JRPGs & Persona 4

As I mentioned in episode #3 of TGDRT, I have a strange relationship with JRPGs. I’ve long been a fan of them, even though they’re some of the most egregious offenders when it comes to bad game design. Grinding, poor pacing, lack of tough decisions… my friends, the track record isn’t good. And yet… part of me still enjoys them a great deal.

In this article I’ll be digging into my thoughts on this guilty pleasure. We’ll also examine the genre’s holy grail, which masterfully combines the best elements of both the JRPG and strategy genres:

Atlus’ Persona 4.

The Appeal of JRPGs

So if JRPGs are so often poorly designed, why do I like them? Why does anyone like them?

As is the case with all RPGs, a big draw is always the story. Virtually all open-ended games – and even many linear ones – lack compelling characters. This is the RPG genre’s bread and butter, and JRPGs are at the top of the pyramid when it comes to cutscene and dialogue volume. Some of the stories from these games leave a lot to be desired, but there are absolutely some gems. Square’s Chrono Trigger is light and a bit silly, but does an excellent job of crafting lovable characters. The story in Atlus’ Persona 3 is eye-rolling at times, but it spins one of the most moving tales ever.

Another one of the genre’s appealing features is the way it mixes story with user control. Many people play games because they’re the only form of entertainment which offers agency, and these individuals simply prefer interactive experiences to the static ones books and movies provide. JRPGs strikes both chords, and allows players to actually jump into the shoes of the participants – a dream of fiction-lovers that’s only been possible for a few decades now.

JRPGs are famous (or perhaps infamous) for their length and vast content quantity. When I was younger this was something that I really sought out, but as I’ve gotten older my tolerance for poorly-designed games which take more than 30 hours to complete has pretty much run out. Even so, my strong preference for lengthy narratives over short ones has stuck with. I tend to pass on one or two-hour movies and instead gravitate towards TV shows which weave a single story over tens or even hundreds of episodes. Even in games there are few offerings which promise the opportunity to dive into a truly massive, epic world. More than a few modern $60 games provide less than 10 hours of gameplay. JRPGs offer a haven where those seeking legendary journeys can find a home.

Many players that lean on the casual end of the spectrum actually enjoy JRPGs because tough decisions are typically absent. Not everyone enjoys coming home from work or school and immediately burying themselves in a real brain-burner. Games can be an excellent way to relax, and this has been a big reason why I’ve stuck with the genre for so long. There are just times when I’m just not in the mood for a serious, heavy strategy title.

So in spite of some design flaws, JRPGs still bring a lot to the table. That doesn’t mean a special game can’t transcend the issues which usually afflict the genre. In fact, Persona 4 is that transcendent game.

During the past week nearly all of my gaming time has been dedicated to Persona 4. At first I was skeptical about the title, as the unfamiliar characters coupled with literally two or three straight hours of dialogue made for a poor first impression. I plowed through, despite these misgivings. I’m now 20 hours deep and can see this game for the absolute gem that it is.

So what makes Persona 4 special?

 

 

Persona 4: Pacing Paragon

Persona 4 is among the best-paced games I’ve ever played. As I mentioned last week, poor pacing is one of the most prevalent and crippling of all design flaws. This title nails it by establishing a general structure, but giving players a great deal of freedom inside of that. There are story events which take place at pre-defined moments in the game, and your options and overall goals are always clear. Failure to complete your objectives fast enough results in game over – so you’ve always got your eye on the clock.

But beyond that the game offers a great deal of flexibility. Will you focus on academics and spend most of your time studying at the library? Or maybe you really enjoy the combat system and choose to frequent the dungeons where you can strengthen your party?

There is a beautiful balance between the “management” aspect of the game where you’re going through daily life, and the need fight battles and make progress before you run out of time. Over the course of a week and a half you might need to spend three or four days fighting – you can do this all ASAP, or you could space it out such that you have an repeating cycle of spending an hour in the “daily life” side of the game, then an hour in combat. Players have the option to invest more heavily in whichever side of the game they prefer. This kind of “controlled freedom” is the absolute sweet spot for the gaming form of entertainment.

 

 

Persona 4: The Missing Link

The flow of decisions in Persona 4 is superb, but the same is true of the quality of the decisions themselves. I consider this game to be something of a “missing link” between the JRPG and strategy genres: long sought-after, but forever elusive.

I very much enjoyed Persona 3, Atlus’ previous entry in the series, but my biggest complaint about that game was the lack of tough decisions. Maxing out your stats and social relationships was very possible. Items were plentiful and mostly unnecessary. The reward opportunity which occasionally followed combat tested motor skills rather than intellect. On top of that, the choice of which bonus to grab in this minigame was nearly always obvious. I could go on.

