I am not now, nor have I ever been, a JRPG fan. It’s difficult for me to explain why I dislike the genre because the answer would be “almost everything about it.” It’s not a genre that appeals to me and the last JRPG I ever enjoyed was Legend of Dragoon which was released in 1999 (and even then I’m willing to grant that this title is often looked at with mixed feelings by the JRPG crowd). If there is one type of JRPG I particularly dislike, it is those which feature teenagers as the main characters.
Which is why it’s weird that I’m reviewing the HD reboot of the PS2-era cult classic Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4. As a person who bought a PS Vita on launch day, I’m willing to try most anything that will put some miles on the ol’ girl and prevent from me from possibly having to interact with my fellow train passengers on my daily commute. I say all that to say that I not only played Persona 4 Golden, I loved it.
Fish out of water
The story of P4G is that of a “who-dunit” with gamers playing the silent protagonist who is sent to live with his uncle and cousin in the small, quiet town of Inaba. He arrives during the height of a local tabloid controversy which ends in a gruesome murder. His uncle, Dojima, is the head detective in the case and soon has another murder and several disappearances to deal with.
Meanwhile, our hero discovers a special “Midnight Channel” which shows the murder victims before they are killed. He soon discovers he is able to enter a shadowy TV world and, with the help of his friends and a mysterious bear named Teddie, they must rescue the victims.
There are some surprisingly deep and complex themes at play within the shadow world, as the victims and our friends must face their true selves — the self they keep buried beneath their public demeanor. From the Perfect Blue identity crisis of a popstar to the denial of family and tradition of the “perfect” girl, there is a maturity that occasionally feels at odds with the characters’ young age (see: Kanji). Each “zone” of the shadow world also reflects the hidden identities and desires of the victims, leading to some interesting and amusing set pieces.
When not investigating the shadow world, gameplay consists of exploring Inaba, interacting with your friends and working on your skills. By developing friendships you activate Social Links, which strengthen your Personas and offers a tangible perk that lends meaning to the grind. Along those lines, the more you work on seemingly benign skills (Diligence, Expression, etc.), the more you are able to speak to various characters. For instance, working on your Expression enables you to befriend Dojima and Nanako, which can provide interesting story elements as well.
As the protagonist and his team are in the shadow world, you are able to access Personas, with various magic talents. Each Persona has their own magical strengths and weaknesses, as do your enemies. Beyond that, combat is the standard turn-based affair we know and love.
While your party members are stuck with a single Persona, the protagonist is able to collect Personas, and even combine them to create new Personas. It’s a nice, Pokémon-style collecting that strikes a particular chord with me, as does the entire Persona concept. What can I say, I’m a sucker for summoning stuff.
The only complaint is that Personas can only remember so many skills, meaning that as you level and discover new skills, you are forced to sacrifice an old skill for the new skill, or vice-versa. Seeing as your party members are married to their initial Persona (they can eventually level into Ultimate Personas, but still), it would have been nice to have more options for skills.
All of this may sound confusing and daunting, but despite being unfamiliar with the series, I was able to dive into P4G headfirst without issue. Though I won’t lie: I’m hoping they bring more of these games to the Vita. This is the type of game I would loathe on console yet on the Vita, it seems perfect. The story and dialog sections feel like watching an anime on the train or while waiting at the doctor’s office, and the combat/exploration is perfectly suited to long or brief moments of gameplay. The sheer size of the game also makes it the type of thing you’ll pop into the Vita and will keep you company through the holiday season.
You know what’s boring? This.*
The game does lag at times, however. It’s possible this is part and parcel to my whole “anti-JRPG” stance, some of the exploration, skill- and friendship-building segments seem to drag on forever. It’s fun when it is taken in small doses or advances the plot, but on occasion the endless streams of dialog and skills feel like too long a diversion from what is otherwise amazing gameplay. At risk of sounding like an Xboxer who needs to shoot something every 15 seconds, I often found myself wanting to speed through sections. Also, the shadow world levels occasionally feel a little too long in the tooth and repetitive. But if this is the sole complaint an anti-JRPG person has, well, there ya go.
Persona 4 Golden may be one of the best games I’ve played on my Vita to date. It reminds us why we were so excited for the device to begin with: a fully-realized game experience that we can take with us. No cheesy touch features, no flashy tilting or camera use, just good old fashioned gameplay, making it hard to not recommend P4G. If you were a fan of the original title, you owe it to yourself to check it out. Ditto if it’s one of “those” games you always wanted to play but never found time to do so. Even if you’re like me — unfamiliar with the franchise and not a huge fan of genre — there is something here to entertain.
- Release Date: November 20, 2012
- Genre: JRPG
- Platform: PS Vita
- Developer: Atlus
- Publisher: Atlus
- ESRB Rating: M
- MSRP: $39.99
Our Score: 4.5/5
*This heading was an actual quote from my daughter.