Jason: Hey, Kirk. So you're playing Persona 4 Golden, and I'm playing Persona 4 Golden, and we both have lots of things to say about Persona 4 Golden. Maybe instead of one of us reviewing it and the other one chiming in later, we should review it together?
Kirk: Why, Jason, what a fantastic idea. I was thinking the exact same thing. After all, a game this size probably deserves two reviewers.
Jason: It's too bad we can't split it in half, eh? As of right now, I've spent around 15 hours with the game—and I'm probably like 1/10 through, at most. I'm in June, about to rescue Rise. What about you?
Kirk: It'd certainly make it easier to finish the damn thing. I marvel at people who have completed this game in time to review it. I recently passed 50 hours (50! Hours!) and I'm still not done. I'm in early December, and things have, let's just say, gotten DRAMATIC. I do think I've entered the endgame phase, though I've heard that the endgame in Persona 4 is super long. But still, every time I tell a veteran Persona 4 player where I am (I recently got Naoto into my party and did the beauty pageant), they say "Oh, cool, the game is kinda just beginning." And my head explodes.
Jason: See, I don't even know who Naoto is! Or maybe I do? Is that the fat girl who broke Yosuke's motorcycle?
Kirk: Ha, no. That's Hanako. You've actually met Naoto, but you don't know it yet.
Jason: By the way, dear readers, you should probably know at this point (in case it wasn't very clear) that Kirk and I are both experiencing Persona 4 for the first time. So this won't be a review that delves into all the major changes between P4 and its Vita remake; this will be more of a document of our experiences playing this wonderful game for the first time ever.
Kirk: Right, and just so y'all know, while we won't spoil any major stuff, we will talk about a lot of minor plot points throughout the first half of the story. I also want to talk about all the ways that P4 improves on its predecessor, because some are very interesting. You and I kind of discovered Persona at the same time, huh? With Persona 3 Portable earlier this year. Looking back on how enamored we were of that game, it's amazing—people who had played Persona 4 must have been dying to tell us about how much better the sequel is. How do you think P4 stacks up to its predecessor?
Jason: I dunno—what do you think makes it better? You've hinted that I still haven't seen all of the game's major mechanics, but right now Persona 4 feels very similar to Persona 3 in many ways. It follows the same structure: school->social links->school->dungeon->school->boss fights once a month. A lot of the graphical and musical cues are also similar, when not identical. Some of the characters even follow similar tropes: there's the goofy best friend who slacks off at school (Junpei/Yosuke), the innocent girl (Yukari/Yukiko), and the animal who hangs around just to be weird and cute (Koromaru/Teddie). What are the major differences, in your opinion?
Kirk: Well, mechanics first: They've streamlined a lot of mechanical things in smart ways, and made it more user friendly. For example, there's only one type of physical attack now, instead of… how many did P3 have? Four?
Jason: Too many.
Kirk: It was intense, and I could never even keep straight who in my party did slash damage, and who did piercing… I love that you can switch Personas once per turn, instead of once per battle. Also dig how your party can't get split up while exploring. Lots of other things, too—they now tell you every time you're about to hang out with someone whose social link isn't about to advance, fusing personas is a lot easier to understand, you have a lot more attributes like "expression" and "understanding" to deal with, as opposed to Persona 3's three, and those attributes unlock dialogue options.
Jason: And how those friggin' dialogue options won't even be available until you play the game AGAIN.
Kirk: Yeah, I'm definitely getting a whiff of New Game Plusiness about all of this. I also like how you socialize compared to the last game—you'll hang out with groups, and cross-socialize, and your social circles intersect more. Everything feels much more connected, and you can get closer to multiple characters at once. Dungeon crawling is more connected too—the way you'll come across your other teammates in the dungeons, the way that Rise hops into battle to help you—it feels like much more of a group effort.
As for the characters themselves, part of this is because I've gotten to know them all a lot better, but they're all far more interesting and, honestly, likable than the characters in P3. Each one has a personal challenge that's more interesting than in P3—Kanji's sexuality, Chie's fear for her friend Yukiko and desire to be seen as feminine, Yosuke's mourning for his murdered crush, Naoto's personal stuff (which I won't spoil), Rise's wish to be a normal girl and Yukiko's desire to avoid running the family business, which, now that I think about it, is similar to Mitsuru's wish to avoid running the family business, but different in an illustrative way.
Jason: And also Yukiko is hot but not quite as hot as Mitsuru.
