Persona 4: Golden (Atlus, 2012)

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persona 4 the golden

Persona 4: Golden. I finished this game in mid-May, so this may be one of my most delayed reviews ever, but it’s because I really wanted to reflect on this game and see if it is still as amazing in my mind as it was when I was playing it. (And totally not because I am lazy and get distracted easily). Well, 6 months later I am happy to say that this is still the best game that I have played all year, perhaps even all time! Persona 4 is a beautiful game that addresses the pains of growing up, the repressed thoughts we all carry, and it packages it all up in a half-dating-sim half-JRPG format that is addictive and moving.

Persona 4 is the 4th entry in the popular Persona series, but no knowledge of previous games is required to play it. Persona itself is a spin-off of the much larger Shin Megami Tensei series (which are also great games, currently playing #4!) which mainly focus on demons in the real world. Persona takes those demons and makes them the tools of high school students; in Persona these demons represent their inner feelings, or “persona”, hence the title. The game begins with you, the protagonist moving into the village of Inaba as a transfer student from the big city. Inaba is a small town with not much going on, however, shortly after you move in mysterious deaths begin to occur in the quaint suburb . At the same time, rumors of a television channel that only broadcasts at midnight begin to circulate around your school. It is up to you and your group of friends to investigate whether these two things are related and, if so, how.

Persona 4 Characters

A shot of the main cast. Clockwise from left: Yusuke, Naoto, Kenji, Teddie, Rie, Yukiko, Protaganist, Chie

This game really took me for a loop in many regards, but one of the most surprising things about this game are the characters and how adventurous Atlus is in their personalities. There’s a girl who’d rather be a man, a high school teenager who is unsure about his sexuality, an idol who has lost her sense of identity due to fame, and so much more. Each character you associate with has such depth to them that it’s a shame it’s almost impossible to explore every character to their core in one playthrough. The game seems to explore every modern issue that teenagers face these days, and it does so in a mature way. No character is marginalized or made fun of due to issues they face, instead they are met with support from their friends. It amazes me how ambitious Atlus was in their writing, especially since this is coming from a Japanese company, seeing as Japanese society is usually not seen to be as progressive compared to European countries. Persona 4 is a great social commentary on the identity problems young adults face in today’s world and really helps the player begin to see these issues in everyday (virtual) life.

The story of Persona is also interesting, because it doesn’t start off as a typical “save the world” JRPG, although you do eventually get there. The focus of the game is merely to save those who have been put into the Midnight Channel and to solve the mystery as to whom is the kidnapper attempting to murder these innocent people. The mystery is the real draw here, as there are very subtle hints as to who the real killer is that are very hard to catch. Personally I had no idea who it was until the game explained everything. The game does a great job at pacing the plot so it feels like you’re always getting closer and closer to finding the real killer while at the same time enjoying your high school life. About 2/3rds through the game you have to choose who the killer is; if you conclude incorrectly the game ends with a “false” ending and you feel a little cheated, so make sure to save beforehand to ensure you get the “true” or canon ending! I don’t want to give too much away as I feel this is truly a game that deserves to be played with no spoilers.

chie social link

Leveling up a social rank by hanging out at the river.

Another important aspect of Persona are the social links. Social links are essentially progress bars that show how close you are to characters in the story, and as you increase social links with someone they open up to you more and more and grant bonuses in combat. Social links therefore have the bonus of allowing you to learn more about characters and connect with them while at the same time powering up your battle abilities and allowing you to create new personas. It’s extremely difficult to max out every social link in one playthrough, but it feels so rewarding to max out even just one. Especially the female ones, which essentially amount to dating sims, which I admittedly love. Still, even if you don’t like dating sims social links provide a great insight into each character, and you may even be surprised by what real life problems these digital people are carrying inside them. I really got attached to my “friends” through my 90 hours of playtime and I was really sad to say goodbye to them at the game. Maybe I just get attached too easily, but this game’s writing is absolutely fantastic at evoking the right emotions at the right time.

Persona 4 combat.

Combat interface. You can unlock fun costumes to wear for dungeons.

Unfortunately, and ironically as a game, Persona’s 4 weakest point is its combat gameplay. It’s your typical RPG combat, which, don’t get me wrong, is fun, but it gets repetitive like most JRPGs. Once you figure out an opponent’s weak point combat becomes pretty simple and doesn’t really pose a challenge, and boss fights felt more like a really long, simple fight instead of a challenging, engaging battle. The enemies do scale up in difficulty and become somewhat tough to battle, but at a point I just found myself steamrolling through everything. Although this may be more my fault as I have a bad habit of grinding a lot in any RPG that I play. The different elements (wind, fire, ice, thunder, light, dark) provide fun combat strategies in the beginning but by the end game just light and dark are really necessary as they insta-kill most enemies you’ll encounter except bosses. Even though the combat is repetitive, I still managed to find it fun in the end game as the “all out attack” when you hit every enemy’s weakness is a nice to watch (especially the “special” ones) and the bonuses you get at the end of each battle in the form of a card-picking mini game are kind of addictive. Also it is extremely rewarding to keep fusing and creating more and more powerful Personas which are available to you through higher social links, so it’s got somewhat of a Pokemon aspect as well in the idea that you want to create every Persona possible.

Finally, I’d like to touch upon the amazing soundtrack that Shoji Meguro put together for this game. An blend of J-Pop, J-Rock, piano, and vital to the game’s experience. Persona 4 would not be Persona 4 without the addicting music. The opening song to the game, “Shadow World”, is a catchy way to start up every session of Persona 4 GOLDEN and the visuals match the music perfectly. When I hear this track I just want to start playing again. The tracks that accompany each dungeon perfectly embody the setting, standouts include “Heaven” (those soothing vocals while fighting shadows) and “Game” (perfectly captures what 80’s video game music would sound like if modernized). Outside of the dungeons, walking around town wouldn’t be the same without listening to “Heartbreak, Heartbreak” or “Your Affection”, both of which have the best misheard lyrics ever. I totally thought “Your Affection” was actually “Your Reflection” in the song. The battle tracks like “Reach Out to the Truth” are empowering, catchy, and have awesome guitar riffs that just want to make you grind all day so you can listen to the music. As Kotaku writer Kirk Hamilton put it, Persona 4’s music is essential to the game as it “fulfills important…’rhythmic functions'” and provides a “feeling of ritual.”

So, seriously, if you haven’t played this game yet and do so. Persona 4 is one of the best games I’ve ever played. It seamlessly combines JRPG combat with dating sim mechanics and current social issues to provide one of the deepest time-sinks I’ve ever come across. This game is smart, funny, sad, scary, and overall a masterpiece of the JRPG genre. This game solely makes the Vita worth owning. The characters, the music, the visuals, the combat, the story, every aspect of a game comes perfectly packaged together to provide a unique, unforgettable experience in one little blue cartridge. I wholly recommend this game to anyone who can get their hands on it, trust me, it’s worth your time. Now, I’m off to start another New Game+, so remember:

p4 junes

Chrono Trigger (SNES)

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chronotrigger

Yes, yes, I know, the 90’s called and they want their critically acclaimed video game back. BUT HOLY CRAP IS THIS GAME AMAZING!  The story, the soundtrack, the art, everything is beautifully done. This is perhaps the pinnacle of Square Enix’s productions (except perhaps certain Final Fantasies), and the collaboration with Akira Toriyama of Dragonball fame only helps. Meaningful sidequests, challenging boss fights, hours of gameplay, entertaining minigames, enthralling story, so many things are in this game that have been lost in video games of recent times. Chrono Trigger raises a personal bar for JRPGs and I am wondering where all the advancements this game made have gone since its release in 1995.

Okay, okay, enough gushing. So, Chrono Trigger. The beginning of the story is that you are Chrono who lives in the kingdom of Guardia. It is the year 1000 A.D., and it is the 1000th anniversary of the defeat of Magus, an evil wizard who sought to conquer the world. The kingdom is hosting a Millennial Fair to celebrate the event, and your genius childhood friend Lucca is using this as an opportunity to unveil one of her new inventions. It is at the fair that you happen to run into Marle, who happens to be the princess of Guardia. She volunteers to take part in Lucca’s experiment, but her pendant reacts strangely and creates a “Time Gate”, launching her far into the past. Chrono decides that he must go after her, and from there the story develops to an all-encompassing journey spanning from 65,000,000 BC to 2300 AD, all in order to save the fate of the world. Along the way you make many allies, from a giant robot to a Shakespearean frog, and many enemies, from a giant dinosaur to a foolish, incompetent ogre. All of this can end in 17 different paths, and after getting one ending you’ll certainly want to see the others.

So, what makes this game so great? Well, a lot does. Let’s start off with the character design. Chrono Trigger was developed in collaboration with Akira Toriyama, who is a very successful mangaka famous for works such as Dragonball Z and Dr. Slump.Each character in Chrono Trigger, whether it be a full fledged boss or a small minion has their own personality and although the game is comprised probably of only 100 enemies, it felt like I there were a lot more variations of opponents than there were. Each character is easily recognizable by sight, and Chrono Trigger does not bother to have the same enemy in different colors to differentiate strength like several other JRPGs do. The world of Guardia is also fleshed out, with a beautiful overworld and interesting NPCs to interact with. Also fun to note is that the personalities of NPCs can change depending on what happens to their ancestors, and others have backgrounds you would not see coming. At all.

Post-battle screen.

Post-battle screen.

Another part of Chrono Trigger’s appeal is the battle system. Chrono Trigger, like a lot of Square Enix titles, uses an Active Time Battle System. This means that when you are in a battle each of your characters has a time gauge, and when that time gauge is filled then your character is able to do an action. As a character’s speed increases, then their time gauge fills up faster allowing them to attack more during a battle. A notable difference between Chrono Trigger and other RPGs of this era is that all the battles take place in the same world that you travel in, instead of occurring in some separate dimension where all your opponents are conveniently lined up on one side and you on the other. This allows combat to be more fluid and dynamic, as enemies will move around the screen, which can affect whether some attacks will hit them or not depending if your attacks have an area of effect. Some attacks can only hit opponents within a certain region, so sometimes it is more advantageous to wait until your opponents are next to one another in order to hit both of them with a powerful attack rather than attacking immediately after your time gauge is filled. Another key element of battle is “Techs”, which are more advanced attacks that range from physical to magic to healing. Techs also include combo attacks between characters which have various effects such as massively damaging one enemy or healing the entire party. This adds strategy to encounters as you must decide whether you should attack with one character hoping their speed will allow you to rapidly attack to take out opponents or instead wait for another character’s time gauge to fill in order to pull off a combo attack. All of this must be decided in a second which adds to the intensity and stress of boss fights, one wrong decision and you could be toast!

Sidequests. Sidequests are so often an afterthought in many RPGS. In many games they are simply fetch quests or trade quests where all that comes out of it is you getting a slightly powered up version of your current weapon which is only replaced later on by a weapon you receive in the main story. Not in Chrono Trigger. In Chrono Trigger sidequests actually provide character development, a chance to look into the lives of your allies you otherwise wouldn’t get. Lucca’s sidequest actually made me tear up, as it gave such insight into how she became the geek she is because of the tragedy she suffered in her life. Some sidequests have you putting old spirits to rest, fixing unresolved family issues, planting an entire forest, and saving the kingdom from a coup d’état! Certainly not the norm for sidequests. As a bonus these sidequests do provide weapons, however unlike other JRPGS, the most powerful weapon in the game is only available via sidequests so you had better do all of them! You also get to keep these weapons if you decide to do a new playthrough via New Game+.

Finally, let me touch upon the soundtrack. The music for this game is beautifully done, everything from the overworld song to the battle themes are memorable and the OST is certainly worth downloading. The title song “Chrono Trigger” is inspiring and fills you with both a sense of adventure and danger, integral to a good theme and whenever it starts playing you know you’ve hit another high point in the game and you won’t be stopping play for a while. “Wind Scene”, the overworld song for 600 AD, is a joy to listen to and you can hear a metronome in the background hinting at the game’s theme of time travel. Often times I would just sit in game for 5 or 10 minutes just to enjoy it playing in the background. “Lavos’ Theme” instills fear and despair as the main villain’s theme and you know that bad things are around the corner as it plays in the background. It is foreboding with its fading in and out, and contains a surprisingly nice melody in the middle. And one other notable track is “Robo Gang Johnny”, which is actually from a racing minigame found within Chrono Trigger and really conveys the idea that Johnny is a badass who is not meant to be taken lightly. (even though his followers are pretty amusing robot fanboys)

Back to Guardia!

Back to Guardia!

All in all, Chrono Trigger is a fantastic game that manages to deal with complex ideas like time travel and ethics in a simple, uncomplicated fashion that allows players of any age to enjoy it. The combat is tense and fulfilling, the story is intricately woven and detailed, with turns and twists that are not cliche, the music is a joy to listen to in itself, and the characters are relatable and unique, even moreso with sidequests. It is the culmination of everything amazing contained within the JRPG genre, and certainly deserves its title by many as one of the best games of all time. Now excuse me as I go to play New Game+ so I can once again save Guardia.