Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
Back after a week off--last Monday fell on Christmas eve--with a relatively brief New Year's Eve blog post about an interesting concept I ran into this week. I've been listening to the soundtrack for Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth, and although the music is by Kitajoh Atsushi instead of the main Persona series composer (Meguro Shoji), there are a lot of super fun tracks throughout. The short version of the opening theme (and the nifty opening animation) is linked below, to give a hint of the flavor of the game's soundtrack.
In a Famitsu interview with the game's producer, Kanada Daisuke, it was mentioned that the central thematic words used in writing the game's music were "retro," "pop," and "kitsch." The track linked above isn't really "retro," "pop," or "kitsch"--and the name, "Road Less Taken," is in reference to the Robert Frost poem "The Road Not Taken," which plays into the game's central thematic concept of fighting social pressures and being willing to be different--but much of the rest of the soundtrack embodies those words quite well.
I thought it odd that, in a game that's trying to be taken seriously as art and in a series that has a reputation for drawing from psychology, philosophy, and classic lit, the music would be intentionally "kitsch." Dictionary.com defines kitsch as "something of tawdry design, appearance, or content created to appeal to popular or undiscriminating taste," which is pretty much the direct opposite of Atlus's general game design philosophy. It is, at least, certainly not something one would normally aspire to. So I had to wonder, why kitsch?
The question I think you have to ask is whether an artistic work can achieve strength by being intentionally bad in a purposeful way. In this case, can music "created to appeal to . . . undiscriminating taste" be itself tasteful given the context of the overall work? The answer, I think, is a resounding "yes," as unintuitive as it seems. PQ2's narrative centers on, in short, fixing bad movies. Each of the game's dungeons is a play on a given popular movie (such as Superman or Jurassic Park), but with a highly unsatisfying plot and clearly misguided thematic ideas. PQ2's characters progress through the movies and change their endings and messages as they go, which serves to gradually adjust the thinking of one particular character.
With this context, it makes sense for the music to be kitsch--especially the pieces that are not just part of PQ2's score but also (and more importantly) part of the scores for the fictional movies within the game. The music being "wrong" is a cue that the films themselves are wrong, and they provide another avenue for the player to understand that the messages presented in these plays-within-a-play are misguided.
PQ2's approach to the play-within-a-play trope is highly unusual in a way that is simultaneously blatant and subtle. Usually when the trope is employed, the play-within-a-play features a message or theme that applies to the external narrative--the play is sort of a microcosm of the larger story. For examples of this, look at Hamlet, where Hamlet tries to use a play that mirrors his situation to guilt his uncle into confessing to the murder of the king, or A Midsummer Night's Dream, where the play-within-a-play that comprises at the play's fifth act is presented as a comedy (much like the play as a whole) but then ends in tragedy, emphasizing that the melodrama and stubbornness Midsummer's characters exhibit can have severe real-world consequences. PQ2 reverses this idea, as its plays-within-the-play present the opposite of PQ2's message. The movies urge submission to authority, discourage speaking out against injustice, and vilify diversity. In light of this, it's critically important that PQ2 make it explicitly clear that these "themes" are wrong, so that the game serves as a rejection of those ideas rather than a platform for misguided thinking.
...Which brings us back to the "kitsch" music. The flawed movies with their bad messages are accompanied by music that is itself surface-level and somewhat hollow, even if it may be fun or appealing to listen to. These tracks are significantly less memorable than the ones associated with the game's heroes--specifically the opening theme linked above and the battle themes, which have names like "Invitation to Freedom" and "Remember, We Got Your Back." These pieces are considerably more active, layered, and musically interesting than most of the rest of the soundtrack, and their lyrics and titles serve as a constant reminded of what the game is truly about (in much the same way as the battle themes of the main Persona games, do--Persona 4's "Reach Out to the Truth" would almost be a little too on the nose if it weren't a background track you aren't likely to process on a particularly conscious level).
The takeaway from all this is that in complex artistic media like film, theatre, and game design, context is super important. There are multiple art forms that go into each of the above--music, visual art, storytelling, et cetera--but the whole is more than the sum of its parts. A piece of music that might be "wrong" or "weak" or "bad" as a standalone piece may in fact serve an important and effective narrative role in the larger context of the work. Conversely, an intrinsically beautiful image might not be a good fit for the tone of a particular work.
