Persona 4 is a game that has been in my possession for years, no exaggeration. I picked up the PS2 version several years ago at the same time as Persona 3 FES, at the tail-end of that console generation, and never-ever got around to playing it for some reason. I played Persona 3 FES and *loved it* (despite the infuriating save-point system and structure of Tartarus), but had moved onto playing PS3 games in widescreen and HD before I got a chance to even fire up its follow-up. Well this year, 2014 at the time of writing, I finally got hold of a PSVita and immediately purchased the special “Golden” re-release and remaster of Persona 4, expecting to enjoy it as much as the previous entry. I had nooo idea that it would be the very *best* game that I played this year and would in fact enter the hallowed list of ‘Best Games I’ve Ever Played’ along with the likes of Final Fantasy VII and Shadow of the Colossus. Last night, at 1am, I finished the ‘True Ending’ of the game and as the credits rolled felt a combination of elation and sadness; pleased that I’d completed one of the best games ever made, but sad to be saying goodbye to characters and places that had become like old friends and a second home. Obviously, this is going to be a positive review.
For those people who don’t know about the Persona games (a spin-off of the Shin Megami Tensei series – although Persona seems to have now dropped that moniker unlike other spin-offs like Devil Survivor, etc.), for the last two entries they’ve been a unique mix of social-simulation and Japanese roleplaying game, complete with stat-grinding and turn based combat. The way that the game mixes these two elements though is what makes it so inspired. Basically, spending time with friends, getting to know them intimately, and solving their various problems increases the supernatural powers that you can use in battle. It’s a fantastic idea and really gives you a solid reason to get to know the characters, go out of your way to help them and spend time with them, and then see tangible rewards above and beyond the satisfaction that you get for just being a “nice guy”. And get to know then you shall! The myriad personalities in Persona 4 Golden are a fantastic bunch of lovable people, and you will know the names and interests of Yosuke, Chie, Yukiko, Kanji, Rise and Naoto very well indeed; not to mention the anthropomorphic bear (!?) Teddie/Kuma who is one of the games’ most recognisable characters. During the roughly one-hundred hour adventure these characters are given lots of time to grow and develop until they genuinely seem like old friends and reliable partners with whom to face the tumultuous events of the narrative.
The story begins with the protagonist (here referred to as “the hero” in the opening credits but can be named anything you like in game – my guy was called Neisan Furaneri as a Japanese bastardisation of my own name – but his ‘canon’ name is actually Yu Narukami in the anime and Persona 4 Arena follow-up) arriving at the small town of Inaba. Here you quickly make friends and start your education at the local high school, whilst staying with your uncle and niece at their quaint little house, until one day at school you hear the rumour of “The Midnight Channel”. This is a strange supernatural television signal that only appears at midnight on a rainy day and which kickstarts a chain of mysterious murders and disappearances during times that the town is frequently engulfed in an ominous heavy fog. Together with your friends you make up an ‘investigation team’ and set about solving the enigmas and stopping the murders in Inaba. I don’t want to discuss too much more about the plot because it’s what drives the superb narrative forward, but suffice to say that the story is fantastic and very well written. There are lots of opportunities for player agency too, with much of your decisions and interactions with people having sometimes *dramatic* effect upon the story; even causing you to prematurely end it with about twenty hours to go if you’re not careful with your actions. Suffice to say, keep a few different save files with this game, and there is massive replay value in the ‘New Game+’ option upon completion. Persona 4 Golden allows you to unlock even more of the plot from the original games’ release, including a satisfying epilogue right at the end, but more on this later.
