As an introduction into the world of Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPGs), Personal 4 Golden is pretty great. The Persona series is actually a spin-off of the main Shin Megami Tensei series of games, with its official title being Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, but as far as Persona 4 Golden goes, it’s actually a remake of the original Persona 4 game that appeared on the PS2 many moons ago. Now it’s on the PS Vita with a few new bits added here and there, and that’s where this review/thing/whatever, comes in.
History and background of the game aside, all you need to know is that P4G is one of those games you’d consider buying a PS Vita for, it’s that good. Using JRPGs to describe a sub-genre of games isn’t exactly fair, seeing as technically, there are lots of different kinds of RPGs to come out of Japan; Pokémon (obviously), Final Fantasy, and a million others besides. Which brings me to my next point…
It’s like Pokémon, but with a strange fascination with steak.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: you’re a character setting out on a journey, exploring a strange new town. During your journey, you’ll meet heaps of new people, including some your own age that you’ll become very close with and share some real adventures with. You’ll discover these strange creatures that awaken from within you, and you’ll experience adventure with them, too. You’ll save your friends and others from these strange creatures, and those experiences will only bring you closer as a group.
During combat, you’ll leverage the strengths of your own creatures against the creatures you’ll be battling against. You’ll take it in turns to do damage to each other, using healing or stat buffing items as needed. Traversing the game world reveals items that can be picked up, and you’ll battle against all sorts of enemy creatures. You’ll also be able to collect and train creatures of your own, evolving and combining them to create better, stronger creatures.
Sounds just like Pokémon, right? It was this “Persona is just like Pokémon1” attitude that made Persona a little difficult to play at first. When I first started out with Persona, I played it just like I would play Pokémon — and yeah, even though there are many similarities between the two games, especially when it comes to the aspect of battling and obtaining Personas, over time I learnt that there were a few key differences that made the two games quite distinct from one another.
For one, the Persona world is separated from the “main” world, and you can only go into the Persona world when it’s available and when you explicitly say so, not all the time like in Pokémon. You could argue that Pokémon separates the game world from the main world through the inclusion of the long, tall, grass, but for our purposes, Pokémon integrates both worlds because everyone you meet knows and talks about Pokémon as if they have first-hand knowledge of Pokémon (which, uh, they do). In Persona, only those involved with the main storyline talk about “the other world” and even then, they don’t even know what Personas are; there are others that know about the other world, but they’re not exactly as, shall we say, “involved” as you are. Only you, your friends, and those involved with the main storyline have first-hand knowledge of the other world, and as for the other times, well, it’s almost like some kind of imaginary world you and your friends created for your own entertainment.
Persona 4 Golden does something a little different when it comes to actual gameplay. Instead of letting you progress the story at your own pace like Pokémon, letting you train your Pokémon as much or as little as you want to, Persona 4 Golden plays out over the course of a year. Time is always ticking on in the small town of Inaba, and even though you have plenty of activities to pass the time, you’ve also got a main story to complete, too. For the most part, your days are broken up into morning and evening, with various activities available depending on the time of day, and as the main protagonist, you’ll have an entire year to experience everything the small town of Inaba has to offer — friendship, shopping of all kinds, and yes, even a little romance, if you so desire.
Along the way, you might pick up a day job, tutor another school kid after-hours, or even wash some dishes at the local bar. You’ll bump into friends as you walk the streets, buy and read books at the local bookstore, and even do some homework every now and again (especially when tests at school are coming up). There’s a ton of gameplay in Persona 4 Golden that’s not strictly related to the main storyline, and I won’t lie: staying on top of it can be a chore at times, and one that’s separate to your chores that your character performs in-game.
There are social links to max, for one. Doing stuff or just hanging out with a friend will help level up your social link with that person, who can then help you out in battle or give you better stats when merging Personas. A max social link represents a special relationship with any character: you can then enter romantic relationships with girls, for example, which then lead to special events around holidays (Christmas, Valentine’s Day, your birthday, that kind of thing).
But, like any other activity in Persona 4 Golden, hanging out with your friends takes up valuable time that could otherwise have been spent earning money, or increasing any of your own stats (knowledge, understanding, diligence, courage, expression), which have an effect on certain interactions with other characters (think “because you have enough expression, you were able to comfort [another character]”, that kind of thing). Finding the right balance between upping your social links, earning money, and increasing your attributes is something you’ll have to figure out on your own in Persona — it is a role-playing game, after all. There’s no wrong way to play the game, but like any RPG, your choices will have an impact on how the game plays out.
