Why They're Playing: Persona 4: Golden
We know you're busy making games. That's why from here on out, Gamasutra will be bringing you a regular look at what passionate game fans are talking about right now, tapping the zeitgeist to look at what makes these heroic new fan favorites tick. Sometimes cultural buzz isn't just about retail units, formal market research and sales figures. This time, we take a look at the complex appeal of Atlus' rich, explosive JRPG Persona 4: Golden.
Japanese role-playing games used to be console-sellers, but things have been quite different this generation. The titanic sun of Japan's software industry dominance has slowly set, and long-standing Eastern franchises have struggled to maintain their luster.
Among those with the hardest fall from grace has been the Final Fantasy franchise, with an incredibly mixed reception for FFXIII and a disaster for FFXIV, and with its decline has come the perception that there's hardly any market for JRPGs anymore, not outside a specific niche.
Atlus has been catering to niches for years, with its Western arm and its partners bravely bringing installments of the Shin Megami Tensei series, from which the Persona games spawn, to our shores. The company's taken bets on relatively-hardcore titles like Tactics Ogre or the Growlanser series, games that enjoy small but passionate audiences.
But the Persona games have exponentially gained buzz with each installment. It was 2007's Persona 3 that first broke through in a big way, combining modern jazz and hip hop soundtracks with sleek, stylized animation -- and the attention-grabbing imagery of young students summoning demons by holding guns to their heads. There was something about that game's subtly-dark storyline, which followed teenagers searching for their inner selves as they investigate supernatural phenomena, that grabbed people.
2008's Persona 4 was an incredibly lush and sharp iteration on some of the formulas Persona 3 had laid out, giving the player richer characters and a more well-realized world, ironing out some of the weaknesses in the battle system, and offering more, in general, to do.
It follows the story of a boy who moves to the country town of Inaba in the midst of fog-shrouded murder mysteries -- and ends up joining friends to chase down psychic traumas in a nightmarish technicolor TV world.
The current hardware climate has allowed Atlus to be quite iterative with both games, much to fans' delight. Persona 3 got an add-on disc called FES in the year following its release, and the PSP edition, Persona 3 Portable was broadly enhanced, adding in the mechanical improvements made to its systems in P4 -- and giving the player the option to play as a girl, completely shifting the lens of the game's key social interactions and romances.
Now, Persona 4 Golden is a similarly enhanced and expanded remake of Persona 4 that is poised to become one of the most popular titles on Sony's PSVita -- maybe even a system seller. If it does well, it'll resemble the old days when Sony relied on big, hundred-hour JRPGs to help move its hardware. So why this game, why now? What's all the buzz about?
It's a fresh approach to story. Back in the day, you'd see Western games shoot for "gritty realism," while JRPGs were teased for having too many winged androgynes and absurd sparkling god-monsters. This game has its share of that, to be sure -- but the imagery is strongly grounded in the game's ideas about human psyche. P4 contrasts the player's surreal objectives with the mundane and vivid normalcy of a real world.
The typical JRPG work of powering through dungeons and defeating bosses is set alongside a daily time and life management sim. Choices and tasks undertaken in the real world -- spending time with friends, allocating attention to school activities, clubs and studies -- determine your player's character progression and strength level in the dungeons. Somehow the grind of battle feels more meaningful when it's anchored to something relatable, like the quiet repetition of country life or bonding with school pals.
Alongside the rise of the Western RPG has come an increased focus on the tropes of high fantasy and science fiction, accompanied by dense lore and complex arrays of discoverable quests and equipment. P4 is highly linear, favoring a strong narrative, but offers players a number of statistical choices. This lets the players focus on elements they can directly control, while being free to let the story unfold.
One popular complaint about P4, both in Golden and in the original, is that the game takes a good two hours before it opens up fully to the players. It's a very slow burn of an exposition, spending time introducing the town of Inaba, life at home with host relatives, and the protagonist's school friends before allowing the player to take meaningful control. Lots of P4 fans actually like this, though, enjoying a game that focuses on emotional foundation.
Characters are part of gameplay. P3 and P4 alike both rely on the idea that the protagonist can create strange, monstrous alternate selves called Personas that can be summoned into battle. The strength of Personas depends on the relationships the player forges and cultivates with the other characters within the game. Spending time with characters within the game's world and pursuing their individual story arcs increases the amount of power Personas can receive.
Social interaction as directly impactful to strength is a mechanic that appeals to a lot of players, especially as they seem to get attached to the surprisingly complex characters as the story unfolds. For example, the player can help his drama club captain decide whether she wants to see her father before he dies, or his basketball teammate deal with the pressures of being from a rich family. Much to fans' delight, the player can choose to engender romances with some of the female characters in the game.
That this is actually a core part of the gameplay seems to be a major pillar of the game's appeal -- most successful roleplaying games include depth when it comes to options on friendships and romances.
It's more than a port. Remakes and updates of varying degrees of quality are everywhere these days. But Persona 4 Golden represents such a meaningful iteration on the beloved original game that it's worth a purchase not just for new players, but for those who already have the PS2 version and some means of playing it. The massive JRPG has had a few years to marinate in fans' minds, and fresh off the well-received PSP iteration for Persona 3, there are enough new features to make it seem like the right time to revisit.
The game adds two new social arcs, makes some subtle but meaningful changes to the pacing, and polishes the battle system even further, removing a few frustrating random elements in favor of more engaging options. It also provides more detailed feedback on some of the progressions and a few alternate avenues to fulfill daily goals, eliminating some of the system's opacity and giving players a greater sense of choice and control at each junction. It also adds a few more story events, providing new content to familiar players.
It has meaningful multiplayer. One of the most significant tweaks that P4 Golden includes is some cleverly-integrated multiplayer. With its use of message-leaving and the ability to summon another player when needed, Dark Souls and its predecessor charmed audiences by proving that multiplayer could mean more than competitive or co-operative arena spaces, and P4 Golden also takes this cue.
When given a block of time, connected players can touch the Vita's screen to get a population sampling about what others decided to do during the same period. Since success in the game revolves so much around planning for major upcoming events, the ability to do a sort of audience poll when confronted with many options is engaging.
Players can leave distress messages in the dungeons as well, giving powerful players the option to come to the aid of those in desperate straits. The massive and detail-heavy nature of JRPGs rewards those who use real-world social behavior to help solve problems, and sharing suggestions with other fans is simple but powerful.
Its localization is brilliant. The writing and dialogue in Persona 4 is an understated art, managing to delicately balance the Japanese cultural influences that attract a lot of JRPG fans with dialogue and text that feel modern and accessible.
P4 Golden's additions even include a couple references to subtle in-jokes within the fandom, showing that Atlus USA has a close acquaintance with its community and knows how to interpret language for it. In an era where much bigger Japanese companies have foundered as they try to pitch for Western appeal, that's no small feat.