Persona 4 (Review + Gender and Sexuality)

     In my post A Brief History of Transgender Characters in Video Games (which is now updated) a commenter named 52532 asked my thoughts on two characters from this game. I read what I could find on them but was not satisfied enough to make a proper judgment of them and so I made arrangements to play the game and started working through my first game in the Persona series.

It had been a while since my last JRPG and most of my experience with the genre has been with older games. Persona 4(2008) is a traditional turn based RPG on the Playstation 2 following a group of high school students and their attempt to solve a mystery with a strong focus on building relationships and strengthening the bonds between you and your friends.

Story

Persona 4 does a decent job creating a enjoyable mystery. Unfortunately many of the aspects that mystery are explained a couple hours after you’ve figured it out. The dialog itself is engaging but there are a few lines that seem a bit weird. Despite that, the game even managed to get a few good laughs out of me in some comical moments.

What Persona 4 does really well is characters. I loved the characters in this game. The game managed to make a handful of heroes without making me dislike any of them which is not an easy feat. Kanji and Naoto are particularly interesting to me.

My main complaint about the story is that the characters I wanted my character to end up with weren’t romantic options but that happens to me in a lot of games. Most people won’t run into this problem. I never feel like an RPG is complete unless I get a little romance. I love a good love story in my games. I did ask Naoto out before he was outed but he turned me down. It was kind of an appropriate moment.

Visuals

The game has a simple and somewhat cartoony art style. It looks about how you expect a JRPG to look. The game uses cardboard cut out style dialog. Still pictures show up with a dialog box where all the dialog is displayed. The 2d images look good and the characters’ images are very expressive. The game still looks good for a game that is an entire generation old.

Sound

You will hear songs repeat a lot in Persona 4. Luckily, the surprisingly catchy songs never got annoying. I found most of the songs to be rather enjoyable, personally, but I do see how some people might have a problem with them.

The voice acting was kind of a mixed bag. Many of the lines are delivered well but some of them sound kind of awkward. Since the game has pretty long conversations, it’s actually pretty common to have more than one awkwardly delivered line in a single scene.

Game play

Persona 4 has some really unexpected pacing. The game went on for a few hours before I got into my first fight. I was beginning to think that maybe the game had no fighting. The game waits another 2 to 3 hours before it opens up and lets you do what you want.

There are two kind of game-play that you go through. One takes place in the City and the other takes place in dungeons inside of another world.

In the city there is a focus on building relationships and strengthening the bonds between you and your friends. You have to manage your activities and plan out your schedule.

In dungeons you run around fighting monsters. There are no random battles, you see enemies on the map, when you collide with them you enter a turn based battle. The dungeons are very similar in design only changing in theme.

The battle system is very traditional with some differences from your everyday RPGs. The first thing I noticed is that the characters move around and shift whenever enemies die or new ones appear. The combat is very visually appealing. Combat seems to have a heavy focus on skills which are based on your Persona. It is like every spell in your average RPG is replaced by a summon. By default my party attacked by themselves other than the main character. They actually ended up being some really intelligent NPCs. They know when to do what moves and stop using moves if they aren’t effective the first time.

The monsters in this game have a weakness. If they are attacked by their weakness or if certain hits are critical, the enemies are knocked to the ground. A second hit by their weakness will make them dizzy causing them to potentially miss a turn. If all the enemies on the field fall down your party can gang up and attack the enemies all at once dealing large amounts of damage. This can become an important tactic later in the game when you have more abilities to choose from.

I ended up enjoying the city portions of the game more than running around dungeons fighting monsters. Making friends and strengthening relationships is surprisingly enjoyable.

Issues

If you are not interested in gender and sexuality issues skip the issues section. Additionally, spoiler warning.

I was ready to say that the game mashes gender and sexuality issues together. What I read before going into this game misled me to believe that Kanji was a crossdresser. I was interpreting some of his characteristics as if he was a closeted crossdresser. The issues aren’t really mashed together.

Kanji is an interesting character. He is tough and aggressive and he has a great style. The fact that he overcompensates for some of his feminine interests led a lot to my thought that he was a crossdresser. One of the issues I think the game handles badly is how everyone treats Kanji. “You said that to a boy?” one character asks. Everyone is shocked and outraged that Kanji likes men and seems to be uncomfortable with women (though, I believe he is bisexual).

At one point in the game Kanji and the gang are forced to crossdress in a “Miss” something pageant. As a trans woman, trying to sit through this game and seeing poorly passing male characters crossdressing as women being paraded in front of crowds that are pointing and laughing is painful. As a personal side note, I felt betrayed by everything I had read. Kanji is not a crossdresser; he’s just a bisexual man.

