I really don't play a lot of Japanese Role Playing Games. Sure, I've spent some time with various Final Fantasy games (VII and X to be precise), and I have tried to get into some other similar games in the past, but none of the really managed to suck me in and hold my attention for more then a few hours before I lost interest. Until I got Persona 4 Golden. In Persona 4 you are a Japanese a high school student who is sent to spend a year with his uncle in small town of Inaba while his parents are overseas. While on the train there you are told in a dream that the next year in your life is a turning point in your destiny, and that you will have a year to solve a great mystery. Soon after you get to Inaba, dead bodies start to show up hanging from telephone poles and the like, and you discover that you have the ability to enter another strange universe through TV screens.
The story is engaging and well told, and somehow managed to include a few plot twists that I didn't see coming, as well as a number that I saw coming a while in advance. More important than the story however, is the individual characters that you interact with. Each one is unique and well rounded without exception. A core theme in Persona 4 is that there is more to everyone than what we see, and the game does an excellent job demonstrating this with its large cast of characters. The story also did a good job of engaging me emotionally, with more then a few moments that left me doubled over laughing, and a few that made me feel like someone was chopping onions nearby. Most of the story is told through text overlaid on partially voice acted in game cutscenes that use some rather mediocre canned animations. There are a few hand drawn anime cutscenes that are absolutely beautiful, but they are all very short, and I felt like there should have been a lot more of them, as some of the visually uninspired text-heavy in-engine cutscenes started to bug me after awhile.
The gameplay is split between two equally engaging areas: the normal world where you do stuff like go to school, build relationships, and study, and the TV world where you fight your way through a series of multi-level dungeons, each one with a completely unique visual aesthetic and sound track. You will spend more time in the normal world then the TV one though, and this is where all of the interesting characters come into play. A big part of the game is building relationships with the people around you, and the way the relationship mechanics are executed is just stellar. Every single major character has his or her own major story line that you follow just by spending time with them, and in every case you come away with a new level of understanding concerning the people who you spend time with. You actually get bonuses when dungeon crawling in the TV world from spending time with people. The other activities you do in the real world are also generally pretty entertaining, although I never really did get around to fishing or bug catching. I did have one issue, however, with the sections of the game that took part in class, as the game would often ask me to answer questions that are probably common knowledge for anyone who has gone to school for more then a few years in Japan. Not being from Japan, I had to google a lot of answers because if you answer incorrectly, there are some (albeit minor) penalties. What really surprised me was how the mechanics of day-to-day life in the real world were well enough executed that I never found myself desperately wishing to get to the next dungeon crawling sequence.
The dungeon crawling sections of that game are just as polished as the rest of the game, and tend to wildly vary in thematically if not mechanically. Each dungeon is about ten levels in size, and progressing through a given dungeon is generally pretty straight forward, although there was one dungeon that did require some backtracking (which the game didn't explain to me, so I spent about an hour aimlessly wandering around before I googled the solution). Rather then using the random encounter system common to so many JRPGs, every encounter is represented by a mobile amorphous blob that will notice and attack you if you get too close, triggering the actual encounter. You can also initiate a normal encounter by attacking directly from the front, although if you get the drop on an enemy (or ‘shadow’ as that is what the game calls them) you get an advantage that allows you an extra turn first, although a shadow can get the same advantage if it attacks you from behind.
Speaking of the actual battles, the battle system is really strong turn-based one that is actually quite complex and engaging, but could probably be better explained. Every one in your party (which consists of you and up to three other characters at any one time) has a basic attack that does damage based on the equipped weapon (which counts as physical damage) and a “persona” with up to eight skills, both active and passive. Your party members always have the same personas unless you max out your relationship status with them, in which case their persona evolves into a more advance form that also looks awesome. You start with a basic persona, but you can replace it with persona cards found after battles, and by fusing these persona cards once outside of the TV world. There are a lot of different personas with a lot of different abilities, and once again this is an area where the game could do a better job of explaining itself. Knowing the various strengths and weakness of your enemies is also crucial to your success, as an attack that exploits a weakness knocks an enemy down and allows you another attack (and with proper planning and a field full of knocked down enemies you can do an extra-powerful attack with your entire party), while some enemies reflect attacks of certain types. Know your enemy, or you will do what I did, and hit an enemy that reflects physical attacks with a physical attack that deals high damage to all targets on the field and has been charged for double damage, thus wiping your entire party, which is at full health.
Graphically, the game is a mixed bag. Persona 4 originally came out on the Playstation 2 in 2008, and it probably didn't even look all that great back then. Most of the time the camera is pulled pretty far back so you can't see to much detail, and the character portraits are all hand drawn, but even far away, the character models look a bit strange, like an uncanny combination of normal and anime style, with heads that are just a little bit too big. Up close, (particularly when walking around school) the character models actually look pretty bad, with features on faces being uninspired, simple low-res textures rather then even the most basic geometry. I wasn't expecting Uncharted: Golden Abyss levels of detail, but this game looks pretty ugly even when compared to the Metal Gear Solid HD collection. Thankfully, the game has some of the best and most interesting monster designs I have ever seen. The sheer variety and (occasional) strangeness of the designs never ceased to impress me, and while most of the attack animations are pretty simple, they all carry a sense of weight, and seem to ooze character.
As far as technical issue go, I didn't notice any bugs, and load times were very fast. Persona 4 Golden mostly stuck to the controls of the original Playstation 2 release, and did not try to make use of any of the Vita's unique controls such as the touch screens or the accelerometer. There is one menu where you can use the front touch screen, but it was a menu that I literally never used.
It took me about forty hours to beat Persona first time around. There is an asterisk attached to that number however, as I didn't read any guides, and I got the “neutral” ending without knowing that I was choosing an ending in the first place. I'm not a fan of games that feature a last minute choice ending, but yet again Persona 4 gives too little rather than too much information, and I didn't realize I had made a single dialogue mistake until after it was to late to go back. Of all the endings, the bad and neutral ones end the game early, and the game emotionally manipulates you toward them. If you don't screw up, you get another one or two dungeons and bosses, and a lot more answers as to what is actually going on, which from what I hear adds up to another ten to twenty hours of content.
I really enjoyed Persona 4 Golden, and while the horrible in-engine cutscenes, and the occasional lack of a proper tutorial did become annoying at times, the overall experience was still solid, and I was pretty much unable to put the game down as soon as I started playing it. My sessions with the game were often only limited by the Vita's five-hour battery life, and the game kept me awake until the wee hours of the morning more times then I would like to admit. Persona 4 Golden is one of the best RPGs I have played this year, and if you own a Vita (even if you are not a big fan of JRPGs) the game is a must-buy as far as I am concerned. Hell, it could even be a system seller if you want a stellar JRPG that you can play on the go or in bed. The game is just that good. Persona 4 Golden is available on the Playstation Vita for (a very reasonable) $39.99. Seriously. Go buy it. You won't regret it.