So as anyone who knows me well is aware, I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time with Persona 4 Golden lately. Atlus’s PS2 success Persona 4 was remade for the PS Vita including new content, cinematics, characters, and endings. The Vita doesn’t have a lot right now, but with an incredible amount of content, Persona 4 Golden makes a case that it might be worth having a Vita just for this game alone. How good a case? Well, that’s the real question.
A Year To Remember
Where it all begins….
Persona 4 The Golden’s events take place over the course of about a year. The main character is staying with his uncle and cousin at their house in the small fictional Japanese town of Inaba while his parents are abroad for work. The day before you travel to Inaba, you have a strange dream where you are in a blue limo and are speaking to a tarot reader(with an enormous nose) who talks about tragedy in your future, and tells you that this year will mark a major change in your life.
The one thing to be aware of when stepping into P4G is that you are playing a game that was, to a large extent, modeled after an anime. What do I mean? In television it is perfectly acceptable to have a few episodes at the start where you get subtle plot buildup, character introductions, and not all that much involving your main character. Persona 4 Golden has at least 3 hours before you get to really give much in the way on input to the game at all. There are one or two conversation options you get, you can save a few times, and you get one brief pseudo-combat sequence… but aside from that, your first few hours are one giant ‘cut-scene’. The scary part is that Persona 4 Golden actually manages to make this work. You’ll be playing for hours, just going through this almost completely non-interactive opening, and then suddenly the game will open up and you’ll realize ‘holy crap I’ve been playing for hours’… whether you like it or not depends on what you think of what happens next, but it works surprisingly well.
Lies, Endings, and Red Herrings
Persona 4 Golden does a good job of tricking you, time and time again. It makes you think that you’re at the final boss at least 5 times if you go the true ending. Every time you think you’re done, the game pulls the rug out and goes ‘oh, sorry, nope – fraid not.’ It happens so often that until you see the credits roll you really don’t actually BELIEVE you’ve found the actual end. And, to make things worse, the game actually has several different endings – at least 6. Most of these lose out on huge key segments of the game, and are your punishment for failing to recognize the lesson the game is trying to teach: Never stop seeking the truth.
The one criticism I have here is that finding the specific sequence of statements and actions to even unlock the NORMAL ending, much less the true ending, is a major challenge. It isn’t just that you have to reject what happens, you have to do so in just the perfect way or else you get one of the four bad endings available on that fateful day. In fact, once you have unlocked the ‘normal ending’, provided you have developed the right relationship, merely refusing to just accept things will make it rather easy to find the true ending. It is easier to go from normal to true than it is to go from bad to normal. And that isn’t a good thing, getting at least the basic normal ending should be the easiest and you should have to screw up to get the bad endings… in fact, this is the one part I truly recommend consulting a walkthrough for – how to get to the normal ending.
All of that said… once you get there, once you reach the true ending… it is all worth it. This game’s ending is absolutely perfect. It is an ending that wraps up the story nicely and makes you feel rewarded for viewing it. I could not think of anything I would’ve done to improve this game’s ending. It wouldn’t have worked with any other game… but given the nature of Persona 4 Golden, this almost-entirely-fluff ending… is just perfect. I loved every second of it.
Friendship: The Game Within the Game
At the surface, Persona 4 Golden is a game about a serial murder in a small Japanese town. However, half of the game has virtually nothing to do with that. The bulk of the game, and a large part of the game’s appeal, lies in the real world – the ‘social’ element of the game. You see, your time is split between investigating murders in the shadow world and developing friendships, romances, and your personality in the real world. This may sound disparate, but it really isn’t. The secret to success is how you balance them because developing relationship will help you in the action portion of the game in many, many ways. But even more importantly, if you wish to see any of the really cool endings… you have to work on these relationships.
When you just say that, it doesn’t sound terribly appealing I know. But the characters are so interesting and the arcs that develop around them are so well-handled that it is an absolute joy to get to know each and every character. While some of the writing seems trite, the further you go the more you realize that it is designed that way. These are real people – sometimes they speak in clichés, sometimes they act petty or trite. And, while some things had to be gamed for the sake of the core story, the ‘relationship arcs’ are remarkably interesting and feel surprisingly genuine; which can be hard with a mostly silent protagonist.
Over the course of these segments, there are two minor problems you may encounter. First, if you complete certain relationship arcs at the wrong time, you may encounter some pretty alarming inconsistencies – such as one person remarking off-hand about a deceased person as if they were still alive. Second, and more annoyingly, is that while the characters experience some pretty hefty personality shifts and development over the course of their relationship arcs… this character development is disappointingly absent from the majority of the core story events.
