The quest to find one’s own identity can be quite a difficult one to tackle. Some know there’s from the start while others can take quite a while to come into their own. The Persona franchise was just like one of those people. For years the series lived under its predecessor’s shadow, defined by its inner workings and confined by its label. For a time, it seemed like it would forever stay this way, with no way to break out of its own trappings. Yet Persona 3 changed that. With a visionary director at the helm, Persona 3 ripped out its staple mechanics, kept what worked and threw out what didn’t, and retooled it all to fit in within its own thematic undertones. Every cog in the machine had a purpose, every mechanic was worthy of merit. From the awe, inspiring designs of Shigenori Soejima to the jazz and rock infused tracks by Shoji Meguro, everything that they added in helped to further separate Persona from the standard RPG crowd. This franchise was something all its own. But Persona was as niche a video game as you could get. How could they possibly appeal to the general gaming audience at large? There was only one option for them. To stay true to their selves.
Persona 3 had changed everything for Persona. Gameplay mechanics, style, character, music, the reinventions that had occurred within these categories were monumental to say the least. Persona was now a distinct series and Atlus alongside Katsura Hashino knew they had to continue this trend for as long as they could. So, just like the original trilogy of titles they made sure to hold onto their staff from Persona 3 as tightly as they could. The team was comforted by this as many of them had worked with each other for years and had an established rapport with each other. Hashino was also incredibly open for a director, hearing out any opinions that his team had on the game. Everyone was ecstatic about this direction for the project as it seemed that it would be smooth sailing throughout all of development. No one was more excited than their new hires, a staple of any budding project. These developers were different from the usual bunch, as all of them were massive fans of Persona 3 and had jumped at the chance to work on the sequel. Atsushi Watanabe and Azusa Kido joined as the projects lead designers, Susumu Nishizawa worked with Shigenori Soejima on the series staple art direction, and Yuichiroh Tanaka and Akira Kawasaki would be the ones to pen their upcoming tale. A fusion of both new and old with veteran Atlus employees at the helm and fervent fans powering its core, the fourth Persona title was shaping up to be something of a passion project for the developers. This wouldn’t be a simple retread of their supposed established formula, though. Sure enough, they’d keep everything that worked in Persona 3 intact, however, all these mechanics would be retrofitted to fit in under their newly established theme. Because, if anything, that was the only thing formulaic about Persona. Coming up with a new one was a key component of development for the promising title, and, as always, Hashino had the perfect idea in mind.
Identity. At its core, Persona is all about this singular concept, revealing one’s true identity amongst the multiple Personas they wear. Hashino sought to capitalize on this idea even further with Persona 4, intending to flesh out the characters and make identity imperative to the plot. To do so he and his team would hone in on several aspects that surrounded the concept. Overall, they would focus on gossip and the media and their ability to influence one’s perception of their own personality. Everyone’s reality becomes twisted when looking through a television screen leading to many interesting directions that the team could take. Is the information presented true or false? Is reality being distorted or is it clearer then it has ever been? These are the questions that they would ask through the lens of the media and would become the bedrock for the rest of the games mechanics and design. But there was still something missing. The story lacked a clear narrative through-line that would compel the characters and propel the plot forward. Looking back on the theme of identity, Hashino thought of the murder mystery genre. Those shows always kept the viewer second guessing. How did the crime happen? Who committed the crime? What was their true identity? This is what kept viewers coming back week after week, and Hashino felt it would be perfect for his game. Conveniently, it also gave players a much clearer goal to strive towards then climbing the heights of Tartarus so, in the end, it all worked out. There was one problem though, they’d never done anything like this before. While fun in concept, no one on the Persona team had any experience working on a murder mystery game, making their task all the more exhausting. Such an intense and suspenseful story would involve many twists and turns, requiring a great deal of tact and cleverness on the part of Hashino and co. And they were more then up to the task.
Persona 4 would begin much like Persona 3 did with a nameless protagonist heading to a new town and away from their old life. Transferring to the rural town of Inaba to live with his uncle Doejima and Doejima’s daughter Nanako, the protagonist soon begins his ordinary school life in the small, quiet town having to deal with problems that every high schooler has to deal with like making friends and fitting in. But all is not well in this seemingly run of the mill town as a murder has just been committed leaving popular reporter Mayumi Yamano dead in a bizarre fashion. Still, things are kept light as you begin to form a circle of friends between the tomboyish and martial arts obsessed Chie Satonaka, calm and reserved Yukiko Amagi, and the everlasting comic relief Yosuke Hanamura. There is a rumor that comes up in your conversations though, a rumor about a supposed Midnight Channel that shows you who your soul mate is. Testing out the rumor you instead find yourself nearly sucked into your TV, only being saved by the grace of a smaller screen. Further testing with Chie and Yosuke reveals a parallel world to their own, a world within the TV occupied by an anthropomorphic teddy bear of all things. After being forced back into the real world and dealing with another murder closer to home, the three find a correlation between the Midnight Channel and the parallel world, resolving to venture into it yet again and discover the truth behind it all. As they befriend the world’s only friendly resident Teddie, and fight off its less then savory denizens the Shadows, the protagonist quickly awakens to his Persona and begins to learn the true nature behind this realm. Shadow versions of the protagonists are beginning to pop up, touting to be their true selves and bodies are starting to pile up all around Inaba. As the year continues, the protagonists circle of friends grows, each with their own set of problems that need to be resolved in the form of Shadows. Forming the Investigation Team, their goal is to finally track down the mysterious killer and stop the murders from occurring before they ever happen.
