In case you hadn’t heard, Persona 5 has had the best opening week for the series in Japan, and is coming out soon in the West. At least if you consider February to be soon. Even though this is a few months away for most of us, this seemed like a great time to take a look back at this modern classic of JRPGs and re-review why Persona 4 Golden is both one of my all-time favorite games and the primary reason Persona 5 is my most-anticipated game of the moment.
And thus begins the original “Persona 4 Golden” review:
Let’s start by cutting to the chase: if you own a Vita, you undoubtedly should pick this game up and give it a spin. Despite a few incredibly small missteps and shortcomings (and despite how much I will seem to complain about them), this enhanced remake of the 2008 PS2 classic is a shining example of JRPG goodness, and will entertain you for hours on end.
Considering I’m starting off with an overall TL;DR, needless to say, this is about to get long. I’m trying to detail as much as I can, so the first two main subheadings will be an overview of my opinion, followed by a more in-depth assessment of each aspect, and the third will tie up the odds and ends that I don’t feel like writing as much about but I feel are still important. Also, it should go without saying that there will be some spoilers up ahead. I did my best to keep it minimal and pointed out what I considered a spoiler, but, well, it just comes with the territory.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s break it down, shall we? Starting with one of the biggest, most important parts of the game…
The Story and Characters
The strength of this game’s story (and one of its weaknesses) comes with how wholly intertwined these two elements are. In fact, depending on how you want to look at it, as you develop friendships with the characters over the course of the game, you realize that there are over a dozen smaller stories contained under the main, overarching narrative. Everyone has their own motivations and backgrounds, and while they aren’t necessarily earth-shattering in scope or grand in detail, and indeed many characters fall into a familiar anime trope or two, they’re still usually well-written and personal enough that you really do care to find out what happens, and not just because it increases your abilities and strengths as you do. (More on that aspect in the next main section)
Honestly, it’s these smaller stories, the personal relationships that you develop and personal hurdles you see being confronted and overcome that really are the star of the show. That one really cute, aloof girl who has uncontrollable giggling fits and who, of course, (*sigh*) can’t cook? She’s struggling with accepting her family’s expectations and responsibilities of running a business. That lighthearted, friend-of-everyone who always seems to have a joke and has a knack for rallying the group together? He’s dealing with the deep pain and sorrow from losing someone he loved dearly. And that tough guy who you wouldn’t want to run into in a dark alley? Turns out he’s quite a teddy bear when you get to know him, who is trying to come to terms with his sexual identity. (Unfortunately, his story isn’t as well developed in that regard; besides a few wise-cracks, it seems all but forgotten halfway through)
Oh, and speaking of teddy bears… Yeah, you fight alongside one. (Wait, what?) While I found him a little un-bear-able at times, he still has a pretty interesting story behind his appearance.
Now is as good a time as any to mention that the voice acting ranges from good to excellent in this game. In fact, during the main climax, I’d argue that there is some of the strongest VO work I’ve seen in any video game. Full of appropriate emotion and weight, it will definitely leave a strong impression on you. The only issue I have with it is that it’s painfully obvious to me that little Nanako is voiced by a woman, not a kid, and for some reason that annoyed me the whole time. Of course, the voice actress certainly did do a good job, better I’m sure than girls the appropriate age would have been able to do, so I’m not really complaining, just pointing it out.
Unfortunately, there’s a bit of unnecessary fan service pandering at a couple points in the game, which cheapens the characters and the experience in my opinion. It’s not enough to make me feel less about the game, but it’s definitely an annoyance that Atlus felt it was necessary to include.
If the characters are the bread and butter of the story, then your main quest is like a slightly-dried-out roast; it may be the reason you came to the table, but it’s a little disappointing. (Sorry for the bad analogy, I’m kinda hungry as I’m writing this up)
It starts out promising, and to be honest it does stay pretty strong and compelling through most of the game. You move from a big city to a small town, Inaba, to live with your uncle Ryotaro Dojima, who is a policeman, and your grade-school cousin, Nanako. No sooner do you go to your new school for the year than a mysterious murder occurs, followed shortly by another. By chance, you discover the ability to enter the TV which, by the way, seems to predict who the next murder victim is going to be during a spooky show that only comes on a powered-down TV at midnight on a rainy day, aptly dubbed the “Midnight Channel.” It’s when you’re inside the TV, attempting to save the potential murder victims and identify the killer that your unknown latent power of a Persona reveals itself, allowing you protect yourself from the myriad shadows running rampant in this world.