Atlus clearly learned a great deal from Persona 3, as their latest title not only corrected all of these flaws but even injected a healthy dose of new strategic options.

Items are now rarer, more powerful and absolutely crucial if you hope to survive tough fights. Practical healing items are now much harder to come by, which means there’s a very real chance of running out and dying as a result. Equipment is very expensive in Persona 4, and you’ll basically never be able to outfit everyone with top-of-the-line gear. I’ve often had to choose between a powerful new weapon for one character and upgrading another’s nearly-obsolete armor. Oh, and make sure you save some money for replenishing your items, because as I mentioned, neglecting those puts you on the fast-track to meeting the reaper.

The amount of time players can spend exploring the dungeons is mainly limited by the amount of “mana” their characters have. Damage and healing spells gradually burn through this supply, and once it becomes exhausted players can elect to either head home or spend their precious mana-restoring items to keep going. Doing so allows for a more opportunities to gain experience and riches, but there’s also the risk that you’ll really miss your items when facing that tough boss which sucks up your mana…

The Persona 4 team decided to completely drop the twitch aspect of the combat reward minigame, and in its place is a new design that’s chock-full of strategy. Players are provided a set of three to five cards to pick from, each granting different kinds of bonuses. Normally only one card can be chosen, but some allow the player another free selection or two. Sometimes this is coupled with a penalty of some sort, such as having the money gained from the battle halved. So do you take that card and grab the two others that you want, or do you really need the cash to purchase new items? To top it all off, if players are able to “sweep” the board by collecting all  available cards they’ll then earn the ability to pick two extra cards in the next minigame. This in turn makes future sweeps more likely. So even if the cards currently in front of you are nothing to write home about, there’s still an incentive to figure out a way to grab them all.

Time is much harder to come by in Persona 4 compared with 3. The newer title offers more ways to spend time than its predecessor, and all of them are beneficial in some way. You’re not going to be able to do everything you want to, so prioritization is a skill every Persona 4 player must quickly become comfortable with. Days are comprised of two time slots, and normally this allows for two different actions to be taken. However, venturing into the dungeons consumes a whole day, making it a major investment. Hanging out with one of your combat partners will make them stronger, but by doing so you might be missing out on a rainy-day opportunity to study in the library, which raises your academics stat more than usual.

There’s more I could cover, but I don’t want this article to be 50 pages long. From top to bottom though, Persona 4 takes advantage of every chance to wedge players between a rock and a hard place. I can’t say I’ve played another game which pulls this off so well and doesn’t also overtly label itself as a “strategy title.”

 

 

Persona 4: Not Perfect

Persona 4 is excellent, but by no means is it perfect. As I’ve already touched upon, the game starts slowly. Very slowly. If you pay attention to everything that is going on it will be at least two hours before you can really do anything on your own. I can imagine many players have never made it past this initial grind.

I know why the dev team took this approach. They clearly spent a great deal of effort on the story and wanted to ensure players entered their world “properly.” A significant amount of tutorial info is also provided during this time. I would have been less sour on this experience had I known what I was getting into, but either way it’s still an unflattering introduction and I have to call it bad game design. “Integrated” tutorials where players are actually playing the game are always preferable to long-winded explanations that you’ll have forgotten by the time you make it to the end.

The only major complaint I have with the gameplay of Persona 4 centers around the combat system. My current playthrough of Persona 4 is on the hard difficulty, and battles are indeed hard. I often have to think carefully about my options, which is more than you can say about most RPGs. The problem is that fighting tends to be more like a puzzle game than a strategy game. Both your characters and enemies have varying elemental strengths and weaknesses – attacking a fire-based baddie with an “Agi” fire spell is likely to bounce off harmlessly, and might even heal your foe.

When you run into a new type of enemy there’s an initial phase where you have to feel out the situation while avoiding risky moves that could jeopardize your party. This is when the system really shines. But alas, once you’ve fully reconnoitered your opponent victory simply requires identifying the optimal pattern of actions. This is enjoyable for a while, but once you’ve figured everything out combat can become as rote as Persona 4’s worst RPG cousins.

The saving grace is that particularly tough battles challenge the player to decide between caution and boldness. If you attack instead of healing, your foe might launch a particularly vicious attack and kill one or more of your party. But heal instead of attack and you might be missing out on an opportunity to strike at the enemy’s weakness – one you may never get back, and something that could ultimately cost you a shot at winning.

