Once every 42 years, a developer drops a bombshell on consumers just to assure everyone that leaks and complacency haven't saturated gaming culture. Today is such a day, as Atlus shadow drops Persona 4 Golden (P4G) on everyone like me who's never had an opportunity to play this legendary title. According to aggregate websites, this was the top critic-reviewed PSP Vita title, and thus far, I can understand why that was the case...back then.
Unfortunately, Japanese developers and publishers don't have a storied tradition of creating quality ports to PC. For whatever reason, this practice creates a whole host of problems. Truly, it's a mystery that ranks right up there with Nintendo's awful netcode. In terms of P4G, this is a fairly competent port. The UI, graphics, and overall presentation translate well to my rig, which I'd rank as high average by today's standards. What hasn't been great are the two crashes I've experienced in the first 45 hours. One occurred when my USB controller lost connection and the other when I lost internet connectivity. Fortunately, I was between rote social activities in-game, so I didn't lose much progress, but if this had occurred two and a half hours into a dungeon with no save points? Hoo boy.
So, despite its age, P4G has made a relatively smooth landing to PC with regard to technical qualities, but what about the rest of the package? Thus far, P4G's story is on the higher end of JRPG fare, but it's certainly nothing revolutionary. Hero (the lead protagonist) is a city boy who moves in with his uncle and cousin in Inaba, a countryside town. Early on, he finds friends who welcome him to his high school life. By Japanese standards, these breezy high school days are fairly typical with the exception of TVs displaying bizarre behavior from missing students at midnight when it rains. The core crew find themselves in a mysterious world later on wherein they use Personas — otherworldly beings similar to creepy Pokémon — to defend themselves and come to terms with their inner selves that they don't initially accept.
Persona's central themes tend to rely on this: accepting the entirety of oneself and continuing to improve to overcome weakness. We may not like what we see when we're confronted with our inner demons, but we should challenge ourselves (with the help of our friends) to meet them head on. The message is quite JRPG and delivered in a fashion one might expect from a JRPG.
Fans of the series will recognize the pattern presented here: spend some time dungeon crawling, spend a lot of time socializing. Most days, players have the opportunity to walk around Inaba, whether it's the local shopping district, the high school, or the up-and-coming commercial giant, Junes. After school, Hero can spend time with friends, go to club activities, or go to a part-time job. In the evening hours, spare time can be spent improving one's skills or perhaps spending even more time with friends. The next day is much the same. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
While this can feel monotonous for some, the developers have clearly taken great care in crafting likable characters who I want to spend time with. I also enjoy the agency I feel each day as there's certainly no shortage of activities I can engage in. In fact, the challenge is usually deciding who or what to prioritize. What's more, player choices decide how the story unfolds. Want to know more about your fellow friend from the city? Focus on him. Want to become a soccer star? Make sure to go to practice a few times a week. Want to ace midterms and become Mr. Popular? Hit the books at the school library to improve your Knowledge stat. But when is the best time to study? Hmm.
Socializing aside, players can engage in traditional RPG turn-based battles. Using their Personas, our ordinary high school kids become menacing combatants with the ability to smack demons with golf clubs or conjure up the elements to exploit weaknesses. Similar to the daily routine outside, grinding away two or so hours in a standard JRPG dungeon can feel repetitive, but the battles are challenging and engaging enough to keep one's attention, even on normal difficulty. If one gets wiped out, one can always begin again on the same floor, but progress on that floor will be lost. Fortunately, boss encounters seem to always occur right after ascending the stairs, so not much time feels like it's lost.
What separates P4G from other traditional JRPGs is the complexity of the abilities. Even normal enemies can serve as a threat with a variety of spells and ailments. Efficient use of one's resources is necessary for a successful dungeon run, or one can simply grind the old-fashioned way. During boss battles, I found myself restarting a couple times until I eventually solved the puzzle. Unfortunately, if the hero dies, the entire battle is lost, so if an enemy happens to use a supermove and gets lucky, the entire affair is over. This feels like a dated mechanic that should have never been implemented in any game in the first place, but purists will take heart in knowing that this is a true 1-to-1 port.
One of the joys in exploiting enemy weaknesses is that players have a chance to enter Shuffle Time after combat. This is a reward sequence in which random cards are dealt out with mostly beneficial effects. Depending on what players want, they can upgrade their equipped Persona, obtain new Personas, earn or lose gold and experience, or heal up. Random reward systems like this can entice and accent the strategy employed in combat. As if quickly killing the enemies wasn't good enough already.
Even though P4G is in no way a new game visually, the art and style carry it a long way. At the outset, players will realize this is a game several years old, but few can honestly contest that it still looks good. Similarly, the music holds up. With incredible vocal and ambient tracks, I look forward to my breezy high school life just because of the tunes.
Truth be told, I've looked forward to playing Persona 4 Golden for several reasons. Chiefly, by reputation alone, this has been a bucket list game for me. Plus, I love the theme and setting just because of my time spent teaching in Japan. Has it met my expectations? I try to withhold judgment until a game's over, but after spending so much time with it already, I admit that I'm enjoying it with slight reservation. The plot and character development are hardly believable, and I'm setting aside the alternate dimensions and Personas. I simply don't buy that these high school kids are confronted with murderous situations and then can so easily carry on with their daily lives.
For the purposes of the game, some suspension of disbelief is necessary, but more should have been done to communicate just how potentially traumatizing all this is to the youths. Also, the gameplay is a tad dated, and while I enjoy it, I'm not sure everyone will. That said, this is some of the best traditional JRPG gameplay I've experienced to date. I'm eager to complete my notoriously long journey through P4G, and I'll be back to share my final thoughts.