As someone who has never played, or been interested in playing, a Japanese Role Playing Game (JRPG), such as Final Fantasy or Valkyria Chronicles, I was intrigued to see Persona 4 Golden essentially clear up the Vita Game Of The Year awards at most gaming sites last year.
Released back in 2012 in the US/Japan the game finally arrived to Europe in February. Having read from practically every gaming site I trust/respect that this was the best Vita game out and one of the best JRPG’s around I felt obliged to give it a try.
The jazzy intro left me with a smile on my face but also a quizzically raised eyebrow as I wondered exactly what I had let myself in for.
The game is a year in the life of Yu Narukami as he transers schools to spend a year living with his Uncle in a small town called Inaba. You have control over his life, from schoolwork to making friends and even deciding on where to work part time. While the story doesn’t change your decisions do affect your relationships throughout the game.
And Persona 4 Golden is all about relationships. Whether it’s your friends or relatives, everything you do has a knock on effect on what the game calls your ‘Social Links’. The better your social links the more powerful your (and your allies) Personas can become when fighting shadows.
Oh, did I forget to mention as well as Yu Narukami’s daily life of school and work you also FALL INTO TV’s AND BATTLE SHADOW MONSTERS
Without getting too spoilerific, you discover that you can access this other world through the TV. After a spate of murders in Inaba, you realise they are tied to the other world. You and your friends decide to try and save whoever might be the next victim.
Because I hadn’t played a game like this before I put Persona 4 Golden on ‘Very Easy’ and to be honest this was probably a wise move. I died in battle only a handful of times and when I did was able to revive on the spot with full health. While this reduced the challenge of combat it enabled me to get to grips with the game without becoming frustrated. It also meant I was free to concentrate on the social side of the game and just enjoy the story.
And what a story it is. Traditionally Japanese games have been a bit more ‘out there’ than Western titles (see Bayonetta/Vanquish/Metal Gear Solid) and Persona 4 Golden is no different but the game also deals with some interesting themes – loneliness, responsibility and even coming to terms with one’s masculinity. It might be wrapped up in J-Pop gloss but Persona is definitely full of great character arcs.
The characters are well written and by the end of the game I genuinely cared about them. It’s not often that happens with game characters – probably The Walking Dead, Mass Effect and Uncharted games are the most recent examples I can think of.
As you build relationships with the other characters you’ll get different options in terms of who to spend time with and the game often gives you a few options when you only have time for one. You may even eventually get a girlfriend (or several if that’s more your ‘style’) and the game does a good job of conveying the slightly embarrassing beginnings of a school relationship at that age.
The difference between this and other games with social options is that Persona 4 Golden isn’t just a case of ‘this person likes/dislikes you’ it’s that in forging and building these relationships you are effectively levelling up. Even studying and doing well at school gives you bonuses. It means that of all the 41 hours I ploughed into the game not a minute was wasted. There was no filler.
The combat is based around fighting monsters in dungeons that are themed around various thoughts/fears of the townspeople. You have the ability to call on monsters of your own (Personas) to aid you and you’ll always be with a few of your friends (another difficult choice, who do you take with you?). You walk around the dungeon freely in third person and once an encounter is initiated the action moves to a turn based setting.
I won’t go into story details beyond the above but I enjoyed it and thought it did a good job of maintaining the mystery of events until the reveal. One word of advice though, keep 3 or 4 rolling saves because it is VERY easy to miss the real ending of the game. First time out I got a disappointing ending that skipped 3 months of in-game time (around 8/10 hours of gameplay) so keep a spare save ready to go back if needed.
Even going back and getting the proper ending I still missed a part of the game and didn’t have a back up (thinking I’d finished) so I will have try and get to that on my next playthrough. Yep I plan to go back through the game again, this time on a more competitive setting.
I didn’t imagine Persona 4 Golden would grab me so hard if I’m honest – as I said at the outset I’ve never been interested in this type of game before but I’ll be keeping an eye on the genre now and hopefully might find some other great experiences for my Vita.
If you have a Vita then I can’t recommend this enough, Persona 4 Golden is a fantastic game that offers a lot more than just turn based combat and will leave you wanting more at each turn.