This speaks to the importance of taking a holistic view in any sort of complex artistic project (or any project in general), especially when multiple people are involved. It's easy to get wrapped up in what's "right" in the context of whatever specific piece you're working on and lose sight of the overall goals of the team. From a game design standpoint, I think it's pretty important for everyone involved in a game to have a baseline understanding of what the game is trying to accomplish mechanically, narratively, and artistically, so that everyone involved can further those goals through their contributions to the game. Otherwise you can end up with games with strong constituent parts that don't mesh well together. Game design is ultimately a group effort. You need to have everyone on-board.
I happened to watch the heist movies Ocean's Eleven, Ocean's Twelve, And Ocean's Thirteen last night, and they're every bit as fun as ever. While watching them, though, I couldn't help thinking of Persona 5's take on heists. Each of Persona 5's eight main dungeon-crawling sequences is modeled after a type of heist (and one is even a casino heist that seems to be in some respects an homage to the Ocean's films). This would be plenty enjoyable in its own right, but Persona 5's heists go a step beyond a standard heist movie setup in that each one is constructed around thematically symbolic ideas that feed into the overall narrative.
Persona 5 is ostensibly based on French Picaresque fiction, and more specifically gentlemen thieves like Arsène Lupin. While the game's primary influences are French, it draws from other literary traditions as well, with allusions to everything from Robin Hood to his Japanese analogue Goemon. Heist films like Ocean's Eleven are almost certainly influenced by this literary tradition as well, even if indirectly. The main plot of Ocean's Thirteen in particular--stealing from a corrupt rich man and giving the proceeds to the poor--is completely traditional gentleman thief fare, and the rogueish-but-honorable Daniel Ocean fits the Robin Hood role to a T.
In light of this, I thought it'd be fun to go through each of Persona 5's heists one-by-one and break down their symbolism. Each of the game's heist targets takes the form of a "Palace," which is a real-world location distorted by the perception of an individual in a position of power. The heists take place literally within the minds of corrupt individuals, and stealing the source of the indivudal's distorted view makes the corrupt individual realize that they're wrong and reforms them (at which point they usually make a public confession). In this sense, the heist locations symbolize the thoughts and perceptions of the target, which is the first layer of symbolism.
Beyond that, each of the heists represents one of the seven deadly sins, with the addition of Vanity, which was historically counted among the deadly sins but have since been lumped in with Pride. This structure, additionally, bears some similarity to Dante's Inferno. Each of the "Palaces" is essentially a circle of hell, where people are tormented by the sin represented. Counting the outer area Mementos (which roughly corresponds to the first circle in the Inferno), there are nine of these circles, and most of the heists end with a boss fight named after one of the princes of hell. Additionally, while the sins represented by Dante's circles of hell aren't quite the same as the seven deadly sins, the ones that do match up are in roughly the same order as Persona 5's heists, and Persona 5's protagonist is guided through the heists by a character named Morgana, who fills a roughly similar role to Dante's Virgil.
With that background in place, on to the individual dungeons.
King, Queen, and Slave
The first heist is an infiltration and robbery of an old, European-style castle, complete with a dungeon escape, secret passages hidden behind paintings, jumping across rooftops, and swinging axes guarding treasure. The owner of the castle is an Olympic-medalist-turned-gym-teacher who uses his position of authority to physically abuse and sexually harass his students, and the castle is a corruption of the school at which he teaches. He sees the school as his castle, himself as the king, and his students as his slaves.
This whole story arc feels even more relevant two years later, now that the Me Too movement has spread as it has. Persona 5 predates the Me Too movement by about a year, and yet the castle's owner's use of authority to pressure female students into giving him presumed sexual favors could easily be a fictionalized representation of the kinds of stories that have emerged in the past year. The deadly sin represented by this heist is Lust, though not so much carnal lust (although that component is addressed) so much as lust for power. Everything about the castle (which, again, is actually a school) is designed to glorify its owner and to encourage submission to his authority.