As you get to know your female friends, you will be presented the option to become romantically involved with them – a prospect that is handled very tactfully and charmingly – there are no crazy implied sex scenes or overdone double-entendres. The one seemingly odd thing is that the game allows you to be in multiple romantic relationships at the same time without penalty… or well, almost without penalty. You see, this game spans a full year and – unless you do everything wrong – that includes Valentine’s Day. On Valentine’s Day, if you have more than one romantic involvement, the game tears your self-esteem to pieces. It does such a good job of making you feel like you are the scum of the earth, rending every bit of humanity in you and making you genuinely feel like you have ruined every one of these girl’s lives. And yes, it really does have that impact.
Not just any game can make me feel like a jerk… but hearing lines such as “I won’t ask about today, or if you have someone else. I believe in you.” just rends the heart. The more girls you are romantically involved with… the more of these moments you have to endure. One after another. And last, but certainly not least, if you romanced one specific girl you get the depressingly accurate: “Well this is a first. There is a mystery, and I know the answer, yet I want to look away from it…” Reaching this part of the game will do a number on you – if you don’t cry or at least feel the heartbreak, you’re either a stronger man than me……. or completely and utterly heartless. One of the two. And it isn’t just the dialog itself that makes these segments so moving, but the lines are delivered so spectacularly by the characters’ voice actors that it just doubles the impact.
Tourist’s Guide To Inaba
As mentioned above… the voice acting in this game is superb. Every single one of the characters had a voice actor that truly helped bring the character to life, but by far and away the most successful were Mary Elizabeth McGlynn who did Naoto and Laura Bailey who did Rise Kujikawa. On the subject of Laura Bailey, her rendition of ‘True Story’ was absolutely and utterly fantastic – this can be heard in one of the game’s non-story cinematics, found below:
The above is one of the cinematics that is used just as a way to reward the player for playing. They don’t do much to develop the story, just offer you a rather cool little scene. Some of them feel more like awkward fan-service, but overall I really appreciate this game’s approach to cinematics. So often games feel they need to reserve cinematics only for the most crucial of scenes, so having this game be willing to use them just as a little fun reward is refreshing.
The above scene also features one of the game’s many lyrical tracks. This game’s soundtrack is incredibly varied, with each dungeon having its own unique and distinct theme, as well as a variety of amazing tracks for other areas. I am having a very hard time thinking of any game that has a more complete and incredible soundtrack than this game. While not every track is perfect for general listening, every single track does a great job of portraying the mood of the region it is in, and even the more-than-slightly annoying operatic theme for the Velvet Room fits – if only you didn’t have to spend so much time listening to it.
The graphics, on the other hand, are nothing spectacular. There is nothing wrong with them – no glitches, flaws, or issues – they just aren’t anything special to look at with two exceptions. The first are the environments, which are cleanly and beautifully drawn and provide a fantastic backdrop for events. From the 8-bit inspired ‘Void Quest’ to the sultry and shadowed ‘Marokyu Striptease’, each and every dungeon is lovingly handcrafted to represent a specific intent. The second exception is the persona models, which are, for the most part, really impressively drawn with an attention to detail for that figure they are intended to represent – as many of them are based off of religious figures such as Anubis or Michael.
Into The Shadow World
Persona 4’s core story is, at its heart, a serial murder investigation. Upon arriving in Inaba, people begin disappearing, and a few days later their bodies are discovered in really unusual locations without any sign of what killed them. Shortly after, you discover that you have the ability to go inside of the television. Within you discover a fog-covered place and a strange animate bear suit. While exploring this mysterious place, you discover what seems to be the place that the people died. Positive that anyone you tried to tell would never believe you(I mean, you went inside a television), you decide to investigate yourself with your new friends. While inside the television, you discover the ability to summon entities of great power from within yourselves that help you fight the strange shadowy creatures you encounter there.
These entities are called Persona(named after the term in Jungian psychology, which plays a pretty major role in this game) and represent the inner strength of the characters. The main character has the unique ability to maintain multiple Persona with distinct strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. These abilities can range from spells and attacks to deal various types of damage to enemies, buffs that can increase your allies’ performance temporarily, and even passive effects that can improve your offensive or defensive capabilities. Only one Persona can be active at a time, but the main character can have more and more available to him as the game progresses.
Within the ‘Velvet Room’, which is the strange limo that you visited in your dream at the start and you will visit time and time again over the course of the game, you have the ability to create new Persona out of existing ones you possess. When you combine two or more Persona to create a new one, you can inherit abilities from those used to create it, which can allow you to strategically combine the strengths of multiple Persona to overcome a new one’s weakness. In a turn based RPG like this one, having an element of strategy outside of the combat is tremendously important to the longevity and interest of the game, and this little minigame of merging persona is just enough to keep you thinking.
