By Matt Gosper
Hey there! Would you like to play a video game? Well yes, of course you would! I mean, look at the website you’re reading right now. Would you like to play an RPG video game? Probably! An RPG where you fight battles against monsters with a wide selection of summoned creatures? Heck yes! A game with a strong plot, where not every story beat is telegraphed? Sweet Christmas, sign me up!
A game where ALL these delicious elements are interspersed with attending school, answering pop quiz questions, working part-time jobs and befriending random people in a small town? Well, that’s where the Persona series initially lost me.
From that description above, RPG elements sound lovely, but the rest? At face value, it just doesn't seem fun. How could attending school and working at a job translate into a good game? As Persona 3 Portable taught me, quite well; Persona 4 Golden, in turn, has all but perfected the formula for me. Originally released under its full title, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 in 2009 on the PS2, the game was well-received in both English-speaking markets such as the US and Europe as well as its native Japan. Over the years, Atlus has ported, updated and re-released all the preceding Persona titles on the PSP to very positive reception, and now's the time for Golden to make its (re)debut on the Vita to complete the set.
P4G tells the story of a big-city boy who moves to the Japanese country town of Inaba to live with his uncle whilst his high-flying parents go off to do their own thing for a year. Not long after he arrives in town, a series of bizarre murders start to occur alongside the birth of a rumour that a secret TV show can show you your one true love. It doesn’t take long for your character to become involved in the whole situation, setting off a chain of events towards solving the mystery and apprehending the culprit.
Much like previous games in the Persona series, this instalment has two distinct gameplay threads running through it. The first is your everyday life – primarily made up of attending school, working part-time to earn money and upgrade your skills, and hanging out with friends to raise your Social Links. What are those, you ask? The S-Link system is a cornerstone of the Persona series, where you spend time with certain characters to rank up your relationship with them and by extension empower the element they are associated with. These elements are taken from the cards of the Tarot such as Justice, Death, the Lovers and so on. Golden also includes all-new S-Links including Marie, a character created specifically for the game’s re-release and slotted into the overall world. Maxing your S-Link with certain characters can offer additional benefits, such as upgrades to your party’s fighting skills or offering support moves while you’re in combat. With some of the female cast, maxing out their S-Link can open up a romantic relationship as well… and you can pursue this path with multiple ladies too, if you’ve ever had a fantasy about being a mute, murder-solving teen heart-throb that everybody instinctively thinks is amazing.
There’s a lot going on in your character's daily life, with each day's “After School” time period enabling you to pursue one of these many tasks. The sheer variety of options of what to do each today, contrasted against the fact that you can ONLY DO ONE THING each afternoon can be enough pressure to paralyse you when trying to prioritise what to do, but with a few minor exceptions it really doesn’t matter too much. Initially I found myself trying to totally optimise my time to achieve the perfect game, but this is no way to play and still enjoy yourself. The more enjoyable route is to find the things you enjoy doing and people you enjoy hanging out with, and pursuing those first. It’s almost impossible to WASTE time in this game, as pretty much every task furthers some cause or another. Additionally, one of the changes implemented in Golden is the ability to go out at night whenever you like – whilst this doesn’t give you a second chance to complete every possible activity each day, it does let you double up on some Social Links and jobs, and allows you to have short conversations with your Social Links that can give a moderate boost towards ranking it up next time you see them in daylight hours.
The second component of gameplay is the more traditional, RPG-centric combat. This side of things is played out in the TV world, a mysterious realm that your character finds on the other side of the suddenly permeable TV screens of Inaba. A series of different dungeons open up over the course of the game as you pursue the murder case, but the concept is always the same: each dungeon is made up of multiple randomly-generated floors that you must explore blindly to find the exit to the next level. Random battles are of the see-the-enemy-on-the-map variety, a commodity I’ve come to love in RPGs as it affords you the chance to avoid battles if need be.
The battle system is satisfyingly complex, and will be familiar to anyone who has played previous titles in the series. Each character in your party has their own weapon type and elemental strengths and weaknesses, allowing for core-level strategizing. The game employs the usual elemental alignments (fire, ice, lightning, wind and so on), with a rock-paper-scissors system of advantages. Newcomers will need time to adjust to Persona 4 Golden's skill names, as these don’t go by expected norms. Why rely on the standard “Fire, Blizzard, Thunder and Aero” naming system that games like Final Fantasy have ingrained, when you could go with the more unique and confusing “Agi, Bufu, Zio and Garu”? The same goes for healing and status moves, which each have similarly unusual names. Interestingly, a lot of these names have their roots in words or names of gods from various cultures, so they’re not just total nonsense. Regardless, with status ailment moves like “Sukukaja” and “Makajam”, I did find it hard to tell the lot apart, even by the time I’d reached the endgame.