But it was rather uncommon to have a murder mystery storyline take place in such a rural town. With the games varied themes it might make more sense for it all to take place in Tokyo or some other large city. Modeled after a remote town at the base of Mount Fuji, Inaba was unremarkable on the surface. It had no tourist attractions, no places worthy of note. As Hashino would put it bluntly, for better or for worse… Inaba was a run-of-the-mill town. And this was just what they needed. The contrast between such an average setting and the murder mystery genre just made it all the more enticing. It also managed to take advantage of the fact that some towns were defined by urban legends, and the murders were just Inaba’s version of that. The setting did wonders for how they structured Persona 4. A smaller world meant reduced development costs in that department, meaning tighter gameplay and a wider swath of art and in-game assets. Still, they wanted to keep their town as jam packed with content as they could, leading to the creation of many events to help keep the player entertained. These events, and the game in general, run on the calendar based schedule introduced in Persona 3. Going to school, talking with friends, taking part in ordinary activities, Personas adaptation of Japanese high school life was still on point. All they could do was improve, and improve they did. Social stats were given an upgrade to five distinct categories rather than the vague three that Persona 3 had implemented; Understanding, Diligence, Courage, Knowledge, and Expression. These five allowed for more types of activities to be ready made the player and of course pass the tests you were given every so often. Social Links made a comeback in a compelling and tangible way. Each character you met was defined by the major themes of the game, struggling with their own identities in the face of adversity. The appearance of a star, the expectations of one’s own family, the pressure of being on a team, these were just some of the many problems these people would face. As usual spending time with these intriguing people boosts your rank for their respective arcana, however, some offer multiple paths and hanging out with the main cast can result in some actual benefits when in combat. All in all, while Persona 4’s world was rather small in comparison to many other mainline RPG’s it was packed to the brim with intricate detail and characterization.
And characterization was a big deal for the series standout art direction. Shigenori Soejima continued on as the series staple art director and main character designer and just like with Persona 3 his next line of artwork would be defined by a singular motif and color design. Persona 4 was a much more happy go lucky adventure yet it still had the darkness that was always in the series background; what kind of color could reflect this sort of situation? Delving into the murder mystery plot and sourcing his inspiration from there, Soejima chose the color yellow to evoke warning signals and the ever-present yellow tape that can be found at crime scenes. The color also carried a secondary meaning with it as, to Soejima, yellow was the color of happiness. The duality and contrasting meanings of the colors gave Soejima much to work with as his style continued to encroach upon the games themselves, infecting Persona 4 with a certain charm unique to itself. Its cast was certainly unique as well as they didn’t really feel like a bunch of people from out in the boonies. Soejima had designed the cast to look and sound “normal” and like “modern high-schoolers” as to break away from the common stereotype that people from the country face. Taking a deeper look, though, does reveal that many of them are steeped in more traditional values save characters like Yosuke and the protagonist that come from the inner city. To differentiate between these characters varied backgrounds, Soejima used their hair styles to evoke where they used to call home with characters from the city given stylish hair when compared to people from the countryside. On a surface level, this intriguing cast of characters seemed like a bunch of ordinary high schoolers, however, taking a closer look at their designs reveals their true nature and the mask they must wear.
While many of Persona 4’s features were tied to the titles defining themes of identity and the medias effect on it, the battle system stayed mostly the same; with one major change based on player feedback. The AI system which took away player control that had defined Persona 3 was altered. Even though giving the player control over all the characters went in the face of the games thematic vision, Hashino still thought that players should at least be given the option to choose whether or not to have it on. So, as a compromise, within the tactics menu they implemented a direct command that would give the player full control. If someone wanted their party to do as they please, though, then all they’d have to do is switch back. A simple addition to be sure, it still did wonders for the gameplay. Using the same engine and overall design from Persona 3, Persona 4 did what it could to improve. Combat was the same, with the fun being trying to find out each enemy’s weak point. Dungeons too, were built in a similar way to Tartarus being randomly generated as you go along except having their own individual floors and boss rooms to level things out. The only new mechanic was for one of the games more detestable features, Shuffle Time. Called Arcana Chance, just like Shuffle Time it has the chance to either help or hinder you, offering various effects depending on which side the Arcana ends up facing. Otherwise, that was it. Persona 4’s combat system was defined by the saying, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. If any part of Persona needed to remain the same it was this.
