I accidentally became addicted to Persona 4 Golden about a month ago, when a friend loaned it to me.
Addictions often start this way – a friend opens the door to something which they think you’ll really enjoy, and you willingly, with a sense of curiosity, walk through it. The next thing you know, you find yourself poring through Wiki articles at 4am on your computer while the battery indicator on your handheld blinks at you urgently.
So it was with me and my friend: when he’d heard that I’d never played any games in the Persona series before, he immediately shoved his Playstation Vita with a copy of the game into my hands. He’s a rather trusting type of guy – especially considering I once broke a SNES by spilling a cup of tea over it.
So armed with handheld and game, he sent me off to make my own way in the world, no doubt sniggering that he’d managed to suck yet another poor soul into the illicit world of MegaTen games. Admittedly, I wasn’t expecting much when I sat down for the first time to play. I’d heard of the Shin Megami Tensei games, of course – a series which inspires an almost frightening level of devotion among its fans; but I dove into Persona 4 Golden with the expectation of finding it to be just another JRPG attached to a hype train. By the time credits rolled some 50 hours later, I came away from the game wishing I’d jumped on the train sooner.
The story follows your main character (hereafter known as Yu Narukami) as he stumbles into the middle of a murder mystery. Yu transfers to the small town of Inaba as his parents travel the globe (for work? I think?). Shortly after transferring, he meets some new friends, and hears a rumor about the Midnight Channel. The story goes that if you turn on your TV at exactly midnight while it’s raining, an image of your soulmate will appear.
The real nature of the Midnight Channel quickly becomes apparent as Yu discovers that he can travel through TVs into a different world. In this alternate universe, he meets Teddie, a large stuffed bear who acts as your guide. Teddie informs Yu that people are being pushed into this other world, where they are inevitable killed by Shadows: the parts of their personalities that they hide from the world.
Yu and his team of friends decide that it’s up to them to find out who’s throwing the victims into the TV, and so promptly set out to foil any future attempts and catch the culprit (as you do). As you save more people, your team grows larger, and the plot thickens. Each new person that you save faces their dark secrets, and unlocks their own Persona – a manifestation of what the game describes as “the façades worn to face life’s hardships”. Being a game based in mystery, neither shadows nor Personas – or their origins – are clearly defined, with the character Teddie often remarking in dialogue that “I can’t really explain it.”
Thanks Teddie – you might be a great help in combat, but you’re crap when it comes to exposition dumps.
The concept of “the face that you hide” vs “the face that you show” is simple enough, but Persona 4 Golden’s story often raises more questions than it cares to answer. Where do the Personas come from? Why can Yu use all the Personas (Personae?), but everyone else is stuck with just one? Maybe these are questions that someone more familiar with the Persona series could explain to me, and admittedly I could have spent more time reading up on the series’ lore; but since I’d never played or watched anything to do with Persona before, I decided to just roll with it. I’ll worry about that stuff later, I repeatedly told myself, I’ve got a murderer to stop. And let’s face it: video games aren’t exactly known for their narrative consistency, JRPGs even less so. But Persona 4 Golden’s slavish attention to the series’ complicated lore is confusing to newcomers, despite delighting the devout with plenty of fan service.
Each murder in Persona 4 Golden follows a similar pattern, gameplay-wise: You check the Midnight Channel on a rainy night, and if an image appears, someone is about to be pushed into the TV. The TV world is the inverse of the normal world, covered in a thick fog when the normal world is clear, and vice versa. After several days of rain in Inaba, the fog will move from the TV world into the real world, making the shadows agitated, causing them to attack and kill whoever is trapped inside that dimension. The game features a weather forecast system so that you’ll know when this will happen, and supporting characters will frequently approach Yu with reminders, so it’s very difficult to accidentally let someone die unless you’re being almost deliberately neglectful.
As the forecast system would suggest, game time passes in days. One in-game day has two sections of free time during which you are encouraged to explore – Daytime and Evening. During the daytime, Yu can spend time with his classmates, enter the TV world, work at a part-time job, or do smaller things like eat Chinese food. In the evening, Yu’s activities are limited to working select jobs, spending time with his family, or, again, smaller activities like studying. The game grants ample time between each kidnapping, which is good, because half the fun of Persona 4 is just doing different stuff in Inaba.
One of the main activities outside of the TV world is ranking up social links: Spending time with his classmates allows Yu to develop the bond between them, which helps them work through their issues and grants their personas new abilities, ranging from team attacks to powerful spells. You’re also rewarded with the game’s wonderful voice-acting, delivered by several very lovable characters. I won’t mention them in detail, because meeting them is the other half of the fun.
