Friday, December 14, 2012

Persona 4: The Social Link Network

Here at the Backlog, you know it's mostly coke parties and Gangnam-style dancing. That's why we missed a pair of updates in the last month or so. But, with a vacation on the horizon for both myself and my erstwhile writing partner, I suppose our update schedule will be a little more reliable. You know, now that I think about it, I might be confusing us with IGN. But either way, the point is, more posts, and more Korean dancing.

Oppa Backlog Style.

Case in point, before the latest time crunch began for me, I wrapped up Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4. The game was recently remade/upgraded for the PSVita, no doubt following the success of their last remake for the PSP, Persona 3 Portable. I've mentioned in the past that the P3 is one of my all-time favorite games, and I was assured by several people upon embarking upon this fourth entry in the series that it eclipses its predecessor. I'm pleased to report that they were not lying. However, after writing about how Xenogears narrative-heavy style and extremely linear storytelling made it less enjoyable in today's interaction-heavy era of gaming, it feels hypocritical to talk about Persona 4 as being great. So I should point out some of the similarities as well as the differences before I get into the meat of my post.

This game is about 80% cutscene, 15% dungeon crawling, and the rest of the time is split up into running to and from cutscenes or dungeons. Like Xenogears, this game has a lot of talking. A lot of talking. The script for Persona 4 has to be e-freaking-normous. You begin as a transfer student in April of 2011, and every few actions causes the day to move forward until the finale on Christmas Day. Each "day" is essentially a new cutscene, or sometimes several cutscenes, where a lot of the time you'll find you have very little control over what happens. My girlfriend observed me playing this a few different times over a 3-day period, culminating in her asking "So, do you ever DO anything in this game?"

"What do you mean? Can't you see I'm fighting giant strippers? Honey? H-honey?"

But that's the thing - going through those scenes IS playing the game. It's what you play the game FOR. In Xenogears, I played the game expecting a standard RPG that included some giant robots, and instead I got a sci-fi novella with amazing potential, ultimately letting me down because of its glaring flaws. With Persona, I went in knowing that I was going to be spending a lot of time talking to people, and that was what I wanted. Someone once described this set of games to me as "a visual novel, not a game," and for the most part I agree. The difference is that he meant it to deride Persona 4, whereas I find it fascinating.

Xenogears featured a lot of talking and lack of character control because that's what happens when you tell your programming team to build a Sphinx and then take all their slaves over to work on Pyramid #36.

The nose was supposed to be on Disc 2.

Persona 4 is a game where the fighting and dungeon crawling is just a consequence of all the awesome talking you get to do. I'm going to take some time now to describe how this works so well for the game, so grab a snack and prepare to hit the X button a lot as we delve into the world of Social Links.

The first thing you need to know about this game, and something I might get into more in another post, is that it's a whole lot like Pokemon.

If they would finally include my idea for Penisaur.

You're given a starter persona - a physical manifestation of the faces and characteristics we present to the world to deal with every day life - near the beginning of the game. From there, you can occasionally "capture" a new persona after battle. They learn new moves as they level up, and you can also fuse two or more personae together in order to make a new, stronger persona with select moves from its "parents" which you can sometimes control.

The kicker is this; someone at Atlus just loves Tarot cards, because Persona 4 is crazy about Tarot cards. Every persona belongs to one of 21 Tarot arcana (23 if you're playing the PSVita port), which in turn correlate to different people you've got to meet and get cozy with. Why? Because those people match up to the Tarot as well, and the friendlier you get with them, the stronger personae of matching suit will be.

Begging the question of whether or not Magician personae are worth it.

When the game starts to get going, recurring character-slash-aardvark-slash-horrifying troll Igor invites you into the Velvet Room (which has gone from an actual nightclub to an elevator to a pimpin' limo over the years - Ayn speculates that in Persona 5 he'll be on a jet) and tells you that you need to start making friends, because they're going to be important later. What he really means is "pay attention, because this is how you play the game." Now, you can theoretically go through the entire game without forming a single bond save for a few that are mandatory, but beyond just risking pissing off Igor, playing Persona 4 like that is like playing an Elder Scrolls game solely for the main plot - sure, you'll beat it, but in doing so you missed the entire point.

