Title: Persona 4 Golden
Platform: PS Vita
Release Date: February 2013 in Europe (2012 in Japan & North America)
Publisher: Atlus, NIS America, Ubisoft (Australian release)
Back in 2006, there were whispers of a Japanese Roleplaying Game (J-RPG for those not in the know) that had been banned for release by the Australian government because it depicted “suicidal imagery” within its opening scenes. This game was of course Persona 3 on the Playstation 2 & the “suicidal imagery” was the Envoker -the gun-like device that summons the titular Personas.
This was my first exposure to the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series of Roleplaying Games. The Shin Megami Tensei franchise was a name that cropped up every so often in the early days of the internet’s gaming websites (& the fading days of gaming magazine industry) but, try as I might, I could not find a local release of Persona 3. It would be years later, with the release of the PSP version of Persona 3 Portable -which I had to order from overseas.
But by then I was already well verse in many of the themes that underlined the Persona series & that was through my viewing of Persona 4: The Animation. That gave me a basic run down of the narrative world within the game franchise but was also beloved as an anime in its own right. The series shall be reviewed at a later date.
Like its predecessor, Persona 4 on the PS2 did not really see a proper Australian release but that seemed due more to perceived inability to sell rather than any controversy within the game itself. So when Persona 4 Golden was announced in 2011, complete with improved graphic, new material & featuring the voice cast of the anime series. For me, it was pretty much the sole reason to acquire the beleaguered Sony PS Vita (despite being an excellent piece of hardware in its own right).
What makes the Persona series (and the Shin Megami Tensei franchise as a whole) different to so many other J-RPGs is its usual of contemporary settings -being that of modern day Japan. Addressing issues relevant to many Japanese teenagers; such as pressure to confirm, the burdens of the past, negative self perception & overarching societal pressures in the form of family, school & peer groups. This themes resonate strongest within Persona 4 because they are what drive the protagonists & where they gain their supernatural powers from -overcoming the negativity within them & transforming it through accepting who they truly are within.
The other thing that sets the Persona series apart from so many RPGs (both Japanese & Western) is its hybrid form of being a traditional RPG & a Social Simulator (also known as a Sim Game), with some aspects akin to a Visual Novel (something that never really took off outside of Japan). Building relationships with your team mates & NPCs through the Social Links system is vital to both gameplay & story -allowing you to develop more powerful Persona to use in combat as well discover more about the characters themselves. This is something take from the 3rd Persona game & further developed for this one with more quest related tasks in some instances. Its also something vital to do if you want to see the “True Ending” of the game, another concession to the Visual Novel style of gameplay.
The gameplay itself is broken up in terms of the Overworld, which is the fictional semi-rural town of Inaba & the dungeons within the ‘TV World’. Gameplay in both areas is vastly different as well. Whilst in Inaba, you do more mundane activities such as studying & hanging out with your friends as well developing your Social Links by engaging with various characters around town, all while exploring the mystery that surrounds you. In the TV World, you explore various dungeons (which open up over the course of the game), fight monsters known as Shadows (no relation) with both weapons & your various Persona as well as hunt for items & battle bosses in order to rescue people trapped within that twisted dimension.
Within the dungeons, also referred to as ‘Studios” due to the TV related nature of the world, all Shadows are visible as blobs of various sizes, so you don’t know what you’re facing until you encounter it. Like many modern J-RPGs, you can gain advantage for sneaking up on Shadows & lose it if they manage to attack you from behind but the game also features the under used mechanic (in RPGs) of having Shadows run away from you if you can easily defeat them. It’s handy if you are just trying to do a dungeon run to beat a bonus boss or find an item but a bit vexing if you are trying to locate a certain type of Shadow so you can kill it for a various item.
Combat is pretty standard turn-based J-RPG fare, with actions for standard combat, Persona abilities that include both physical & magical attacks, items, escape & so forth. It’s in the same 3D style as Persona 3 & looks exceptionally pretty. The new Vita features allows for players to call on “viewers” to give boosts via a touch screen button, such as buffs or minor healing, as well as allow characters not in the part to do special attacks. There are also partner attacks that do special damage but these are limited to pre-set pairs & have different attack attributes that aren’t obviously listed. They also happen at random times, so there is no true controlling them but they can be handy when in a bind with groups of annoying enemies. The magic system carries over from the overarching Shin Megami Tensei franchise, with confusing names for elemental attacks, such as Agi for fire, Zio for lightning & so on. This can be very disorienting, especially if you are unfamiliar with any other titles in the franchise (such as the Devil Survivor ones). There are icons representing what the powers do & some explanations in in-game conversations but the naming system can be frustrating to remember.
Luckily the story is less J-RPG bog-standard fare. That is in part to the aforementioned contemporary setting of the game which allows characters to go beyond the typical RPG norms. Unfortunately this does mean that they become more akin to various anime character & narrative tropes but I find these engaging enough to forgive.
