Version played: Persona 4 Golden (Playstation Vita)
Persona 4 might just be the most charming game I have ever played. From the chirpy J-pop soundtrack to the unmistakably Japanese environment designs I was won over in seconds. It’s in the small things that Persona 4 will win your heart, not in wild gameplay innovation or eye-popping graphics but in the character’s interactions, genuine laughs (a rare thing in videogames) and impressive attention to detail.
From the moment you step off the Tokyo bullet train in Yaso-Inaba station, you know you’re in for something unique. As a city boy transferring to the small town, the stakes aren’t as high as most JRPGs that would have you slaying monsters in pursuit of world-threatening evil; instead you’ll be facing far more daunting ordeals like introducing yourself to a new class or asking the first girl you like out on a date. Persona is a game about growing up and finding yourself which it frames within this fairly mundane scenario, what makes it special is how well drawn each and every character you’ll meet truly are and how much you will grow to like them. While typical world-ending catastrophes do eventually factor into P4 they are never the focus of the story and serve only to complement the character’s internal struggles.
Like many other players, P4G was my first introduction to the Persona universe but the game does a great job of making you feel instantly at home. This is very much a Japanese role-playing game and is heavy on the story so let me be clear; if you’re not the sort of person that enjoys clicking through reams of dialogue then this game isn’t for you. However, those who have the patience to absorb all of P4’s dialogue will find superbly crafted, personal stories that will make you chuckle, wince and maybe shed a little tear.
Now, you might have noticed that I haven’t touched on the real “meat” of Persona 4’s gameplay – the dungeon crawling. While going into the character’s subconscious was always intriguing on an intellectual level, it’s in the more traditional JRPG trappings that the game falls down. There are just over a half dozen dungeons in the game, one for each new member of your team with a few more that I won’t discuss further for plot reasons. Each one is an exploration of a respective character’s subconscious often dealing with difficult issues such as self-esteem, social anxiety and even sexual identity. For the most part, the way the level design weaves together with the characters’ struggles for validation are handled beautifully, with the notable exception of Kanji’s dungeon which, while not malicious in its depiction of repressed homosexuality, is at best a misfire and at worst, perpetuates mildly offensive stereotypes of LGBT people.
Outside of this misstep P4 presents considered and relatable portrayals of the psychological struggles that many of us face growing up and beyond. Each dungeon takes on a theme related to that character’s prominent issue, for example, Rise, a character who feels that she is always being forced to put on a performance, transports you to a strip club which ends in a boss battle against an other-worldly creature draped across a stripper pole. In traditional JRPG fashion, you will fight smaller enemies along the way in random battles, giving you the opportunity to level up your personas (kind of like Pokémon – but scarier) and grind for better equipment.
Unfortunately, the minute-to-minute gameplay that takes place in these dungeons is not compelling at all. The combat is a plodding, slow-paced affair that lifts most of its strategic depth from the ‘rock, paper, scissors’ action of the Pokémon games, albeit with obtuse, cryptic move names (the thunder attack is called Zionga, the healing spell Dia and so on). The enemies are spongey right from the start and only get tougher and more tiring as the game progresses. I am a fan of the Pokémon games and rate many of the turn-based Final Fantasy games among my favourite games ever but the crawling nature of Persona 4’s turn based battles was too much even for me. To make matters worse, the game does a poor job explaining the various mechanics at play. For example, I was more than two thirds through this 60+ hour game before I realised that you could directly control every member of your party, rather than just your player character.
Those who have the patience to deep dive into the combat and explore the intriguing Persona fusion system will find a lot to like but for me, it was a slog akin to waiting in a 20 minute line at McDonalds to get a Big Tasty, only to find that they’re all out and settling for the vastly inferior Big Mac. To make matters worse they put ketchup on it when you specifically asked- I’ve overdone the McDonalds thing. Tortured fast food metaphors aside, the combat system never quite reaches the satisfying levels of contemporaries like Chrono Trigger yet the student life role playing never wanes in its appeal even over an incredibly long running time. You can power up your Personas through social links, which are your bonds that will gradually increase the more time you spent with certain acquaintances. You can also kill time with sports clubs, studying and part-time jobs, allowing me to do all the things that I was too busy playing videogames to do in my actual high school life.
Despite my frustrations with the game’s combat, I still had the time of my life playing it. I was so absorbed in the high school drama and beautiful art design that I found my morning commutes turning into the highlight of my day as I escaped fusty train carriages to the colourful world of Persona. The level of immersion offered by P4 is a true thing of beauty that is essential to any PS Vita owner. If like me, you don’t have the patience for trudging combat you may be best of switching the game down to it’s lowest difficulty setting and breezing through to experience one of the most compelling JRPGs ever made.