The 15 Best Games Since 2000, Number 5: Persona 4

Atlus' absurdly late PlayStation 2 RPG sparked a phenomenon that still persists to this day.

Retrospective by Bob Mackey, .

We're currently in the middle of our daily countdown of the 15 Best Games Since 2000. Want to read more? Check out the rest of the entries here.

Bob Mackey Senior Writer

The handful of games released years after a console's demise normally aren't known for their quality. Typically, this window of time features the worst of the worst: Games so bad that they're barely worth acknowledging. (Oh yeah, and lots of sports.) This might be a reliable niche if you're a publisher looking to make a quick buck off a system destined to end up a hand-me-down to a younger sibling or Gamestop, but for those keen on grabbing attention over a non-budget release, pulling the press away from those new, shiny consoles can be an impossible struggle.

It's a testament to Persona 4's greatness, then, that it managed to find an audience much bigger than the standard Atlus RPG crowd. Granted, at the time we believed our seventh generation of consoles would likely have the same shelf life as the previous set, so the idea of a major PlayStation 2 game releasing in the final days of 2008—two years after the PS3, and three after the Xbox 360—felt just the teensiest bit preposterous. But players with enough courage to brave the dust bunnies and cobwebs surrounding their abandoned PS2s not only discovered a fantastic RPG with Persona 4, but what many have called the best of an entire generation.

"It's a testament to Persona 4's greatness that it managed to find an audience much bigger than the standard Atlus RPG crowd."

Of course, Persona 4 didn't just spring into existence. This sequel largely draws most of its inspiration from 2006's Persona 3, which divorced itself from the rich, but slightly unintuitive mechanics of past games in the series. Even so, Persona 3 and 4 are still Shin Megami Tensei to the bone, and their more streamlined forms work in tandem with the surrounding pop art aesthetic for an RPG experience that feels slick and snappy—even if you'll likely spend more than 100 hours with each game.

And the secret to Persona's success can be found in how its ongoing story breaks itself up into manageable, in-game days. Seeing those months stretch out in front of you (and with no defined end) when starting Persona may seem daunting at first, but each day offers a wealth of different activities that make the time fly by: diving into dungeons, working part-time jobs, shopping, hanging with friends and developing those all-important social traits, and fusing monsters in your party to develop some new and terrifying abomination. Persona has the same "just one more day" effect found in other life sims like Harvest Moon and The Sims, but with a meaty core that reaches straight into the hearts of RPG fanatics.

What makes Persona 4 truly special, though, is how much it improves upon the already refined formula of its predecessor. Atlus trimmed the fat on an already lean experience by cutting down on all of the needless traveling from Point A to Point B: Areas are now much more compact, and a single-button shortcut can zap you to a chosen destination—sure beats the long, daily trudge up to your dorm room in Persona 3. And Persona 4 makes another change for the better by going for a more rural setting than the trendy city found in the previous game. Both backdrops might be foreign to American players, but the sleepy town of Inaba definitely presents a more unique and charming atmosphere that's easy to lose yourself in.

With all the previously mentioned qualities, Persona 4 would be a great RPG—but it's the story and characters that push it past "great" and into "phenomenal." Rather than concentrating on world-building and long, boring speeches full of needless and confusing neologisms, Persona 4 plays out like a modern, serialized murder mystery. Just as each day gives you plenty to do, every 24 hours yields the chance to watch just a little more of Persona 4's plot unfold. And, even if the murders have a certain supernatural quality to them, the characters and their actions remain grounded in the reality of situation—with high schoolers and other citizens of Inaba being snuffed out around them, the stakes are incredibly high from the start.

It's been a long, hard near-decade without another Persona game, but in that time, love for the rebooted form of Atlus' series continues to thrive. Even after spending hundreds of hours with these characters, fans still don't want to see them go, and Atlus has been taking advantage of this lucrative situation with enhanced portable remakes, fighting games, and even an upcoming rhythm game. No one could have predicted such a late PlayStation 2 release could have such longevity, and, with any luck, Persona 5 will have the same appeal. Just don't expect the cast of Persona 4 to go away anytime soon.

Kat Bailey Senior Editor

There's no doubt in my mind that Persona 4 is one of the best RPGs of the past 15 years. It can certainly claim to be the best JRPG, though it sadly hasn't had enough competition in that regard. It took everything that was great about Persona 3 and pushed it one step further with its outstanding cast, well-defined setting, and outright weirdness. Moreover, it drew you in and made you feel like part of the group. I actually got a little choked up in the final moments as I waved goodbye to the characters that I had grown to love over the course of 70 some hours - an extreme rarity in any game for me.