The combat system is close. If I were to make changes to it, I would probably add a small measure of variation in the creatures you fight, and perhaps to entire battles. If players surprise a monster on the “strategic” layer in Persona 4 they receive a free attack, and conversely if ambushed the enemies get a free go. Why not take that idea a step further? A foggy map could lower the accuracy on ranged attacks. Creatures randomly assigned the “Weak” trait could be more susceptible to physical attack damage than their non-Weak counterparts of the same type. The need to adapt is what separates strategy from puzzle, and Persona 4 is just needs a few small nudges to make it across that line.

Persona 4 is not a flawless game, but that shouldn’t distract us from the amazing accomplishment it represents. The game is truly a marriage of the best elements of both the JRPG and strategy genres, and it should be lauded for that.

I must say – I’m very much looking forward to finding out where Atlus takes the series with Persona 5. If they’re able to improve on this already-successful formula then we could be looking at a game for the ages.

- Jon

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10 Comments

  1. I agree with your last statement, especially given the fixes that Atlus included for Persona 4 Golden. They took a great game and made it even better by tweaking the minor things, like Persona fusions, skill cards and shuffle time. One of the few problems I had with P4 was that as engaging as the experience is with the story and characters, the game mechanics were sometimes a harsh and jarring reminder that you were playing a game. With a lot of those mistakes corrected in P4G, I can’t wait for P5.

    Reply
  2. Dasick

     /  November 29, 2012

    “JRPGs strikes both chords, and allows players to actually jump into the shoes of the participants – a dream of fiction-lovers that’s only been –]possible[– for a few decades now.”

    Not, it is NOT possible* and it would require an incredibly life-like AI that can create and alter a complex story so that it’s still well paced and internally consistent at 60 frames per second. This is a PIPE DREAM that is far beyond our current technological limitations.

    What cRPGs and JRPGs have achieved is merely a heavy-duty marketing campaign for choose-your-own-adventure mechanics. Which is not to say that you can’t have decision-making in such a system, but it’s highly inefficient for the developer and it’s highly unsustainable for the user.

    *(at least not in digital single player games – pen-and-paper RPGs are much closer to the ideal if you have a good host)

    Reply
    • ikarth

       /  November 29, 2012

      Depends entirely on what you mean by “actually jump into the shoes of the participants”. Can we create a full-on emergent system that also gives us an interesting and precise dramatic arc, such as would be created by a storyteller working for years, but have it assembled just-in-time in response to our actions? Well, no. Real live human DMs can only rarely pull that off. But do we really need that to get a sense of agency within a story-space?

      I, personally, would argue that we can certainly create an expereince that gives us narratively-satisfying results and lets us have suffient agency to feel in control. It won’t allow us to do everything, but it will allow us to do the things that make sense.

      I agree that a choose-your-own-adventure system, implemented by hand as a “game of progression” (in Jesper Juul’s sense) is less interesting as a system than an emergent game, and that it would be a shame if our interactive storytelling techniques stopped there, but I think that they do have their place.

      Reply
      • Dasick

         /  November 29, 2012

        I’d like to hear examples. As far as I know, no game has manged to successfully marry a linear (if branching) narrative to an emergent, organic strategy game. There seem to be three outcomes:
        1) agency takes precedence and the story is reduced to a more abstract/metaphorical thematic layer
        2) the story takes precedence and your role is reduced to pressing buttons to read your lines when the director gives you the leave to do so.
        3) the software alternates between narrative and game focus, essentially creating an “electric fence made of tigers”(sic) between the game and the narrative, with no consequences leaking in and out of the two systems, not even between the segments.

        In terms of “interactive storytelling techniques” there really isn’t much we can do beyond clever trickery, or reducing the story to the most basic elements (ie abstraction – the story CAN be great because there are enough holes left in it for player interaction not to get in the way, and for player to come up with their own exact details).

        Reply
      • ikarth

         /  November 30, 2012

        Again, it depends entirely on your definition, but there do exist quite a few things that I would consider to be full-on interactive storytelling. I should clarify that I think that a linear (or branching) narrative is not necessarily the way to go, even when married to an emergent system. I’ll also note that agency does not require the player to have every possible action available: it only requires the player to have access to a plausible set of actions.

        For existing games, I’d point to King of Dragon Pass; Crusader Kings 2 (and, in the same vein, Castles and Castles II); Emily Short’s Galatea (and Bee); XCOM (and the original X-Com to a certain extent); Jagged Alliance 2; Façade; and Fallen London. They all have deep strategic systems and a narrative focus, and I don’t think that they fall precisely into any of your three categories.

