Playing Persona 4 back in 2008 was a major revelation. Being my first Shin Megami Tensei game, it surprised me that a traditional turn-based RPG could be truly challenging from the very beginning. But the truly mind-blowing element was the unique formula with which the Persona series tells its stories and the story this specific entry chose to tell.
As I have already written about both Persona 3 and Persona 5, I don’t want to waste too much time retreading the universal elements. The year-long visual novel/JRPG hybrid is phenomenal, and whichever did it best was destined to land a high spot. Instead, I will be comparing this directly to Persona 5 to argue why Persona 4 is the (slightly) better game, while hopefully making it clear why those unique elements add up to a truly masterful experience.
First, Persona 4 keeps things small-scale throughout most of the narrative. The protagonist has moved in with his uncle and niece in a middle of nowhere town named Inaba. An all-consuming Walmart-style entity named Junes has set up shop, so half the businesses on the central street are now closed. Few games bother with a rural setting, and it’s even rarer to find one exploring themes of modern economic hardship – to use this as the setting for an 80-hour JRPG was truly inspired. Compare this to Persona 5, which takes place in the sprawling metropolis you might recognize as Tokyo. Persona 5 is bigger than life, but that’s true of so many games.
Soon after arriving, an upperclassman named Saki Konishi is found hanging from power lines. The protagonist discovers a local rumor called the Midnight Channel, which supposedly shows a person’s soulmate on a foggy night. Instead, he and his friends soon realize that the people who are shown have gone missing. They stumble upon a world inside the television, where people are eaten alive by their own negative self-perception. Thus, the grand stretch of the game revolves around rescuing the various victims while trying to figure out who is shoving them inside in the first place. The overarching story is one of the elements in which I think Persona 5 has the edge, but I also believe the individual moments are Persona 4’s greatest advantage.
In Persona 5, the dungeons are typically built around the villain of the month. They are striking in the moment, but they have little lasting impact on the story; once you defeat the villain, they’re typically out of the picture. The ingenious idea behind Persona 4 is that most of the people being rescued are the future party members. Like Mass Effect 2, Persona 4 has a serious advantage over other RPGs due to treating the individual party members as the central focus for significant portions of the story. Persona 4 is especially interesting because it’s built around learning their deepest secrets before really getting to know them as people. The group coming together in this case also feels natural, as it’s a band of victims teaming up to rescue the next target.
In the context of the series at large, personas are the entities the party members summon to pull off their stronger attacks. At the same time, the series does dive into the Jungian psychology behind these terms. Persona 4 uses the concept of the shadow well, where the main bosses are the shadow selves the victims refuse to acknowledge as parts of themselves. By eventually confronting this part, the characters are better able to express themselves. This adds to the character dynamics; with these seemingly negative aspects out of the way, the party members come off as more open and honest with one another.
Despite the randomized nature, the actual atmosphere of the dungeons has always been striking. And while it might be easy to give Persona 5 the edge here because the main dungeons have a set design, that can actually be a hindrance – the spaceport level is not very good and was enough for me to take an extended break from a game I had wanted to play ever since falling in love with the previous entry eight years earlier. Persona 4, meanwhile, has a reliable pace and feel. They may not be as flashy or intricate, but these dungeons work.
I also enjoy the structure of Persona 4’s social links. In Persona 5, everything is explicitly connected back to the main case in some way. But I kind of like the idea that some random woman you meet at a part-time daycare job can have a serious influence on the protagonist’s psyche. It better captures the sense of not knowing who will be the most important people around you until making that connection while also building into the slice of life atmosphere that makes this game so unique within its genre.
Where most Japanese RPGs tell epic tales of fighting against evil, Persona 4 resists those urges to explore themes closer to earth. Despite all odds, it manages to capture the same tone, hooking the player with a phenomenal cast and intriguing mystery, all built around one of the best turn-based combat engines. Some might prefer the bombastic nature of Persona 5, but as someone who spent their teenage years questioning their identity in a small town, Persona 4 has always carried a special resonance. The fact I got to experience this story during those years simply seals its place as one of my all-time favorites.