Ever since I first experienced 3D graphics on the PSP, one of my biggest dreams for handheld gaming has been the concept of portable PlayStation 2 titles. With the PSP capable of emulating the PS1, console classics such as Final Fantasy VII-IX, Legacy of Kain and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night were all instantly transformed into portable titles – and I must admit, I hoped that the same system would appear on the Vita, only with the PS Store’s PS2 Classics range this time around. Sadly, it seems that this isn’t a feature we’ll be seeing any time soon – if it’s even possible for the Vita to accomplish, as there’s a difference between the Vita being able to run games of PS2 quality, and running games that were built to run on PS2 hardware. However, that’s not to say that experiencing the PS2′s library is an impossibility in itself – in fact, some developers are now taking the opportunity to release Vita versions of console games – and in the process, making them even better than the originals. We’ve already had Metal Gear Solid HD Collection – and now we have Persona 4: Golden.
(I’ll split the review into two sections – if you’ve already played the original and just want to know about what’s changed – feel free to skip ahead.)
Set in the quiet rural town of Inaba in Japan, Persona 4 puts you in the shoes of a transfer student who is moving in with his uncle and cousin while his parents are overseas. However, life in the countryside turns out to be far more eventful than expected when the body of a TV announcer is found dead, hanging from an antenna on a house – followed by a string of strange events involving people disappearing. Stranger still, the hero and his friends find themselves caught up in the mysteries as they discover that they have the ability to enter a secret world within the TV World, a monster infested realm that can be accessed by entering a TV screen. Using the powers of Persona – summoning creatures from within themselves – they decide to investigate the TV World to try to solve the case and work out who’s pulling the strings.
The game plays as a strange mix of life simulation and dungeon crawler – if you’ve played Persona 3, it will feel instantly familiar. The game takes place over the course of one school year, and days progress through your general school life going to classes and bonding with your friends and family. By choosing who to spend time with, you may develop Social Links, which grant you bonuses when fusing different types of Persona for use in battle – as well as developing that relationship and seeing more of that characters’ story unfold. However, you must also work on building your character by studying and taking up part-time work – so it’s very much about time management to make the most of your school life. While wandering about Inaba, you may also visit shops to buy gear for battle, as well as accepting side missions from characters around the town.
However, you must also consider using your time to work on exploring the TV world with Chie, Yosuke and co. Each month or so, you will have a set period of time to reach the end of the latest dungeon that is available in the TV world – if you don’t, your mission will fail and it’s game over. Thankfully, though, the game gives you enough time to progress at a comfortable pace, so the pressure isn’t too high. One notable improvement from Persona 3 is that each dungeon has a story line that ties into events going on in Inaba – while Persona 3′s dungeon made me feel as though I was progressing through the dungeon simply because I had to, Persona 4 gives plenty of motivation to make it feel a little bit less like a grind-fest and more like you are working towards something tangible. Similarly, the bosses you face are related to the game’s cast, so the sim and RPG elements of the game mesh well.
The dungeons are still randomly generated, as was the case with the previous title, and involve exploring each floor, battling demons in search of loot and the stairs to progress to the next level. Thankfully, while the floors can still be a little samey at times, each dungeon has a more distinct theme, making locations more interesting to explore. Once you decide to retire for the day (whether you’ve run out of SP used for magic, or simply had enough for the day), you can leave at any time using an item, and pick up where you left off next time you enter the TV World.
Those familiar to Shin Megami Tensei/Persona‘s battle system will feel right at home with the usual array of combat skills, and newcomers should pick it up fairly quickly once you get the hang of all the various skill names and their effects (“Garu”, “Tarukaja”, “Dia” being your basic “Wind magic”, “Attack booster” and “Healing” spells, for instance), which is always the case when someone plays their first SMT title. The game’s combat revolves around a turn based battle system, and exploiting enemies’ elemental weaknesses will leave them open to more attacks – but of course, they can do the same to you. Knock an entire group of enemies to the ground by exploiting all of their weaknesses, and you can unleash a group attack that will slam them all for huge damage. Other than that, it’s all pretty tried-and-true turn based combat. Your teammates can operate independently, making their own choices in battle, but if you (like me) prefer to take a more hands-0n approach, you can choose to make decisions for each fighter one at a time, which was a feature some felt Persona 3 lacked.
The real trick to combat lies in Persona fusion, which allows you to build on your strength and skill set. While your party each have one Persona that levels up as you use that particular character, the hero has the ability to hold multiple Personas, and switch between them during combat. By fusing Personas together, you can create new, more powerful demons and learn new techniques, as well as changing your own elemental defenses and weaknesses. While you can only hold a set number of Persona’s, you can thankfully “register” any you have on hand, which allows you to recall that Persona at any time for a fee. Of course, fusion is also where your Social Links really come into play – fusing a Persona within the “arcana” for which you have established a matching relationship will boost the amount of experience the Persona gains, giving you a stronger creature as a result.