The best example of this, I think, is the castle's chapel. About two-thirds of the way through the dungeon, the phantom thieves encounter a massive chapel dedicated to the castle's owner, a place where students would come to literally worship him. The "chapel" is a corruption of the school's gym. The castle's owner views the gym as a place where students should respect and pay homage to him, as he is a remarkable athlete and a highly effective coach. In his view, his past accomplishments give him the authority to do as he pleases, and he rules tyrannically over his students in order to make himself feel powerful and important.
The second arc of the game is a museum heist, with security lasers, pressure sensors, and an entire room that's an homage to M.C. Escher. The owner of the palace is a painter named Madarame, and the museum is a corruption of his own studio. The "catch," if you will, is that the exhibits in the museum are not works of art, but rather Madarame's many pupils. The painter takes on many students, raises them in excessively harsh conditions, and then falsely claims their work as his own and basks in his reputation as a brilliant and flexible painter.
The dungeon represents Vanity. Almost everything about Madarame's projected image is false, and he goes to extreme lengths to preserve that image, to the point of ruining the lives of others. When his students get tired of being taken advantage of, Madarame abandons them to the streets, and many of them turn up homeless around the streets of Tokyo during this story arc. During the heist, Madarame himself wears exceptionally gaudy women's clothing, representing his ownership of a more comfortable house under a woman's name while falsely claiming to live an ascetic life with his students in his barren studio.
The third dungeon is a bank heist, culminating with the infiltration of a massive, futuristic vault. The bank replaces the entirety of Tokyo's downtown Shibuya area--the bank's owner, a gangster named Kaneshiro, sees Shibuya as his bank, and its people as walking ATMs. In the outer sections of the bank, there are a number of ATM-people waiting to give Kaneshiro their money, and those that run out simply fall over and die, unwanted.
This heist represents Gluttony, or over-consumption to the point of hurting others. Kaneshiro's gluttonous intake of cash from the people of Shibuya ruins people even though Kaneshiro himself has no need for the excess cash. Kaneshiro has fly-like features (playing on his association with Beelzebub), and in his boss fight he pilots a giant mechanical piggy bank, tying the bank concept to the gluttony of pigs.
The Days When Mother Was Here
The fourth dungeon is a grave robbery, set in a pyramid. Unlike the first three dungeons, the owner of this palace is not evil but rather depressed. The palace's owner, Futaba, is what's called a hikikomori, or someone who never leaves home. The hikikomori phenomenon is a serious issue in Japan right now--in recent years there's been a pretty severe uptake in people developing agoraphobia and refusing to leave their homes or their rooms. In Futaba's case, the sealed-off state began when her single mother committed suicide two years before the events of Persona 5. Futaba now lives with Soujirou, the owner of a coffee shop and a good friend of Futaba's mother's--Futaba's biological father is never mentioned. Futaba believes her mother's suicide was provoked by the pressure associated with working and raising a child alone, and Futaba feels deeply responsible for her mother's death, to the point where she has recurring nightmares in which her mother's ghost appears and blames her for being too demanding as a child.
As a result of this stress, Futaba seems to be borderline suicidal, and so her home becomes a pyramid--a grave. Outside the pyramid is a very small portion of a town--a representation of what little Futaba can see from her window--and beyond that is an empty desert. As Futaba knows nothing beyond her own home, the world as she perceives it does not exist beyond her own small sphere of influence. The pyramid doubles as a grave for Futaba herself (implying her home will be her grave) and for her deceased mother, and the heist represents Wrath--specifically, the wrath Futaba imagines her mother bearing her. The climactic sequence of the dungeon centers on the thieves helping Futaba face down her perception of her mother in order to move on.
This is also the first heist where the treasure itself--the source of the owner's distorted views--is especially important to understanding the heist. In this fourth arc, the treasure is Futaba herself. The source of Futaba's distorted worldview is her own thinking and her assumptions, not any outside event or force. Futaba's mistaken assumptions about her mother's death (which are corrected in plot-relevant ways later on) led her to seal herself off, and the thing the thieves have to remove from Futaba's mental tomb--is Futaba. This opens the way for her later character development, in which she gradually becomes more comfortable with leaving home.
The fifth arc is a sci-fi space station heist, sorta like Rogue One. This is, I think, the least thematically obvious of the heists, which is probably part of why it tends to be relatively unpopular. With the first four dungeons, it's fairly clear how the setting of the heist connects to problem that's being solved, but it isn't readily apparent how a space station relates to the owner of this palace, a greedy CEO who treats his workers poorly.