But how do you get Persona, you ask? Well that’s another interesting element… if you perform well in a fight, and I’ll explain a bit about that later, the game will randomly draw from 3 to 6 ‘cards’ and you get to choose one of them to keep. Some of these cards have positive effects like bonus exp, skills or restoring some of your health and magic points; others have negative effects like reducing the exp, gold, or items you get from the fight, and some give you new Persona. Now, this becomes more interesting when you realize that the negative ones typically have a modifier allowing you to select more cards(for example the ‘no money’ card allows you to keep 3 more cards), and if you manage to keep every card offered you get rewarded with a ‘sweep bonus’. The sweep bonus gives you a 100% chance to draw new cards in the next fight and also allows you to keep 2 more cards for a total of 3 to start which makes it possible to chain them as long as you keep getting the right cards.
Time To Make History
When exploring the various dungeons in the Shadow World, you’ll stumble upon shadows. When they notice you, they’ll charge at you. If they engage you, they get an advantage, if you engage them then it starts off even, but if you manage to engage from behind you get the advantage. I strongly recommend not letting them engage you, as the advantage can turn what would have otherwise been an easy fight into a fight for your life. Not that the game is terribly difficult but you see, the enemy AI is actually pretty smart and it’ll abuse any advantage you give it.
Now, the combat itself is a pretty basic JRPG turn based system, provided you aren’t silly enough to allow the computer to control your party members for you – which is, unfortunately, the default option. There are a few really interesting mechanics that make it more than just that, though. If you manage to get a critical hit or attack an enemy with their weakness, you will knock them over and get an extra attack – provided they aren’t already knocked over. This goes both ways; however, and the enemies will constantly chain attack your weakness once they discover it. In longer fights, it’s not uncommon to have the enemies use every turn they get to attack someone’s weakness; which can make for some rather challenging fights.
Here’s where the relationships I mentioned above come into play in the combat… you see, depending upon a character’s ‘social link’ level(which is to say, how far you’ve developed the relationship), they can perform various special actions during combat. A party member who you have a strong ‘social link’ with can ‘resist’ death, can take a fatal attack for you, or slap some sense into other party members who are suffering from mental status ailments like rage or confusion. But most importantly of all, once a party member reaches a certain SL level, they can do a followup attack when you knock someone over with various impressive results. Chie, for example, automatically kills a non-boss enemy, while two other party members have the ability to critically strike multiple enemies knocking them over as well. The best part is that they can even perform this attack if they’re not a part of the current active party.
But there are two specific elements that make for the most excitement within the combat. The first is the ‘all out attack’. If you successfully knock every enemy over, you have the option to do an all out attack, where your entire party all run in and attack at the same time doing massive damage. The second element, and the one that really helps to make the game incredibly engaging, is the ‘cheerleading’ that happens within the game. When anyone in your party does anything impressive, such as dodging or scoring a critical hit, one of the other party members – or the current ‘backup character’ – will cheer them on. Also, once you unlock the Social Link for the second backup character, they will randomly provide you with support in various ways such as healing or party-wide buffs. This helps to build a sense of excitement within the combat, and keeps you interested.
One thing this game did that shouldn’t be impressive but was – in fact, I don’t think there is any reason in this day and age not to do this – was the ability to rewatch cinematics. Any cinematic scene you’ve viewed over your playthrough can be watched again by going to the Daily Personamations section of the ‘TV’. You see, the game features a submenu on the main screen called ‘TV Listings’ where you can watch various little relevent but not required scenes. These include a series of short ‘lectures’ about Jungian Psychology, some segments from live concerts playing music from the Persona series, a jukebox where you can play music from all throughout the game, and more. Really a fascinating addition that is something I truly wish more developers would learn from.
Persona 4 Golden also has a few online features, but they’re nothing terribly special. You can request aid from other players, and assuming someone is available to give it you’ll get a small boost to your health and mp at the start of the next fight, so small that it barely even matters. It is kind of interesting to do because you get a little encouragement message from the other person. More importantly, you can click on a button to see what other players in the same place in the game as you did with their time at any point. Since you don’t get any context, it is only moderately useful, but it can make you aware of an option you didn’t know was there sometimes so it isn’t entirely useless.
As you can probably tell, I truly and utterly loved my time with this game. There are elements of this game that might be a turnoff even to traditional JRPG fans, but this game more than overcame any minor flaws I could find within it to create one of the most memorable stories in a long time. The sheer excitement found in what is essentially a turn based combat system is something utterly and completely astounding to me, that I suspect I’ll keep coming back for. This game, just on its own merits, has made me feel that my Vita was more than worth it. Despite having played over 130 hours of this game, I find myself eager to get back into it and start a new playthrough. I think that, above all else, is the true test of this game’s success and quality.