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August 15, 2012

Persona 4 Arena: Pursuing My True Self...Again

You know what?  Confession time: I actually wasn’t expecting much out of Persona 4 Arena’s story. 

Heresy, I know.  How could I call myself an Atlus zealot if I wasn’t willing to go knocking on doors and proclaiming the coming of our savior?  But really, can you blame me?  Fighting games -- BlazBlue notwithstanding -- aren’t exactly known for their stories, and the transition from a linear format in the original Persona 4 to an inevitably-what-if-Yosuke-had-to-save-the-day format seemed like a motion that would only hurt the overall narrative.  And again, this is a fighting game; my time would be better spent learning how to properly zone with Naoto’s Hair-Trigger Megido instead of uncovering the mystery behind why Teddie’s decided to start moonlighting as a pimp.

But for Atlus’ sake -- and to find out why, purportedly, Elizabeth is on the moon -- I figured I’d give it a shot.  And I’m glad I did; format issues aside, P4A is a worthy successor to the canon.

(Warning: spoilers for Persona 4 and Persona 4 Arena to follow.  If you haven’t played either of those games -- and if not, then you should be playing those instead, you foolish fool! -- then get ready to have a ton of spoilers lopped onto your plate.  Like a healthy serving of spaghetti laced with plywood.)

I should probably start by saying that I’m not DONE with the story yet.  I’ve just finished the stories of the core four investigators (with a couple of gag endings to my name).  My intent is to start working on Naoto’s next, and save the Persona 3 cast for later.  I don’t know how exactly to unlock the true ending, but since I managed to unlock about six other stories with two playthroughs, I don’t think I’ll have to jump through any flaming hoops -- which is a bit more than I can say about the original P4, but I digress.

Let’s get the bad out of the way.  Even if I like the game’s story, I genuinely believe that the BlazBlue-style format hurts it in the long run.  Here’s my reasoning: if you were to do what I did and play through the core four’s story first, then you’d probably come off a bit bitter.  Individually their stories aren’t bad, and there are important details revealed in each one, but playing four largely-identical stories back-to-back-to-back-to-back can get tiresome.  Same setup.  Same cutscenes.  Same end-goal and cliffhanger.  It certainly doesn’t help that there are universal plot details that are inevitably repeated in each of the stories, from the Investigation Team’s past endeavors to the way the tournament works.  It’s grating, to say the least.

There’s another problem, too -- as it stands, it’s hard to see exactly what the importance of each story is.  Who ends up where, and how, and why?  Team leader Yu fights all his friends in his story, inadvertently barring them from progressing alongside him so he can advance and save the day.  He makes it to the big boss’ room, and…to be continued.  Fine.  But then you play through Yosuke’s story, and he fights all his friends, allowing him to substitute himself into the “I’m going to save the day!” role.  In the grand scheme of things, who’s really making progress toward solving the case?  One would think that it’s Yu, because he’s THE hero.  Play through another story, and suddenly it’s Chie.  How is this all going to lead up to the final arc of the game?  To say nothing of the clashing details revealed; in Yukiko’s story, she gets support from all her friends -- even the then-MIA Kanji and Naoto -- and finds the strength to fight back.  In Chie’s story, Kanji gets blown through a wall thanks to Akihiko’s thunderous entry.  Which is it?  Whose story matters? 

A third problem -- though how much this affects you may vary -- is just how familiar you are with the P4 canon.  I know the characters pretty intimately, as does anyone who played P4; for someone who hasn’t, I feel as if they’d be missing out on a whole lot.  The game does offer a bit of text to help new players catch up (four times over…), but as I’ve suggested before, there’s a difference between reading a summary of something and understanding the nuances available only by experiencing its story in full.  Thanks to being kidnapped, the Rise in P4A gives off a completely different impression than the Rise in P4; while the latter’s cheerful and flirty, yet immensely focused and supportive on the battlefield, P4A’s Rise spends what little time she has on-screen acting a bit like a damsel (though she does show plenty of her typical competence).  But why does Yu keep saying “Calm down”?  I know why thanks to the original game -- hell, you had to make him say it to get the true ending -- but here it just comes off as an unexplained quirk.  Who was behind the Midnight Channel murders?  Will there ever be a reference to the fates of Adachi, Ameno-Sagiri, or Izanami?  And for that matter, who were they?  Why does a bear unzip?  These are questions that I think the game needs to answer more directly, especially for fighting fans that might have a cursory interest in the story, but didn’t have eighty hours to piss away on sorting through high school kids’ problems.

Other minor issues: Yu’s constant trips to the Velvet Room drag his story down, there’s a whoooooooooole lot of internal monologues, and I can’t decide if Labrys’ Harley Quinn-style voice is awesome or hilariously stupid (though I’m leaning toward the former).