Bob has done a good job of outlining the qualities that makes Persona 4 stand out, but we'd be remiss if we didn't mention Persona 4 Golden - the port that arguably pushed Persona 4 over the top. Before P4 Golden, a lot of Persona 3 fans that I knew tended to disdain it simply for being different, and for being... well... really yellow. The Vita port was akin to the moment when the Persona 4 cast tried on their glasses and saw the TV World clearly for the first time. For new fans, it was a chance to play an RPG that had gotten a little lost in the dying embers of the PlayStation 2.

On top of luring in newcomers, Persona 4 Golden brought a great deal to the table for returning fans. Its clever "thought bubble" system relieved some of the anxiety over what to do next by crowdsourcing what everyone else's move had been, and it added in a pair of intriguing social links. For good measure, Atlus added in a couple more months of game time that served to round off the story in a satisfying way. It is the definitive version of Persona 4, and it is still regarded by many as the Vita's best game.

I personally have a tremendous amount of respect for what Atlus has accomplished with Persona 4. It hits what I might consider the holy trinity for RPGs - it tells a great story, offers compelling mechanics, and gives you free rein over a deep and nuanced setting. It's rare to find an RPG that hits two of those elements, let alone all three. Even well-regarded games like Fallout 3 don't really manage it. But in Persona 4, I'm just as likely to find myself completely engrossed in the complexities of Demon Fusion as I am in a random social link. We haven't even gotten to the marvelous way in which Atlus fuses the social links that form the story's emotional core with the mechanics of Demon Fusion, unlocking new and more powerful demons as you steadily build up your presence in Inaba.

There's so much to this game that I could probably write another thousands word on it. But instead I'm just going to encourage you to pick it up yourself if you haven't already given it a shot. And hurry, because Persona 5 is just around the corner. It's going to have a lot to live up to.

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Comments 32

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  • Avatar for pdubb #1 pdubb 3 years ago
    I can agree with this one. Persona 4 needed to be on the list somewhere. I remember back in the 1up days I made fun of all the people who were fans of P4. "What kind of loser do you have to be to care about another Japanese high school anime game?"

    If not for the Vita and everyone's first recommedation of P4G, I might have never played this game.

    The cast is amazing and the voice acting is really what helps make that connection. It takes a special game to make a grown man feel guilty for breaking a promise or disappointing a virtual 6 year old.

    P4's biggest fault is its opening. A lot of people have missed out on a great game because of how you need to grind through those first few hours before the game takes off.

    This is a solid choice yall.Edited August 2015 by pdubb
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #2 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    @pdubb Actually I think the opening few hours is really well done. It may be all story with little gameplay, but it's necessary to establish the characters and setting. What I love about it is that it doesn't rush the way many modern games would. It takes it's time establishing the characters and setting like a really good movie would. That's a lesson that more modern games need to learn.

    So, yeah, Persona 4's first few hours are an important part of what makes it truly great.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #3 bobservo 3 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 I looove P4 but I initially gave up on it thanks to the incredibly slow opening. I'm glad I ended up giving it a second try!
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  • Avatar for nilcam #4 nilcam 3 years ago
    I adored Persona 3 so I tried P4. I dropped within a few hours. After being utterly addicted to Persona 4 Arena, I decided to try again. I quit it shortly after starting. This game just doesn't click with me.

    To be fair, I was spoiled by Chrono Trigger. That game did so much right that most RPGs after it don't stand a chance.
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  • Avatar for misanthrobob #5 misanthrobob 3 years ago
    I was listening to the Active Time Babble episode recently in which you guys discuss Persona 4, and I was so glad to hear that you called foul on how they handled Kanji. He could've been such a milestone character, but they chickened out and it kind of soured the experience for me.

    Good game though, not my favorite Persona by a long-run but definitely the most accessible.
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  • Avatar for bullet656 #6 bullet656 3 years ago
    Such a great game. I love pretty much everything about it, but especially the way they handle the storytelling and the characters. Persona 3 and 4 are two of the very few games that made me get really invested in the cast of characters in the same way that I would a novel or a movie. I liked the characters so much that I bought and played through the story mode of both of the P4 Arena games. I would just smash a button to get through the fights so I could be rewarded with walls of text. I really can't think of a single other video game character(s) that I would do that for. Of course, the story in the Arena games are not as good as in the main game, but I just enjoyed spending time with the cast again.Edited 3 times. Last edited August 2015 by bullet656
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  • Avatar for FalcoT #7 FalcoT 3 years ago
    Persona 4 Golden is the only thing that allows me to feel good about having bought a Playstation TV at full retail price.
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  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #8 Monkey-Tamer 3 years ago
    I'm currently playing Person 3 FES. If 4 is better than that one I'm in for a good time. I'm over 10 hours in and don't have any evil empire tropes or the usual you get with fantasy RPGs.
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #9 Stealth20k 3 years ago
    Persona 4 was good, but not even the best SMT game released on that system.Edited August 2015 by Stealth20k
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #10 cldmstrsn 3 years ago
    P4G is the reason I bought a PSTV and I am loving it!
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  • Avatar for SigurdVolsung #11 SigurdVolsung 3 years ago
    I might put this on the list higher, however I do have to say that The Golden version is an even better game and deserves to be on the list more than the original.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #12 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    @Stealth20k You must be talking about SMT:Nocturne. Yes, Nocturne is arguably better, but they are both masterpieces in their own way. I have no problem at all with Persona 4 being the one to occupy the list, it's a fantastic game in a different sort of way. But yeah, more people really should experience the brilliance of Nocturne.
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  • Avatar for pdubb #13 pdubb 3 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 I agree with you. Those first few hours are very important for world building as well as setting up an incredibly memorable cast.