Which brings us to the main story of Persona 4. I haven’t played any other Persona games, but what happens in Persona 4 is this: people start disappearing from your town of Inaba, eventually culminating in a murder or two. Your uncle the police detective is running around like a madman trying to figure it out, but in the meantime, you and few friends work a few things out on your own. You discover something called the “TV world”, and it’s there that you discover your own Personas. You rescue one of your first friends from his own Persona, and you do that a few more times until you end up with a full complement of friends, all with Personas of their own. Interestingly, you seem to be the only one of your little posse which has the ability to have more than one Persona “on-tap” at any one time. You can only battle using one Persona at a time, of course, but you can switch them out as you please — kind of like Pokémon, now that you mention it.
Any RPG worth its weight in experience points wouldn’t be complete without items, inventory, and side quests, and you’ll be pleased to know Persona has those aspects in spades. During the day you’ll be able to choose whether you want to enter the TV world with your friends, or just hang out with them, go shopping for new items to help you out in the TV world, or whatever — once you’re in the TV world you can spend as long as you want there, meaning you can grind as much as you want, look for specific items requested by people in the real world, or progress through dungeons. Keep an eye out for the special outfits you and your pals can wear into dungeons — they might cost a little, but seeing people battle in suits or beachwear is pretty hilarious.
Persona 4 is half dungeon-crawler, half social simulator. Gameplay is divided between defeating shadows in the dungeons (separated into several areas of increasing difficulty, each with their own associated goal [usually rescuing a character by defeating the boss of the dungeon]) and maxing the social links I mentioned earlier, along with balancing everything else you have to do. You might choose to do some homework one night, wander the town of Inaba at night, grow some plants with your “little sis” (she’s actually your cousin), tutor a kid, work at a hospital, or whatever. Each of these activities all have social links associated with them, so choosing between levelling your Personas, collecting new Personas, or upping your social links is something you’ll have to decide for yourself what you want to do — but isn’t that kind of the point of a role playing game?
At the end of the day, I think what attracted me to Persona 4 Golden the most was the combination of a compelling story and some first-rate gameplay. It was similar enough to Pokémon for me to jump right in, yet brought so many little loveable quirks along the way that I couldn’t help but smile every time the characters did something that reminded myself of my own awkward teenage years. Having girls cook for you might be the best thing ever when you’re young, but you kind of have to make sure what they cook is actually edible. Thanks, Chie!
The animated cut-scenes that aren’t rendered in the game-engine are few and far between, but they’re one of the best parts about Persona. They give life to usually static characters which remind me a little too much of Miis, with their slightly-off facial features. By comparison, the animated scenes that you occasionally see are always entertaining — even if half the time all there is to laugh at is how inept Kanji is at dealing with the opposite sex.
Like any RPG, there’s a lot of text in Persona 4. Don’t let that put you off though, as a lot of it is voiced — maybe not half, but a decent percentage. Sometimes characters will just express one word (sigh/but/maybe/yes/no/hey — that kind of thing) even though there’s a few more lines to read. I would have liked more of it to be voiced, but hey, that’s just how it is.
And if that’s just how it is, it’s pretty damn good — I spent over a hundred hours in the world of Persona 4, completing the whole thing. Yes, there’s a number of different endings, but if you play your cards right, you might pick up a lady friend (or two), and on top of that, save those that you care about, and if that wasn’t enough, you then get to save the day from that other world.
Persona 4 Golden is a great game that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone. It’s not a hard game, per se, but there are a lot of things to do — staying on top of them all can become a bit of chore, but on the plus side, you’ll never run out of things to do. Bear in mind that if you’re a perfectionist/completionist like me, it’s extremely hard to see and do everything in the time that you’re given. Normally I’d say something along the lines of “but this is where a second play through comes in”, but sadly, Persona 4 doesn’t have a New Game+ option — very little stuff carries across to your new game once you’ve beaten it once. You’ll have to start your social links all over again, but at least your compendium (that’s Pokédex, for you Pokémon-oriented folk) and all the Personas you’ve seen and own carry across.
Which reminds me, maybe I’ll actually end up writing a guide for Persona for those who have played Pokémon, similar to the one I wrote for not sucking at Mass Effect 3 multiplayer. But if I do, it’ll definitely be for another time.
As for that whole steak thing I mentioned way up in the second paragraph, well, without spoiling things too much I’ll say that it’s a good idea to keep a few skewers on you at all time. You’ll never know when you might need them in the heat of battle, and if you just happen to come across a stray dog, you should try feeding it some steak. You didn’t hear that from me, though — as with most things in Persona 4 Golden, how you do things is totally up to you.
- Pokémon and Persona do share a few similarities, but then again, the only Pokémon game I’ve played for years is Soul Silver, so maybe I’m a little out of the loop with how Pokémon games play these days. As an aside, that’s kind of why I’m looking forward to X and Y — it’ll be like a fresh start; a new generation of Pokémon, a new platform, and new ways of playing. At least, that’s what I hope it’ll be like. ↩