All right, that’s enough objectivity for now.  Time for fanboy gushing.

I have my complaints about P4A’s story (and I’ll likely have more as I keep playing on), but make no mistake -- there are a LOT of things that I like about it.  So I’m just going to do a quick list and rundown.

1) Yu has a personality, and it is fantastic.
I never got into the idea of silent protagonists.  With the exception of Link (who I posit has his own distinct personality, even without dialogue), even as a kid I vastly preferred playing as someone who could speak, think, and act independent from my own whims  instead of someone who was “supposed to be me.”  Not only am I NOT an aged, arctic-traversing wizard with a rockin’ beard searching for the world’s most powerful magicks, but I also have no desire to be.  And even if Yu Narukami is the most swag-laden hero ever created, I still wished he had his own personality in P4.

With P4A, my wish was granted.  Yu is unabashedly stoic, but he’s also confident, reliable, good-natured, and more than eager to crack a joke.  He exudes a certain command of the situation that I never felt even in P4; maybe it’s a consequence of suddenly being voiced, the changing times, the accompanying anime of P4, or just Atlus stepping it up after the game’s release, but I have to say I like this Yu a lot more.  He may be an unfortunately-gray-haired teenager, but he’s surprisingly colorful.

2) The characters all act intelligently.
This should be a given in any fictional work, but I’m consistently surprised by how many times idiocy is the sole instigator of conflict and disaster.  Tales of the Abyss is a fine example; because the characters use the excuse that “there’s no time” they inadvertently let a war start and a noxious gas cover the entire planet.  It takes a lot of effort to fail that hard.

Writing requires a certain amount of intelligence in a number of ways.  But for our purposes, let’s just say that a big part of intelligent writing is “preemption.”  People are smart; give them a story, and they’ll inevitably start asking questions.  “If X is this way, then Y is bound to happen, right?”  Or “If that’s Z’s plan, then surely they’ll have to Q.”  Or “If K is like that, then why don’t they just L?”  Being able to offer a quick answer or solid line of reasoning goes a long way; there has to be an ability to ask (and sometimes answer) a question before the reader even thinks of it.

In that regard, P4A is a success.  It takes the understanding of the canon -- the last game’s rules of the alternate dimension -- and has its characters try to work their way through the situation through reasoning and discussion.  They’ll even bring up plot points and ideas that change the scope of the story, perhaps long before even the most seasoned Persona fan.  Who threw Labrys inside the TV?  Why not use the school’s exterior to explore the barrier-laden building more easily?  Why would Labrys’s “dungeon” be a high school she’s (presumably) never been to?  All worthy questions that, once realized and acted upon, you end up going “Huh.  Why didn’t I think of that?”

3) The game is consistently hilarious.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…Yosuke’s story.

Even though their lives are ostensibly on the line, that doesn’t stop Yosuke from going up against some of the most ridiculous opponents a fighting game can muster.  Yu becomes obsessed with his kindergartener cousin; Yukiko turns into a bitch; Chie transforms into a cannibal who wants to eat Yosuke…and yes, they discuss both meanings of “eating” someone.

I’m just hoping there’s a call back to P4’s King’s Game.

4) Ideas and themes from the original game are continued here.
“Wow, what a great game,” I said to myself after finishing P4.  “It was funny, it was deep, it was heartfelt, it had action, and character development, and Mystery Food X…this one’s definitely going in my Top 4.  But you know what?  There’s something I’ve been wondering about.  If the characters’ Personas are just their Shadows -- and those in themselves are born from the negative emotions and dark feelings made real -- then does that mean that their Personas could one day revert back to being Shadows whenever their resolve starts to falter?  That’s something I’d like to see addressed if they ever make a sequel…not like we’ll ever get one…”

Past Me, your prayers have been answered.  Not only is P4A essentially a sequel, but they actually address the issue of Shadows…er, sort of.

With the exception of Yu (who never had to face his Shadow -- kind of a missed opportunity in my opinion, but acceptable given the context), the core investigators are each led to believe that the tournament they’ve been pulled into is a reflection of their innermost desires.  Even though they learned to accept their dark halves, that doesn’t mean they’re gone forever -- and with their futures beyond high school bearing down on them, they’re more vulnerable than ever.  Yosuke can’t decide on what he wants to do with his life, and finds himself more excited by the prospect of a case to solve than the others -- a call-back to his issues with his Shadow that he has to sort out once more.  Only this time, Yosuke (and by extension Chie and Yukiko) is strong enough to handle the fight against his “true self” all on his own, compared to the original game where he collapsed like a simpering ninny.  It’s moments like that that signal this is more than just a fighting game with Persona characters; it’s a full-on sequel that expands upon and develops its characters.

