys-one-girl trio to head into the distorted, monster-infested world inside a TV to investigate.

You follow me?  Good.  Because now things get interesting.

In a sequence that would make Carl Jung raise his eyebrows in shock, Yosuke has to face an embodiment of his darker self -- his innermost thoughts and drives made real.  It was the same circumstance that killed Saki; those that continuously reject their true selves…well, just watch the video.

And that’s -- for lack of a better word -- the gimmick behind Persona 4.  Head into the TV world, face your monster form or get murdered.  By game’s end, you’ll have “I am a shadow…the true self…” burned into your memory.  It’s enough to make you wonder what sort of form your Shadow (and subsequently, your Persona) would take if you were ever in that situation.  I imagine mine would look something like a turtle with rocket launchers…but I digress.  The important thing is that by facing his other half, Yosuke gains power and a new outlook on life.  And he’s rewarded with power; the guy who you once doubted could walk until he was fifteen can now do crazy flips, spin like a tornado, and kill demons with wrenches.  (He upgrades to twin knives once you get enough money, of course.)  I remember playing through the game and thinking that Yosuke was almost unfairly good; he was almost as strong as the bruiser Junpei, but moved faster, had better magic, and could even heal party members.  He was a jack-of-all-trades that had spent the past eight years wrestling tigers and eating five dozen eggs for breakfast.

No one approves diets like Gaston.

Much like Junpei, Yosuke’s story arc doesn’t end there.  Unlike Persona 3, Persona 4 put a greater focus on forming relationships with your party.  At the first rank of a “Social Link,” your party members would take a lethal blow for you; if you die the game’s over, so naturally the others want to prevent that.  (Side note: Final Fantasy XIII would choose to utterly ignore this valuable feature come 2010.)  The only cost?  Taking time out of your schedule to hang out with your party members. 

It’s in these Social Link sequences that your party members’ story arcs continue to develop.  Even though Yosuke -- for example -- confronted his dark side, that doesn’t mean he’ll never doubt himself or worry about his morality again.  Far from it.  If anything, facing off with a Shadow only opens a character’s mind to the darkness within; the Social Link is a way for them to start coping with it.  In Yosuke’s sequence, you not only help him learn to adjust to life in the country (and accepting the people therein for their own sake, not just playing hero for the lulz), but also learn the depths to which he loved Saki.  You also get to punch him in the face, which triggers the evolution of his Persona into a crazy flaming disco guy.

It's canon.

Now bear this in mind: everyone that gets thrown into the TV world -- except for you, the protagonist -- has to face their Shadow self.  As Teddie suggests, Saki had to face the same nightmare Yosuke did, but she didn’t have the fortune of coming with a gray-haired teenager swinging a golf club.  With his main squeeze (who as it turns out, utterly detested him) now gone, Yosuke resolves to solve the mystery plaguing the town with the protagonist’s help.  Right here is where I have to draw a line, however; I would argue that it’s not the protagonist who’s the leader, but Yosuke.  In terms of parallels, Freddy is to P4’s protagonist as Shaggy is to Yosuke.  While the former is the technical leader who doles out commands, the latter is the actual breadwinner, and of far more significance to solving the mystery than any other character.  The only difference is that you could say, maybe, that P4’s protag has a tighter relationship to the talking mascot…though on the other hand, Yosuke and Teddie have plenty of moments together. 

A minor point of contention, of course.  Like other SMT games, the protag is silent (though his speech is implied through menu choices and such).  But like any good politician, he delegates the hard work to Yosuke -- in this case, maybe too much.  Yosuke does a fair deal of the detective work, from summing up to making deductions.  It’s his store that you use as a base of operations, and he goes on a stakeout…even if it ends poorly.  And because the protag doesn’t talk, it’s Yosuke who calls out to the Shadow-facing victims more often than not.  And again, because he’s such an effective party member it’s likely that he can cover whatever base your customized protag can’t.  In short, Yosuke is all over this business, to the point where at times, the protag feels a little redundant.  Doubly so; remember, Yosuke’s the one with a definite motivation -- avenging Saki -- from the first few hours of the game onward.  He sees you as a partner.  While he argues that he can’t put an end to the murders without your help, it’s likely that you can’t do the same without him, either.

The same applies for your impossibly stylish inner selves.

