A funny thing happened to me playing Persona 4 the other day. The game started bossing me around, and I didn't like it. I suddenly found myself hemmed in with no choices. I wanted to explore, and the game wouldn't let me. "It wouldn't be a good idea to go outside right now," I was told. Instead of offering me choices, the game dragged me from one scene to the next, making all my choices for me. I found myself putting up a fight:
Me: But I don't want to go home!
P4: "You're tired, so you decide to go to bed early."
Me: I'm not tired, and I don't want to go bed early. What I really want to do is check out this crazy town, but I can't even go from one room to another without the game's permission.
The last straw came when a kid named Yosuke crashed his bike on the street right in front of me. I'd already become friendly with him, so I thought I should stop and help him...but no. The game had other ideas. "You'd better let him be," I was informed, and with that our hero walked away; iris out, end of scene. Huh?!
I was surprised by my reaction. I loved Persona 3 and considered it one of the very best games of 2007. Persona 4 seems every bit the stylish and unconventional RPG its predecessor was, so why was I resisting it? To satisfy my curiosity, I loaded up P3 again and played it for thirty minutes or so, and guess what? Tons of passive X-button exposition coupled with let-the-game-do-the-driving gameplay. Aside from enjoying P3's music a little more, the two games felt very similar to me, both introducing their characters and unfolding their stories along similar lines.
So what's wrong with this game? Have I finally soured on JRPGs altogether - including even the Shin Megami Tensei series that dares to pull up the RPG carpet, repaint the RPG walls, and rearrange the RPG furniture?
I thought hard about this for some time before it occurred to me that I was focusing on the wrong culprit. My resistance to Persona 4 had nothing to do with the game itself. It was, in fact, all about me. It turns out that I'm the problem with Persona 4.
In the last few months I've spent the vast majority of my gaming time playing and completing Fallouts 1-3 and Fable II, with a heaping helping of Little Big Planet thrown in as a palate cleanser. I've played and written about other games too, but the special kind of devotion required by the Fallouts and Fables of the world means they get under your skin in ways other games don't. They require so much time and attention, and they're both so enveloping, that I tend to walk around with them inside even when I'm not playing them.
So when I load up Persona 4 for the first time, what am I looking for? Choice. Player-driven narrative. Branching quests and storylines. All the cool stuff I've been enjoying lately. But the thing is, Persona 4 isn't about that stuff. To be fair, it offers plenty of choices for the player and its own version of quests, but you will see almost none of these for at least two hours into the game.
Why? Because Persona 4 has an authored story to tell, a social environment to establish, a mystery to unravel, several characters to explore, and all of that takes time. If you resist this; if you insist that Persona 4 fulfill a set of requirements it was never designed to meet; if you expect the game to be other than it is, Persona 4 will likely frustrate and disappoint you. But if you're willing to accept the game on its own terms and allow it to define itself in its own way, you are in for a rich and stimulating RPG experience that will dispel the bad taste that some recent JRPGs may have left in your mouth.
If you make this initial investment I'm recommending, you will ultimately find that Persona 4 opens up to you in all sorts of wonderful ways. Developer Atlus clearly trusts its unfolding story and characters (and its fabulous art design and music) to sustain your interest and thrust you into its stylish world - all while simultaneously teaching new players how the game works.
You will soon encounter a moment when you can feel the game shift gears and virtually hand itself over to you. When this happens, it suddenly feels like the whole game is yours, everything matters, and failure is a real possibility. It was worth the wait. Suddenly, Persona 4 begins to levitate.