Persona 4 Golden, if youâ€™re not already aware of it, is an enhanced port of a 2008 PlayStation 2 game. Wait! Stop! Donâ€™t go anywhere! If you havenâ€™t played it yet, and you like JRPGs, you absolutely must.
Set in a small rural community of Japan called Inaba, P4Gâ€™s story does an expert job of providing the kind of intrigue, drama, and excitement a decent RPG needs to drive it along. The townâ€™s inhabitants are being murdered; the circumstances are bizarre, and the police are stumped. Fortunately you - a new-to-town teenager - and your friends from school are here to help.
The way in which you can help is - fairly typically for anime, perhaps - both supernatural and out of the ordinary. Not only can you summon aspects of your personality into existence (they become creatures known as Personas, and aid you in battle), but you can also enter the TV world (literally clambering into a TV set like itâ€™s a portal to another place) to battle the various shadow creatures it contains. How theyâ€™re related to whatâ€™s going on Iâ€™ll leave to your imagination.
Inside the TV is not the only place youâ€™ll spend time; thereâ€™s also a large, interesting world of everyday Japan to wander around in. For example, youâ€™ll need to spend time at school, where youâ€™ll participate in classroom activities, join sports clubs, and go on quests for other students. Thereâ€™s shopping districts, your own house, a shrine, places to fish, a whole other city, and many other interesting things to do when youâ€™re not running around saving people.
Once someone goes missing, you have only a limited amount of time before they die. If you donâ€™t rescue them before this happens, itâ€™s game over, so managing your time effectively is key. Time is one of the gameâ€™s main resources; to advance certain skills or relationships, youâ€™ll literally need to invest a chunk of your day to the task.
This simple mechanic means that you must constantly choose between all manner of possible options: should you work today? But what about the basketball club! I think the band is practicing too, but itâ€™s raining so I can go do that thing in town thatâ€™s only possible in this weather. Maybe I should study?
To this end, it really is a role-playing game unlike many that bear that moniker. You literally canâ€™t do everything, so you must choose the way through that matches your personal preference. No matter what, youâ€™ll end up letting someone down or fail to achieve some sort of sub-objective; this alone will provide fans with impetus to play through it all again to try a different approach. Thatâ€™s not to say itâ€™s frustrating; rather, the selections are reminiscent of similar real-world situations in which you must choose between several good (or bad) options, rather than simply selecting the obvious one.
There are many stats to consider as you progress, including things that help you outside of the TV world and the various weapons and other items youâ€™ll need while youâ€™re inside (thatâ€™s where the dungeon crawling, monster slaying stuff happens.) Tracking each of them isnâ€™t super important, but youâ€™ll get the most trophies (if such things worry you) by being very efficient with your time.
Combat is largely turn-based, however there is an action element in that, if youâ€™re careful (and quick) you can sneak up on enemies and attack them from behind; if you manage it, youâ€™ll get first-attack advantage. Once youâ€™re in combat, you can choose to either do a basic attack (with your character and their equipped weapon) or task your Persona with performing one of its abilities.
Your Personas can do all sorts of things, depending on their subtype and the moves they know. If youâ€™re thinking this sounds a bit like Pokemon, youâ€™re not far off; you can collect loads of them and can have a handful in your party at any one time, giving you an extra strategic option when tackling tricky foes. You can even merge them together or teach them bonus skills, if you find the requisite ability cards while adventuring in the dungeons.
At the end of a battle, thereâ€™s a chance that a minigame called Shuffle Time will appear. When it does, youâ€™ll be allowed to choose one of the random cards that appear, each of which will offer you some sort of bonus. In addition to their face value, some will also let you choose another card; careful selection can net you not just one card, but all of the cards on offer. Do that and youâ€™ll get a sweep bonus, giving you advantages on the next time the game appears (as well as guaranteeing it will appear after the next fight.)
Some of the cards impact you in negative ways, while yet others change cards that are still available to choose from. This all adds up to a surprisingly deep minigame experience, and one that will actually impact how your game progresses if you play it well (or poorly, for that matter.) Itâ€™s a nice touch, and its appearance is always welcome.
