When the PlayStation Vita was first announced it brought with it an expectation that a current gen console-esque gaming experience on-the-go was finally coming, with its dual analogue sticks and reasonably impressive hardware. Three years on, it’s clear the Vita hasn’t lived up to initial expectations, however it has developed a new identity as the go to portable for JRPG’s and indie titles. Though some will be quick to dismiss the Vita as a failure, there remains a (relatively) small but loyal audience, and whilst the Vita will likely never see another big budget triple-A release, its software library is stronger than many believe and continues to grow, due in large part to indie support.
If you haven’t already, play…
This series will take a look at select game’s of the past which demand to be played today. These are titles which I believe to be true standouts in their respective genres, and which offer an experience that has not been significantly diminished with time. That is not to say that these titles would be considered to be without deficiencies by modern standards, but rather that they remain playable despite them.
For those considering a purchase, an oft asked question is ‘what game makes the Vita worth buying?’ and one of the most frequently given answers remains Atlas’s JRPG ‘Persona 4 Golden’. Whilst a port, albeit enhanced, of a PlayStation 2 title, Persona 4 remains one of the most highly regarded titles in its genre, on any system no less. With that reputation in mind the game became the first title I picked up for my Vita and now, 80+ hours of gameplay later, I will attempt to detail why Persona 4 Golden should be considered a must play for anyone with a system capable of playing it.
Those new to JRPGs, and to the Persona series itself, may find it intimidating to jump into a 80+ hour experience and the fourth installment in a series, however you may rest assured that the game by no means requires familiarity with its predecessors. Atlas have done an excellent job of making the game accessible to newcomers. The first hour or so of the game is little more than an introduction to the story, establishing characters and locations. When control is finally given to the player the game’s mechanics are introduced gradually, taking enough time to establish familiarity with the game without causing confusion. The game’s premise is intriguing enough to hold your attention during this early tutorial-like section, which will prevent most from losing interest early due to the guided nature of the game’s first act.
In Persona 4 you play a male high school student, of your chosen name, and the game begins with your protagonist having just moved from the city into a rural town called Inaba to live with his uncle and younger cousin. You’ll soon find yourself enrolled at the local high school, developing relationships with your classmates and generally taking part in typical school activities. Shortly after your arrival the town plays host to two murders, and you soon find yourself embroiled in a narrative of disappearing people, mysterious midnight programming and a talking ‘bear’ called Teddie.
The game’s story involves various characters being literally thrown into television sets by an unknown antagonist. When a character is thrown in, they wake up trapped in another world whilst simultaneously appearing in the normal world on a mysterious television programme called the ‘Midnight Channel’. This is the cue signalling that you and your friends will have a limited amount of time in which to rescue them. This is also where the majority of Persona 4’s traditional gameplay lies, where you enter the ‘other’ world with your friends and fight through procedurally generated dungeons to save the victim. Naturally you enter this other world by stepping into a 50 inch television in the electronics department of a store.
The game’s two main components, that of socialising with the towns various characters and generally going about your day, and that of battling ‘shadows’ in randomly generated dungeons are effectively separated, and the game gives you a good amount of freedom to balance your play time between the two to prevent the game from becoming too repetitive.
Much of the game will be spent battling ‘shadows’ in the games various dungeons. The fighting system is simple enough to become accustomed with, but complex enough to keep things from becoming stale too quickly. Most fights are initiated in the maze-like dungeons when either the player attacks a shadow or vice versa. If you attack an enemy from behind you will gain the advantage in battle and will be given the first move accordingly, and likewise if you are attacked first, you will forfeit the first move. This will then take you to the games turn-based fighting system, where you will have access to all of your persona’s and their attacks, as well as being able to directly control your teammates (though by default they will be controlled by AI).
