I finished Persona 4 Golden for the PlayStation Vita last week. For a while beforehand, I was sure I was almost finished, which in Shin Megami Tensei terms can mean about twenty hours away from completion. I was kind of right. But I’m not going to discuss how I leveled all my characters to level 99, and how the payoff for doing so wasn’t the same as in Persona 3. Instead, I’d like to focus a little on the ending and what I liked about it compared to its predecessor.
Spoilers ahead for Persona 3 and 4. Just stop here and whistle to yourself if you haven’t played and finished either game.
A large portion of both Persona games I’ve played is focused not just on typical JRPG grinding and combat but also on leveling relationships with other characters, known as Social Links. Each friendship of meaning that you establish, however friendly or oddly adversarial, becomes a logged Social Link of a particular major arcana from tarot. These relationships don’t just benefit the player with additional, yet brief stories, but each level of a Social Link boosts the experience of fused Personae of matching arcana.
Given that none of that makes obvious sense, let me provide an example: In Persona 4, when/if you join the soccer team, you make friends with Daisuke and Kou, which establishes the Strength Social Link. Later on, when you fuse Personae (the game’s version of summons) together to make Rakshasa, who is aligned with Strength, he gains bonus experience upon creation. This experience levels him up without going into combat, and because he has certain abilities that unlock with certain levels, you gain access to those a little sooner, too. Carrying a Persona of a certain arcana also enhances your ability to progress with your relationship of that arcana, so it ends up being this Ouroboros-like feature of endless winning. You kinda need to do it unless you’re daft, but it’s completely rewarding.
That said, I feel like the idea of forming friendships played out better in Persona 4 than Persona 3. During the final encounter in Persona 3, you die but are somehow resurrected because of your Social Link bonds and general RPG shenanigans. It’s a lot like the final encounter Okami, but without the awful yammering in place of voices. However, once the final boss is defeated and everything is fine again, you die! Seriously. You join your friends on the roof of the school a few weeks later, talk about how lovely everything is, and then you drop dead. It’s a good ending to a great game, don’t get me wrong, but you can’t help but feel moderately angry with the writers. (I wonder if anybody cried.)
Persona 4, on the other hand, kills and resuscitates a wholly different character way before the final encounter, so that’s taken care of. (I did tear up over that one.) The final encounter is crazy, and then you get almost two months to keep hanging out with friends and maxing out those Social Links. The reward for doing so, by the way, is the ultimate Persona for that arcana, which is usually awesome. Oh yeah, and a friend for life blah blah blah. However, when the ending comes along, two rewarding scenarios take place. First, the day before you have to return home (you only came to Inaba because your parents left the country on business for exactly one school year), you can go and say goodbye to all those people with whom you have maxed out Social Links.
Next, the day you leave comes with an animated sequence where you board the train, and the six friends who helped you defeat Shadows and the like run after the train yelling about how much they love and value you. I’m not much of a sap when it comes to games, but that had me there. There are lots of games that try to tell you that you, the protagonist, are special for single-handedly doing something or another. By virtue of you having some unique ability that others do not possess, you are special and valuable to the world or the universe. But in Persona 4, despite all the great accomplishments you’ve made and the unique gifts you possess, you make friends with kids in high school who value you for you.
Ignoring the issues with the idea that people form these grand relationships with a silent protagonist, it’s really gratifying to play a game where you finish it feeling valuable as a person. Not a lot of games value the person over the abilities or the skillset, and it’s really an important lesson to drive home to players. Mr. Rogers spent a lifetime trying to teach viewers of his program that they were special for the people that they were. I kind of wish more games would reinforce that idea, too. Once you strip away our magic powers, fated fortunes, grand destinies, and dumb luck, we are just people who want friends.
OK. Maybe I am a bit of a sap.