With Persona 4 now out on PlayStation network as a PS2 classic, what better time is there to look back on this fabulous game?
Persona 4 came out on the PS2 in 2008, the same year that the likes of Grand Theft Auto 4 and Metal Gear Solid 4 were gracing the (then) current gen platforms... Truly, it was a year of fours (that even included DMC4 and Left 4 Dead).
It wasn't until recently though that I played Persona 4, it was a game that had been on my radar for a long time (thanks to Giant Bomb), but one that I just hadn't got round to playing. There were shiny new games to play and Persona 4 was apparently super long. Last year however, I picked up a Vita and therefore needed some games to play on it. This resulted in me obtaining a copy of Persona 4: Golden and then sinking ninety plus hours into it.
In this article I will be talking about Golden, as it is the only version I have played. I have however looked up the differences between this version and the original, and found myself very surprised as to what was new. A lot of what I loved about the game was new to this version, it was a real improvement with lots of smart additions or changes. Persona fusing was improved, there were new characters, other party members interacted with battles in great ways, there were whole new areas to go to and there were even a couple of new in depth scenes that were really memorable. This however, makes it rather strange that the PS3 is getting a mere port of the original, whereas the Vita got a lovely new version. I have a lot of friends who are excited to get a chance to play P4 for the first time, but I feel moderately sorry for them as they are getting an inferior version. It's still a great game though, if you haven't played it and you don't have a Vita, download it on PSN as soon as possible.
I'm a big RPG fan, but I've never really been tempted by JRPGs, I like my Planescape: Torments, my Dragon Ages and a large serving of Dark Souls. Before playing Persona 4, the JRPG genre was one I had basically ignored, thinking that I didn't really like it because it just didn't grab me. I had visions of angsty protagonists, spiky hair, long ellipsis filled speeches and lots of random encounters. People kept telling me Persona 4 was one of the best games ever though, so I had to try it. Also I like to dabble in all genres, so it was about time I gave JRPGs a proper shot (outside of Pokemon games, which I love).
Persona 4 for me proves that a genre isn't inherently bad, it's down to the games in it. A good game will be a good game no matter what. Persona 4, it turns out, is an outstanding game. I love its storytelling, I love its characters and I really love its combat. It's a really enjoyable game that satisfies my love of quirky stuff, as well as my appreciation for really well put together games. It just ticked a lot of my boxes in general, actually.
One thing I love in games is cohesive design, interlocking elements that make everything worthwhile. I also like a sense of urgency and choice, one inherent to the game design. I'm not talking about weighty moral decisions or story choices, I'm talking about normal gameplay decisions. I like the feeling that there are hundreds of things I need to do at any given time, but knowing that I can't do them all. I have to prioritise and make my decision, yes I will miss out on things, but I carve my own path through the game. Making you miss out on things can be a great design decisions as it makes choosing what to do, and when, really important and adds a uniqueness to your playthrough. With this in mind, Persona 4 is a game for me.
Persona 4 is very focused on you choosing how to spend your time. There's an excellent dungeon crawling JRPG at the centre (more on that later), but a lot of your time is spent in this weird social simulation. You play a school boy (who you name, I called him Stephen Stephens) and the game takes place over a year. In keeping with real life, you can't just do one thing. There is a lot going on in the life of a high school student and you can't just kill monsters all day. These are very formative years and you need to attend school, get some valuable life experiences and secure some strong friendships. The beauty of Persona 4 is that this is all part of the game.
I loved the process of deciding which characters I liked, spending time with them and ignoring others. I liked having free time available and lots of ways to spend it, I liked the time pressures of having to get something done by a certain day and knowing that every block of time had to be spent wisely. It's a great way of allowing the player to get as much out of it as they want, allowing them to indulge in the bits they really like and ignore the bits they perhaps don't. The game also heavily rewards you for your actions and manages to link everything in to a greater picture.
One of the greatest triumphs of Persona 4 is that it manages to make everything worthwhile. You can spend your whole time completely bumming around, but even doing this is netting you a reward. Mechanics link to mechanics, which link to other mechanics - nothing is separate. It seems that your school life is distinct from your secret life as a monster slayer, but it really isn't. Forming strong friendships makes those friends better party members, giving them clever battle bonuses and extra attacks. Also there is a core bank of stats which are improved upon by random activities and class work, these skills then factor into dialogue and choices which result in interesting story or useful things for battle. Once again, you can't do everything. You will be locked out of certain things, and on a first playthrough you cannot know all the secrets and timings needed to do everything. It's not designed that way though and that's the joy. Your journey is your own and it is shaped by your decisions.