        These do make heavy use of abstraction, but I’d argue that at heart it’s not much different from the way that films cut non-essential action from the presented story. The lacuna between cuts isn’t significantly different in character from the gaps. It’s not the holodeck, but it’s not nothing, either.

        Reply
      • Dasick

         /  November 30, 2012

        If we’re talking about agency, the actions need to have some sort of influence over the system, otherwise it’s not real agency. A plausible set of actions is still an incredibly tall order, and I just don’t see the difference between possible and plausible actions. Mistakes and wrong choices are just as important part of a story as the “correct” solutions (not to mention how difficult it is to measure the correctness of an action)

        Very interesting that you mention Façade, since the player agency in that game is a façade. Half of my input into the game was completely ignored, and it’s incredibly difficult to see the results of my actions based on the characters’ reactions.

        Jagged Alliance I personally place in 1. It’s story is more fleshed out that just ‘abstract’, but it exists in service of the game. It’s not a bad story, but it’s not a great one either, and it certainly doesn’t respond directly to your actions. It works well for the game, and sure, I can win or lose, and Deidrana will get angry and release the Kraken if I survive long enough, but those are very broad, highly scripted developments – it’s a long shot from “being a character in a novel or a movie”

        Reply
      • ikarth

         /  November 30, 2012

        The official estimate for Façade is that only 30% of the players’ input, on average, is correctly interpreted and responded to. Since that’s not what their main goal was, my understanding is that they’re happy they were able to achieve that much.

        I don’t disagree that the quality of the story is often lacking, but that’s more of a product of the writing and design than it is the technical limitations. We’re clearly a long way from a holodeck experience of entering a realistic space and then being able to perform arbitrary actions, so if that’s the standard you are hoping for then I agree that it is going to be difficult, but that is, again, asking for something much more than a film experience.

        A character in a film isn’t a person, and does not have to exhibit all of the human actions available before we empathize or identify with the character (think of, for example, an animated film, where we have no problem relating to even very non-human characters). And the genre and character conventions narrow this further: we don’t expect a pirate in a pirate movie to take up gardening, and Gandhi never holding a weapon is so unremarkable that we don’t notice. Gardening is a possible action, but not a plausible one, given the situation. The whole point of Gandhi with weapons in Civilization is to hang a lampshade on the implausible actions that the game’s affordances encourage, which also shows the player the possible action is also plausible.

        The set of plausible actions can actually be quite constrained without the players noticing that anything is missing, as long as they are the right actions. Now, the more immersive and realistic you make the space, and the more the player feels personally present in the world, the more actions the player is going to expect to have access to.

        So if your goal is narrowly detailed moments, the best current example is Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead games. They have the tightly immersive space, high agency within the allowed constraints, and a branching narrative. They do not give you agency over the plot arc, but they do a really good job of giving you the sense of presence of being a character in the space, making the decisions, which certainly fits one interpretation of “being a character in a novel or a movie.”

        The other half of it, the goal of having agency over the plot itself, is something where I’m personally willing to sacrifice some of that sense of presence and step back for a wider view. I’m actually going to point to Mike Singleton’s Lords of Midnight as a primal example of this approach, where the focus is not on the character’s moment-to-moment experience but which does manage to marry control of the overall situation with the player sharing the emotional experiences of the characters. This can also give one the feeling of “being a character in a movie or a novel”, but it addresses a different aspect of the reader’s experience of that character.

        So it all comes down to what part of a literary character’s experience you want to share.

        Reply
  3. Good piece, Jon! I’m chugging through Persona 4: Golden at present, and it’s interesting to see that we agree on the basic element of P4’s appeal – ‘interesting decisions’.

    I do think that P3 offers plenty of interesting decisions as well, albeit not quite to the same extent. Key to both P3/P4 is that (unless you use a walkthrough), just like real life, you will not have the time to befriend everyone – you must pick and choose. I finished P3 with many of my relationships a long way from the max!

    By the way, where did you get the header image for the post?

    Reply
  4. WordPress ate my first attempt at a comment. :( Here goes again…

    Good piece, Jon! I agree that ‘interesting decisions’ are key to P4’s appeal, but I think you understate their presence in P3 as well. A central idea in both games is that there are not enough hours in a day to befriend everyone (well, unless you use a walkthrough), necessitating choices between relationships. I finished 3 with many of my S-links well beneath the max!

    By the way, is that fanart at the top of the page? The character designs look quite different from those in-game!

    Reply
  1. Clippings: The Old JRPGs and the New » Matchsticks for my Eyes

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