I guess this is where I talk about my history with the Shin Megami Tensei series, as I technically have one. I watched a playthrough of the Australian version of Persona 3 FES back in 2011, learning of both the plot and gameplay mechanics as I familiarized myself with the flow the sub franchise, which arguably blossomed into a franchise separate from, say, Shin Megami Tensei IV, a very gluttonous game that left me bored in terms of story due to how terrible the pacing was shaped by the frankly unenjoyable gameplay that prioritized grinding above all else. I gave it 40 hours, if only to justify my $42. But hey, people praised the crap out of Persona 4, especially Golden and I saw it worthy to get over thrice the playtime.
Persona 4 Golden Review
Platform: PS Vita
Publisher: Atlus USA
Persona 4 Golden places you in the platinum blonde hair covered head of a young highschooler who finds himself sent to spend a year in the rural Japanese town of Inaba. A mostly quiet little bit of countryside that becomes bustling soon after his arrival as corpses are discovered and rumors circulate around the cause. Eventually resulting in the main character and his buddies investigating something known as the Midnight Channel, another world accessed by entering televisions, a sprawling murder mystery, and face their own personal demons, referred to as shadows, with the help of their newfound abilities in this TV world, referred to as Personas. With the story that plays out and the characters within it being unquestionably the game’s strong suit, as it not only achieves in telling an interesting plot that takes the twists and turns necessary for a story involving teenagers hunting down a murderer and kidnapper, but makes said characters interesting individuals who I thoroughly enjoyed learning about, as it acted as my primary drive to carry on with this 150 hour game. Yet that was seemingly not enough time to make every aspect of the plot clear, as I was left still more than a little bit confused about certain things that the game included in both its world building and story, but was never entirely addressed…. even after the true ending.
I found the writing as a whole to be solid all around, if not a bit stilted in some of the wording, likely a result from translating a colossal script. The voice acting being nothing shy of top notch, only suffering in terms of how much of the game is free from scripted voice acting, with most of the game’s side activities establishing characters with just text. Not that it overly hinders the characters as they spout out a minute’s worth of short responses as you get to know them during the first eight of ten meetings, as the game proves more than sufficient in crafting interesting individuals who manage to make just about every part of the game where you are not learning about them come across as bizarrely lonesome. As such, it is something of a shame that the game is very much designed to make it excruciatingly difficult for the player to witness all of this content on the first playthrough, but I did manage to do that in the end… after great difficulties.
You see, in order to advance in relationships with certain people in the game, you must rank up in their social link. These ranks are fueled by relationship points in most cases, and relationship points can be obtained by either selecting the right dialog decisions with them or by spending time with them. My problem comes from the actual number of relationship points required to advance a rank, as it is far higher than it has any right to be. To the point where I ended up doing everything I could to advance a social link for a few days, but was unable to get two measly ranks, thus being unable to complete their social link in the allotted time the game provides, thus causing me to go back in time and reload in hopes to be more efficient with the limited time you are given in the game.
I suppose I could have just waited to do this in the game’s hefty New Game+, but the simple fact that I spent as much time as I did with this game made me hesitant to investing another 80 hours. Even then, it would undoubtedly be a boring experience as the story would have been told for the most part, and you would be left with a good month of this game’s ten with nothing to do because of what carries over. While the relationships reset, your protagonist’s personality stats do not, meaning most of your stat growing activities are useless, when they are how you spend time while not pursuing social links, as they are often needed to unlock them in the first place and serve no actual benefit to the main character’s Personas despite how they each possess five core stats. All while having a very odd sense of what one can do in a given amount of time. While it is understandable how the protagonist can only hang out with one person after school, the decision to expand a scene of the same length to consume an entire day is nothing short of nonsensical. With the only justification being how the protagonist and social link hodler spoke for hours. Don’t even get me started on how little weight that concept holds when your social link is with a fox.
But what do these social links actually do? Well, in terms of gameplay they only supply a fairly important element. From what I can gather, the gist of Shin Megami Tensei games is that they are dungeon crawling JRPGs involving the obtainment and fusion of creatures based on various mythologies, and social links tie in with the fusion aspect. Depending on your rank, fusing certain Personas, which are clumps of stats and abilities that are named after mythological creatures, will result in the fused creature gaining more experience points, resulting in stat boosts and more moves aside from the ones inherited through fusion. It may sound very useful, but it really doesn’t help out with anything but lessening the amount of grind that is necessary in the Television world that is this game’s small collection of randomized dungeons. Heck, you only use them when effectively exiting a dungeon and enter a room in order to fuse them and leave to get back to the grind that represents a very large quantity of the game, despite how I do not believe I entered it more than 15 times. Both of which I can explain by clarifying how the game is very much on a day by day clock, and dungeon exploration, while required to not get a game over, consumes some of that precious resource.
