The True(st) Self

I’ve made no secret of my appreciation for Giant Bomb. Not every site can be run on the merits of a cult of personality, but the Bombadiers use their charm surplus to great effect. Their podcasts are a special pleasure of mine- weekly podcasts are great for my half-hour walk to and from work, and at the end of every year their Game of the Year Deliberations podcasts are perfect for holiday travel. Airport layovers lose their sting when boredom never sets in, and I’ve spent hours sitting at my terminal listening to their Deliberations.

During the 2012 GotY discussions, Jeff Gerstmann brings up Persona 4 Golden as a semi-serious nomination. “Didn’t play it? Probably one of the best games of the year,” he supposes. Giant Bomb’s reverence of the original Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 is well documented, and a port to Vita would clearly still be in their good graces. The Bombers didn’t end up putting P4G on their list because they hadn’t spent much with it, and because it was “just a port.” Had they played more, though, they would have realized that Persona 4 Golden is far more than a simple port.

Obviously, graphical improvements and basic gameplay tweaks were part of the Golden treatment, but the changes are far bigger and more important to the identity of the game than that. With P4G, Persona 4 finally moves out of the shadow of Persona 3, trying not to ape past successes but comfortable with its own style. It’s a lot of little things that show this comfort with itself- while the old anime intro was clearly imitating big brother, Golden’s intro embraces 4’s colorful and lighthearted (relatively speaking) tone. Difficulty is far more adjustable, and there are far more systems in place for generosity- more rewards and ways to get them every step of the way. P4G isn’t interested in pushing you if you don’t want it to. Contrast this with Persona 3’s grim, oppressive difficulty that bordered on unfair at times.

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It’s more than little things, however, and it’s at this point that I must throw up a spoiler warning to anyone who hasn’t beaten Persona 4. The mystery you and your friends have been pursuing has run its paces, and the moment comes when you must accuse someone of being the killer. The game presents you with a tremendous list of characters you’ve met throughout the game, and you must choose the most likely suspect. The clues you have are that the killer must be someone close enough to keep an eye on your activities, able to travel around town without arousing suspicion, and must possess some connection with the two dead victims.

Except in the original release, you have another clue. I have played through the game twice myself, and watched two Let’s Plays of others doing so as well. The two players I watched (as well as myself on my first playthough) added another criteria: the killer wasn’t going to be one of your Social Links. Social Links are friends that you hang out with repeatedly during the game, building a personal bond with that grows your power alongside your friendship. Obviously, the game wasn’t going to make the killer a social link- it wouldn’t invest all that time in making you enjoy a character’s company only to turn them into a bad guy. This player assumption is spot on- Persona 4 takes the easy road, and makes the villain someone you’re not personally invested in. The real culprit, Tohru Adachi, is one of the few people on that long list that you don’t have a Social Link with… and the only one of those that has been prominent enough in the story to make sense. It doesn’t ruin things, but it certainly removes the moment’s teeth.

In Persona 4 Golden, that won’t work. One of the things the game added was two new Social Links- an original character named Marie, and one for Adachi. You can spend many a night hanging out with the bumbling friendly police detective, hearing about his troubles, offering him friendship to stave off the loneliness of his job. The moment has power it never had in the original, because the only way to proceed and get to the good endings is to accuse your lonely, clueless friend of murder. That he is ultimately guilty barely matters- you have to make the jump of logic to suspecting your friends to solve the mystery.

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The main battle theme of the game is “Reach Out to the Truth,” and major support NPCs Igor and Elizabeth remind you at every turn that you should be seeking the truth without blinders. Deductive power to figure out the most likely suspect is important in this literal moment of truth, but the real question the game is asking is, “Are you willing to follow the truth wherever it leads you, even if you must go against the friendships you’ve nurtured through the entire game?” At an earlier point in the game, your friends are all riled up and ready to get revenge on Namatame, a man who appears at the time to be the killer. It’s possible to just let them, and the game treats that as an ending- the murders stop, and your quest is complete. Roll the credits. But if you try to talk them down, and stick with your conviction that revenge is not the answer- even as your friends scream at you to let them do what they’re trying to do- the game rewards your pursuit of the truth with an extended journey, bringing with it fresh revelations and a shining, hopeful ending to that long road.

The Adachi Social Link just drives that all home even further. Not only do you have to start suspecting a close friend, the game gives you additional points of failure- more fog obscuring the truth. When you realize it might be Adachi, you can choose to hide it from the rest of the Investigation Team, and go confront him yourself- then help him destroy evidence so he gets away scot free. The only reason to do so is if you have a distorted understanding of the game’s message- if you think friendship is more important than truth, the game offers a rude awakening in the form of a dark, depressing ending where justice is not served, and the implication is that you will spend the rest of your life being blackmailed by a murderer.

It’s no coincidence that Persona 4 Golden is the first Persona game to not bear the Shin Megami Tensei name in America. P4G casts aside the shadows of giants. It’s not a sidestory in the Shin Megami Tensei series, nor a sequel to Persona 3. It’s its own story, whole and hale, powerful enough to inspire a crowd of passionate fans and numerous spinoffs. I’m looking forward to Persona 5, and if it’s only half the game Persona 4 is, it’ll still be the best RPG on the PS3. Hopeful, ambitious, progressive, and massive… Persona 4 is one of the greatest games ever made, and Persona 4 Golden is just a Persona 4 that’s not ashamed of who it is. Stand tall, P4G- you’ve sure as shit earned the right.