Twists and turns, false leads, and despair will follow, and you will always want to find out what will happen next. However, during the main climax when the killer is revealed, the story seems to run out of steam. Their motives are kind of bland, and it’s fairly predictable who the killer is. Granted, part of completing the game is correctly identifying the killer, but it still didn’t hold that shock and awe they could have built up to if they didn’t feel the need to make it necessary for you to do this part of the work. I understand where they were coming from and what they wanted to accomplish, but it just didn’t work as well as I’d hoped.
It also comes relatively late in the game, leading to a very short finale, seemingly cut even shorter by a sudden jump ahead in time once you finish all of the main objectives, cutting out over an in-game month’s worth of time. Personally, especially with how much I enjoyed the social aspects, it just felt like I was cheated out of some of the game.
The main reveal of the murderer you’ve been tracking down isn’t my biggest issue, though, it comes directly afterward.
There’s a somewhat sudden change in mood, going from what is essentially a slice-of-life story mixed with a little supernatural mystery into yet another save-the-world finale. I understand that they probably wanted some far-reaching consequences to give you more motivation. Still, it really just didn’t work that well to me; it could have worked so much better to just focus on Inaba and your friends rather than using your power to have to save the whole world. If that was the focus from the beginning, using this sort of finale could have been so much better.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, “That’s great and all, but what about the GAME part of this video game?” Well guess, what? I’m just about to cover that!
This game features an intoxicating blend of traditional JRPG dungeon-crawling and battles, and a High School-themed life/dating sim, that plays out over the course of one in-game year. While neither of the pieces are especially deep, they are more than sufficient and add up to be better than just the sum of their parts. What really helps them both stand out is how fully integrated they feel with the story. So, whether you’re jumping into the TV to save the latest possible murder victim, or just debating on whether to spend your evening reading the latest book in your favorite series, go look for a friend to hang out with, or head to one of your part-time jobs, each decision feels meaningful and weighted, especially because of the time limit, but not so much that you will fret over every detail. In fact, you won’t be able to do everything in one playthrough, so the sooner you stop fretting about that, the better.
Now, again, let’s break it down a little further, what works and what doesn’t.
The JRPG Portion
Turn-based battles abound! Even better, you can see the enemies before they attack, rather than random battles, so you can even skip some if you like. Definitely a plus in my book. You will also get to explore 9 unique settings throughout the game, giving you some variety, though a lot of palette swapped enemies will diminish that feeling of newness.
The battle system itself is very solid. You have standard physical attacks, 7 varieties of magic (4 “standard,” 2 low-accuracy 1-hit kills, and one non-elemental), and your standard buffs and debuffs, plus a slew of status effects. Most enemies have a weakness, and when you attack that weakness, it knocks them down and allows you another turn. This is also true of your weaknesses. If you manage to knock down all of the enemies at once, you get an All-Out attack, where everyone joins in and delivers a high amount of damage to all the enemies that are left.
It works well… in fact, a little too well. Most enemies will be cleared out in one All-Out attack, and most battles you will have that All-Out attack within your first turn. That’s especially true because the player character has the ability to swap Personae once per turn, allowing you to hit multiple weaknesses at the same time. While this helps keep the game moving quickly, it also diminishes the difficulty once you meet all of the new enemies in each dungeon; many battles will last less than 30 seconds, and most under one minute. I’m not saying that each battle needs to be epic and life-threatening, but a little more difficulty could have been nice. (More on that thought in a bit)
In stark contrast are the boss battles; long, drawn-out slug-fests against damage sponges, usually with no weakness. It becomes a cycle of buff-debuff-attack-heal, repeated ad nauseum. There’s rarely any difficulty, too, it’s just a matter of waiting out until their HP is depleted, sometimes taking 15-20+ minutes. This wouldn’t be so bad if the standard battles weren’t so streamlined, I feel that the contrast between the two, along with relative lack of difficulty, takes away from the final feel.
Also worth noting is that, the closer toward the end you get, the easier the game gets, thanks to a slightly broken aspect. Normally, in order for your personal Personae to stay competitive, you need to fuse them together to make stronger ones, since they require a lot more Exp. Points to gain levels. However, if you win a battle with the aforementioned All-Out attack, you are given a bonus, ranging from extra money, extra experience, HP/SP regeneration, new Personae, and, the breaking point, Persona stat increases. With just a small amount of grinding against even the most puny enemies from the start, you can become a seemingly unstoppable force; powering up far beyond what your Persona’s level should be. Of course that’s somewhat easy to ignore, so it doesn’t entirely break the experience, but it is still worth mentioning.