Outside of this awesome interconnecting social stuff, and the brilliant characters that come with it, there's a really great combat system. It's strict turn based, but by exploiting weaknesses and playing smartly you can accrue yourself multiple turns in a row. There are also a number of interconnected mechanics that come into play - linking to your social stuff - that make combat oh so satisfying. Sometimes things just happen, but them being allowed to happen is a result of you putting time into the social aspect of the game. Battles start to go your way and your team starts to work together so well. The act of working out weaknesses and getting more mechanics as you make more (and stronger) friendships is so fun. The combat by itself is just brilliant, it's put together very well and is just satisfying. You soon become a Persona master, knowing the game back to front and expertly utilising every trick up your sleeve. It's such a fun game to play that before the final dungeon I ran every previous dungeon in the game again, in order. I just didn't want it to end.
I also like how time impacts your dungeon crawling. You can crawl for as long as you want, but at any point you can call it a day. That's it for today's session, let's try this again tomorrow with restored health and mana, but from the same floor. This spaced out combat really nicely added to the time pressure element. I need to get to this boss in a few days, but I can't do it all at once. I also really want to give the meatball challenge a go in town... Again, there are always so many potential decisions to be made and the game does the best job of making this process fluid.
At the moment I have been purely gushing praise on this game, which is fair enough - it's an outstanding game after all. However, I do have some problems with it that need addressing.
First of all, though the structure is mostly sublime, there are some roadblocks. The way the game is built means that things happen on certain days and only happen on those days. This is part of its brilliance, it's what creates that niggling feeling that you are missing out and should be doing something else. This feeling makes it so compelling and makes choice meaningful. On a few occasions, this works against it though. Before entering some of the dungeons you have to do a bit of detective work and these segments can kill the momentum. Occasionally not enough information is given and it becomes a process of walk around and talk to everybody, then it turns out that the person you need to talk to is only there on Thursdays and today is Friday. You messed up, but you don't feel it was your fault. Time is now wasting and there isn't much you can do. This is a very rare occurrence, but it happens. The obscurity works against it and the pace just crashes.
Another problem also arises from the occasional lack of information. At two points in the game arbitrary reasons can ruin your experience. Sixty hours in, I made some dialogue choices and the game ended. There was no indication that this wasn't the real end, but I was left wondering how people put ninety plus hours into this game and why the ending sucked so much. It turns out that if you give specific answers in dialogue, the game continues. The decisions didn't seem important though, and I was just saying what I wanted to say - what my character would say. There was no indication that I was ruining the game for myself... But I did. Luckily I had a previous save, so I jumped back and did it properly. Thirty hours later, the game does the same thing again, blocking me off from the proper ending (and the real end boss) because I went home when the game asked me if I wanted to. It told me to talk to all of my friends, I did so, it asked me if I wanted to go home and I went home. I then realised I had missed the proper ending, so I reloaded a save and did an arbitrary process to get an ending.
Let me make it clear. I have no problem with hiding content away, but the way you hide it has to make sense. In both these cases it just wasn't clear enough and the determining factors seemed random. These are slight blemishes on an outstanding game, but they can really dent your experience.
My real issue with the game though, is that it too often made me feel really uncomfortable. I get the argument that its representative of another culture, but that doesn't make it OK. I don't want lots of sexualised school child stuff forced down me and I really dislike the male power fantasy element of the game. There are a lot of amazing well rounded characters, but all the women fall apart and become entirely predictable once they meet the protagonist. Every single female party member falls head over heels in love with you and it just feels stupid. It devalues the characters and it doesn't make sense. In the game you can commit to a relationship - and I did. However, despite knowing that I was dating one of their, supposed, best friends the others just kept flirting with me and overtly trying to get into my pants... In front of the person I was dating. It was really uncomfortable and made for a lot of eye rolling moments.
It really takes away from your female characters if they all just exist to be dateable. They just go head over heels for you and it feels so out of place. I guess it's supposed to link to my male fantasies, but it totally doesn't... It's just really weird. I don't need everybody to fall in love with me to have a good time, or to enjoy playing a character. It doesn't feel realistic and it subtracts from the characters and narrative.
All this aside, Persona 4 is still one of my favourite games. If you haven't played it, PLAY IT. Play it now, find your Vita (or buy a Vita), get Golden and enjoy ninety hours of JRPG bliss. Sure it gets a bit uncomfortable in the sexual content department - and the women forgetting themselves so that they can swoon when you walk past is annoying - but it's still an outstanding game. It's on PS2, it's on the Vita and it's now on PS3. You are running out of excuses not to play it and not liking the genre isn't one of them. It's just a super excellent game that is expertly constructed, you like good games right? Well, play this one then!