I love RPGs, but I’m basically horrible at playing them. A former colleague asked on Facebook the other day what percentage of role-playing games people finish. I’d say under 10% for me. It’s not a matter of difficulty, mind you. So often start them, then just stop around 6, 9, or 20 hours, never to return again.
There’s myriad excuses why; things just happen when you’re gaming. But as a result, I’ve only beaten 2 of the 10 numbered Final Fantasy games I played (including 13, which is probably the most-hated). I’ve completed 1 Disgaea, 1 Breath of Fire, 1 Fire Emblem, 1 Suikoden, and zero Persona games. I was playing and digging PS2’s Persona 3: FES when my launch-unit Playstation 3 shit the bed, around the 9-hour mark.
But now, I’m playing Persona 4 Golden on my Vita. And I’m loving it. I’m loving it so much, I decided to write about how great it is despite the fact that either people already know or don’t care about it.
Persona 4, like the others in the series, follows a group of high-school students in modern-day Japan. This setting has always appealed to me, and stood out in a genre so stuck on the medieval. Your characters rely on their Personas to do much of the fighting – demons they come to fuse with in one way or another. Not terribly dissimilar to Pokemon though predating it. And more recently, Persona installment stories entail going to a special netherworld – in P4’s case, by entering the TV with the help of a hollow bear named Teddy.
I’m going to say that Persona 4’s gameplay loop may be one of the most satisfying, not just in RPGs but gaming as a whole. As a high-school student, you’ll take tests or answer questions mid-lecture. You’ll participate in clubs (in my case, basketball and acting), study, and can pick up a part-time job. Many activities raise non-combat stats like Courage and Expression. Then there’s hanging around with friends, family, or that weird fox that shows up on the temple roof. Get a scooter and open up new parts of town, or learn to fish, or tend to your urban garden with your cute little cousin.
In Persona 4, time is finite. Morning turns to afternoon turns to evening. Monday beats Tuesday, etc. Sometimes the path is rigid: You’re taking finals or going on a class camping trip. But even on the most free of days, you’ll have to choose wisely as almost every choice has a time cost to go with their rewards. And some options only open up every once in a while depending on things like day of the week or the weather.
The more traditional RPG aspect takes place in creative, multi-level dungeons based on things like castles and bath houses. Each floor is a procedurally-generated maze with monsters and chests as you hunt for the stairway up. Monsters are usually roaming the halls, meaning you can try to run past or catch them by surprise.
Combat hasn’t changed much. Each ally has their own Persona that specializes in an elemental magic, while the player-character can stockpile a slew of Personas (and gain access to new ones through fusions). Personas level-up and have a variety of status-affecting spells to use both on friend and foe. Fighting is all about exploiting your enemy’s weakness to gain additional free shots. Take out the baddies quick enough, and you’ll get to choose some bonuses like new Personas or additional experience points. The humans themselves aren’t helpless; their weapons can drastically drain a life bar, and it never gets old monkey-piling on a weakened enemy.
It’s worth noting the bosses are no joke. To beat an optional one early on, I spent about 12 hours grinding levels and watching my entire party get wiped out by one stroke of his Rampage attack. Fortunately, you can restart on the same floor of the dungeon, and items let you leave to save or visit the Velvet room to fuse Personas or buy new skills for the ones you have before resuming from the floor you left off.
I love Persona’s art style. Because you’re not actually roaming around the non-dungeon areas or manually controlling the camera in them, the game’s artists were able to craft them to look as vibrant as possible. I just keep wanting to take screen-captures with my Vita. Persona 4 really captures the essence of everyday places like classrooms, restaurants, and grassy meadows.
The music is maybe even better than the visuals. Shoji Meguro has long been a master game-music composer, and I have several of his CDs thanks to Atlus often including them with their games (Catherine, Persona 1 Vita, SMT: Nocturne, etc.). I’ll have to find this game’s CD as well. I’ve only listened to the English voiceover, but it’s expertly done to the point that I see no need to switch. Having hilarious writing helps, of course. The songs are usually sung in English; as I read in an interview with Meguro-san, that’s because to non-native English speakers, English singing kind of just sounds like another instrument. As someone who was listening to J-pop long before I could speak Japanese, I can relate to that.
If I had to mention some negatives, I’d go with item management. First off, SP (skill points, usually MP in other RPGs) will go down rapidly – especially for your main character, who usually moves first. They must be restored with items, and those items are not hard to find. I haven’t found a simple store to just stock up on them, so I have to get them from dungeon chests. Just about everything you acquire – consumables, skill cards, sellable garbage, harvested vegetables – goes on one endless list. So when you’re searching for that item that boosts the groups attack-dodging ability, you may be hunting a while. And item descriptions aren’t always helpful. Why does the “help” for Rakukaja’s spell card mere tell me it bestows Rakukaja? I can’t remember what all those skills do!
Now 40 hours in, I doubt I’m even halfway through Persona 4 Golden yet. But as I’ve passed every traditional RPG stopping point, and the Vita is so intuitive as a portable system, I’ve no doubt that I’lll see my way to the end. And by that time, I may love the game even more!