To break into this one, it's helpful to work backwards, starting with the "treasure" the thieves need to steal. The source of the CEO's corruption is a toy spaceship his family couldn't afford when he was young. His desire to be able to afford things for himself and his family led him to prioritize wealth above all else, which makes the theme of this heist Greed. The fact that the CEO views his company as a space station relates to that toy spaceship he couldn't afford when he was younger. His company is, to him, a representation of that goal that he worked for, which was unattainable when he was young but now is under his control.
There also may be an element of him viewing his company as a "toy" or a "model" and thus dehumanizing his employees, but I'm not completely sure that tracks.
The Whims of Fate
The sixth dungeon (which is my favorite by miles) is a casino heist. The whole thing is built around a central goal of needing a large number of casino credits to move to the high-rollers' rooms where the casino's owner, a prosecutor chasing down the thieves, is waiting. The heist involves rigging a number of the games in the casino in favor of the thieves while gradually moving forward, and the climactic sequence is super Ocean's Eleven. I'd love to go into more detail, but if you've played the game you probably know what I'm talking about and if you haven't I'd rather not spoil it--the twist is just that clever, and it's one of the central plot points for the overall game.
The casino is the prosecutor's distorted view of a courthouse, implying she views trials as games of chance to be won or lost rather than an avenue to find the truth. Much like Futaba, the prosecutor is not a bad person despite being the enemy of the thieves, and the distorted view represents cynicism and frustration on the part of the prosecutor rather than any innate evil or corruption. The heist symbolizes Envy, though it's not especially obvious why, and this heist has more to do with the game's overall plot than with the prosecutor's perceptions of the world, so her envy is not explored much.
The seventh heist is a cruise ship floating through a flooded version of Tokyo. The cruise ship is a distorted version of Tokyo's Diet Building--Japan's parliamentary center--and the palace's owner is a populist politician with authoritarian impluses who's running for prime minister of Japan. As with the first heist, this feels somewhat prescient in hindsight given the wave of populist sentiment that swept many of the world's nations (including the US) in 2016 and on.
The dungeon is a representation of Pride, symbolizing the politician's belief that all those who choose to ally themselves with him will be successful, while those who do not will fall behind as the world floods. The ark-in-a-flood image implies the politician is comparing himself to the biblical Noah, as if he has a God-given directive to rule and to guide the people onward. This is, of course, horribly arrogant of him, especially considering his willingness to take power by any means necessary.
Freedom and Peace of Mind
The final heist is a prison break, from a prison buried deep underground where individual will is kept in chains by the will of society, This Rousseau-esque idea is foundational to Persona 5, and it informs the whole game, but nowhere is it as blatant as in the Prison of Sloth.
It's significant, I think, that the final (and by implication most severe) of the deadly sins in the context of Persona 5 is not Pride, but rather Sloth. The overall message of the game, which culminates with this final sequence on Christmas Eve, is that while corrupt individuals abusing their power and hurting people is bad, watching this happen and not doing anything about it is even worse. Persona 5 uses its dungeon design and its eight heists in order to argue that Sloth is the worst of the deadly sins, and that it is pivotally important to stand up to injustices in order to right them. In the game's climax, the Phantom Thieves of Hearts steal the Holy Grail, which is the "treasure," or the source of distorted thinking, for humanity as a whole.
The grail's mysterious and miraculous powers (in its various interpretations throughout the years--Persona 5 does not assign explicit abilities to the grail) serve as a sort of license to be slothful. In the context of Persona 5, the grail embodies the idea that problems can be magically solved by an outside force, without any personal effort or intervention. The goal of this final heist is to reform all of humanity, to change peoples' thinking and make people stand up and speak out against corruption and evil whenever they see it. This is, of course, a herculean and drastic effort, and even after the thieves win we aren't really given examples of this happening, but the idea itself is the important part.
It isn't directly stated anywhere in the game, but the ordering and themeing of Persona 5's eight heists, in conjunction with the thematic ideas and concepts that show up throughout the game's plot, indicate that the primary message of the game is, "Stand up for what's right, even when societal pressures make it difficult to do so." The way the game approaches this idea through the usually fun-but-flat story trope that is heist narratives is quite impressive, and it makes Persona 5 as accessible and enjoyable as it is thematically rich.
