As I wrote previously, I absolutely loved Persona 5. I’d been interested in the series for a long time, so I was happy to be rewarded by such an excellent entry into the franchise. It was the kind of game that I just didn’t want to be done with, so I ended up beating it almost three full times in order to get the platinum trophy for it. Beyond that, I ended up buying both Persona 3 and Persona 4 for the PS2, since they were pretty cheap online, and later I bought a PlayStation Vita and Persona 4 Golden because I’d heard that it was also quite excellent. I finally got around to playing the latter recently, so I wanted to put some of my thoughts about it down in writing.
I have to say, I was a bit nervous before actually sitting down to play it. Persona 5 has a lot of systems, which is probably part of the reason they take their time in teaching you those systems in the early hours of the game. Atlus does a great job with it, and before I knew it I felt like a master at the weakness/affinity-based combat system, but I worried that P4G might not be quite so refined in its tutorials, being eight years older than its sequel (the original P4, anyway). I needn’t have worried, as P4G was very much like P5 in almost every aspect, tutorials and combat included.
When I say they are similar, I really mean it. One of the games is about a young high school kid who stays with his stern (but later loving) male guardian who has a young daughter whose mother was hit and killed by a car, and you learn that you have the ability to travel to an alternate dimension and use shadows, and with the help of a colorful cast of classmates and townsfolk, you save people from that shadow dimension and kill a god. The other game is about [copy and paste that whole thing here].
The two being so similar isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Though interesting, the premise of the game is not at the top of the list of things I loved about either game. There are some small changes in mechanics that make P5 an arguably better game, but the combat is virtually the same in each, and I loved fighting in both of them. I usually hate games that force you to change up your skills and attacks in order to exploit enemy weaknesses (sometimes I just wanna mindlessly bash away at things, okay?), but somehow these two games turned that concept into a well-coordinated dance. I very much enjoyed sizing up each group of enemies, thinking about what abilities each of my party members had, and then figuring out who to attack with, who to buff with, etc. In most RPGs, when I win a battle I feel strong. In these games, I felt smart.
More important than the combat, I think, is the cast of characters and the relationships you form with them. So much of these games centers on finding people, learning about them, and establishing a deeper bond with them. The dating in P4 is a little less engaging than it is in P5, but I still liked having it as an option. In my first playthrough I dated Yukiko. She is smart, introspective, industrious, and has that kind of elegant traditional Japanese thing going on. I can’t say I wasn’t tempted to abandon my quest to win her heart when Rise came into my life, though. She is fun, flirty, ambitious, and very cute. I was in too deep with Yukiko, though, so I saved Rise for my second game. I was very close to picking Marie, too, though, and she would have definitely been my next lady if I were to play it a third time. None of them held a candle to Ann from P5, but I did like those three ladies a lot.
You know who else I liked? Kanji. If there’s an area that P4 beats out P5 in, it might be humor. P4 is a very funny game, and I found myself laughing out loud several times, which is pretty uncommon for me. My typical reaction to humor in games is a chuckle or maybe a conservative “heh” or a “ha” or two strung together. Not so with P4. I found myself having to stop and just laugh at certain scenes, even on my second playthrough. Kanji was the source of much of that laughter. He and Naoto are also super interesting for how they’re used to look at issues of gender and sexuality in games. I wish Atlus had gone further with them, though, because it seems like they wanted to make Kanji gay and Naoto gender non-conforming but pulled back at the last second and had them be semi-closeted or confused rather than forsake their feelings. The point of the shadows in this game is that they represent a part of you that you repress, and in defeating them you admit that they are just as much a part of you as the “real” version. So, given that Kanji’s shadow is gay, that means that he is either gay or bi in the real world, but after defeating his shadow he continues to act like he’s totally, definitely “not like that,” which seems weird. And Naoto eventually reveals that she presents as male because of societal expectations, but even after being outed as a woman she asks that they continue to treat her as a male and still presents as male (until the epilogue, anyway). So I think they could have done a little more to make those two characters definitively different, but they were still interesting and unique characters that are not commonly found in games.
The art style and soundtrack are also very good, as they are in P5. I like the red/black/white theme of P5 more than the yellow/green theme in P4, but they share a lot of the same visual flare and attention to the most minute of details. This ended up being a lot more clinical than I’d intended, but sometimes it’s hard to convey why the magical cocktail of ingredients in any given game is so delicious and intoxicating. Persona 4 made me happy. At the end of P4 and P5 your new friends speak to you about leaving and there’s a kind of bittersweet thing going on, because you all revel in the good times you had but lament the fact that it’s all over and you have to leave them behind. It seems like a purposeful design choice, because as a player I was going through the same thing. I was sad to finish both of these games, even though I’d spent dozens and dozens of hours with them. I wished I could have stayed, just as my character did, but I had to move on. I console myself by reminding myself that there are three more mainline Persona games I have yet to play, so maybe I’ll do one each summer for the next few years, and by the time I’m done with them there will be a fresh, new Persona game to steal my heart.