Unfortunately, Yosuke’s drive eventually comes back to bite you in the ass.  In a game where “reaching out to the truth” is the overarching theme, you’ll be put to the test; having finally nabbed the (suspected) culprit, you get grilled on your understanding of the mystery and be forced to make a decision.  Pull it off, and you’ll be on your way to the game’s good -- and eventually, true -- ending. Screw up, and it’s an automatic bad ending; said ending implies that the town gets absorbed by a fog containing millions of monsters, and the folk become mindless, slobbering predators of eldritch character.  So…yeah, you probably don’t want that.

In a twist, it’s Yosuke who does all the grilling -- and you see a level of frenzy in him that’s simply shocking.  You have a suspect -- all things considered, the likely culprit -- in your custody.  He’s been flinging people into the very dangerous TV world of his own accord, and even tried to kill you in yet another strange boss fight (raisin-hued hippie angel with a giant halo that flashes peace signs and his fortunately-missing genitalia FTW!).  And most of all, he’s done some serious harm to one of your own; it’s likely that she won’t make it out alive.  Yosuke, with all this fresh on his mind, takes the game into one of its darkest moments:  he proposes that you and the others throw him into the TV world -- just as he supposedly did to a half dozen others. 

My first response was “Yosuke, why?  I thought we were friends!”  Looking back, I suppose I can understand what the writers were going for.  Yosuke’s heart got kicked in the junk by this whole murder business, and you know he’s been trying to prevent that from happening again no matter what -- he wants to spare others from the pain he’s endured.  But this guy’s latest strike nearly led to a more harrowing loss.  You see, the victim in this case wasn’t some girl he had a crush on.  It was the protag’s young cousin.  The same six-year-old girl you and the gang got to know over the course of roughly sixty hours of game time.

Mess with Nanako, and you gotta go.

Yosuke spirals into a rage of massive proportions.  Normally calm about matters (if a little flippant), it’s a wonder he didn’t pull out his knives and gut the culprit right there.  His solution is only slightly more humane, if only because he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty -- and provide his friends with the same outlet for revenge, thereby increasing his chances of winning them over.  In spite of his anger, he’s still on top of his game; his understanding of the mystery gives everyone (the player included) reason to believe that you’ve got the perp.  But it’s still your job to outmaneuver him, in spite of choices and dialogue that suggest otherwise.  It’s not only to find out who’s really behind it all, but a means to help Yosuke -- to protect him from doing something he’ll regret.

 One wonders what might have sparked such a change; from my perspective, it seems pretty obvious.  If it was only Saki that had gotten the worst of it, I doubt Yosuke would go ballistic as he did.  No, the real breaking point was that he went after an innocent girl -- your little cousin.  Emphasis on YOUR; what he did was a measure of loyalty, an effort to assuage the wrongs done to the protag.  And then you realize just how dangerous a strong friendship can be: he would gladly kill a man for the sake of one of his friends.  It’s admirable.  Misguided, but admirable.

Among many, many, many other things.

But he wouldn’t be a bro if he wasn’t ready to take the plunge.  By his own admission, Yosuke owes you a lot (least of all his life).  You help him overcome his demons, fight alongside him to stop big ugly demons, endure Mystery Food X with him, dress in drag to entertain their peers, and much more.  And you feel the same way, no doubt.  Yosuke will die for you in combat, help you lay the smackdown on enemies, and even pick you back up if you’re hit with an attack you’re weak against (not to mention bitch-slapping you if you’ve got a status ailment).  You’re partners in this thing, through and through.  Yosuke’s loyalty to the cause and his pal are undeniable, but I say that the feelings you as a player have for him are even more powerful.  At game’s start, the protag is the new guy in town, and Yosuke’s all too willing to show him the ropes.  He doesn’t want the protag to have the same longing for city life that he once had; indeed, you barely think about what the protag’s life was like before the game proper.  Conversely, Yosuke’s capability as a fighter, an entertainer, and a plain old pal makes him an indispensable tool in enjoying the game and its story.  You like Yosuke and want to save him from harm, and even help him move past the troubles in his heart.  Yosuke likes you, and he wants to make sure your stay in town is pleasant and fulfilling.  United by fate, you’ll tough out any threat that come your way.

Two bad dudes, fighting side by side.  That’s the way it was meant to be -- because Yosuke’s your bro.

Next time, your peaceful days are over as we take a look at 2009’s Devil Survivor.  Be sure to survive until then, all right?

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