Kirk: This is true, but then again, as we've established, no one is as hot as Mitsuru. The thing I like is that P4 isn't as crazy and superhero-like—it's much more grounded. All of the characters are more grounded and real, and feel much more fleshed out than the characters in P3. And as for Teddie, well… he's a lot more complicated than he seems! Wait until you rescue Rise, you'll see.
Jason: I dunno, dude. I've seen inside Teddie's zipper. Dude's got no brains.
Kirk: Let's just say that's not always going to be the case.
Jason: OK, OK, I'll reserve judgement. So, yeah, I can definitely see Persona 4's characters being more interesting and appealing. You once pointed out how similar Persona 3's cast is to Buffy the Vampire Slayer; if P3 is Buffy, Persona 4 has got to be Scooby Doo, right? Minus the stoners.
Kirk: Ha, yes! Chie is totally a Velma, even though she's not a super-brain.
Jason: They have the same clothes, too. Kanji is a sexually-confused Fred.
Kirk: Yukiko is Daphne, I GUESS—though Rise is kind of a Daphne too.
Jason: You're a Daphne.
Kirk: Yeah, kinda. Oh and of course, Teddie is Scooby. Though sometimes Teddie is kinda more Scrappy-Doo; at the beginning, anyway. I'm curious, do you find any of the characters annoying, or did you at first?
Jason: Hmm, that's a good question. They can all be annoying sometimes. Especially when they do something stupid and I just want to scream "no you dumbshits that's a paparazzi not the murderer, stop wasting your time chasing him and keep watching Rise, no what are you doing now she's kidnapped GODDAMNIT GUYS."
Teddie's voice is kind of annoying, too.
Kirk: Yeah, Teddie is kind of unBEARable at times. (That joke ™ our friend Leigh Alexander.) I thought at first that Teddie sounded exactly like Steve from Sex and the City. Like, I was embarrassed at how much time I spent on IMDB trying to figure out if it was the same actor.
Jason: I think you should be less embarrassed that you were on IMDB trying to figure out if it was the same actor, and more embarrassed that you watch Sex and the City.
Kirk: Hey, I have no shame! It had a good middle few seasons. We do not speak of the movies. Hey, fun fact: Did you know that Yosuke is voiced by Yuri Lowenthal? Same guy who played the prince in Sands of Time.
Jason: I did not, but I do know that Yuri Lowenthal is in just about everything. Name a JRPG — he's probably in it.
Kirk: Um... The World Ends With You.
Jason: Okay, fine. SHUT UP.
Kirk: VICTORY. Um, wait, what were we talking about? Right, voice actors. So yeah, Teddie grated on me quite a bit, especially in combat. But you'll be happy to know (and I already accidentally told you this over IM a few days ago), he's replaced by Rise, who becomes the official "Fuuka" of the group. And she's way less annoying. And way more awesome. Chie's voice actor also grated on me at first, but now I really like her; the entire cast brings so much heart to their performances, and they've got some great material. How good is the writing in this game??
Jason: It's pretty brilliant. I love how everyone in the world is always really emotional about everything. Whether it's a little girl looking for her big sister or a guy who needs something from the liquor shop, everyone is just REALLY INTENSE ALL THE TIME.
Kirk: I made a bad lunch! THE WORLD IS OVER.
Jason: It's like they live in this world where feelings are heightened and everyone gets little anime tears and clouds over their heads as they react to the CRAZY INTENSE THINGS THAT HAPPEN (like getting an answer wrong on a pop quiz).
Kirk: Oh man I am crazy about the little reaction animations—the cold water drops, happy flowers and Charlie Brown-scribbles. You know, the heightened thing is interesting—I was surprised at how much of a comedy Persona 4 is. The exaggerated way the passersby talk really enhances that, I think. I've laughed out loud playing this game more than probably any game this year—Kanji, in particular, cracks me up. With his animal crackers and general grumpy obliviousness.
Jason: Dude does love animal crackers.
Kirk: And it's not just the writing and voice performances—the animations provide a lot of great physical comedy. The way your character's head drops after a too-strong cup of coffee, or a great scene where Rise walks in on your group doing something embarrassing, then says "Oh, um... I'll just be going" and then sort of backs out of the room and runs. The slapstick and physical stuff (and occasional tenderhand-holding) makes me realize how much was missing from Persona 3 Portable, seeing as how that game didn't show avatars outside of Tartarus.