I've written before about Hanasaku Iroha, a personal favorite anime series featuring a diverse cast and a uniquely compelling setting. When pressed to provide a translation for the show's title, I've given, "The ABCs of Blossoming," which roughly captures what I had thought was the primary play on words within the name. "Hanasaku," meaning "to blossom," has a triple meaning within the context of Hanasaku Iroha. Given the show's rural Japanese setting and traditional imagery, flowers are a noticeable and ever-present visual symbol throughout, so a title reference to blooming flowers is entirely sensible. Secondly, the protagonist's name, Ohana, literally means "beginning flower," which is similar in meaning to "blossom," making the title an indirect reference her character growth and developing worldview, which serves as the center of the show. Thirdly, "The ABCs of Blossoming" can be interpreted metaphorically as a reference to learning and growing as a person more generally, and the show features a wide variety of people of all different personalities and ages "blossoming" in their own individual ways.
This week, however, I discovered a fourth, and perhaps more fundamental, layer of meaning.
In order to explain this additional layer of meaning, I need to take a moment to go through how you get from "Iroha" to "ABCs." The Iroha is an old Japanese poem best known for including each character in the Japanese syllabary exactly once. For those unfamiliar with Japanese, while Japanese borrows ideographic characters (called kanji) representing entire words or concepts from Chinese, it also has a set of symbols that represent specific base sounds, similar in function to the English alphabet. These two writing systems can be used mostly interchangeably, and in contemporary Japanese some things are usually written in the word-symbol characters while others are written with the alphabet-esque characters, with the general goal of making things as smooth and easy to read as possible. The Iroha uses each of the alphabet-equivalent sounds once and only once--it's sort of like the Japanese equivalent of "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" except no letter-equivalents are repeated (where the fox sentence does have a few). These types of phrases are called pangrams and are often used for displaying fonts and other such situations where you want to see every letter at least once in a comprehensible context.
The Iroha, however, is about a thousand years old, and perhaps as a result of its age it is treated as the traditional ordering of the Japanese syllabary. "I-ro-ha-ni-ho-he-to"--the first line of the Iroha--has similar connotations to reciting "A-B-C-D-E-F-G" in English. The word "Iroha" used idiomatically has a similar meaning to saying "ABCs of..." in English, referring to the very beginnings or fundamentals of studying something. This is how I generally interpreted "Iroha" in the title of Hanasaku Iroha.
However, the Iroha is technically also a poem, even if the actual meaning of the poem is not addressed so often as the literal ordering of its letters. I was talking with a friend about the Iroha the other day, and it occurred to me that I wasn't familiar with the actual meaning of the poem, so I decided to look it up.
The poem, roughly translated, is as follows:
The colors blossom, scatter, and fall.
In this world of ours, who lasts forever?
Today let us cross over the remote mountains of life's illusions,
And dream no more shallow dreams nor succumb to drunkenness.
(Iroha poem /伊呂波歌. (1993). Encyclopedia of Japan, Encyclopedia of Japan.)
A few observations spring from this brief bit of research. For one, the "Ha" in "Iroha" actually functions within the context of the poem as the topic-marking particle "Wa," which is sometimes translated in a fairly literal but highly stilted manner as "As for." "Iroha" essentially means "As for the colors..." and is then followed by what the colors are doing. This means if you look at "Hanasaku Iroha" and treat "Iroha" not as a noun unto itself (the name of a poem) but rather as the phrase that begins the poem of the same name, the literal meaning of "Hanasaku Iroha" changes to "The Blossoming Colors." It is, in other words, essentially a modern Japanese analogue to the archaic wording of the first phrase of the Iroha. The title is a nested reference to the Iroha, invoking its literal meaning and also using it metaphorically within the same sentence. Neat, right?
So since the title invokes the actual meaning of the Iroha rather than just the metaphorical term that is "Iroha," it's appropriate to look at the meaning of the poem to see how it relates to the show. Without going too deep into possible readings of the poem, it's fairly obvious that this is about Buddhist ideas, particularly the concept of transience and the importance of seeing the world for what it actually is (rather than allowing our thinking to be distorted by worldly attachments and the like).