The central protagonist amazingly enough doesn’t have amnesia, isn’t secretly a god or heir to some secret mystic bloodline. He’s just an outsider but, more importantly, he’s a cypher. A proper tabla rosa. An utter blank canvas upon whom you project all game defined traits. This is fairly typical for this style of J-RPG but also creates a strong negative because there is nothing that defines him (only a male playable character is available, unlike Persona 3 Portable, which allowed for some gender swapping). You build up stats to do certain tasks or be able to interact with certain Social Links. Your avatar is instantly likeable, so much so that you can form closer relationships with various female characters (the 3 party members & other NPCs). This is done in order to add extra scenes to the game as well as achieve some bonuses & trophies. Overall, there isn’t much choice involved with your development as a character. You pretty much only get choose his name (but his official name isNarukami Yu -Yu. . . ‘You’. See what they did there?), your replies & reactions to certain questions (some of which grant bonuses), what traits & relationships/Social Links but in order to get the most out of the game, you do have to follow a very strict path.
This is because of the game conceit that everything happens on certain days & dates. The story follows the rough course of a Japanese school year, with holidays & other events such as festivals involved. The date system is tied heavily into the plot, meaning that you have to rescue people from dungeons before certain time limits or you automatically Game Over.
This system seems to be a major negative to a lot of people whom I’ve spoken to about it (similar with Persona 3 as well) but I find it one of the most enjoyable factors in the game. It gives both certain & freedom, allowing you to decide how you spend your non-story days. If you want to study, eat, spend time building stronger Social Links or do dungeon runs to build your combat stats you can. It’s all up to you. Although this does lead to the inevitable problem of “choice regret” -where you want to know if what did was the correct thing & you start the scenario again, hoping to get things right.
Luckily this brings in the best feature that Persona 4 Golden has to offer: the Fast Forward button.
Press START & everything spiels forward like a good old VCR tape, stopping only at important questions or choice. This means that if you have to replay a scene that you’ve already seen you can skip through it. And there is so much dialogue to get through.
The start to the game is an exceptionally slow boil as well. Taking time to set up the areas & outline some of the characters, the mystery & murders that occur in the town & more you into the more supernatural elements that exist within the game. It’s almost 30 minutes before you even get to the first bit of combat but I find the game richer for that.
You’ll have noticed that I haven’t actually spoken much about the plot itself & that’s partly because to do so will spoil a lot of the story. Many of you out there may already know it from your own play throughs or from watching the anime series but for those who are yet to do either, here’s a brief summary.
You, playing as Yu (if you went with that name) move to the town of Inaba to live with your uncle & niece because your parents are working overseas. Being an outsider from the big city, you immediately gain the attention of people, mainly your classmates Hanamura Yosuke, son of the local Junes manager who is disliked because the town’s people feel as though the store is killing off local business, the tomboyish Satonaka Chie & her best friend Amagi Yukiko, the refined daughter of the traditional inn manager. You immediately hear rumours about the mysterious “Midnight Channel”, which only appears on rainy nights & shows “the one you are destined to be with”. Soon after, two women who had appeared on The Midnight Channel are found dead, hanging from high structures in town. The 2nd woman was Yosuke’s workmate & unrequited crush, so he pushes you into helping find out what happen. When you fall into the strange TV World & are attacked by Shadows, that is where the game really finds its RPG feet.
After returning to the real world with the aid of the TV World inhabitant Kuma (Teddy in the Western release) who looks like a colourful store mascot & speaks in bear related puns, our heroes realise that the murders & mystery will continue & that it’s all somehow connected to The Midnight Channel.
As the story progress, you gain new party members, including the loud & violent Kanji, the young retired idol (singer, actress, model all rolled into one) Rise & the haughty teenage detectice Naoto as well as being helped by Kuma. All of whom have their own detailed backstories & desires as well as paths of personal growth.
The characters are the true strength of the game. Combining pathos with good humour, using an anime style. Most of them are render with depth & details, especially those in the Social Link stuff, but some are also depicted as very annoying -the being Teddy more than anyone else. That’s because of the actor Dave Wittenburg in how plays Teddy, who has an exceptionally grating voice. Some of the other voice acting is exceptionally weak, especially with the Social Link characters who don’t get nearly as much dialogue as the main cast. But is good to see so much spoken dialogue in a handheld game, even if it isn’t always the best quality.
One positive on the translation front is that they stuck with the traditional Japanese honourifics -such as san & senpai- to help denote relationships & social status. Having the game stick to many Japanese nuances without having to explain them is a great touch & shows that NIS America knew that this would be a niche market game brought more by people who had a strong understanding of all things Japanese pop culture. This can be an isolating factor for those who like a good RPG but don’t want to get bogged down in all the linguistical issues.
Though what really names this game stand out from so many other RPGs is its use of colour. Everything is exceptionally bright. The main box art is a fierce yellow & each character is given their own bright huge. The Persona, even when dark, are given a strong sense of style, although it’s a pity that the monsters aren’t given the same. Many of them being recycled from Persona 3 & then more of them in game being palate swaps with extra spikes or a large size. But the bosses all have stunning & creepy designs, even one sickening fetus like one which I despise to even think about.
Overall, this is the kind of game that I do love & can find few negatives in it other than the dodginess of the voice acting & the awkward pacing of the story. This is what we call a “long haul” game & you must be pretty invested to see it to the end & more invested to use the New Game+ function once you’ve finished it. The Vita itself makes it look utterly lovely & there is more then enough Vita exclusive content to be worth the now cheap price to pay for it.