While I feel that Persona 4 is a great improvement on the previous title - Persona still isn’t for everyone. If you don’t enjoy having to fight through swathes of enemies to grind levels and are purely in it for an epic RPG story, that’s not what Persona is. If anything, the dungeons and combat are more like challenges that are placed between the “core” sim aspect of the game. Put simply – if you don’t enjoy hanging out with Yosuke and pals, working on your school life and finding out the truth behind the murders, then you probably won’t get much out of Persona 4: Golden. However, it’s easy to get sucked into the day-to-day activities of the residents of Inaba and bonding with them – there’s so much character oozing out of them all, and of course you can always pick and choose your favourites when it comes to time-management. Whether you spend your afternoons hanging with Kou and Daisuke at the gym, or helping your little cousin Nanako get along in life, there’s so many little sub-plots going on that you’ll no doubt find many to enjoy.
As for the things that distinguish Persona 4: Golden from the PS2 counterpart? Well, just about everything has been worked upon. If you’re already a big fan of the original game – buy this now. Unlike Persona 3 Portable, nothing has been sacrificed for the portability aspect of Golden. The visuals are sharp, the sound is clear, and playing in small chunks or long periods both work wonderfully with the Vita format.
Not only that, but new content has been added to the game. There are a couple of new Social Links to develop – one a pre-existing character, the other a new girl called Marie, who resides in the Velvet Room where fusions take place. And along with these new Social Links come two new Arcana to match – meaning that there are new Personas to fuse as well. Existing Social Links have also been expanded – working on the links with your party members will allow them to unlock extra moves for combat, such as Yukiko’s Mudo skills.
Inaba has some new things to offer, too. A new garden feature has been added, allowing you to grow vegetables with Nanako and Dojima. Besides adding some new scenes, growing vegetables gives you a great way to get extra items for the TV World, such as vegetables that can be used to refill SP or teleport out of the dungeon – which provides a much cheaper alternative to buying them.
Among other new features, there’s a new evening time period, which allows you to sneak out at night and work on your Social Links some more. You can even get an evening job later on – in a game like this, more time to play with is a godsend. Of course, if you tire yourself out exploring dungeons beforehand, you’ll be too tired though!
Golden also adds some more core gameplay features, such as new Super Easy/Hard modes, extra quests – and perhaps best of all, refined Shuffle Time and Persona Fusion. Cards can now be chosen after battles allowing you to get what you really need, and you can also add new skill cards (more on this in a moment), permanent stat boosts for your currently equipped Persona, and more. It’s also possible to pick certain cards that allow you to pick up more cards from that shuffle – though some come with negative side-effects such as halving the EXP received from that fight. However, pick up all the cards and you get a sweep – which gives you a guaranteed shuffle after the next fight and will allow you to take more cards. Keep chaining these up each fight, and you can get a lot of stuff.
It’s clear they wanted to make the game a lot more accessible than before, as working with Personas in the Velvet Room is a lot friendlier now. When fusing Personas, you may select which skills you wish to pass down to the result – which is a lot faster than constantly re-selecting until you get what you want. Not only that, but skill cards collected after battle can be used once to teach any Persona a specific ability. However, if you instead give that card to Marie, she will then add it to her selection, and will sell you as many copies of that card as you like! Building your dream team is a lot easier this time, and I loved being able to develop the initial Izanagi Persona as the game progressed so he remained useful.
Similar to the original, there are alternate costumes for characters – however, rather than tying alternate costumes to specific armour, there’s now an extra equipment category specific to clothing – meaning you can now play around with the characters’ appearances without sacrificing a huge stat boost just to see them in their winter clothes.
Lastly, the game does incorporate a couple of wi-fi features with some inventive network capabilities. During the daytime, you can use “The Voice” at any time to fill the screen with speech bubbles representing what choices other players made in regards to their activities for that day – if you’re not quite sure what to do. In dungeons, you can click the “SOS” button at any one time per visit to the TV World – doing so will send out a request, to which another player can respond by giving you a little health or similar boost in te next battle. The drawback of the networking mode, however, is that the game does spend a little longer loading to send/receive data to and from the network. This feature may appeal to some players, but you do have the option to keep network features turned off, which was what I decided to do as I didn’t find them that interesting. This of course means that extra bit of loading time doesn’t pop up while you’re playing, too.
All in all, Persona 4: Golden is a game with plenty to offer, and is perhaps the most fleshed-out Persona game to date – and on a handheld at that! The game’s story and characters are sure to keep people entertained, and both the sim and dungeon crawling aspects are great for short periods if you don’t want to sit and play for a long time (but by all means, do!). While the Vita is a powerful console with some interesting games to offer, games like this really show what the console can do when it comes to revitalising older games. Offering a full Persona experience with more features than the original PS2 release, it’s easy to see why the game’s already been a huge hit in Japan, and I really hope we’ll be seeing similar releases for Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga not too far down the line.
+ Excellent handheld remaster of the PS2 title
+ Great selection of new features
+ Good for short or long periods of play
+ Enjoyable cast of characters
+ Good balance of life-sim and dungeon crawling
- Randomly generated dungeons can be a little bland at times
Of course, I’m really hoping other developers will take note – and perhaps I’ll finally get my dream of seeing all my favourite PS2 games in portable form – Final Fantasy, Castlevania, Kingdom Hearts, Devil May Cry, God Hand or Okami next, please!
Persona 4 Golden is released on the 22nd of February for PlayStation Vita
The Plus XP Review System
At Plus XP we like to review games a little differently. Instead of giving the usual score out of 10 like most review site do, all games we review are scored out of 100 (or in Plus XP terms 100XP). Each review will feature a XP bar at the bottom of the page representing the score given to a game.