Gameplay swings back and forth between your life in Inaba as a teenage school student, and a member of the ‘investigation team’ fighting against deadly shadow creatures inside the TV world. Whilst attending school your daytime is often taken up with lessons, and during this time you actually learn some interesting stuff – like for instance I had no idea that Napoleon invented glass jars! Or that ‘venison’ actually means any game meat, not just Deer. I found it very interesting to see how the Japanese school system works, including joining afterschool clubs, attending lessons on Saturdays (urgh!) and sitting regular week-long exams. The game tests you to see how well you were paying attention and the rewards are worth giving it your best shot; or using an online guide for help. During school you can increase stats like ‘knowledge’ and ‘expression’, which then allow you to interact better with people outside of school in the game’s many social encounters. Choosing who to spend time with and how is very important as the right decisions can lead to creating a “social link” between yourself and another character, and constantly spending time with that person causes the link to “rank up”. These social links come into play during the other side of the gameplay which is the dungeon-crawling and JRPG combat. You see, you can enter a world inside the TV, which is where many residents of Inaba are being kidnapped and thrown into, and which is also populated by hideous shadow creatures representative of repressed human emotions. You fight these shadows using your own supernatural creatures called ‘Persona’, and each of these is given power by associated social links. For example, one might be linked to the “Sun arcana” (think tarot cards – which feature *prominently* in the game), so by spending time with the person associated with the Sun you will make those Personas more powerful, allowing you to fight better in battle.
The combat system is turn-based, like a lot of JRPGs (no active time battles here!) and by default you only control your main character, with the other combatants controlled by the game; however, I recommend you change this instantly by given each character the “direct command” order, thus allowing you to directly control everyone’s actions. Each enemy you encounter has a weakness or things that they are strong against, and finding these things out is vital to success. For instance, a fire-spewing enemy might be weak to ice based attacks, and casting the correct type of magic will not only heavily damage it but also knock it down and grant you an additional free action. By chaining lots of actions that capitalise on the enemies’ weaknesses you can knock them all down and open up the opportunity for an all-out-attack – with accompanying flashy cutscene and comedic “thump”, “pow” and “smack” pop-ups. Despite all the emphasis on social-sim scenarios and a visual novel hands-off approach to a lot of the dialogue, the game is no slouch in the challenge department, with some of the dungeons being quite difficult indeed. The occasional mini-boss or boss early in the game may in fact kill you outright a couple of times, leading to a game over screen, before you work out the best tactics to beat it; but thankfully there is always the option to return to a checkpoint nearby without losing hours of progress.
As I mentioned in my introduction, despite owning Persona 4 on the PS2 for several years, Persona 4 Golden is actually the first time I’ve played this game; consequently many of the improvements made to the original I’ll have taken for granted. Nothing felt like it had been added in and having looked at the list of refined/added features I think their absence would now really bother me, as they definitely improve the game. Additional features of the Persona 4 Golden version are:
As you can see it’s a pretty extensive remaster of an already well-regarded game, and that’s all without mentioning the work undertaken on the visuals. The game now runs in widescreen 16:9 (as opposed to the 4:3 fullscreen format of the original), which looks great on the original PSVita’s OLED screen, as well as on the PlayStation TV, which is how I played the vast majority of the game. The soundtrack too is absolutely brilliant, one of the best ever recorded for a videogame in my opinion, and is an eclectic mix of classical, J-Pop and Jazz rhythms that suits the setting and storyline perfectly. At first you may be disappointed that there is no original Japanese language track, which is how I usually play JRPGs if given the option (I’m a bit of a weeaboo you may have noticed), but then you remember this is Atlus we’re talking about and their English dubs are always fantastic; this game is no exception.
I’ve often ridiculed other RPGs (like The Elder Scrolls games) for giving you a super important “save the world” task and then allowing you to spend eternity doing it, performing a myriad of mundane fetch-quests and side missions with no time pressure and making a mockery of the present danger. Persona 4 Golden makes you use every available second wisely as the time ticks away in the upper right corner of the screen; you have one year in the game in which to unravel and solve the mysteries, and you often have a mere smattering of days in which to recue people swallowed by the TV world before they’re killed off and it’s game over. This constant feeling of time slipping away and making the most of the time you have with your friends is what makes Persona 4 Golden so compelling to play, and by the time I’d finished playing I just wasn’t ready to give up on the characters and setting of Inaba. Luckily there’s a sequel of sorts in Persona 4 Arena and Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, which I plan to play through next, all the while resisting the temptation to jump back into a ‘New Game+’ in my new beloved game.
|The best game I’ve played all year, one of the best games I’ve ever played full stop, Persona 4 Golden is the definitive version of an absolutely stellar JRPG. Structurally and thematically, it’s quite unique, and the story, characters and setting are just so strong that you’ll be itching for more upon completion, despite it lasting between 80-100 hours!! A true classic.|