This is the first of a series of articles in which I take an in-depth look at ATLUS’ Persona 4, most recently released with the suffix ‘Golden’ on Playstation Vita. Each article will examine a different aspect of what I think makes this game successful, and while I won’t be spoiling any storyline elements, I will be discussing characters, themes and mechanics that might not be introduced until part-way through the game, so if you want to come at Persona 4 completely fresh, you’ve been warned. This first article looks specifically at gameplay structure.
Persona 4 is a game with very sexy loops. Some of the sexiest loops I’ve seen in a game for a long time, in fact. But let’s backtrack a bit. Almost all games consist of an interlocking network of gameplay feedback loops. The player does thing A, which has an effect on thing B, which either increases the player’s ability to do thing A or encourages them to repeat thing A with promise of a greater reward.
In an online match of Call of Duty, the player shoots another player, which increases their score, which indicates their overall ranking in the match, which encourages them to keep shooting players to emerge on top.
In your typical Japanese roleplaying game, of which Persona 4 is a sterling example, the player defeats monsters to acquire experience points, which accumulate to make them level up and become stronger, which allows them to defeat tougher monster and accrue greater numbers of experience points.
In a well-designed game all the various loops should complement one another, combining to create a cohesive whole that sucks the player deeper into the game world. Ideally every action the player can take should have a bearing on every other action the player can choose to take over the course of the game; a good game should make every possible action feel useful.
That’s what I mean by sexy loops; mechanical and narrative loops that mesh well together to create a cohesive experience. And Persona 4, as I’ve said, has some very sexy loops indeed.
The central conceit of Persona 4 is that you inhabit the shoes of a high schooler who spends half of his time doing normal high schooler type activities like attending school, taking part time jobs and attempting to make out with every female cast member (it’s worth noting that you can’t choose your character’s gender and you only have straight romance options, so if flirting with schoolgirls isn’t your thing then the game’s romance options will likely leave you cold.)
The other half of our protagonist’s time is spent trawling through randomly-generated dungeons in a nether-world that exists inside of televisions and turns people’s hidden fears and desires into horrible monsters, which he must battle with replica swords and the help of powerful demons, or Personas, dredged up from the depths of his own soul. Which is pretty similar to how I spent my own high school days, so points for realism.
It is in effect a combination of a standard JRPG dungeon-crawler and a bishōjo game, a type of interactive dating novel unique to Japan. What makes Persona 4 particularly special, however, is how well its mechanics make those two distinct types of game complement one another. It would be easy to simply bolt these two genres together and end up with a game that appeals to a very specific subset of people – those that love both JRPGs and bishōjo games – and no one else.
But Persona’s gameplay loops intwine the tropes of these genres together in such a way that creates an experience that feels unique, and far more than the sum of two different sets of game design tropes. From a personal perspective, I have little knowledge of the world of Japanese dating sims and little inclination to acquire any, yet Persona 4 had me spending more time that I’d like to admit pondering the line most likely to please a particular character, and certain late-game plot decisions came dangerously close to making me feel real human emotions.
Similarly, I tire quickly of straightforward dungeon-crawlers, as there’s usually only so many colourful monsters I can strike down before the grind becomes too apparent, but Persona 4 had me happily plunging again and again into multi-floor dungeons in order to rescue captive characters or defeat particularly powerful boss monsters.
The key is how every action you can take in the game is tied directly to your progression through the game. The Social Link system is a core example of this. Your relationships in the game are charted through a series of Social Links – the more friendly you become with the members of the game’s cast, the stronger your Social Links become, and the better chance you have of dating that character (if they’re female) or being bestest bros for life (if they’re male).
Your Social Links also directly affect how effective you and your allies are in battle. The stronger your Social Links are, the better your allies’ combat abilities become, and the more powerful Personas you are able to create. In order to be most effective in battle you cannot simply grind in the dungeons for EXP; you must also spend time in the overworld cultivating your interpersonal relationships.
The Social Link system elegantly stitches together the distinct combat and socialising portions of the game and the other activities you can choose to partake in support this system. Studying in school, reading textbooks and attending extra-curricular activities all raise certain non-combat related personal statistics, all of which enable you to make better choices when conversing with other characters and thus better progress your Social Links and combat proficiency.
Taking up a part-time job nets you extra money to spend on weapons and items, but working also increases particular stats that again help you improve you Social Links. Every decision you make in the game ultimately has an effect on your proficiency in battle and thus your ability to progress through the game.
In essence, this means that every decision you make in Persona 4 has some direct effect on your ability to successfully progress through the game. All those little mechanical loops feed into one big, satisfying back-and-forth of progression. And underpinning the whole thing is the fact that you only have a limited time to make these decisions before the game leaves you with no choice but to tackle the dungeon.
