Persona 4: Golden Review
Taking on this review nearly became one of the greatest mistakes of my entire gaming life. I had started the game on the hardest difficulty, as I was a huge fan of Persona 3 Portable on the PSP, and was eager to have another epic JRPG fill the next year of my life – yes, P3P took a good few months if you took your time and enjoyed it. This had happened before I started writing here on this website, so I hadn’t accounted for the potential need to review it later on and write a piece on it. Finishing this game in a timely fashion to post a review up, has been my single greatest gaming challenge to date. For those wanting a long-winded JRPG to fill their months with, Persona has you covered. If however you’re looking for a quick fix on the genre, then as many of you will already know; JRPGs don’t do short.
Persona 4: Golden (PS Vita)
Publisher: NIS America
Released: February 22, 2013
I’m a devout fan of the Shin Megami Tensei Series and, whilst I haven’t played every single one of the other SMT games, Persona has been the one that I’ve always kept in touch with. Having played the original Persona 4 on the PS2 back in the day – but had not completed the true ending. I have fond memories of a great JRPG that truly stood out from the crowd in many ways; design being the key factor. You may be surprised to hear that P4 was released in Europe not that long ago, 2009 in fact. Coming in at such a late stage of the PS2′s life-cycle hadn’t done P4 any favours, and it largely went unnoticed in comparison to other games currently taking the spotlight on the Xbox 360 and PS3. Remember, the PS3 was released in 2006, which meant that by the time P4 had entered public consciousness, there was already a loyal Sony fan base that had moved onto the next console – which didn’t have the ability to play PS2 games officially – and there had been three years to acclimate to the next-gen atmosphere. I consider myself an avid gamer, a passionate one. Even I however, managed to miss Persona 4 on its release date, and it took a friend, a website, and a sale for me to notice its availability. For a lot of people, this game slipped under the radar completely. You were either a fan waiting for its release, or you were ignorant of its existence.
A lot of Persona fans are divided on which game is better, Persona 3 or Persona 4. For the new generation of Final Fantasy fans – FF7 and FF8 specifically – they seem to find comparisons in the darker and more mysterious tones of Persona 3 against their favourite Final Fantasy game, regardless of whether it be FF7 or FF8. For the rest of the JRPG crowd, they will defend P4′s dominance with their lives, and refuse to succumb to the ideology that P3 is in any shape or form a better experience. Fans of P4 will argue that character design and development, alongside music, themes, and story, are infinitely better in P4. I’m at a tendency to agree with the P4 crowd a lot more, as their points stand a lot higher than those of P3′s. Indeed, characters are a lot more interesting, and don’t hit the stereotypical Anime tropes played out in P3.
The music is a lot more dynamic and holds a wider array of texture and depth to it in P4 than it does in P3. The story is easily better in P4 simply down to the fact that P3 is a more of a save the world affair, whilst P4 delves into a diverse mixture of different themes and takes a holistic view of the human condition. The game’s major theme is that of the Persona we carry around with us in our daily lives. Whereas the common insult is to say that someone is two-faced, the actuality is that we’re all multi-faced in that respect. Different personalities come out in different situations, and our positives are played out just as equally as our negatives. Whether or not we are happy with our less desired traits of our Persona is irrelevant, what stands at the pinnacle of self-respect is that we accept those parts of our lives as who we are, and embrace them. That’s the message behind the series of Persona; to face oneself, and to make manifest of their inner strength.
So this is the theme of Persona, your social mask, the façade you play out each and every day with those around you. This is the major point in where Persona 4: Golden shines, character development and design. Each character is given depth through a singular iconic event in their past that defines the person they are today. Whilst mostly they are complete human beings, they lack the acceptance of the doubts and fears that they’ve been hiding their entire lives through these hardships. Once they have faced their shadow – quite literally –, they earn their Persona which becomes a tool of power to fight other shadows with. In Persona 3, we had the midnight hour, a secret hour after Midnight which only those who control Persona can see. The world changes, and shadows reveal themselves. In Persona 4, there is a rumour spreading around the town that there is a strange and mysterious midnight channel on TV. If you stare at the screen at midnight on a rainy day, a person will appear on-screen. Fog follows the days after the showing of the midnight channel, and the person shown on the television will be found dead, hung in a contorted position on a tv antenna once that fog has lifted.