The transience point is key. Transience as a concept is one of the most fundamentally Japanese literary concepts out there--anyone who's studied Japanese lit at all has probably brushed with the related concept of Mono no Aware--and it pops up so often in Japanese lit that I could dedicated multiple full blog posts to the idea. It's so foundational that it shows up in everything, even works of relative fluff. The basic idea is that it's important to be aware that nothing lasts forever--everything is transient. Mono no Aware in particular is the idea of seeing something beautiful and becoming saddened by the knowledge that that beauty will eventually fade. A title that literally means "The Blossoming Colors" seems (especially to an American eye) to be strictly positive, optimistic, and youthful, but the connection to the Iroha invokes the concept of transience and thus tints the vibrant image with the reality that the blossoms will not last long, and it adds a slightly hidden undertone of melancholy.
When I wrote about Hanasaku Iroha a while ago I spent some time discussing the brilliance of the show's ending, when the beloved family inn closes down and all the characters move away to continue their lives elsewhere. Watching Hanasaku Iroha for the first time, this ending surprised me somewhat, as the anime is fundamentally positive, forward-looking, and optimistic throughout, but with a fuller understanding of the title, the ending is not only fitting but also necessary. Among the traditional Japanese sensibilities buried within Hanasaku Iroha is a fundamental awareness of transience and of the sadness of beauty, so it is almost inevitable that the most beautiful thing within the show--the traditional inn that brings all of the characters together--must fade when the show comes to a close. It isn't meant to be pessimistic so much as factual. An awareness of the short-lived nature of things makes the appreciation of those things richer and more emotional, and the ability to ultimately release attachments to that beauty and to move on to whatever's next speaks to the Buddhist ideas that underpin the Iroha.
Traditional Japanese poetry is an exceptionally complex field, partially because many poems can only be fully understood in the context of the wide array of associations of particular words and the layered references to early poems that characterize much of Japanese poetry. Hanasaku Iroha's title draws, even if only slightly, from this poetic tradition. Its layers of meaning interweave contemporary interpretations of words with a network of poetic symbolism a millennium old. In just six characters--花咲くいろは--the title conveys a layered view of its literal subject matter, its overarching tone, its foundational undertones, and the literary tradition that informs the work.
It's nothing short of brilliant.
Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth released in Japan a few days ago, and my copy of the game arrived yesterday. Even aside from my continued amazement at the black magic that is Amazon's supply chain, this is pretty exciting--I've been looking forward to this game since it was announced while I was in attendance at 2017's Persona music concert, and the original game was a lot of fun. A few hours into it, I'm impressed thus far, and odds are good I'll end up writing more in-depth about the game at some point, but in the early game there's one particular concept that's stood out to me: balance.
"Balance" is a concept that tends to be most important in multiplayer games, like Street Fighter and Super Smash Bros. In the most abstract sense, it refers to the idea that two equally skilled players should be equally likely to win regardless of which in-game playstyle they prefer. I sometimes compare fighting games to speed chess, and a perfectly-balanced game would be like chess in that neither player has an inherent advantage and skill determines the outcome of the match. Perfectly-balanced games do not exist, of course, outside of games where there are no game-defined characters or playstyles (see puzzle games like Tetris and Catherine). Even in well-balanced games certain characters or playstyles usually have advantages over others just due to matchups and affitinies; for example, a character in a fighting game who can attack from a distance might have an inherent advantage over a powerful character who can only attack up close.
Balance in competitive games is a pretty established concept, but it applies to single-player experiences as well. Some people scoff at the notion of balance and relative strength in single-player games--the argument essentially goes that so long as there's no competitive element to a game, there's no need for optimal play and thus balance is a non-issue--but balanced games do tend to be more enjoyable to play, and consequently balance is an issue worth considering.
Where balance in a competitive game takes the form of the relative strengths of different options available to competing players, balance in a single-player context involves the relative strength of all options available to one player at any given time. This matters most in RPGs with high degrees of customization, where players or characters can specialize in things like physical strength, magic power, defense, evasion, and so on. In a balanced game, all such styles are comparably powerful assuming reasonably smart play, and prioritizing one build over another doesn't make the game measurably easier or harder. Few games adhere to this ideal, and the ones that come closest (such as, for example, Kingdom Hearts II) tend to have very little in the way of actual customization. RPGs are complex puzzles of interrelated mechanics, so you usually have certain strategies that emerge as being stronger than others.
