Back in the mid-90’s JRPG’s held a special place in the hearts of most gamers. Titles like Final Fantasy VII, Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana helped cement the genre among a Western audience, wowing with tales of magic, monsters, and fellas with big hair. However as we entered the new millennium JRPG’s became more of a niche genre, surpassed by FPS’s, action adventure games, even Western RPG’s like Elder Scrolls and Mass Effect.
This was certainly true for me too, until the past year or so when I discovered a game called Persona 4 Golden. Persona 4 was originally released in 2008, but an upgraded port named Persona 4 Golden was brought to the Vita in 2013. I picked up the game, without particularly high expectations for the series I’d never heard of before.
Boy was I wrong.
P4G focuses on the new kid in a town called Inaba. He moves in with his uncle, makes friends with his classmates and goes about his daily business. Of course, being a game there’s a little more to it than that. A serial killer is bumping people off in town, while a mysterious rumour that people are appearing on switched off TVs at midnight leads to the discovery of a ‘shadow world’ filled with monsters. The hero and his friends set off into this mysterious world, hoping to catch the one responsible for the murders.
One of the things I really enjoyed about the game is its story and tone. Plenty of JRPG’s throw magical worlds and angst at the player but Inaba is a (reasonably) believable small Japanese town where people are dealing with everyday issues. Of course there’s a fair culture difference, but it’s a refreshing approach from games like Final Fantasy where the heroes are the chosen ones battling for the fate of the world. The characters in P4G are all down to earth and generally likeable. Each has their own flaws which they have to confront in the shadow world, but they’re far more interesting characters than most JRPG’s throw out. Few games have made me reluctant to choose a party when I know it means some characters will end up on the sidelines but this is one of them.
Gameplay in Golden is split into two types. While your team may be busy trying to solve the crime, they are still school kids after all. They have to study, do jobs, hang out and other stuff too. Doing chores and working helps to raise your main character’s stats. Hanging out with team members and other kids at school is important in developing ‘Social Links’, a system which monitors your friendships and gives bonuses in battle as a result. Meeting up with a friend will allow them to do more in battles. The idea of incorporating a system to deal with everyday situations sounds risky on paper, but it really helps Persona 4 stand out from the crowd.
The other part of gameplay is the more traditional dungeon exploration in the ‘Shadow World’. Dungeons are based around a person’s thoughts and emotions, leading to areas like a princess’s castle, a supervillain’s lair and an 8 bit stylised castle. Battles against shadow creatures are conducted here in a turn based system. While going turn based may initially seem like a step backwards, it’s really well utilised here, with a need to buff character’s stats up or figure out an enemy weakness. Each character in the game uses their own ‘Persona’ too, sort of like a Final Fantasy summon that allows them to deal various attacks and magic. The combat in the game is surprisingly fast based given the turn based nature and very satisfying too. There’s a real joy in chaining attacks together and overcoming tough opponents, especially when you’re able to pull off a team move and have your character portraits cut in before dishing out the hurt. In games like Bravely Default I often tried to skip fights but I didn’t skip a single one in P4G. Solid all around.
The presentation of the game is pretty great too. Despite being a port of a PS2 game, it looks pretty decent on the Vita, with some great animated cutscenes too. It’s really well voice acted too, something which can often be a problem in JRPG’s especially. A lot of work has clearly gone into making sure the game has translated well, without losing the Japanese tone (though I could have done without the honorifics, they feel redundant when the characters all speak English). The music is pretty wonderful, with light tones for the Inaba sections and some genuinely brilliant music for battles, which really help to get the player pumped for the action. Heck it’s so good, I don’t even mind how painfully Engrish the lyrics are!
Persona 4 Golden’s quality came as a huge surprise to me when I played it last year, but it really is deserving of all the praise it receives. I felt a genuine sadness when the game was done, but also an appreciation of just how much fun I’d had throughout the adventure. Besides, you never need to say goodbye when there’s New Game +.