    It also doesn't give a good idea of what kind of game you should expect as those first two hours or so are nothing like the rest of the game.

    I know a movie is 3 hours max. I know a TV series is 1 hour 15 minutes per episode max. We are more receptive in long periods of world building in TV/movies because there's an upper limit on the amount of time that can be spent doing so.

    As a video game P4 doesn't benefit from those expectations. For better or worse if you watch a boring 2 hour movie then you complain about it and move on. If you play a video game for 2 hours and it's "boring" that's almost an unforgivable sin.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #14 bobservo 3 years ago
    @pdubb I dunno, I think P4 could have immediately thrown players into a dungeon from the outset while explaining the back story through flashbacks or some other narrative device. Starting with a bang is one of the things FF7 got so right that other RPG developers never picked up on.
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  • Avatar for Xemus80 #15 Xemus80 3 years ago
    Higher in the list than Bioshock, GTA, Resident Evil 4, or Minecraft? Must be one helluva game.
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  • Avatar for trevorwelch25 #16 trevorwelch25 3 years ago
    I just played this game in January, and it has definitely jumped on my list of favorite games of all time. I love being immersed in a games world, and Persona 4 was a world that I could hardly pull myself away from.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #17 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    @pdubb I don't think it's accurate to say that the first few hours are "nothing like the rest of the game." That is simply untrue. There are plenty of cutscenes through-out the game, some of which can be quite lengthy. Part of what makes these cutscenes work, besides the high quality of the writing and characters, is the fact that the opening prepares you for them.

    I think a video game like P4 is much more like a TV series than a movie. In a TV series, there is a lot more time to spend building up a world, and video games are much the same way. Video games lend themselves well to longform entertainment, and they have a history of doing so. P4 falls well within a player's expectations.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #18 Kuni-Nino 3 years ago
    I knew Persona 4 would find its way on here. I don't really want to criticize it since I do put it in the top five of the PS2 era. The only games I put above it are DQVIII and FFX.

    I don't really agree with putting P4 in the top five of the past 15 years though.
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  • Avatar for siamesegiant #19 siamesegiant 3 years ago
    Yup. I have more sentimental attachment to Persona 3 Portable as I played it first, but there's no doubt that P4 is an all time great. The whole thing is so Scooby Doo that they actually replaced Chie with Scrappy Doo in Persona 4: The Golden.
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  • Avatar for seejamsrun #20 seejamsrun 3 years ago
    So I actually preordered P4 on PS2...and then never, ever played it (I know this to be the case because the preorder artbook spoiled a few things about some main characters for me because I stupidly flipped through it, despite the warning on the first page). I then bought a PS Vita specifically for Golden...and adored it completely. It drew me in like few things have. I played through a decent amount of P3 Fes, but it never gripped me like Golden did. I love the cast, I love the music (oh god, the music), I love the day to day and the social links and the fusing Personas and...practically everything.

    I associate it now with a particularly not fun time in my life, but not in a bad way. It's a good memory, because it got me through things. I don't know if that sounds dumb, but I am thankful for Persona 4, even in spite of the fact that it has become a merchandising machine in more current times, but if it helps Atlus pay the bills and give us anything else nearly as enthralling, I can't be too mad at it. Ridiculously excited for P5.Edited August 2015 by seejamsrun
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  • Avatar for IndoorBoy #21 IndoorBoy 3 years ago
    No mention of Shoji Meguro's amazing soundtrack?! The music is unlike anything else and from what has been released, it seems like P5's soundtrack will be just as awesome.

