By Boogie Knight:
Complaining about the identity crisis of major franchises seems to be something I’m doing a lot lately, because so many major franchises have become increasingly bland in the mindless attempt to “capture a wider audience.” So how we go over a sequel which is a dramatic departure from the series that I like, Persona 4: The Golden. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it was actually Persona 3 which paved the way, but the Vita port of Persona 4 is the most recent and refines what Persona 3 started.
In Persona 4: The Golden, you play a quiet, manipulative prick who is driven by the need to be liked by everybody. Plucked out of his big city home, our hero is plopped into a small community at the same time a brutal murder takes place and events unfold which put him in a position to prevent future murders and hopefully track down the killer.
Through battle a player can acquire his Stands, I mean Personas, but through fusion a player sacrifices Personas in order to create a brand new one with skills from the ingredients. Further, the grind which can come from having multiple Personas to call on is diminished through experience point bonuses granted during fusion through the development of Social Links. Social Links come from meeting and getting to know people in the town.
The core aspect of the game is time management as the player balances building bonds with the residents of Inaba and fighting through the dungeons in order to level up and progress through the main story. Arguably, the games mechanics have you live like a superhero even more that Arkham Asylum. While there are JRPGs which have date sim elements, they either do the Azure Dreams thing where it is purely optional and has no effect on gameplay, or they do the Record of Agarest War thing where you have to go through a strictly regimented order and precise actions to unlock the True End.
Thinking on the matter more, one of the things which makes Persona 4: The Golden work so well is that it takes the best of Western and Japanese RPGs. It has the Japanese characteristics of character focused and driven stories with the quality control associated with Japanese games, while it has customization and freedom generally associated with Western RPGs. Completing all the Social Links in one go is the crown of achievement, but it’s not required to get the True End and in truth the player can go about his time focused or spread out however they like. In my first run, I spent most of my time in my room focused on reading all the books with few close friends and pursuing a romance with one of the girls, which oddly was much like my real high school experience except for the remote chance of getting lucky.
On the second run, I went for the prize, I shot for all Social Links in one go. Considering that the goal is talking to a bunch of people one would think of this as a slow, meandering process. Yet, I am hard pressed to think of another game where I moved at such a breakneck speed to reach a goal legitimately. Progress is neatly divvied up with positive reinforcement along the way. It is very easy to get caught up in the process and want to keep playing for one more ingame day to make just a little bit more progress. To be blunt, this playthrough made me wonder if the dungeon crawling is a vestigial limb from an old convention to RPGs we just blindly accepted, as I felt like that screwed up the rhythm of the game with treks into samey dungeons. Granted, the did have their own themes, and were an upgrade from Tartarus which you scaled for no reason other than to level up for the boss fight, but better level design that doesn’t dramatically inflate production costs would be welcome.
True to form in the date sim tradition, the player character has numerous attributes such as Courage and Expression which is necessary to advance some Social Links and in rare cases be able to use certain dialogue options. I recall the first time I tried certain dialogue options which told me that I had insufficient Courage and being wowed, which can come off as odd but to me it communicated that the player was taking an unremarkable shlub and molding them into the most amazing person in the world. A nice thought that the player isn’t starting off with a character who skates through the plot because they are awesome because they are the main character.
Of course, The Golden is the second version of Persona 4 and there have be ample new features to justify rebuying a game and a Vita as well. The biggest addition worth mentioning are the two additional Social Links: Aeon and The Jester. Aeon was introduced in the FES version of Persona 3 because Yukari having a Social Link while Aegis didn’t was an oversight which needed to be fixed. In this game, Aeon is a brand new character who fills in some details about the supernatural stuff in the story, while the Jester is an established character who could already be guessed by people who already finished the game. The Jester also gives the player the option for an evil ending which left a sinking feeling but it was a good choice to allow the option at all. These Social Links are two great additions, and they certainly take that silly POWA’ OF FRIENDSHIP thing to an insane new level.
Persona 3: FES had a few select pieces of gear which changed the look of the characters in the dungeon, which was nice but eventually the armor would become obsolete and not very practical late game. The Golden fixes this by having a separate slot for costumes so that stats can be improved with the perpetual arms race while you can play with various looks for the party members.
Another major addition are the scooters which can be accessed before the summer. Take one for a ride around town to get a feel for the place, and eventually you can venture into spots like Okina City which you only saw briefly in scenes with other characters as well as a beach (which unfortunately means an expansion of the fishing minigame). Taking trips with allies on scooters gives the player an opportunity not only for them to relearn forgotten skills, but potentially learn new ones which can make them even more effective.
Which reminds me, several of the skill selections for party members have been tweaked and overall I have to think that in every case it is for the best (Though for the life of me I cannot figure out how to make the most out of Chie yet again). Naoto was always good for making whole swaths of enemies just die, but with h- improvements, the tiny detective can deal solid damage and support magic for any boss encounter. After regular battles, the previous version made bonuses a game where you had to pick the reward which was shown on a card, turned over and spun around. More annoying than challenging, it was pretty easy to get the experience bonus every time it was available. There is a far greater challenge this time around as all the rewards are lain out before you and many of them are so damn good it’s hard to pick one. Thus a player might be able to accept a penalty in rewards for more turns to pick juicier rewards.
I will get scolded if I fail to mention the additional winter scenarios. The original game abruptly ended at Christmas Eve, then time skipped all the way to March for the finale. Very irksome for players with more Social Links they wanted to develop, even more so since beating the dungeon in December early was actually a penalized for potential social butterflies.
Some reasonable people (and people who think the new fans are evil lepers who are dumbing down the fanbase) might wonder why in the case of the Persona games I am all for the new direction while I give games like Resident Evil 6 more bile than I even knew I could make. To put it succinctly, it all comes down to one word: Inspired. Yes, the first two (actually three) Persona games were fricking awesome, but aside from the Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure aspect of the Personas and a little more character focus there was not much to differentiate Persona from the rest of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise. With Persona now being the most recognized brand to non-SMT fans, it’s easy to completely forget than when Persona 3 first came out the game was risky as it forged a very different path and identity from the rest of the franchise.
What has made the two recent installments of the Persona series so spectacular is the inspired direction taken. The approach of many mainstream titles has been to ape more successful games and hope to make the magic happen for them. In short, the AAA game market right now is little more than an insanely expensive cargo cult. While the basic ideas which recent Persona games have utilized are not entirely original, Atlus did not blindly imitate but rather took a fresh and original spin on established concepts. What makes a role playing game is not turn based combat, leveling up, and constantly scrounging for slightly better equipment but rather (shocking to admit) role playing. As the player tries to warm up to various characters with their own hopes, dreams, and drama they might easily play different roles, different “personas” if you will, while trying to figure out how that character ticks and act accordingly. Contrast that with other role playing games where it only pays off to be pure saint or pure monster, implementing social masks into a video game is a genuinely inspired direction.
Some fans are going to reflexively complain that with all the new direction which breaks from tradition as well as the new filthy Persona fans the SMT brand as a whole will suffer. However, the strength of the SMT franchise is that it is not entirely one thing. Literally for decades, the franchise has had offshoots which allow for playing around with different gameplay, tone, and thematic elements. That it won’t be until this summer that Shin Megami Tensei IV comes out, when the over 20 year old franchise already has had a boatload of titles to its name tells me that Atlus has a much better sense of what the series can be than other companies do with their own franchises. Just look at the games Square Enix has been playing with how they have been numbering thier games lately.