Don’t mistake Persona 4: Golden for simply being an update
Your character arrives in Inaba, having to transfer to a new school for the next year, to live with your uncle Ryotaro Dojima and his daughter Nanako. From this point you make new friends in your new school, and you play out the social aspect of the game. Persona 3 alternated between moments of social bonding with your classmates, which elevated your social rank, and fighting shadows in the shadow world. This social rank with a friend would in turn make your future Persona stronger, as each friend stands for a different type of Persona – magician, etc. –. So these moments of social bonding aren’t simply for superficial reasons or immersion building, but serve an actual purpose that is entwined strongly within the gameplay.
This largely serves as the play-style of P4G, alternating between spending a few days hanging out with friends and exploring the various locations in and around Inaba, and spending time in the TV world, fighting shadows. Within both systems, you have RPG elements that cross over. The time spent doing things in the real world, will affect the state of your Persona. Sometimes, spending time in a hot springs with someone, will give your character a chance to talk about past memories, giving you the chance to alter the move-set of their Persona. Reaching certain points of your social links with characters – for instance, becoming intimate with a female character – will grant you access to certain perks, such as an evolved version of their Persona.
In order to progress, the most cliché aspect of RPGs comes into play; grinding
There are various non-combat challenges in the real world to accomplish as well, such as raising your courage status – amongst others – high enough to tackle the meat bowl challenge at a local diner. Certain pieces of dialogue cannot be said unless courage is high enough, and these are things which should be pursued in order to gain full control over certain situations in the game. There are part-time jobs that require and are dependant on how well you’ve progressed in certain areas of your character’s status. You can also help Nanako tend to a vegetable garden outside the Dojima household, giving you items to use in combat, there’s plenty of small instances like these that crossover into the shadow fighting gameplay portion of P4, and it’s well worth being heavily engaged with both sides of the game as they compliment each other well. P4 also manages to delve into the social/dating-sim genre a little, as these situations aren’t purely for battle stats, but also provide light enjoyment and relief from the combat of the game in general. Getting to know the characters and investing yourself emotionally in them is holistically the reason for these moments. Lastly there are the school sections, where you can join various clubs, and is also where you must successfully complete your final exams if you are to win the respect and admiration of your peers – as well as getting a little cash bonus from your uncle.
Where the social aspect of the game sets the mood and provides overall texture for the experience, the combat is what would be considered the main filler. As a group, you all set out to rescue the people thrown into the TV world, in the desperate hope that you can save them and stop any more people from dying. . On the normal or higher difficulties, grinding is a necessity. On the easy difficulty, it’s quite normal to engage with the social aspects of the game for a week or two, and do a little bit of grinding a few days before the next big rescue attempt, and it’s a case of rinse and repeat. On anything but the easiest difficulty, it becomes a task of setting out some kind of schedule for yourself. Maybe today you’ll go spend the day with a friend, tomorrow you’ll go attend your school club meeting, and then the next two days will be spent inside the TV world grinding, and then after another 2 days of social events; the rescue. This isn’t as laborious as it sounds, and the grinding isn’t what you would expect from other genres such as an MMO. The game keeps things interesting and more varied than the simple attack-attack-attack sequence of gameplay. There are different shadow status ailments, and enemies have their weaknesses, resistances, and complete nullification of certain magic types. You can let the party take their own initiative in battle, or you can control them directly.
The A.I of your party members is well composed, and they will recognise when they have hit on a weakness and exploit that. They’ll also remember previous weaknesses and resistances of enemies they’ve fought before, which saves the headache of having to re-analyse the enemy to notify your team of those properties. There’s also two special occasions for combat, the first of which is when all enemies have fallen on the floor, unable to get up. This will activate a charge attack from all members of your party – if you wish to activate it – that will send you all in for an all-out-attack. The second of which is dependent on your relationship with the characters in the real world, where if your bond is strong enough, they’ll take a mortal blow for you, engage in a special critical attack after you knock down an enemy etc., again referring to the crossing over of the social and RPG aspects of the game.