Lastly, was the soundtrack; and what an intriguing mix it was. Shoji Meguro continued his experiments in music with Persona 4’s score under a rough outline that he was given at the outset of the project. Just as Persona 3’s composition had started with a prototype so too did Persona 4. Meguro started with the overall shape of the songs and continuously refined them over time. These would eventually result in the game’s opening theme, Pursuing My True Self, and the background battle track, Reach Out to the Truth, with both being composed to reflect the inner conflicts of the game’s main characters. The opening theme, helped to set the tone for the game and garner an understanding of the characters’ conflicts while the latter emphasized the inner strength these characters had to work through their internal struggles. However, these songs and many more wouldn’t have been possible without the help of a talented group of peers. While Meguro composed the majority of the tracks several of them were composed by Atsushi Kitajoh and Ryota Koduka, two fellow Atlus composers. Koduka, in particular, ended up writing the theme of Junes, the prominent shopping center that dominates the landscape in Inaba. Out of all of them, there was one person who was absolutely essential to the soundtrack, singer Shihoko Hirata. Found by chance during Meguro’s search for a singer who could reflect Persona 4’s themes, Hirata convinced Meguro on the spot that this was a role meant for her. Working together with lyricist Reiko Tanaka, the three would compose some of Persona 4’s most well-known themes and craft a soundtrack infused with jazz and pop. It felt completely original yet still connected well with Meguro’s work on Persona 3, the perfect balance to say the least.
Development for Persona 4 was going just swimmingly… for a time. They were so sure that the project would go well that they didn’t even bother creating a design document, a blueprint that they could always refer back to. Even though their bonds were strong since many of them had worked together for a decade and others were passionate fans this, of course, caused a few headaches down the line. The general openness the project had also was a determent several times. Two months before finishing the code, the team opened up a forum on their internal development site so everyone would have a chance to send in last minute feedback and criticism before they finished up. This, unexpectedly, resulted in nearly 2,000 posts ranging from fundamental problems to personal tastes. At least 1,500 of their concerns were met by the deadline, however, people still kept sending posts after the fact asking to change this and that. The design director nearly had a nervous breakdown because of it as he ended up begging for people to stop posting. More woes hit the team as they edged closer and closer to the release date. As they were finishing up the project they found that Persona 4 couldn’t fit in a single disc. Now this wouldn’t do, as they weren’t willing to have it be a two-disc game, so they started to shave off any unnecessary dialogue and content. Slowly, but surely, they were able to fit the whole game into one compact disc without sacrificing the experience. And they had no idea how much that would mean.
Releasing on July, 10th 2008, just two years after Persona 3’s release, Persona 4 was a knock out success. Selling 193,000 copies within its first week of release and later going on to sell over 300,000 copies over its lifetime, Persona had finally hit the big leagues in Japan. The series had never received mainstream success, only continuing to be a niche series alongside Shin Megami Tensei. However, things were beginning to change. Persona’s original purpose of appealing to the more causal crowd was starting to gain some ground. Capitalizing on this, Atlus continued its trend of localizing the franchise around the world. Working with Square Enix in Europe and Ubisoft in Australia, the company continued to aim towards a faithful localization. Handled by Persona 3’s dynamic duo Yu Namba and Nich Maragos, they tried their best to keep as much of the original Japanese dialogue intact, no matter how contentious it would prove between fans. One of these contentions was the use of honorifics in the English dub of the game. Some hated them, others loved them, but Namba and Maragos wanted to keep the trend of remaining faithful to Hashino and his teams work. To do so they spent a long time with the English cast, helping them to get used to the pronunciations and also the sound of Japanese names. Otherwise, the general consensus was to keep what they could and change what international audiences wouldn’t understand. Character names such as Kuma and Rise’s stage name Risechie were changed to Teddie and Risette for familiarity’s sake. Community, the Japanese name for Social Links in Persona 4, was changed to Social Link as it had a different meaning in English. Swearing became more commonplace in the game due to Kanji’s volatile nature, with other words being used whenever the situation arised; and so much more. Persona 4 continued a trend that many of its competitors lacked, of honoring its heritage and introducing new people to an exciting culture. While it was still a niche title, especially one on a system such as the PlayStation 2 which had already passed its prime years ago, Persona’s fanbase was continuously growing year after year. Managing to sell over 100,000 copies worldwide, it wasn’t the breakout hit that it was back in its home country of Japan but it was enough for Atlus.
Persona 4 is certainly an intriguing title. Built on an easy-going development schedule, it’s clear what impact this had on the game at large. It questions you about what affects you in the here and now, what personality you inhabit and whether that is truly who you say you are. These questions compel the characters, the world, the design, and the philosophy of Persona 4. The deception of the media, the overwhelming nature of gossip, and so much more are just there to further those ends. But something about this game is special compared to the rest. Whether it be its colorful cast, its compelling narratives, or undeniable charm something about Persona 4 drives it to succeed where the rest of the series could not. Persona had grown to be something much more than a simple video game and Persona 4 was the epitome. The impact that this one title created by a group of passionate fans leaves would be felt for years to come.
But Persona was starting to become an iterative series. It had improved with Persona 4, for sure, but it wasn’t as revolutionary as Persona 3. As development, winded down and the release kicked into high gear, Hashino and his team were beginning to have regrets; regrets they needed to rectify. The current state of Persona needed to be changed drastically to something far greater than they had ever achieved. They needed the time, they needed the manpower, they needed the technology. They needed to create their masterpiece.