Posted By Robert H. about 6 months, 4 weeks ago
WARNING: THERE WILL BE SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS FOR PERSONA 4 HERE. IF YOU CARE ABOUT SPOILERS FOR THE GAME, DO NOT READ FURTHER. YOU WERE WARNED.
It isn’t an uncommon concept in video gaming to have a section, enemy, or area that reflects a specific character in some way. After all, there are few ways to better explore a character than to literally be able to explore or experience a representation of that character. Regardless of whether a boss like Dark Link is fought or literal manifestations of the mind are delved into in Psychonauts, every instance of this idea will show something about the character in question. For my money, I can’t think of many games that live up to that idea better than Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4. Every dungeon in this enjoyable RPG is based around the hidden desires and feelings of a character, creating an environment where every detail speaks volumes as to their true selves. However, for as well as practically every dungeon fulfills this role, none do better than Heaven.
Heaven is a very unique dungeon for a number of reasons, most significantly the fact that the dungeon is created from two separate people’s thoughts: the suspected killer in the serial murder case you’ve been investigating, Taro Namatame, and the main character’s kidnapped little cousin, Nanako. While the influence is most heavily felt on Nanako’s side of the equation, both presences are strong throughout the area due to how well the idea fits each of them, albeit for different reasons.
As you quickly learn upon meeting Namatame in the end and through some journal entries written by the crazy guy in question, Namatame has been throwing people into the dangerous TV world, which eventually causes the victim to be killed by their suppressed self, because he believes he is “saving” them. It’s not immediately clear why he would believe something like that, but, from the stray thoughts you hear as you progress through the dungeon, Namatame clearly sees himself as a savior and the TV world that he throws people into as a safe haven. As such, it’s no surprise that his ideas would give shape to a literal “Heaven” with every floor being a “paradise” to rest at, despite the presence of the Shadows, suppressed human thoughts that serve as enemies.
However, Namatame’s thoughts take a backseat in the dungeon’s formation to the emotions and feelings of Nanako. Being a rather young and sweet little girl who hasn’t truly entered the world yet, Nanako doesn’t have the strong repressed thoughts that normally give rise to a dungeon’s design. Instead, the dungeon takes the form of Heaven to show where Nanako’s inner loneliness stems from: her mother, who had died many years previous. She believed that her mother had gone to Heaven and the TV world replicated Nanako’s inner desire to see her mother once again by creating exactly that. Granted, it’s clear from the stray thoughts heard in the dungeon that Nanako may have been sad in the past, but now she has her dad and you to keep her company. Despite her longing, she isn’t truly lonely anymore. It’s very impressive how the dungeon’s makeup describes both of these opposing characters equally well and I have always been a strong supporter of demonstrating someone’s true character as opposed to simply explaining it.
That strong characterization only continues to be shown through the strong aesthetic design of the dungeon. Both visually and musically, Heaven is starkly different from every other dungeon in Persona 4. Whereas most dungeons have dark, harsh colors that reflect the inner darkness displayed in each area, Heaven has a very bright and idyllic look to compliment the overall theme of innocence, be it Nanako’s true nature or Namatame’s misplaced delusions. There is a dreamlike quality to the area and, for once, the obscuring fog that blankets the dungeon feels comforting as opposed to oppressive. The actual objects in the dungeon also contribute to the overarching calm the dungeon evokes, with white walkways and “pearly gates” scattering the paradises, accompanied by verdant plant life and gardens. Aside from the Shadows wandering the area, it’s easy to see the place as a real Eden. The contrast really makes Heaven stand out in a game with already distinct areas.
The musical theme of the dungeon, also called “Heaven,” grants the area an appropriately somber mood with its melancholic tune and vocals. In another significant departure from the norm for Persona 4, “Heaven” is a track that features clear vocals, sung from Nanako’s perspective at that. At its most basic level, the lyrics describe how Nanako’s longing for her mother continuously creates “words that hurt my soul,” but she manages to keep her mind away from such pain by focusing on the little things that make her happy, such as the jingle for the superstore Junes. The lyrics also describe “those long days passing by from that door,” a hearkening to how lonely she feels being home alone so consistently, although, again, her “favorite tune” manages keeps her spirits up through the darker times. Through both meaning and the real quality of the song, “Heaven” has become one of my favorite songs in a soundtrack full of great tunes and fits perfectly to the dungeon in question.
Of course, all the well-implemented characterizations and meanings on display in Heaven aren’t the only strong suits the dungeon has. As with every RPG dungeon, there are enemy encounters to triumph over and new challenges to face within. However, Heaven represents another notable turning point in Persona 4 as the place that truly starts challenging players with the best the game can offer in terms of standard encounters. While the previous dungeons, particular the Secret Base, definitely had their fair share of tricky and difficult enemies to deal with, Heaven still presents a noticeable difference. There are numerous powerful enemies that do not have exploitable weaknesses and have to be beaten down the old-fashioned way, foes have more resistances than ever before, and the number of nasty abilities is shockingly prevalent. Going through Heaven is a real trek, but still manages to be consistent with the standard difficulty increases the game goes through.
The boss, Kunino-sagiri, also presents an interesting battle to be overcome. Being a shadow-infected version of Namatame, the boss presents itself as a large-headed messiah-type figure surrounded by peace signs (even going so far as to make another peace sign with his figures). The design clearly represents Namatame’s view of himself, although the boss’ abilities definitely don’t paint nearly as pleasant a picture as he believes. Kunino-sagiri has all the high-level elemental spells and is not afraid to exploit every one of your party’s weaknesses to get extra turns. In fact, he even has resistance breaks to ensure you won’t be able to block his strikes. It gets all the worse when he begins using Quad Converge, a move that randomly makes one particular element hit incredibly hard at the cost of making the others hit much less. He will then begin using that particular element in addition to a demi-type spell that cuts a character’s HP in half, although you can also use the particular element strengthening to your advantage as well.
Interesting a strategy as that may be, it gets all the more so when Kunino-sagiri gets low on health. When it gets to that point, he will begin taking control of one or all your party members and have them attack you in addition to himself. Managing to stand up to the concentrated assault gets your party members back and the boss resorting to his ultimate ability, Unerring Justice, to hit everyone hard with unblockable damage. All in all, the boss is actually not one of the most difficult in the game, but still presents a unique challenge to meet. It is, at its core, an enjoyable battle that tests the player in regard to some rather adverse circumstances and that, to me, is exactly what a good boss battle is.
With a name like Heaven, it’s darkly ironic how it both begins and ends with terrible circumstances going on in the overall story. However, the situations only serve to properly frame the great depiction of complex characters. Persona 4 is one of my favorite games in the entire medium, so being my favorite area of the game indicates how well it showcases the principles I love about P4 in the first place. In a game filled to the brim with well-explored character interpretations and inspired design, Heaven has always shined the brightest in both categories to me and I have strong doubts I’ll ever change that opinion.
Awesome Area Analysis is a bi-weekly column by Robert Heck that talks about great levels from all walks of gaming, exploring how and why they work so well. Look for a new AAA to be posted every other Thursday. Comments, constructive criticisms, and suggestions for other levels to look over are always welcome and always appreciated.