The games titular ‘personas’ are avatars resembling various creatures and mythical figures which are used to fight in battle. They are first called when a character is forced to confront their inner turmoil, represented as a ‘shadow’ version of themselves, and prevails. Your protagonist is granted use of his persona relatively early on and you have the unique ability to acquire more as the game progresses. This can occur after certain battles where you are able to choose a card, some of which correspond to new persona’s. Once you have a few you are also able to fuse them to create others, with the ability to pass on traits of your choice. This adds depth to the combat, by ultimately allowing you to hone your personas strengths in battle. If a criticism could be leveled with the combat, it would be that whilst there are a lot of elemental and physical attacks in the game, you will reach a stage where they start feeling very similar to each other, and your enthusiasm for wanting to see what they do will wane. That aside, I did not personally feel that the combat outstayed its welcome, even in the latter stages, due in large part due to the presence of your friends in battle. I played through the game leaving my team to be controlled by AI (except during boss battles) which helped prevent the feeling that I was grinding through the battles on my own.
Then there is the social aspect, which is the area in which I feel the game most excels. You will spend a significant portion of the game going to school, hanging out with your friends, getting a job and generally going about your daily life. This not only helps flesh out various characters but also helps establish locations and generally make Inaba feel like a real rural town. The more time you spend with your main group of friends, the more your ‘social link’ with them will advance, granting advantages in battle the stronger it becomes. More importantly however is the fact that the more you learn about those characters the more likeable they become which in turn helps you feel more invested in the story.
Particular standouts on the character front are Chie and the bear-pun spewing Teddie, both very unique in their respective ways, who also add a great comedic element to the dialogue. The voice acting is thankfully well done across the board, which certainly helps considering the surprising amount of dialogue in the game.
Among the many strengths of Persona 4 would be the way in which thematic elements are dealt with in the game’s plot, which go a long way toward making the characters interesting and relatable. As the main cast consists mainly of high schoolers, the exploration of ‘identity’ is, fittingly, a consistent theme throughout. Characters are often found to be struggling with different aspects of their identity in a believable way. In one instance a character is having difficulty coping with career expectations heaped upon her, while another is struggling to reconcile their gender with their chosen career path.
This is also presented when various characters are forced to confront a suppressed side to their personality, which as mentioned above, once overcome, grants them use of their ‘persona’ in battle. The dungeons that you’ll be fighting in are themed according to the character contained within them, an early example of which would be in the form of a fairy tale-like castle for a character subconsciously looking to be rescued from a future they feel has been thrust upon them. However, some of these ideas are perhaps not explored as fully as I personally would have liked, which probably speaks to how intriguing I found them. They nevertheless add another dimension to the game’s narrative and keep the story engaging throughout.
Being a port of a PlayStation 2 title, Persona 4 Golden will not rank among the most visually advanced titles on the Vita, however that is by no means an issue here. Whilst the game doesn’t run at the Vita’s native resolution (HUD elements aside) it nonetheless appears sharp and detailed. The game blends traditional 3D gameplay with 2D anime-style character portraits during dialogue scenes, both of which make use of vibrant colours which look particularly great on the Vita’s OLED screen (original model). The game also contains some animated cutscenes at various moments which are a welcome addition.
Sound, more so even than the game’s visuals, sets the games tone perfectly. Persona 4’s soundtrack is highly memorable, with each dungeon having its own theme. It’s rare that I find myself listening to a games soundtrack after I’ve finished the game, but this was one of those times.
Persona 4 Golden strikes an incredible balance between it’s focus on social activities and character development and its traditional JRPG turn-based fighting. Not having played a game in this genre since Pokémon FireRed I was pleased by how Persona 4 was able to maintain my interest throughout its 80+ hour length by providing genuinely interesting characters and a compelling plot. Being on a handheld only improves the experience, where the Vita’s standby capability enables a great pick up and play experience, which certainly helps in a game of this length. Persona 4 is therefore highly recommended, whether in its PlayStation Vita or original PlayStation 2 incarnations, for anyone looking to play a great JRPG. Now comes the wait for Persona 5…
(Note: Persona 4 was originally released for the PlayStation 2 in 2008. This piece refers to the enhanced release for the PlayStation Vita in 2012, though they are for the most part the same game.)