From here I must ask if the dungeon exploration and combat that go with it are fun, to which I would answer a firm yes after muddling over it for a few seconds. The core gameplay of Persona 4 Golden is solid and fairly simple to figure out if the player is able to figure out one essential aspect that the game offers next to no help in until the end, and that is identifying enemy weaknesses. Compared to something such as Pokemon, or any JRPG that had an enemy that was spewing fire, the Shadows in P4G are some of the most random assortments of stats I have ever seen, as they may as well have been determined through a random number generator. How do you figure out the weaknesses though? By using several abilities on them in order for the game to log what is effective out of the game’s seven, technically eight, forms of damage, or you can just use a walkthrough that tells you if a shadow reflects damage back at the attacker. With additional turns and the ability to down and stun enemies being their own benefit, much like having the party of four become rabid beasts and maul their inner Shadows once they are all hit with either a critical or super effective attack.
However, with that barrier I am actually very impressed I found Persona 4 Golden’s combat to be enjoyable for as long as I did, as it effectively became a routine I used while dungeon crawling with one of two teams I assembled. This I attribute almost completely to the battles’ presentation, which keeps the combat quick while having a certain sense of flare that never came across as too flashy for its own good, with a track I must have heard the first few seconds of a thousand times while strangely never growing tired of it. It’s fast, has very colorful scenery and enemies, and strategic enough to never feel mundane. That said, I noticed a very odd curve in the game’s difficulty that may be due to my intensive level grinding, which had my main character at level 99 come the boss of the November, month seven, dungeon, but also due to how you can receive a set percentage of your party’s HP and SP at the end of every battle. This, and the eventual introduction of the ability to see all of an enemy’s elemental affinities from the get go, made the ending stretch of the game feel notably easier than the comparative crawl that were the first three dungeons. To the point where I am hesitant as to how much of the New Game Plus would prevent this from appearing to be the hardest and most dull section of Persona 4 Golden.
Unfortunately for this review’s credibility, I ended up going out and fighting an optional boss who has one of the most nonsensically difficult means of being encountered I have seen in any game I have ever played. Hell, even the later few dungeons, which I was originally not going to mention in this review as I wanted to beat the game 20 hours earlier, laid the tedium on very strongly as there was next to nothing that could harm me and my Persona who could only be harmed by Fire and Almighty damage. A method that almost left me upset, as I did expect some degree of strategy to be needed later on, when the relatively small stats characters are given managed to overpower every single threat the game shoved my way. Although it did not keep my path from being one full of trying to manipulate the means of obtaining rewards and figuring out how to effectively create a demonic form of insest by combining aspects of the main character’s sense of being into entirely new and unrecognizable entities. Well, I suppose they do possess some meaning due to their mythological ties, but they are never explained upon obtaining them, instead shoving a Pokedex entry sized description into an area where you can purchase and register previously obtained Personas, which you can go the entire game without ever using.
It is actually surprising that they both gave each of the Personas a 3D model and went so far as to give each of them a unique animation, even though I am certain many are recycled. It would certainly make sense, especially when you look at the art assets the game boast, which are not platinum by any means, and also not extremely detailed. With dungeons made of tilesets and a small grouping of areas with an unmovable camera, I certainly can see the budget stretching, but it only bothers me when dealing with the main, or rather important, characters’ portraits. All of which suffer from having only one based each, with a shift of clothing or expression being applied on the detailed illustration, but that would hardly change the silhouette a noticeable amount. Even though you will be looking at these for cumulative hours, as the characters’ actual models are both limited in animation and their expressions, with the faces remaining static and hardly signifying their expressions. Still, it was likely far easier to get a voice actor to come in to act for the character, but it does make the game come across as dated despite this version being released less than two years ago. While nearly all of the animated cutscenes very much play it cheaply when it comes to, you know, animating things.
I would, however, not say the same about the game’s soundtrack, but saying it came across as repetitious as more than a few points would be nothing but the truth. While I found myself very much enjoying the majority of the music the game offered, many tracks such as Your Affection, The Poem For Everyone’s Souls, SMILE, Who’s There?, and the nagging comments made by one of two characters who drone on a small number of quickly irritating responses during battle, all outstayed their welcome for various reasons. That said, tracks like SNOWFLAKES caused me unruliness to the point where I actually felt a bit ill while playing the game, and I found myself enjoying many others to the point of actually getting the soundtrack itself.
The ultimate goal of a review is to assess and come to a firm conclusion about something, and I find that to be a bit difficult with Persona 4 Golden as I was told it was among the greatest games of the *Insert Variable Here* but came away both understanding while why being both unable to deny the problems it has while wanting to murder to part of my brain that dared to taint a game that was the number one reason I bought a Playstation Vita. In its construction, I see more hindrances than successes, and would recommend playing the game with a steady hand of guidance through it in order to achieve maximum enjoyment. As, in the end, Persona 4 Golden is something that puts you through the ringer for no truly good reason, while also being enjoyable enough on its own to justify it. So play it with a walkthrough, map out your social links, and for goodness sake, keep the difficulty on Very Easy while remembering that money and lunch are the best methods to forming an unbreakable bond with those around you. Like gold its exterior and value are quite high, but the metal itself is pretty crappy.
Applaudable efforts that do get hung up on a few too many branches, but very much deserving of a recommendation despite possibly not being astonishing.