Naoto is a FtM (female to male) crossdresser. He is shown to be very uncomfortable with his feminine body. At one point in the game, he is outed by a shadow of himself in the “other world” and all the characters in the game and the game itself switch to using female pronouns. It is very disturbing.

At one point in the game, Naoto is forced to enter a beauty pageant. Kanji ends up begging him to do it, and if I interpreted the situation correctly, the reason Kanji wanted Naoto in the Pageant is that he feels uncomfortable being attracted to a guy and wants to see him dress like a girl. Not very cool, Kanji. And definitely not very cool, Persona 4. The whole time I waited for Naoto to come on stage I was praying to myself, “please don’t dress like a girl, please don’t dress like a girl.” Luckily, for my emotional state, he never dressed as a woman. He went on stage wearing a rather dashing outfit similar to his every day clothes but a bit dressier. He then opted out of the swimsuit section and still won the pageant because all the women in the audience liked his “androgynous” looks and none of them like girls, I suppose. That part made a very difficult few scenes just a little better.

Conclusion

Persona 4 is one of the best RPGs I’ve played in a while. It has reminded me why I loved RPGs. It has made me want to try out other games in the series. I read slow and left the game paused a couple times to get a snack so I don’t know how long it lasted exactly but I do know that I took over 60 hours to complete it. I don’t think everyone would love this game, but anyone who is a patient RPG fan needs to play this game. With that said, I don’t know if it was worth it for me, personally. Persona 4 is a great game that is tainted by a few moments in the game that are too difficult for me to watch. Most people won’t take issue with any of the moments I’m talking about but for me, it was hard to play through. Even though the game was hard during certain moments and the thought of playing through it again makes me cringe, I still enjoyed myself and really liked the characters. I was sad to see them go.

5 responses to “Persona 4 (Review + Gender and Sexuality)

  1. Very good read. I’ve heard people talk about the Persona series but I haven’t ever had time to check up what they’re all about. It sounds cool to have a game that focuses mostly on the characters and their relationships but still manages to be an RPG. I like the Shin Megami Tensei series so I’ll probably check it out one day.

    On the other hand it’s unfortunate about the lack of understanding the developers show towards transgender issues in general. I think there is an overall ignorance about this topic in the world and a lot of the immature attitudes people display comes down to sheer ignorance. There should be an organization or movement that tries to bring more awareness and understanding to the masses because that’s the first step towards helping others to reach acceptance.

  2. Hello again, Theresa!

    It’s been a slow week, and remembering your blog, I wondered what you’ve been up to/whether you had tried this game yet. I still haven’t gotten around to it myself, and I’m sorry to hear about the scenes that were difficult for you. There’s more problematic material there than I was led to believe; I’ll know what to expect now, but am still sorry for kind of recommending it without realizing some of those things were in there. :(

    With Naoto, for example, I didn’t know that everyone in the party (and the game as a whole) started using female pronouns after he confronted his shadow. However, it’s good that he had declined a relationship as the disconcerting thing I’d read in that regard was that the player could, if dating Naoto, persuade him to dress in a feminine manner with his discomfort being obvious the entire time, and it was *then* that I thought the game made that pronoun shift. Not that one situation would have been better than the other, but at least the latter could be avoided entirely.

    Kanji was intriguing to me because of how ambiguously he was described in anything I read and the conflicting viewpoints I’d seen as to whether his struggle had more to do with gender identity or sexual orientation. Uncertain of what Atlus intended for the character, I always read him as someone shouldering the burden of his peers’ more binarist views. I couldn’t tell from anything I’d seen if he was necessarily xyz, though the game implies some things, but instead thought he had interests and feelings that weren’t aligned with what those around him thought were “masculine” and when sexuality and gender are often erroneously viewed as being linked or having cause/effect relationships it led them to think, “Oh, he’s effeminate ergo he must be homosexual,” or vice versa. Of course, I don’t know how on-point I am with that.

    Sounds like to an extent the game did deal with some of the things I had hoped it would, just not with the amount of respect I would have preferred. I’ll still play it because I like the series, but that’s disappointing.

    Curious as to whether the developer has learned from these characters or not – I don’t know how much of their audience would see anything you mentioned as a problem. What would be interesting to find out is how many players felt for these characters, how many reacted the way that crowd did with the pageants and found something to laugh at, and if anything in relation to them made someone more curious about these topics … though, I suppose they’d need to be handled better for that last thing to be the case.

    So, for right now Leo from Tekken is still the ‘better’ representation of a trans/genderqueer character in a video game because ne is androgynous and never has nir gender addressed – correct? I recall liking nir playstyle in T6 and want to try teaming nem up with someone in TTT2.

    I really need to learn to leave you shorter comments.
    Hope all is well!

    • I love reading your comments. Feel free to keep leaving them. and don’t feel bad for recommending it.

      I don’t think there is a best representation of a trans character. Trans experiences are just too broad. Leo is, however, the best handled character, both in game and out.

      I recently bought Catherine, also by atlas, that also has a trans character. Unfortunately, my Xbox 360 won’t play it. I have no idea how their representation of that trans character is.

      You are right about Kanji. Although, even though his issues aren’t about sexual orientation, I really do think he likes men. (maybe spoiler: Naoto kind of asked him out then after their evening Kanji said he wanted to see him again)

  3. Catherine is … Hm. I actually thought about that one shortly after having left your comment and I wished that I could go back and revise that bit about wondering if the dev team had learned anything.

    The game itself I love: I like scaling the towers; similar to how we enjoy the social links aspect of Persona, even if this isn’t quite the same thing, I like hanging out in the Stray Sheep bar; the cutscenes are entertaining; Shoji Meguro’s mixes of classical music are amazing … but there’s a lot at fault with the characters that I didn’t pick up on until my experience was over. I think this has more to do with Japanese society and attitudes in general and not just Atlus, but it seems the characters are archetypes that one will either 1.)find amusing and brush off for that very reason, or 2.)be offended by. Archetypes work in the Persona series because it borrows from the tarot (in very unsubtle ways) and the works of C.G. Jung, and the characters (to varying degrees) go on these archetypal journeys to resolve conflicts within the ‘self’. Catherine has archetypes in the more recognizable sense, one or two generic traits that totally define the characters to the point of them feeling more like caricatures.

    By using infidelity as the backdrop for all the insanity in-game, Catherine could have explored some really “mature” subject matter, but it just feels off. I won’t bother critiquing how they handled Katherine and Catherine, and I guess on the upside the player-character Vincent isn’t much better, but there is some peculiar stuff in there. I think the most likable characters are actually ones that aren’t even central to the plot … so most of the Stray Sheep patrons.

    The character you’re referring to, Erica, is another one that could have been handled really well until they fell back on a damaging stereotype, presumably for “comedic value”. It’s been a while since I’ve played, so I do apologize if this is vague or even a wee bit off, but Erica is a MtF transwoman that’s described as the “ray of sunshine” at the Stray Sheep. While not explored in a whole lot of depth due to how the Stray Sheep functions in relation to the high school(s) in the Persona series, she seemed like a really nice character, and then Toby pursued a relationship with her and things got awkward. Whenever the starstruck lad starts talking about his experiences with Erica, Vincent’s other friends shy away, struggle to form sentences, or work to change the subject. After having had sex, Toby mentions that something didn’t seem right anatomically (though he does so in an inquisitive way, having been inexperienced), but the subject is quickly changed again. Without spoiling plot elements, basically it fell back on that concept of the transwoman that tricks men into sleeping with her. The game doesn’t go so far as to say that’s her motivation, and she views things a bit differently, but it’s still touchy. Erica isn’t sexualized, outside of Toby being attracted to women older than him, and she isn’t actively trying to bed anyone for kicks. She’s just not ready to “settle down”.

    Erica herself isn’t a bad character, or a glaring perpetuation of a stereotype, but the other characters around her still treat her uncomfortably. Vincent and his circle are pleasant to her and still view her as a friend, but there’s the aforementioned awkwardness, and I think at one point (if you try to ensure that you hear every line of dialogue) there’s a remark about how she was “Eric back then” when they’re talking about high school. It doesn’t get her down or cause any discomfort, however.

    Hm. This is actually really disappointing to be looking back on. I feel like I’m at once pointing out that something was handled poorly and trying to (albeit very mildly) defend it. I haven’t played the game since it had released and I got half the endings, and that was during a time when I still subdued a lot of myself and hadn’t really ‘listened’ to what was inside. I remember the way they handled Erica’s past not really affecting me too much at the time, but now it hurts to think about.

    Sorry for kind of losing my own train of thought here. I’m just not sure how I feel about it right now. I brought the game with me to Virginia so a relative could try playing it (they like puzzles); perhaps I should give it another go in the coming days and see if Erica – no, the characters in general – were handled better or worse than I remember / if I can still have fun while acknowledging all of that at the same time.

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