Thoughts on Persona 4 Golden

So I recently got done burning a huge chunk of time finishing Persona 4 GoldenPersona 4 Golden on the Vita (with the “true ending”). I never played Persona 4 when it was originally released, so I figured that it would be a good game to pick up for the Vita. Overall, it’s a stellar example of “better than the sum of its parts.” There’s a lot to like, but I can also level a lot of critiques at the game.

The good

  • The story is fairly compelling. That is, for a game, it’s pretty good. It is full of well-worn character stereotypes, along with two bonus dungeons that really feel tacked on to this re-release, but the main story arc is satisfying enough. (Even if the resolution of the main story is telegraphed well in advance.) I guess the best way to describe it would be that it’s like a really, really long after school special.
  • There is a pretty solid set of interactions between the two parts of the game. The “high school time management” stuff has consequences for your equipment and powers in the dungeon crawling part of the game, and you’re motivated to do well in both parts of the game.
  • The translation and voice acting are really quite good. Humor and nuance are carried through into English, and given the amount of text in the game, this is no small feat. The dialogue fits the characters, and fits the mood of the game very well.
  • There is a ton of stuff to unlock and/or complete. You don’t need to do much of it to complete the game, but it’s enjoyable enough that you’ll be motivated to do a lot.

The not-so-good

  • The dungeon crawling becomes incredibly tedious as the game goes on. The dungeons are nearly all just tile swaps of each other, with few gimmicks or notable differences between them except the level and type of monsters you fight. Boring…
  • The bestiary of enemies you fight is truly insane, and really feels like a huge disconnect from the story and theme. And, what’s worse is that nobody ever really comments on it! When a reanimated table is trying to kill you, you think somebody might find it at least a little funny. I realize that these enemies get carried over between games in the series, but it just seems completely out of whack. And none of the “themed” areas of the game have themed enemies, which seems like a missed opportunity.
  • The combat system gets quite boring after a while — there aren’t enough twists and sub-systems to sustain 50+ hours of gameplay. The combat basically boils down to: 1) determine elemental weaknesses, 2) spam elemental attacks of that type, 3) perform all-out-attacks, 4) rinse and repeat. It feels like they even removed a little bit of complexity from P3 since I don’t think any creatures in P4 are resilient to all-out-attacks. None of the boss fights really change things up, either — the only variation is that you might need to heal or remove ailments at some point. There are no cases where the standard battle rules are subverted, or you are forced to use unusual aspects of the battle system — there are only a couple of “trick” encounters, and you don’t even need to recognize the trick to prevail.
  • Along similar lines, there’s no real incentive or reason to mix up your party — the main character can fill in pretty much any missing powers via judicious use of Personas. I used Yosuke, Chie, and Yukiko for basically the entire game, because they were the highest level characters I had.
  • There’s a decent amount of creepitude (Teddie is the #1 offender) and/or blatant fan-service, which just makes me roll my eyes. A lot of the movies in the game fit this description, actually.
  • The social link system of the game is broad, but very limited. There aren’t really any meaningful decisions to be made when advancing someone’s social link, and once you complete it, there’s no meaningful interactivity or payoff beyond the dungeon crawling benefits (persona unlocks, battle abilities, etc.). You can’t pick between character development trees, or unlock mutually exclusive abilities, or anything like that. There was some attempt in the re-release to give some flexibility as far as respec’ing yourself and your allies, but it’s not enough (and it takes too long to do so in-game — you have to burn up a chunk of time every time you want to either get the card for a power, or respec one of your allies’ powers).
  • You are also really incentivized to be a giant man-whore, in order to unlock all of the battle benefits for each party member. (There are, I think, two points in the game where man-whoring behavior is pointed out, but there are absolutely no consequences.) All of the benefits, like follow-up attacks, ability to withstand mortal wounds, ability to take fatal damage for the main character, and especially all of Rise’s party-wide boosts are ridiculously powerful, and it would be foolish not to unlock everything that you can.
  • There are some story bits that are just kind of dropped on the floor, and left unexplored. The presence of Junes in Inaba, the fate of certain characters, Dojima’s story arc, and some of the “school life” stuff is left unresolved or ignored in the last third of the game. This is kind of disappointing, because I feel that the plot or story could be even more engaging with just a bit more effort.

In spite of all of the negativity above, I really enjoyed playing the game. I just think that with some extra polish it could move from “pretty great niche JRPG” to “amazing game that could be recommended to any gamer.” I suppose there’s always next time.

I’m totally done with P4G now, though. The thought of “New Game+” after playing for dozens of hours already is pretty scary…

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