But even with all your free time, you still have to keep an eye on the weather. The impending “three days of rain” forecast gives a clear time limit on just how much time you have to prepare and adds a sense of urgency to your quest. There’s no “talk to me when you’re ready to go” dialogue options, or “I’ll just go back to Area 4 for a few days before I start the next chapter” nonsense. If you don’t invest your time wisely, someone will die. Characters in other RPGs – and the medium as a whole – frequently talk about how urgent their predicament is, but rarely do those portentous warnings translate to actual gameplay; Persona 4 Golden follows through on that chatter by threatening to seriously f*ck up your playthrough if you sit around twiddling your thumbs for too long.
Persona 4 Golden offsets this doomsday clock by splitting itself into two almost entirely different games: Outside the TV world, you’re playing an adventure game, where the focus is on interaction and dialogue. Since there are so many things to do, and everything eats up an entire half of your day, it’s easy to get distracted and put off leveling until later.
Inside the TV world, the game suddenly earns its “action” genre as you navigate dungeons and fight shadows for money, items and experience. Entering the TV world exhausts Yu, which means he can’t do anything other than sleep in the evening, but the game mercifully allows you to spend as much time as you want inside the world. The only limit to how many levels you can earn in a day is the health and strength of your party.
You’re left with a fine balance: If you’re alright with using up a day, you just pop into the TV for an hour, grab some money and some levels, and then go back to the story. Or you can procrastinate, putting off leveling until you’ve only got one day left, then spend several frantic hours killing anything that moves. I fell into the latter category: I spent most of my time exploring the story of the game, because I don’t enjoy the level grind that so often comes with JRPGs. In Persona 4 specifically, the turn-based battle system can quickly become a chore, but you ignore combat at your peril. A more effective player than myself will likely realize early on that it’s better to have the best of the both worlds.
Each spell is accompanied by a brief but unskippable cutscene with little variety. You’re awarded slightly more powerful spells as you level up, but the animations never really change: Use an elemental spell, Yu shouts something, a glowing card shatters into dust, his persona waves its arms, and there’s a flash. Use a physical spell, Yu shouts something, a glowing card shatters into dust, and his persona spins a little bit before dropping its sword on the the enemy’s head.
Sometimes the flashes get larger or your persona’s weapon makes a louder noise, but nothing is really new. All I’m saying is that Killing Rush shouldn’t have the same animation as Assault Dive, and it’s not too much to ask that a developer add a bit more of an individual flourish to special abilities.
The game also features a weakness system; cast ice on some enemies and they fall down, giving you an extra attack, which allows you to chain multiple attacks on one turn. If you can knock down all your opponents, you get a team attack, whereupon your entire party descends on the enemy in a mad swarm of destructive violence. Unfortunately, it suffers from the same problem as the spell system: An image flashes that you have to watch, followed by a cutscene that you have to watch. If you’re unlucky enough to not kill everything on-screen with your room-wide murder-frenzy, your characters will occasionally follow-up with another team attack. Another cutscene. Still no skip button in sight.
For the first ten or twenty hours of the game, these attacks are great! The character art that introduces the attack is beautiful, straight out of a high-budget anime, and the skull-shaped mushroom clouds and giant bombs are exuberantly fun. But eventually, as more time is required in the dungeons in order to kill the next boss, it all becomes very stifling. And if I have to hear someone say “Your defense has been lowered!” one more time…
Weaknesses should help by reducing the grind, but they don’t. The game tries to capitalize on them by making a lot of later monsters vulnerable only to one or two elements, and battles quickly become “use the right spell to knock down the enemy and win.” An awesome samurai monster becomes “guy I kill with ice, whatever.” My amount of fun gradually dropped from ‘punching things with the fury of 1,000 Little Macs’ to ‘doing math puzzles with an abacus.’ All of these issues could easily be fixed with a simple slider option:
“How often do you want to see combat animations?” Always – [Sometimes] – Never
“How often to you want to be reminded that “spinny circles above [character]’s head means that they’re dizzy”? Never – Never – [Never]
See? Problem solved.
Combat (and sarcasm) aside, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Persona 4 Golden to anyone who is a fan of JRPGs. The combat isn’t all bad, but the game’s reliance on grinding to overcome arbitrary and sudden difficulty spikes can be annoying. It’s varied, and there’s an interesting magic system, but the need to spend so much time outside of the main story indulging in comabt becomes something of a chore. To be honest, the story isn’t all great, particularly due to the aforementioned lack of explanation around certain plot points; but there’s some decent character development to be found, and it has its moments. Since the game has a mystery plot, I’ve only mentioned the very basic points here, as to say anymore about how the narrative unfolds would really spoil the experience. But Persona 4 Golden’s story continues to build upon itself as you play, and the uncommonly-good-for-the-genre voice actors make it a pleasure to listen to the exchanges between characters.
Persona 4 Golden is a game that you can easily sink 100 hours into and actually enjoy most of them, though you’re likely to get a lot more enjoyment out of it if you’re already a fan of the series. If you’ve got a clear schedule and a PS Vita, you should definitely consider picking it up – but newcomers should bear in mind the caveats outlined above.