Days in Persona are separated into blocks of time – morning, afternoon and evening for the most part. Any activity you choose to do takes one block of time, from leaping into a dungeon to hanging out with a friend, from training with the sports team to petting a cat (yes, this is an activity, and yes, petting a cat apparently requires the same amount of time and commitment as saving a friend from a supernatural demon born of their innermost fears). You only have a certain number of days to complete each stage of the dungeon and progress the game; fail, and you’ll be forced back in time to try again.
What this achieves is to add a sense of urgency to your actions. Most RPGs will happily let you pick your grind of choice and keep at it until you feel ready to progress; Persona 4 forces you to choose your actions carefully, and this lends every decision a greater sense of weight, from which of your friends to spend time with to when to take on the dungeon boss.
At its best Persona 4’s pacing is exquisite, forcing you to strategise and maximise the use of your time to get the most out of each in-game month. In reality it’s pretty easy (on Normal difficulty at least) to get everything you want done and still clear the dungeons in good time, but the impact of all of your choices combined with the pressure of that time limit make for an unusually compelling RPG mechanic. Sexy, sexy loops.
It’s not all Golden, of course (and yes, that’s a reference to the excellent Vita release of the game, easily the best way to experience Persona 4). There are a range of side quests available in the game, and while some of them offer great rewards and are worth investing time in, others are pointless busywork with no worthwhile rewards. It’s impossible to know whether a quest will be worthwhile until you’ve finished it, so knowing which optional activities to fit into your already hectic game schedule boils down to guesswork, or opportune use of a strategy guide.
The wheels fall off the generally excellent pacing sometimes, too. Complete a dungeon ahead of time and you face a dry spell while you wait for the plot to catch up. You can still progress your Social Links and undertake optional activities, but without the driving urgency to complete the dungeon and with no new side quests appearing until the narrative catches up with you, these sections can become pretty tedious.
Worse by far are the intervals where the game requires you to ‘gather information’ in order to progress in the dungeon. At these points the entire game grinds to a halt until you’ve spoken to a seemingly random selection of characters in the overworld. There’s no real logic to these sections, which just boil down to speaking to absolutely everyone until one of them reveals a clue. It’s an irritating break in pacing, and I had absolutely no qualms about turning to a guide to get these pointless interludes out of the way.
Another point where the use of a guide is more or less required is the game’s baffling approach to multiple endings. Without spoiling anything, unless you make some very specific dialogue choices during a certain scene you will ‘finish’ the game with what, in my case, amounted to 20 hours of gameplay undiscovered. Much like the information gathering sections, there’s not a whole lot of logic to the choices you have to make to progress through to the ‘true’ ending, just a set of ‘correct’ choices that you are required to make through guesswork.
Fail to make the right choices and you are presented with a supremely unsatisfying ending and an abrupt roll of credits. Which is not only an unworthy way to end an otherwise excellent game, it also means some of the best late-game content is hidden behind this bizarre design choice.
The game does this a few times after this, too; effectively wrapping up unless you take some very specific and largely unprompted actions. I understand this to be a feature of the bishōjo genre, where the games are designed for multiple playthroughs to achieve the ‘best’ ending, but Persona 4 is very, very long RPG (my finished play through clocked in it at a somewhat staggering 103 hours) and expecting someone to replay something that long to experience a more satisfying ending strikes me as deeply disrespectful of a player’s time.
To be fair to the designers the game does flag up when it’s about to launch into its multiple-endings shenanigans, and my advice would be to make use of the multiple save slots available and find a guide that tells you how to get the ending you want. This is good one, for example. It seems a shame to rely on a guide in this way, but the game really is better when played through to the true ending, and there are so many fiddly bits you can mess up along the way that I really didn’t feel bad about ‘cheating’ that far in.
Despite these odd design choices, for the vast majority of its (very long) play time, Persona 4 is an exquisitely crafted and excellently paced game. It successfully ties together two fairly distinct and often difficult genres, and those delicious gameplay loops make it a more compelling experience than you might expect when someone tries to explain the game to you.
A ’high school dating mystery drama dungeon crawler’ probably shouldn’t work nearly this well, and it’s at least in part down to those sexy loops. By masterfully controlling the player’s available actions and by presenting a myriad of options that all feel relevant to progression, Atlus has created an experience that feels both vital and compelling.
It’s also a strong argument against the content-stuffing that goes on in many modern games. It’s all very well having hundreds of optional checkboxes, but unless all those optional activities feed back into the core loops of the game they’re going to feel like busywork, and sooner or later the player is going to notice. This is perhaps Persona 4’s greatest achievement, from a gameplay perspective at least; that it has such an abundance of optional content, yet still manages to feel so tight and un-padded. In a game that can last over 100 hours, that’s a mighty achievement indeed.
Well that’s the skeleton of the game pretty much picked clean as far as I’m concerned. Feel free to leave a comment if you disagree; I’d love to discuss different thoughts on Persona 4’s gameplay structure. In the next article I’ll be getting to the heart of the matter, looking specifically at the game’s characters, how the way they’re woven into the wider narrative works within the core loops outlined above. Check it out here.