It’s a shame that, as it turns out, the Shadow battles are largely illusions (because despite the mirror match you fight, a Persona and a Shadow can’t be in the same place at the same time).  On the other hand, the fact that Shadow Labrys is one of THE prime antagonists is all the more reason to keep playing the game.

5) The subtext adds lots of important nuances.
I know I blasted the game for having four similar stories in rapid succession (assuming you play in that order), and I stand by that.  Even so, what makes them several steps above terrible is the fact that even if the crew didn’t fight their Shadows again, there are still plenty of unspoken things that add to the characters at large.

Yu and the gang (I see what you did there, Atlus) get thrown into this tournament and have to fight each other if they want to advance and take down “General” Teddie.  As if to egg them on, the General -- or Shadow Labrys, disguised as Teddie -- creates illusions that distort the team’s perception.  So if Yu and Yosuke go at it, they’ll both hear two completely different things, and assume that the other one’s crazy.  It’s a ruse to make them fight, and since they can’t advance without a quick showdown, it’s not like there’s any other choice.  You could make the argument that the matches are less about the fighting and more about the General wearing the team down with psychological warfare so they’ll be less-equipped to face their “Shadows”, but that’s just conjecture on my part.

What’s interesting to note, however, is that each member of the team sees a different set of illusions.  The illusions in themselves are just as reflective of the characters’ hidden selves as their Shadows.  Here’s a quick breakdown for you:

--Yu sees his friends acting unlike their usual selves; he sees them at their worst, acting callously and without any sense of empathy or heroism he’s come to expect of them.  As the leader, it’s up to him to set them straight.  And also get them to calm down.  Interestingly, it seems like Yu’s concern for his younger cousin goes pretty far -- and in terms of “learning a lesson” he doesn’t have quite as defined a revelation as the others.  Is it because he’s got an impregnable mind, or…?

--Yosuke (something of the team’s clown, in spite of being the sharp-witted second-in-command) is most affected by the nicknames given to the group thanks to the announcement of the tournament.  So when he sees Yu -- the “Sister-Complex Kingpin of Steel” -- again, that title becomes the sole determinant of his personality.  Yosuke’s mind has been “opened” to the possibility that there’s some truth to the titles, and his perception is altered…not only of his friends, but himself as well.

--Yukiko’s illusory enemies each take turns laying into her, and calling her out for being the same weak wallflower she was at the start of P4.  Unsurprisingly, Yukiko takes the abuse to heart -- but the fact that the first thing the illusion did to her was invite the others to a self-esteem-bashing party suggests that in spite of the steps forward she might take, she still isn’t where she wants to be.  That said…

--Chie’s story is unusual, I think.  At first I was willing to write it off as a carbon copy of Yukiko’s story, but since I’ve had a night to sleep on it I think that’s not the case.  Chie’s illusions also spark a self-esteem-bashing party, but how she reacts to it is markedly different from Yukiko.  Whereas Yukiko managed to take the abuse and internalize it (not to say she enjoyed it or ignored it), Chie gets hit hard.  The brash and boisterous tomboy ends up shaken far more than the girly-girl was, and she makes her concern/fears far more vocal to her comrades to build up her courage again.  It’s almost as if the prince/princess roles between Chie and Yukiko are reversed -- or perhaps the true nature of their relationship is revealed.  Maybe Yukiko is more Chie than Chie.

I love it when I can read so deeply into video games.

6) The team is back -- and so are you.
Yu Narukami is back in town to have a holiday with his best buds -- but when another mystery starts to envelop Inaba, there’s no choice but for the gang to pull together and get to the bottom of it. 

In P4A, it’s only been two months since the end of the original game; in real time, it’s been about three years.  A lot’s happened in the gaming world since then, and in plenty of gamers’ lives as well.  Given the immense amount of praise P4 rightfully earned (from myself included), the vacuum left by one of the yellow-est games ever released, the fact that Atlus and its precious franchise are still going strong, the sheer brightness, happiness, and joy inherent in the product, and that P4A is as much a celebration of YOUR return as it is Yu’s, you can’t help but enjoy the game all the more. 

You’re being invited to pick things up almost precisely where you left off.  You’re invited to solve another mystery, spend more time with this wacky yet endearing cast, develop their characters and their world, engage with the story on a number of levels, and most of all, see Yosuke make call-backs to his curiously weak bladder.

This game is like a party on a game disk -- and I can’t wait to play more. 


  1. Wait, WHAT? It's out?

    *runs out to store immediately*

    *comes back for societally acceptable clothing*

    *runs out to store immediately again*

  2. Gonna face your true self? I wish you well in your online battles; it can get pretty rough out there in the virtual wilderness...