Jason: I enjoyed the camping scenes quite a bit. They played up the whole "emotional exaggeration" thing non-stop. Yukiko's awful cooking, and then the boys and the girls are REALLY SCARED to sneak around at night (and Kanji is ridiculous when he tries to prove how much of a man he really is). The whole thing is bloody hilarious. It's funny, too: this sort of humor usually isn't up my alley. I've never been a huge anime fan, and silly slapstick has never been my thing.
Kirk: You're more of a wit kinda guy.
Jason: Right, and also I like dick jokes. But for some reason Persona 4 has got me hooked. I wonder if part of that is the silent protagonist? There's something to be said for being able to insert yourself into this cool, charismatic, suave, silent dude who's just an instant leader and a chick magnet even though he doesn't say a word to anyone.
Kirk: That's definitely true. And man, that camping trip is only the beginning. There are a few parts down the road where you'll just do party after event after gathering after trip, with some really cool surprises tossed in. And best of all, a lot of the jokes—Yukiko can't cook, Kanji likes animal crackers— they're all developed over the course of the game and become funnier, or even important character notes.
Jason: I hope one of the bosses is a giant animal cracker.
Kirk: It hasn't happened yet, but given some of the crazy-ass bosses I've seen so far, it wouldn't surprise me. And yeah, to a point you made earlier, there's really something to being a super-suave dude who never has to say anything and everyone falls all over themselves trying to get him to like them, huh? It's that thing you wrote about, the way the game presents this ultimate escapist fantasy: Go back to high school but get everything right: Ace your tests, rock your job, solve the case, get the girl(s), and save the world in the process. It's so seductive.
Jason: Okay, so clearly we're both enjoying this game quite a bit. Let's flip this around. What don't you like about Persona 4 Golden?
Kirk: I'm thinking very hard. This is the deepest I've fallen into a game all year, and it'll be the most hours I sink into anything in 2012. I really am just crazy about it. But, okay, things I don't like—there are still some small issues with the combat that don't quite work. For example, darkness/light abilities are kind of strange—the smart strategy says to have one persona with dark and one with light, specifically to use on enemies weak to those two things. But then you just instakill them, since they're weak, and there's no real reason to have mudo boost or hama boost. So, there are still useless persona abilities.
Jason: That is weird, isn't it? And they don't work half the time anyway.
Kirk: Yeah. But when an enemy uses a Mudo ability on you and ends the game, it feels cheap. Similarly, the bosses and sub-bosses are immune to both light and darkness, as well as a lot of the low-level abilities (you can't silence a boss, for example), which shakes up the strategy some, but can make it difficult to keep a party together that can deal with each situation. The save system is a lot better, but can still lead to annoying lost progress if you die after beating a mid-level boss but before switching floors (as happened to you), and there's a big difficulty spike at Mitsuo that stopped me cold for around a week.
Those are all kinda micro, huh? I really, really like this game. How about you? Complaints?
Jason: I also have some issues with the dungeon crawling. For one, I wish there was more variety: it's nice that there are different types of dungeons now instead of one big tower, but I'd still appreciate having more things to do than just walk down hallways, fight shadow blobs, and open treasure chests. Maybe some later dungeons improve this, but I'd love to see puzzles or other kinds of obstacles that aren't just monsters.
Kirk: Nah, it's pretty much just monsters all the way down. There've been some sort of navigational puzzles, go down, get a key, come back, get another key, but nothing remotely Zelda-y or anything.
Jason: Also, Persona 4 is rather unforgiving, isn't it? Don't get me wrong, I'm all for a challenge, but there's nothing fun about getting into a fight with a monster who instantly does 400 damage to your main character and then boom, game over. Although I do like that, as you mentioned, you only have to start from the beginning of the floor now, not your last save point.
Kirk: Yeah, that's a big improvement from P3. I love not having to get to a boss, warp back, save my game, and warp back to fight. It's interesting—this is one hardcore-ass MFing game, right? Which stands in such stark opposition to how fun, refreshing, and welcoming it is. Every time I tell a non-gamer about Persona 4, they're immediately interested. I think that a TON of people I know who don't like video games would love Persona 4... except that this game is resolutely not for them. It's a hardcore dungeon crawler that demands you have your shit together at all times.
Jason: Even as your characters don't have their shit together AT ALL.