After the battle is won, if you did well enough, it will activate a special kind of mini-game, where you’re given around a handful of cards to choose from. You get a certain amount of draws, but selecting certain card effects will give you more draws, sometimes with a benefit, sometimes with a negative effect. If you manage to pick up all of the cards, you are given an automatic replay of the mini-game after your next battle. You’re encouraged therefore to win the battles and activate this mini-game, in order to draw all of the cards to guarantee a replaying of the game after your next battle, to continue reaping benefits, such as bonus exp or money, as well as acquiring new Persona.
Your character’s special ability is being able to wield multiple Persona; switching between them at will. Because of your character’s unique ability, you can create and fuse Persona throughout the course of the game. The level of fusion depends on how well you’ve advanced with your social links, which will improve their respective Persona types’ stats. Moves can be taught and forgotten, as you acquire new skill cards, most of which are usually found during the mini-game sequences after each battle. Even on the easier difficulty, you will be required to use every aspect of your Persona’s abilities in order to defeat the shadows. Sometimes, simple physical attacks will be completely reflected back onto you and your party members, and these situations require you know your Persona inside and out. The audio backdrop to these battles range from upbeat jazz battle themes, to hard driven rock music.
All of the music in the game is intended to be filler and not ascend or predominate the action taking place. As a result, the game plays out in a very TV show-like fashion, and basically just manages to flow incredibly well. This is to the game’s credit, as it feels like you’re playing an Anime at times, and is most likely intentional. Speaking of the Anime-like quality, there are various clips throughout that are Anime styled, in the sense that they are fully animated 2D moments. These occasions are incredibly rare, and only about a dozen or so play out in the game. When they do come around, they provide a chance to reflect on what has just happened in the narrative, giving a quiet moment after an intense conclusion or event in the story arc. Without spoiling things too much, there are a couple of endings to acquire, with only one of them providing another hour or two of gameplay; considered the true ending. Lastly the visuals, which are some of the best gaming has to offer. Persona 4 might not be as eye-catching as the paint style visuals of Okami or as colourful as Katamari, but it does fit into the creative category. Lush vibrant colours throughout, the Anime visuals I mentioned before, as well as some great special effects and the manner in which the menus fade and fly in are extremely well done. Small touches like your character’s shadow on the floor animating patterns instead of being pure black stands testament to the amount of caring detail the artists have gone into with the game. Inaba is well designed, and locations are iconic and memorable. Whilst the list of locations is a bit short, their quality gives a very concentrated experience that’s hard to find in most RPGs these days and more than makes up for this.
One of the finest JRPGs this side of Final Fantasy land
Persona 4 is a well-rounded game that excels in all areas, making it very hard to find much fault in what is considered by fans to be one of the finest JRPGs this side of Final Fantasy land. The combat avoids becoming repetitive through interesting mechanics, the social aspect of the game affects the gameplay throughout, enjoyable music adds great texture to the entire experience, and the characters/story; engaging and interesting. There’s plenty I haven’t mentioned, such as the ability to tap the Vita screen to watch an in-game TV with various shows, some allowing you to listen to soundtrack from the Persona series, and others giving you an introspective look at the themes and philosophies surrounding the game’s narrative and development. There’s also in-game costumes, special festival events, item fusions, the list goes on.
As for the differences between the original P4 and Golden, they can be summarised by saying that Golden has a new opening, and polishes every aspect of the original until it shines perfectly. The major two features for the Vita being the online component, which allows you to view the decisions other players have made for their actions that day, and the ability to call for help in battle – this results in a small healing effect for your party at the start of the battle –. The obvious changes being added story missions, more side missions, and generally just more. Don’t mistake Persona 4: Golden for simply being an updated/patched game. There’s plenty of new content on offer that it warrants attention from those of you who have finished the original on the PS2. New Game+ adds replay value – your character’s stats remain the same –, but because of the game’s length, for many this will be a two count playthrough at the most. If you’re unsure about the Persona series and have yet to play one, this would be the best place to start!