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.