Just like Pokemon, your personae gain experience through battle and learn new moves as they level up. However, every time you fuse a new persona, it gains an experience bonus of varying size depending on how far you've brought a social link, on a scale of "fuck you, buddy" to "I want to have your babies." Maxing out a Social Link also gives you access to a special super-persona you wouldn't be able to fuse under normal circumstances. The more experience a social link provides, the less time you have to spend leveling to unlock a persona's strongest moves.

That's what the vast majority of those cutscenes you sit through are all about. It''s not about just passively watching the game play itself through narration - you're steering the ship, and you get to decide whether your Social Link ends up Love Boat or Titanic.

James Cameron is horrible at this game.

So it's not a matter of having to sit through all this dialogue to get to the game - the dialogue is the game. What you end up getting out of it hinges almost entirely on whether or not you can make the right decisions in dealing with your relationships, connecting with friends and family, and leading a rich and active social life. I should also mention that quite frequently you start out a new day listening to a lecture from a teacher that you end up getting quizzed on at several points in the game. Persona 4 has a well-crafted murder mystery driving the plot forward, sure, but at the end of the day, it's about winning High School.

Basically this, but with murder and demons.

As I played, I couldn't help but think about my own "social links" in life and try to figure out how far along I am in maxing things out. I know I've got a Rank 10 Magician, the link associated with the first friend in the game, whom frequently finds himself in painful situations with women - that's the good friend of mine from High School I still hang out with. I maxed out Death, the old woman who teaches you valuable lessons about life, in a story you can read about by following this cheap plug for my other blog, These Gentlemen.

My biologist/fashion photographer/nude model friend would likely qualify as Sun. My longtime Catholic-turned-Sikh friend is without a doubt the Priestess. My oldest and best friend goes to Emperor, with two other friends qualifying as Tower and Hanged Man, and another doubtlessly fitting the bill for Moon. Also, her habit of going to the gym with me practically every day and love of action movies tells me I've definitely met my Chariot. And of course, let's' not forget Ayn.

This is how Ayn treats everybody.

Going through the list, I figured out that there are probably 10 or 11 good matches to the personalities in Persona 4 I've hit upon, at what I would assume is either Rank 10 or close to it. Seeing as how there are 21 arcana overall . . . I need more friends.

Also like Pokemon, the existence of so many different personae appeals directly to the collector in me. The only way to get every persona is to max out every Social Link, so I will console every heartbroken teenager, sexually questioning pseudo-punk, and gender-confused high school girl I can if it means I get to unlock a single persona I'll probably never use.

Gotta catch 'em all.

But the game makes it worthwhile. These little snippets of peoples lives you get to bear witness to, and participate in, run the gamut from shallow High School nonsense to helping someone overcome the death of a loved one or come to grips with problems with loves and relationships they'd been avoiding, or just facing themselves. Hence the name Persona - this game is about learning to understand the masks we wear for the people around us, and what happens when people gain the trust to remove them for someone else.

Persona 2 explores the power of rumors on our lives. Persona 3 is about bringing people who've reached their lowest point back up to the light. This game is all about the real mark of maturity - how we interact with, and react to, other people. Your job as the Protagonist is to get people to throw away their masks and face each day as their real and best self. Sure, there's a murder to solve with Scooby and the gang, and you have to save people from dungeons by battling various monsters and collecting personae to fight with you, but all that stuff about too much talking and too many cutscenes? That's the game.

Though perhaps a few are a bit gratuitous.

So if you want an RPG that's going to just be straight up grinding and random battles, there's no end of options for you out there. This isn't a good choice for that. What Persona 4 is good for is developing as strong a bond to the characters as you would those in a good book, and getting to control hands-on whether or not they have a happy ending. As someone who's played my fair share of the traditional offerings of this genre, such a dramatic shift in game emphasis is not just remarkable to me, it's enthralling.

Now, if you liked this post, maybe we should talk more about it. Get to know each other. Maybe you can slowly open up about any problems you're having at home or in life. Someone give me another link.

Until next time, especially if someone thinks they'd be a good Temperance match, keep playing.

1 comment:

75percentg said...

I'm sort of curious if you had a social link that you particularly connected with. This is one of my favorite games to share with people, and I've made it a habit to learn what character, if any, they seemed to get along with best.

This blog makes me want to dig into my own backlog again.