    "It keeps on pounding..."
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #22 SatelliteOfLove 3 years ago
    OG P4 >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> P4G

    No lies detected.Edited August 2015 by SatelliteOfLove
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #23 Kuni-Nino 3 years ago
    @NiceGuyNeon If you just finished P3, don't jump into P4 right away because you might risk burnout. The games are too similar to one another and P4 doesn't do anything drastic with the formula. The battle system is pretty much the same. Trust me. You don't want to endure another 100 hours of that battle system.

    Cleanse your pallet. I say go for Nier. It's a different kind of game and it's shorter. Plus, you'll know if you want to stick with it or not. It's a polarizing game.

    Personally, I'm one of those crazy people who would put Nier above P4 because the experience was that special to me.
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  • Avatar for Thad #24 Thad 3 years ago
    Never played it but I sure keep hearing a lot of good things about it. Might have to check it out; I've still got my PS2 hooked up.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #25 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    @NiceGuyNeon Persona 4 is an amazing game, and DEFINITELY one of the top 5 games of the last 15 years. No question. So yeah, you definitely need to play it.

    Bit I agree with the guy above me that a palette cleanser can sometimes be a good idea. Of all the games you mentioned, I would personally recommend Nier. Nier is a game that unfortunately will probably not make it on this top 15 list, but it SHOULD. It's an amazing game and everyone should play. Then after you've finished Nier, make sure you come back to P4 sometime in the near future!
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  • Avatar for theresacatalano27 #26 theresacatalano27 3 years ago
    @IndoorBoy No kidding! I'm really happy P4 is on this list, it totally deserves to be. But you've gotta at least mention this soundtrack, which is one of the best video game soundtracks ever composed! This game frequentally has music that feels like it is descending from the heavens straight to your ears! What an amazing soundtrack, and that plays a big part on why this game is so good!
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  • Avatar for jenniferdouglas55 #27 jenniferdouglas55 3 years ago
    @Xemus80 It's definitely a better game than Bioshock, GTA, Resident Evil 4, or Minecraft. Persona 4 is one of the best games of it's type ever made, no question about it!
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  • Avatar for secularsage #28 secularsage 3 years ago
    I remember buying Persona 4 Golden for my Vita and putting off playing it for a month or two because I couldn't imagine it was as good as everyone said. After all, it had a cartoon bear on the cover amidst some weird-looking anime characters. And everything was really yellow.

    But when I finally started playing it, I quickly found myself drawn into the story and the characters. Even Teddie, who annoyed the crap out of me before Rise joined the team, became a character I found some affection for. In fact, the boss battle with the Shadow World Teddie legitimately bothered me when I encountered it because of how dark and serious it made the character. Persona 4 was great for those sorts of tonal shifts, though, and the game's insistence on accepting one's character flaws instead of trying to eliminate them made it all the more compelling.

    For me, the game helped me understand Jungian psychology much better and genuinely surprised me in how it peeled away character tropes to reveal deeply-written, realistic people beneath the anime artwork. And while I've enjoyed the fighting games and Persona Q, I've found them lacking the same oomph in how the characters are presented since their battles with their shadow selves are already resolved.

    I can't think of any JRPG that's even come close to P4 in recent years, except for maybe P3 (which really needs a definitive version like P4G). And I'm hoping P5 is everything it appears to be - a stealthy heist-style game with the same mechanics, depth and social links that made P3 and P4 such a treat.
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  • Avatar for hal9k #29 hal9k 3 years ago
    @Monkey-Tamer I personally prefer the characters in P3 slightly more than in P4, but the battle system in P4 is slightly better. Really, it's a negligible difference, and I really think that anyone who enjoys one game should enjoy the other. Being used to the same fantasy RPG tropes you mentioned, the Persona games (and Nocturne) felt so completely fresh.

    I would suggest, though, that you skip "The Answer" expansion on that FES disc. It's 15-20 hours of somewhat unfairly difficult combat, and it lacked the charm and personality of the main game. I was able to struggle through to the end, but kinda wished I hadn't bothered.
    @brionfoulke91 I agree, Nocturne is also excellent - a little darker, a little tougher, and a little more obscure than the Personas. I'm glad I played the Personas first, because the experience with demon fusion really helped.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #30 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    @secularsage Why qualify it with JRPG. I'll say I can't think of any RPG period that comes close to Persona 4 in recent years!
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  • Avatar for docexe #31 docexe 3 years ago
    I’m still making my way through Persona 3, but given that I kept hearing how much better Persona 4 is, I’m not surprised it made the list.
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  • Avatar for inkybutt #32 inkybutt 3 years ago
    "The handful of games released years after a console's demise normally aren't known for their quality."

    I'm pretty confident about the how the PS3 version of P5 will turn out, largely because P4 was the same way a generation ago. But I have a feeling Phantom Pain will be somewhat compromised on last gen!
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