“Late to the Game” is our editorial series looking back at classic titles through today’s lens, and reflecting on their influence and legacy from the perspective of those playing them for the first time.
In anticipation of the upcoming release of Persona 5 later this year (hopefully), we’re focusing our attention on the main series’ previous installment, Persona 4 (from the game’s 2012 rerelease, Persona 4 Golden on PS Vita). For more on our “Late to the Game” installments on the series, you can click here to check out everything from Metal Gear Solid, to Half-Life, and beyond – for now though, we’ll head into The Midnight Channel and see what awaits…
If there’s any genre that I’d willingly admit to being a bit inexperienced with (and definitely need to catch up more on), it’s the JRPG genre. While I’ve played my fair share (more when I was younger), it’s always pained me that I’ve missed out on several titles that are not only classics to the genre itself, but to gaming as a whole: make that a -100 hit against my nerd score at some point, for those keeping track.
In the holidays last year, I corrected that a bit by going back and playing through one of the genre’s all-time classics, Final Fantasy VII, and in the past month or so, I decided that this year would be the one where I go through and tackle some of the longstanding RPGs on my backlog. Titles like Final Fantasy X, various games in the Dragon Quest series, and more RPGs than I can possible hope to complete all the the way have taunted me for some time as I’ve slowly (but steadily) made progress through them.
One title in particular though has always stuck out to me, and while in most circumstances I wouldn’t consider playing the fourth installment in a hardcore JRPG series I have had no prior experience with, Persona 4 Golden is very much the exception to that rule for me. Where I went in to the portable title expecting to be a bit overwhelmed by its mechanics and needing a guide to get me through the experience, I never expected to be swept away by Persona 4 Golden‘s addictive loop of being an ordinary Japanese teenager by day, and a magic-wielding, dungeon-crawling warrior by night.
Normally, Persona 4 Golden is probably the type of game that I would avoid, in most circumstances for all those reasons. But that changed due to pretty persistent recommendations from multiple people: a few coming from friends and Persona fans such as our own Allisa James (Reviews Editor), and others in the game industry I’ve followed and respected for quite some time, such as the constant praise I’ve enjoyed hearing on the game from Kinda Funny‘s Greg Miller.
Part of my curiosity in wanting to play Persona 4 Golden was sparked by the trailers and reveals for Persona 5 throughout the last year or so. While the game missed its launch window of late last year (instead settling for this coming summer), the stylish and action-packed trailers were easily some of the best I’d seen throughout all of last year. Though I don’t consider myself a big fan of anime by any means, Persona 5 piqued my interest, and from many recommendations and feedback, was told that Persona 4 Golden was the best way to start.
With the title getting discounted down to just under $10 last fall in a Black Friday sale on PSN (pretty much a steal when looking at it in hindsight), I took a chance and bought the game. Once I started it up a few weeks ago, a title that I at first thought would be a bizarre experience I wouldn’t “get” at all, turned into one of the most addictive and enjoyable JRPG experiences I’ve had in quite some time.
As a spin-off from the Shin Megami Tensei series, Persona 4 Golden takes place in the fictional town of Inaba, as the player progresses through a year in the quant countryside town as your character (nicknamed “Sensei”) that previously lived a bustling city life.
From there, the game soon delves into a complex, twisted tale as the player becomes tangled not only in the day-to-day life of a group of Japanese teenagers – including hanging out with friends, studying at school, having a job, and building relationships – but also in the game’s supernatural elements that revolve around a series of murders and a mysterious dimension inside Inaba’s television sets, known only as “The Midnight Channel.”
While the beginning of the game struck me in the same way that most JRPGs typically begin – having your character enter a new world – and often where they sometimes can lose me with many RPGs being a bit of a slow burn, what really stuck with me in starting Persona 4 Golden was its intriguing blend of contrasting elements that bleeds all throughout its gameplay: the idea of two halves that seem worlds apart, but blend together in a striking, and most of all, compelling way.
In the first dozen hours or so that I spent with Persona 4 Golden, that feeling became clearer with the game’s deliberate pace and structure and how it blends together a dense and rich social simulation game with its turn-based RPG mechanics and strategy. By day, exploring the town of Inaba, hanging out with friends, getting a job, and forming relationships not only tied deeply into Persona 4 Golden‘s RPG systems, but evolved way beyond that into a story that I kept wanting to know more about, uncover its mysteries, and follow a group of characters that I could easily see myself spending another dozens of hours with (even beyond the eventual 60-70 hours I spent just in my first playthrough).
With the only other real Japanese dating sim-styled title that I had ever really tried before being Hatoful Boyfriend (which I eventually drifted away from due to the pace), the prospects of having to live out a year in the life of a Japanese teenager was one that seemed more “monotonous” or draining than anything I’d ever probably find entertaining or compelling.
Though I don’t play JRPGs too often, when I do I usually prefer playing them on handhelds for a variety of reasons, but the main ones being that I find myself way more likely to finish them by playing them in smaller chunks on my commutes or long trips, and that I can “zone out” a big and play them while doing other things: watching TV or listening to podcasts usually being my go-tos while playing through a handheld game and to get me through the process of grinding.
But more than that, Persona 4 Golden felt like a perfect compliment to the ways that I usually play RPGs on handhelds thanks to its simple, very digestible structure that really compliments being on the PS Vita extremely well. Over the course of each in-game “day” (broken up into various phases such as “Morning,” “After School,” etc.), it became clearer how each segment of Persona 4 Golden worked to compliment the other, as my my interactions and takes during the daytime help tremendously to make the dungeon-crawling portions of the game easier and more able to take on the game’s (many) challenges.
As addictive and deep as the game’s dungeons and RPG systems are (other than getting one-hit killed and swearing under my breath a few times on the train), the real heart of the Persona 4 Golden experience for me were the characters and developing my relationships with them over the year in Inaba. As one-by-one the characters were introduced and added to my party, my in-game relationships with each of the main characters grew just as deep as the ones I was experiencing in playing the game, whether it was going to the movies with Yosuke, walking down the riverside with Yukiko, or eating ridiculous food (and eventually forming a relationship) with Chie.
Part of that stemmed from the inviting, colorful, and upbeat feel of Persona 4 Golden, which invited me to approach each day with (almost) the same level of strategy and thought that I was putting in to the hundreds of battles I was fighting in while exploring The Midnight Channel.
As much as I put a lot of thought into venturing through The Midnight Channel (and especially in boss fights), managing my time between a job, hanging out with friends, studying, and everything else took just as much of an effort at times. Would I spend the day studying for my upcoming midterms, or hang out at Junes with the gang and uncover more of the murder mysteries at hand? Should I go to work to increase my Diligence, or have dinner with Chie and further our relationship?
Those were the types of situations and questions that I never would have really expected to dive into in an otherwise hardcore RPG, and was probably one of the aspects of the game that kept me coming back to it so often.
As much as I really enjoyed the dense layers of leveling, developing my characters’ skills, and growing/fusing the many Personas, I just as much enjoyed developing their Social Links and getting to know these characters more, even when delving in to some fairly heavy material, such as Kanji’s confusion (and reluctance) over his sexuality, Dojima’s troubled home life in taking care of Nanako, Rise’s difficulties in adjusting to a simpler life from celebrity, and more. Even then, the game balanced itself out with more lighthearted fare too, such as the (sometimes overbearing) carefree attitude of Teddie, or Chie’s obsession with kung fu training and delicious meals.
Where I often felt like I’d get hung up in most other JRPGs by some of the genre’s attributes like the constant need to grind, a slower-paced storytelling, and more, Persona 4 Golden instead proved to be an entirely addicting experience that I just couldn’t put down. While my Vita usually gets play every once in a while with a new PS+ title or the occasional game on sale, Persona 4 Golden kept me glued to it for weeks like few other titles that I’d played recently, and may have even just topped my previous favorite Vita title in the process (that being Gravity Rush).
Like my experience playing through Final Fantasy VII late last year, the constant recommendations and praise I’ve heard from friends, colleagues, favored games media folk, and more kept it as a title that I knew I had to play at some point down the line. While initially I was a little intimidated by what I was going in to – a 60-70 hour hardcore RPG with a very Japanese flavor – instead I came out of the experience with perhaps one of my new, favorite RPGs. Where I’d previously heard others explain Persona 4 Golden so passionately and curious to see what the game was like (especially with Persona 5) on the horizon, call it a case of coming through on the other side and, soon enough, I feel like I’ll be singing the game’s praises alongside them.
With Persona 5 (hopefully) confirmed for its final release this summer, I’m pretty darn stoked to go into the game alongside my friends that have become Persona fiends, and I’m happy to have finally gotten my feet wet with the series thanks to Persona 4 Golden. As much as I’m looking forward to playing Persona 5 later down the line, for now I wouldn’t mind booting up New Game+ and spending a little more time in Inaba, while I can.