This isn't inherently problematic, and there are games where a large part of the fun is finding the most unbalanced setups and using them to trivialize the game's difficulty--I really enjoy Final Fantasy Tactics for that exact reason. What makes a game like Tactics work, though, is that there is a wide range of exceptionally powerful setups, those setups take work to obtain, and the game can be reasonably completed even with sub-optimal play. As a result, this lack of balance feels like flexibility and in some ways enhances the overall experience. FFT wouldn't be nearly as fun without its absurdly powerful Arithmetician builds that can freely keep your entire team healed and bombard all enemies from anywhere on the field with nothing more than the power of math. (For those who haven't played FFT, I'm not exaggerating--the best class in the game is a math-themed spellcaster, and it's every bit as silly as it sounds).
So for a game like FFT, balance isn't super important, and the game's emphasis on customization and strategy arguably makes the vast power disparities between certain setups a good thing rather than a flaw. Where balance becomes a problem, though, is when only one or two approaches are powerful, or when the game is difficult enough that sub-optimal approaches do not work. A large part of the fun in RPGs is building teams that match your preferred playstyle, whether that's bursting things down in a few turns with super high damage, cautiously maintaining your defenses as you whittle down the enemy, using status ailments to cripple foes, or any other common RPG tactic. When only one of those approaches is reliable or effective, the game's balance undermines its customization features. Players can be discouraged from exploring the options the system provides, often feeling tunneled in to one or two powerful strategies in order to complete the game.
For all its strengths, the original Persona Q is a highly unbalanced game. PQ has a highly flexible and satisfying system of character customization, which is a lot of fun to play around with, but pretty much any team is eventually going to gravitate towards one of two strategies, one of which involves making it so attacks can't miss and then using powerful-but-low-accuracy skills, and one of which involves a mechanic called "links" in which one character makes a series of follow-up attacks throughout a turn. Both of these strategies are fun to piece together and execute, and it's highly satisfying watching difficult enemies melt under a barrage of physical attacks, but anything that doesn't fall under those two umbrellas is so much weaker as to be borderline unusable for lategame fights.
Part of the problem is PQ's clever resource management system. When you hit a weakness or land a critical hit on an enemy, your action on the next turn has no cost, meaning you are free to use powerful attacks or spells. While this sounds fine, it ends up heavily favoring physical attacks for a number of reasons. For one, spells are ridiculously expensive relative to the resources available, to the point where you can only cast high-level spells a few times in a fight without using the free turn mechanic. Physical skills, on the other hand, are much more affordable. Additionally, magic can't crit, which means magic only gives free turns if you hit a weakness, while Physical skills can hit weaknesses and crit, boosting damage and reducing overall costs. For longer fights, physical attacks end up being far more economical.
Additionally, the most powerful attack types have physical variants, but not magical ones. The low-accuracy-high-power skills, like Myriad Arrows, are all physical attacks, and the strongest magic attacks do far less damage and are far more expensive in exchange for being more accurate. Since PQ has a variety of ways to boost accuracy, and damage boosts can be applied to both types of skills, magic is pretty much strictly inferior to physical attacks. The link attacks, similarly, only exist in physical variations.
The end result of this is that certain characters are severely disadvantaged, and using spellcasters tends to make the game a lot more difficult. The difference is so pronounced that a semi-common strategy involves teaching one of the spellcasters (Yukiko) a bunch of physical skills and using her as a physical attacker even though her stat spread and base skills are all optimized for magic. If you want to play a magic-centric Persona Q run, you're basically out of luck. The game is fun enough and designed well enough that it's highly enjoyable regardless, but balance is a significant problem.
I'm not yet far enough in PQ2 to know whether it improves upon these issues, but I've already seen magic-flavored link skills, which is promising. It can be difficult to tell how well something is balanced until players actually get to try using it, and even then there's often room for debate about what is or isn't good or useful within a game--particularly when there aren't head-to-head matches and statistics to reference. I do think it's good for developers to be sensitive to and intentional about balance in single-player games, though, if only to ensure that players feel free to play how they like.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition