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.
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.
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.
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: