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Persona 4 Golden – revisit a time in your life that never really existed

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Persona 4 Golden is a game of melancholic longing for a time that might never really have existed. Your life is still one of endless possibilities, you’re surrounded by friends with whom you have deep personal connections, and everything is a grand adventure.

In other words, it’s an idealised take on school life and the bonds formed there.

For someone for whom those days are a distant memory, with all the endless possibilities being questions long since answered, it holds a kind of nostalgic appeal. You wrap yourself in the comfortable lie because the grass is always greener, and it’s never so green as in memory.

The gameplay is a mix of social elements and dungeon crawling, with a big focus on the characters within the narrative and your relationship to them, going so far as to tie numerous gameplay mechanics into these social links.

It was this character focus that has been drawing me more into these types of games recently. With the death of the soul of Bioware, I’ve been looking for a consistent replacement for character driven adventure narratives. I have shied away from JRPGs, primarily due to the strong negative reaction I had to the Final Fantasy VII PC demo back in the late 90s, and the style of writing I see emerge so often from the genre. But recently I have been nibbling around the edges with games like the Danganronpa series (which I enjoyed) and Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (which I detested). Yet when Persona 4 Golden hit Steam it struck me as the kind of game made for my tastes, especially with fond memories of the feelings Katawa Shoujo invoked in me.

The game is heavily split between its social, almost visual novel elements with your friends, and what look to my eye to be more traditional turn-based battles in the dungeons. Yet at the same time there are numerous systems employed to try and tie the two together.

So, let’s start with the bad: the dungeon crawling. It’s dire.

Persona 4 Golden suffers from a problem seen in numerous RPGs before it which is that it loves numbers seemingly for the sake of numbers. You will be presented with vast swathes of information without the context necessary to make meaningful choices. This isn’t helped by the PC version not coming with the manual that console owners would have but having read that too it does little to alleviate the issue. Do you want to increase “Luck” by one? It will boost certain effects. By how much? Who knows? What enemy elements impact its effectiveness? Who knows? When I use items and abilities which affect the same thing, how does that tie into this stat? Who knows?

It seems all the more pointless because your companions follow fixed levelling paths, so have set abilities. And abilities are all you’re going to worry about, and these abilities have their own levels which in turn determine their effectiveness. So really, why have the stats at all? As I say though, this is far from a problem specific to this game and I really wish RPG designers would settle on stats or skills instead of trying to cram the two together which leads to this amorphous blob of nothing. This is without getting into the mess that is weapons and armour, or how the word “Attack” is used in multiple contexts and the game never tells you which one it’s using. This mess leads you to just pumping the numbers high and buying the most expensive gear. Don’t think, feel. And pump up the numbers.

But the real failing of the dungeon crawling is that the combat is mind-numbingly boring. Of my 84 hours, I’d guess about 30 hours were spent in dungeons, yet the systems just aren’t there to support this. Don’t get me wrong, the game has a lot of systems, and I mean a lot of systems, but it’s a mile wide and an inch deep. The game is about hitting enemy weaknesses to specific elements, and it never evolves beyond that. In 99% of combats the enemy would be dead before they could attack, existing only to add an unnecessary level grind.

You will constantly see the same enemies, often in the same groups, and once you’ve beaten a particular group combination you’ve beaten all of them, and it’s just going through the numbers of firing the same abilities in the same order. If I had a second monitor I’d have watched shows while I did this, that’s how little involvement the game needed from me. At times I felt like I was entering a trance as muscle memory took me through fights, with no requirement for my brain to engage at all. And every dungeon has eight to nine levels of this, with six to ten monster groups per level, and they even have the nerve to respawn sometimes. That’s a lot of menial combat.

The game then compounds its combat sins with bosses that don’t leverage anything the dungeon taught you about fighting. Instead they’re sponges which you wear down, and all those support skills that were irrelevant up until now suddenly become important. This doesn’t add depth, it just means you have one rotation for mobs and one rotation for bosses. And in the early boss fights sometimes they’ll do two area attacks in a row and everyone dies and there was nothing you could do about it.

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I could write an essay on the many failings of the game’s combat. Let me just round this section out by saying that the combat serves to undermine the game’s own headline feature: the personas. As per the reset of the game this is an over-engineered mess of opaque merges, unforeseeable bonuses, and unplannable ability trees. Again, almost all irrelevant because you just find one with abilities you need then merge or skill card in a couple of additions to shore up the gaps and that’s you done for the game, especially as stat boosts not carrying over means you’re actively discouraged from engaging in the fusing of personas, something that you’d think would be a major element of the game.

I finished the game around level 84, going to dungeons when the story required it or when companions asked to. I used three personas across the course of the game, relying almost exclusively on my High Pixie from level 30 onwards. I used the first three companions for the entire game because companions not in the party don’t gain XP. There’s catch-up XP, which naturally the game doesn’t tell you about, but that smells like grind and grind is anti-fun. You also can’t rotate companions mid-dungeon without using an item, so again the game is discouraging me from changing my party and so I obliged it.

But it’s the other half of the game which Persona is truly known for, and this is where the game shines. It has an incredibly strong cast of likable characters and achieves what any good character driven RPG should: a feeling of emptiness once the game ends and they’re no longer in your life. In a way this is what drove me to write this post, it’s part of me letting go of the cast and moving on.

You will spend your time in the game world either going through scripted events, with low to no consequence dialogue choices, or in choosing who to spend time with to improve your social links. There are gameplay benefits tied to social link improvement, but in the main you should spend time together with the people who interest you.

Some backstories are more interesting than others, but all of them were surprisingly well done, and all of them feel true to the character they’re about. You really do learn more about these people, get a view into their insecurities and help them overcome some emotional baggage. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but it’s well executed and done on a huge scale. Across the cast there is must be somewhere between 100-120 different scenes, and that doesn’t include the scenes specific to each romance. There are so many social links that I forgot about a couple completely and didn’t even find one of them until after I’d finished the main quest!

I would like to see these links tied more into the main scenes. It has a similar problem to Danganronpa (though less pronounced), which is that your relationship to someone happens in a bubble which doesn’t impact how they relate to you in primary scenes. The only exception to this is Valentine’s Day. This is a minor complaint though, and I struggle to think of many games that achieve this. Likewise, I wish they’d done a bit more with the romances, especially in the epilogue, but again, minor complaint.

There’s some true ending bullshit towards the end of the game, which isn’t a true ending at all so much as it is the ending. My game ended after 63 hours because in a dialogue tree I chose option A and not B. The game skips to the end and there’s absolutely no emotional climax, no feeling of closure, it just stops. So then I looked it up because that can’t be right, and sure enough, you need to make a series of specific choices in a final dialogue and then the game carries on for another twenty hours. The fuck?! The game even repeats this in the true ending but asking if you want to go home at one point, something it has done before, but foolish you if you say yes. Apparently, you need to say no, then visit some specific places, and then boom there’s another dungeon, another ending and a real epilogue.

True endings seem to be a thing in visual novels, but those are games with multiple endings designed into their core. Here it feels like the story is merely curtailed for no reason. The final twenty hours are especially important, acting as the denouncement and emotional closure. The secret dungeon is just unnecessary and adds a new climax where none was needed, I wish they’d just let the finale play out, but you can’t just ignore it because it adds a wonderful little epilogue to the game.

I really enjoyed my time with the game despite the combat, and I hear that Persona 5 has much improved gameplay systems. I’m hoping it will some day make its way to the PC because this feels like a franchise I could be a fan of.

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