On top of this there are the titular Personas – powerful creatures summoned from a person’s mind. Your party members each have a specific Persona they use, but your character has the special ability to use a wide variety of Personas instead. This leads to a collecting frenzy of Pokemon-like proportions, with dozens of the buggers to track down as random drops occur post-battle as you progress through various dungeons. Additionally, you will unlock the ability to fuse multiple Personas together to create new ones, often of a higher tier than the sum of their parts. Luckily, you are shown what the end result will be before commiting to the fusion, preventing you from wasting Personas. All Personas can also be registered, and recalled at any time for a cost equivalent to their level. This makes the whole fusion system a lot less daunting than it might have been.
Persona 4 Golden has seen a great number of its tweaks made in its combat, such as the ability to change between your Personas more than once per battle. I honestly don’t know how you could play without this functionality, as I found myself constantly hot-swapping between mine to utilise their various strengths as needed. In addition to this, support character Rise can unlock various abilities to assist in battle such as providing positive status effects, boosting combo attacks and randomly healing your party. Characters not in the party can also offer to assist with cavalry attacks, as well as certain party members initiating tag-team attacks after a successful hit. With additional character rebalancing and some adjustments to certain enemies, combat should feel fresh and interesting, even to those who've played the original PS2 game. On top of all this is the addition of a selection of unlockable and collectible skins for your party members to use in battle – they offer no benefit skill-wise, but do provide some variety with unique victory poses and dialogue options... plus, I just love playing dress-ups in games, so it’s a winner for me.
Whilst these two gameplay styles mesh together well and provide two very distinct experiences, it’s the storytelling of this game that’s the star of the show. A murder mystery at its core, the game’s plot is laid out impressively, with its various reveals and twists properly rationalised and thought-out. Any mystery story like this should have dead ends, and Persona 4 Golden gets this right without having to contradict itself to make it work. The progression is logical and, most importantly, NOT signposted from miles away. Several points in the story legitimately caught me off-guard as I hadn’t seen them coming, whilst still making perfect sense. It’s not just the dramatic side of things that does well, though. Golden has an equally goofy sense to it interspersed between the more serious plot points, giving the game a good balance, tone-wise. And it manages to be legitimately funny, too! Let’s face it, as much as we may love them, humour in games translated from Japanese has always had issues successfully crossing the cultural divide. Whatever tweaks the translators made for this game were very well done, as I don’t recall any missed-target jokes in my playthrough. Party-member Yukiko, in particular, leads the charge on many of these little gems of funny, which earned her a permanent spot on my active roster.
The game’s mythology is also surprisingly rooted in real-world psychology, an aspect I wasn’t aware of when I dove in. The notion of Persona, and Shadows – the over-arching term for the game’s enemies – actually comes from the theories of Carl Jung, with the Shadow representing repressed emotion or thoughts, and the Persona the protective mask worn as a shield from negative influences. This has strong parallels to the game itself, with each member of your party facing their own Shadow personifying some deep secret which, when acknowledged, unleashes their power of Persona – which shields and protects them in battle. This link between the game’s mythology and real-world ideals is explicitly brought up in some of Golden’s bonus features, and shows the unique grounding in fact the game’s concepts possess. It’s a welcome change from the average RPG, where you’re asked to accept a totally fictional series of incomprehensible ideas as totally understandable – Final Fantasy XIII’s l’Cie/fal’Cie/Cie’th nonsense jumps to mind almost immediately.
The voice work here is also very well done, with the exception of Teddie and Chie. As a bonus, all characters’ dialogue is carried over from the original game, with some obvious clean-up to sound great on the Vita’s modern speakers. Spoken Japanese terms and names aren’t ANYWHERE near as stilted and jarring as in Persona 3 Portable, allowing the game to retain its cultural core without feeling too awkward.
All in all, the game is a very worthwhile pick-up for any RPG fan. The rapid-fire progression of days in the game makes it accessible to play in short chunks, perfect for short bursts of play on public transport, and a great fit overall for the portable PS Vita. Persona 4 Golden has a vivid, distinct style to its interface and graphics that make it pop on the OLED screen of the handheld, and its gameplay is addictive in a way I wasn’t expecting at all. The sheer fact that I found myself looking forward to in-game midterms to prove how many tidbits of knowledge I’d picked up should be enough of an indication of how good this game is. Go. Buy it.