Another broken piece worth mentioning in particular, is that your navigator gains the ability to heal a small amount of both HP and SP after each battle, as well as other unfair boosts such as immediately identifying enemy weaknesses, guaranteed escape, and random buffs and debuffs. Those aspects combined really drain the difficulty from the end-game.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Why not just bump up the difficulty?” I tried it, and unfortunately it isn’t balanced very well. Enemy HP is vastly increased, Exp. Point gains are hugely decreased, and item drops are much more rare, and that’s only going from Normal to Hard. If the standard difficulty was somewhere in between, then it would be perfect. Unfortunately, it’s either too easy or too difficult, and it’s just a frustrating kind of difficulty; it feels artificial.
However, just to reiterate, it’s a very solid system, and these “flaws” aren’t nearly as huge as I’m making them out to be. It’s very enjoyable overall, just not perfect.
The Life/Dating Sim Portion
Designed to be relatively simple, I’m assuming to allow you to focus on the characters’ stories, proves that simple doesn’t necessarily equal boring.
There are 22 characters that you can form a bond with, called a Social Link, with 10 “Levels” of depth. You’ll want to form these bonds because as you do, you can fuse to create more powerful Personae of a particular Arcanum, improving your ability in battle. It’s a fairly passive activity, selecting from only a couple of conversation options each time as you progress, choosing what you think will draw you closer to the other person. Your relationship will also develop quicker if you keep a Persona inside you of the same Arcanum, essential if you’re going to make as many friends as quickly as possible. Developing friendships with your fellow teammates-in-arms will also grant their Persona new, stronger abilities that they couldn’t gain otherwise.
Most of the female friends you make can develop into something more, though it’s entirely superficial and grants no particular bonuses or detractors. It’s entirely optional, but be warned: if you have multiple girlfriends, they will make you feel like a piece of trash at the end of the game, on Valentine’s Day. I’m not going to spoil what happens, but let me assure you, you WILL regret it.
In addition to making friends, you also have a special set of stats to grow (Diligence, Intelligence, Understanding, Courage, and Expression) which play into particular dialogues, and being able to start or continue making more Social Links. There are various ways to increase these stats, such as answering questions at school correctly, eating at the Chinese Diner, reading books, and doing your part-time jobs.
As mentioned when I talked about the story before, you will definitely want to experience these stories, and not just for the bonuses that you will receive for doing so. They are excellently written, and really add to the game overall.
Odds and Ends
Alas, our time together is coming to a close, but there are still some things left to talk about.
First of all, keep some headphones handy while you’re playing. I already said that the voice over work is very well done, but the music is excellent. Shoji Meguro has created a soundtrack with wonderful variety, and the styles are not your typical JRPG fare, really blending in with the story and setting.
For example, the main battle theme, “Reach Out to the Truth.” :http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzFl6sWHmXI
Or the main boss theme, “I’ll Face Myself.” : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_58-XYXuJMs (I absolutely love this song, it’s just so powerful and just feels so right for a boss battle. Also, there’s a wonderful, psuedo-nostalgic remix in one of the dungeons, but I’m not going to spoil that… you’ll know when it’s coming)
Even the Title Screen music really helps to set the tone, “Corner of Memories.” :http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOAC3FAyGiQ
So yes, wonderful music. I regularly pull up the whole soundtrack on YouTube and play it in the background as I’m working, along with Persona 3′s soundtrack.
Visually, I love the striking colors and detailed character portraits. As the seasons change, so does Inaba, so as little of an area as you explore, it never feels dull or empty. Atlus also made some character portraits specifically for the Vita’s home screen that look great, even without the pre-order system skin. If you want, you can find them here: http://atlus.com/p4g/v/ir5xpJYzDd08/
There’s an online component that was added to this version of the game that neither adds to nor detracts from the overall experience. I played 2 “months” with it on, then just turned it off. Your mileage may vary.
Also added to this version is a “TV Listing” section, which has all sorts of cool little bonuses, including being able to listen to the soundtrack and a basic overview of Jungian Psychology, which is the foundation for some story elements of the game, especially regarding the Personae and Shadows. Definitely worth browsing through when you have some time.
And, finally, the questionable “M” rating. I know we’re generally all adults here, but I feel it’s worth pointing out that this game is a very soft “M” rating. Salty language is fairly limited, even compared to Persona 3, partial nudity includes no human characters (well, nothing you can really see, even in the “fan service” segments) and a few nipple-free breasts on some Personae (which are usually conveniently covered by hair or something similar), blood is hardly recognizable as such, and while it strongly alludes to teens having sex, it never shows anything or even explicitly confirms it. Your sensitivities may vary, but as heady and racy as the story may get, I personally feel this was overall more tame than even some “T” rated games.
So there you have it, my overly critical but still highly positive review of Persona 4 Golden. I truly love this game and am already looking forward to playing through it again, as my frothing demand for Persona 5 continues to increase.