If youâ€™re stuck in a dungeon, or just want a small boost (which is useful - dungeons can be pretty tough, and the war of attrition will nearly always see you light on supplies and low on health by the end), you can press the new â€śSOSâ€ť button and hope that someone else whoâ€™s currently playing the game is paying attention. If they are, next time you enter a battle youâ€™ll get a reminder that youâ€™re not alone and your health and SP (the stuff you use to power your Personas, basically) will get a small nudge upwards. This comes with the trade-off, of course, that once you start using the system youâ€™ll receive help requests from others; if you do, you simply need to touch the onscreen button to send them aid too.
Similarly, while youâ€™re in Inaba, you can press the Voice button and see a summary of what other players have done at this point in the game; your actions, too, will contribute to this milieu, going on to give other players some level of guidance as to what they might consider doing to progress the story.
Neither the SOS nor Voice buttons (both of which are optional) are multiplayer, of course, but even this level of social interaction with other random Persona players adds a welcome, tangible layer on top of the experience. Itâ€™s the kind of game you want other people to know about, and itâ€™s extremely reassuring to be reminded that they already do.
When youâ€™re not in a dungeon, youâ€™ll spend most of your time progressing dialogue trees; that is to say, you donâ€™t walk around much (if you're thinking "visual novel", you're not too wide of the mark.) In the dungeons, you will run around a lot, which is where one of the very few problems the game has appears: movement is clunky and extremely reminiscent of retro gaming experiences. Your character floats around unrealistically, is tricky to locate precisely, and your party members (and other NPCs) are similarly awkward - often running on the spot, or otherwise shattering the illusion.
In stark contrast, characters in the game are able to interact with various objects (a bowl of ramen here, a large drink there) in a very realistic manner, picking things up or touching each other as if theyâ€™re really there - a rare feat in the world of videogames. The clash of good (interacting with objects, or cutscene animation) and bad (walking around) technology is jarring. Donâ€™t get me wrong, itâ€™s not a massive problem (or a problem at all, really) but itâ€™s quite odd and not at all befitting with the amazing presentation that is otherwise a hallmark of the game.
The actual characters in P4G are outstanding. Each of the main cast has a very real personality (exaggerated in anime style, of course, but consistent with itself), with Chie (one of the key members of your team) a particular highlight. You find yourself very quickly hanging on their every word, wondering what theyâ€™re up to, and looking forward to talking to them again. Character design is also extremely good. Your pals all look great in their in-game form, and the little pop-up art thatâ€™s used during dialogue sequences is similarly extremely appealing.
The world, too, is very realistic; every alleyway, room, or shop looks like itâ€™s lifted from real-world Japan. Loads of tiny little details, from the interior layout of your house, to the way a street looks is just like youâ€™d find if you were actually in the land of the rising sun. If youâ€™ve spent time there, youâ€™ll love it.
In combination with the gameâ€™s transition effects, menus, and other related graphical elements (which are universally excellent), P4G is an incredibly good looking game. None of this, of course, is hindered by the Vitaâ€™s spectacular screen.
The audio is less universally successful, with the Japanese voices completely discarded (likely due to cartridge space.) Thatâ€™s not an entirely bad thing, as the voice actors used for some of the characters are great, however theyâ€™re a little inconsistent and hearing American accents in such a well-realised Japanese setting is a little peculiar to say the least. Still, the character voices otherwise tend to suit them well, and the game is also well served by the great mix of J-Pop that plays in the background.
One thing you absolutely must consider before jumping in, however, is the gameâ€™s length. With games often topping out at around 6 hours these days, P4Gâ€™s 100+ hours of content bucks the trend to some considerable degree. The value conscious (and JRPG familiar) wonâ€™t mind, of course, but if youâ€™re busy and have some other things lined up in the near future, itâ€™s certainly a good thing to know about before jumping in (you really wonâ€™t want to put it down.)
It looks good, has a great story (which is delivered by way of an outstanding cast of characters), and the dungeon-based gameplay (complete with its compelling Pokemon-like, rock-paper-scissors battle-pet combat system) is great fun. If youâ€™ve been thinking about dipping your toes into the JRPG scene, you absolutely must put this at the top of your list. Thereâ€™s loads of bonus content in there, too, including music videos, trailers, new characters, and new story elements, so if youâ€™ve played the PS2 version, donâ€™t let that put you off heading back to Inaba for another visit.