This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Persona 4 Golden.
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Long term viewers will know there were a lot of things standing in the way of me liking Persona 5. It was a JRPG for one thing. And even for a JRPG it was anime as dicks, being set in a high school and centred around characters slightly too young to be constantly giving off the vibe of wanting to bone each other senseless. But against all odds, I loved it, and it was suggested I try out Persona 4 Golden, previously a PS Vita game but recently out on Steam, which is like a goldfish moving from a bowl to a nine-acre sewage treatment facility.
And the first thing I need to say is that P4G achieves something very rare – it has an intro cinematic that I want to watch all the way through without skipping every time I boot up the game. Because in contrast to the Shantae intro movie that made me feel like I was being beaten to death with a wank pillow, the P4G intro is breezy and colourful and kicks things off with just the right setting of tone.
Here’s some happy music, some dancing anime kids, several corpses strung up from telegraph poles and oh look! Now everyone’s riding scooters. What fun. I should probably warn you all ahead of time that I’m going to be comparing Persona 4 to Persona 5 a lot. Is that fair? Nooo.
Persona 5 practically just came out and Persona 4 was a PS2 game, the graphics look like a load of Playmobil figures got scattered across a DnD Monster Manual. But on the other hand, Persona 5 is superior for a lot of reasons besides having improved technology. Soundtrack’s much better for a start. I know this, because every time I try to remember the Persona 4 battle music, all I can think about is the Persona 5 battle music, shouldering it out of the way in my memory like an older sibling in a family photo.
Persona 5 also had a much better plot. The protagonist, Joker, starts out on probation for a crime they didn’t commit, the world has given up on him, he forms the Phantom Thieves from fellow outcasts and underdogs to defy corrupted authority figures that threaten them directly. It’s compelling, it’s got higher stakes than a dead cow on a flagpole, and it actually means something when Joker overcomes his social handicap to make friends, rise in status and implicitly bone his hot teacher. In contrast, the protagonist of Persona 4 moves out to a small town for no important reason, shows up at school on day one and immediately befriends the three nearest named characters, most of whom immediately imply they want to bone him.
From there, the usual Persona arrangement is gradually established – we discover our unique ability to access a parallel shadow realm where we must explore dungeons and fight monsters conjured from the darkness of the human soul in order to prevent disaster in the real world. Specifically in this case our protagonist puts on a pair of old lady spectacles which, along with his grey hair, make him look like a middle aged columnist for a lesbian arts magazine, and must battle some rather on-the-nose metaphors by using a television to visit a twisted exaggerated version of reality where people are represented by evil shadows of themselves.
And this being Japanese and therefore repressed all to buggery, when they say “evil shadow self” what they usually mean is “considerably sexier version.” As with Persona 5, I’m not terribly enamoured with the combat dungeon side of things, again I turned the difficulty down because when the challenge starts getting overwhelming I always get the sense that Persona expects me to compile a fucking spreadsheet and mathematically calculate a general and special theory for optimally efficient Persona crafting, and to griiiind a lot more than I’m incliiiined. To.
Persona 4’s dungeons are procedurally generated and fair’s fair, they weren’t to know in 2008 that indie games were going to collectively drive procedural generation into the ground hard enough to pitch a tent on, but the dungeons are still very repetitive and boring. And then half the sidequests in the real world ask for specific items of vendor trash that certain monsters drop and which you probably unthinkingly sold because that’s what you fucking do with vendor trash so I hope you devoted part of your spreadsheet to which of the ten identical dungeon floors specific monsters hang out on and their preferred brand of lube or it’s back to the grindstone with you.
Suppose you prefer the life sim part of the game, Yahtz. Parceling your time and choosing your preferred waifu. That’s the funny thing, listeners. Without the JRPG dungeon stuff Persona would just be an elaborate visual novel about a dude with shitty time management skills and really needy mates. It’s the interplay, the juxtaposition, between mundane life and secret JRPG adventures that draws me in. Maybe it reminds me of when I’m at the store looking at all the strangers and thinking “If only they knew that this random person before them is moderately well known on the internet for making up naughty words. Plonkfondle. Oop, there’s another one.
So as much as I struggle with, well, the JRPG part of this JRPG, I kinda need it to be there. Persona 4 Golden has a couple of unique online features – in dungeons you have something called Rescue Request where players can help each other, ostensibly. In practice, a prompt comes up, you press a button, it disappears and you go about your day assuming you have in your own humble way made the world a better place. Then sometimes when you start a battle a thing says that someone is helping you and then you get, like, two health points and a half sucked jolly rancher. All in all, as vital a feature as a digital clock built into a walking cane for the blind. More useful is a thing during the life sim part that tells you what activity a majority of other players are doing at the same moment.
It can feel overwhelming when there are so many options and only one time slot, it’s nice to be able to defer to majority vote and blame everyone other than myself for my problems as usual. This is also a good way to know that new obnoxiously well hidden side activities have become available. If you’re looking for the fishing minigame, give a specific soda to a child in return for a bug, give the bug to the lady shopkeeper during nighttime to get a fishhook, put the fishhook in a baguette sandwich and push the entire thing up your arse before five o’clock on a Wednesday and then you get a fishing rod. Oh man, I was so close, I was putting it in a quesadilla.
Part of Persona 5’s appeal was that it’s such a stylish game, even merely cycling through menus is like using a kaleidoscope made out of what remained of a teenage artist’s homemade zine after the dog got at it. And the seeds of that style are there in Persona 4 but not yet hitting the mark, walking the line between the notional anarcho-punk aesthetic and just looking a bit of a mess. Especially the combat gui, which looks like the designer was trying to justify buying way too many fucking fonts. Forgive me if this seems obvious but Persona 4 is Persona 5 minus 1. As in, every single aspect of it is similar but not there yet quality wise.
Visual design, soundtrack, story, combat, main character’s haircut, general quality of waifus, it’s like a perfectly diagonal line on the graph and therefore you might as well just start with 5 as I did. Feels like Persona’s the same game every time just with all the character names changed and slightly closer to the complete vision. In theory a Persona 6 might be even closer. Maybe it’ll cut to the chase and just have a boss fight against a giant vagina. While all your female party members flusteredly refuse to admit whose it is.