Kirk: But you know, I love it for that. The fact that there's a real "gamer's game" that's also about dogs and homework and girls and scooters, where you can take some time to pet a cat (or deny the cat pets), where you go to the beach with your friends or blow them off to cram for midterms. But then just after that, fight for your life in an hour-long boss battle of attrition. It's a game that takes the everyday and uses it to complement the resolutely complex. I think that combination of plainspokenness and opacity are one of the reasons Persona fans are so dedicated. This game feels special, like it's the only thing remotely like it out there. It's not for everyone, but that's a good thing.
Jason: It is hardcore, but what that winds up meaning is that it's sometimes all about grinding for levels. Oftentimes Persona 4's challenge doesn't feel like it requires smart thinking, it feels like it requires brute strength. You need to be properly prepared for a situation, whether that means boosting up Personas or earning cash so you can buy more healing items. Which is fine and all, but it can feel very monotonous. Sometimes I don't want to fight, I just want to party with my friends and build social links and figure out how to sleep with Yukiko... can you sleep with Yukiko?
Kirk: It's unclear.
Jason: Well, sometimes I just want to have fun. Not walk around fighting shadow blobs so I can beat the next dungeon. Of course, hardcore grinding and dungeon crawling can be fun in the way that lifting weights or studying for a test can be fun: the rewards justify the effort. But I've definitely had moments of dungeon diving when I just wanted to be doing something else.
Kirk: You know, I think I'm fifty-fifty on that. I find that strategy plays a big part in my battles. Part of that is the moment-to-moment strategy, you know, "What move do I do next? What order do I stack my debuffs?" The other part is the broader strategy, planning which party to take where, and how to equip them. This game makes fusing new personas and pulling out skill cards easier than ever, so the dedicated player can really customize the crap out of their squad. As the game gets tougher, that gets more important. But to your broader point, yeah, P4 does require an awful lot of dungeon-runs. It's nice that the dungeons are all different-looking, since to get properly leveled, you'll have to go through each one twice.
Jason: You have to go through each one twice??? THAT SOUNDS AWFUL.
Kirk: Well, it isn't if you are into the basic combat. Which I am. And into the new combat music, which I SUPER VERY MUCH AM. And the dungeons go a lot faster the second time. Actually, this kinda lets me segue to something related: I think that P4 is really well suited to a portable device. You and I were talking earlier about how this thing works on the PSVita, and I have to say—this game is a splendid portable game for a lot of reasons. One of those reasons is that doing a dungeon run is just the kind of half-engaging thing that makes a bus ride fly by.
Jason: Yeah, or you could play while watching TV, or watching a movie, or watching Tim Tebow make an ass out of himself while trying to play quarterback. This is definitely a good portable port. Although I don't like playing on the subway, because people give me funny looks when I scream "MOTHERFUCKER!!!" as my character is insta-killed by a shadow.
Kirk: Ha, I remember playing Persona 3 on the plane and realizing that the guy next to me was likely trying to figure out why the anime teenagers kept shooting themselves in the head. Which, yes, another thing removed from Persona 3. But in terms of the Vita—clearly, Sony's handheld is in big trouble. It's not selling well, and there aren't enough games. Do you think P4G is a "system-seller"? Is that sort of thing even possible on the Vita at this point?
Jason: Ha, maybe if this was a new game and not a port from 2008. I love my Vita, but it's really telling that I've been using it mostly to play PSP, PS1, and now PS2 games. Persona 4 Golden is great and all—and the Persona series always does really well—but system-seller? Maybe in Japan... (where it has actually moved a few Vitas!)
Kirk: Yeah, and the thing about the Vita is—
Kirk's Vita: I'm sorry. Can I just add something here?
Kirk's Vita: I just want to say, thank you for playing with me so much over the last few weeks. It's all I ever wanted.
Kirk: (I'm sorry, it kind of just butted in on me while I was typing.)
Jason's Vita: While we're doing this... Jason, can you figure out how to sleep with Yukiko already? Thanks in advance.
Kirk's Vita: Oh dude I can totally tell you how to do that. In fact, I can beam it over to you using Persona 4 Golden's ALL-NEW ONLINE FUNCTIONALITY which is ONLY ON VITA. I mean I'm just saying.
Kirk: [Pushes Vita out of the way] Okay, okay, you shill. Sure, that stuff is fun, but is it really that essential? I dunno, man. Jason: I'll let you know when I know. I think a key part of getting Yukiko to like you is not totally going for Rise, as I have done. Which brings us to another important question: You're earlier than I am, but, which girl is the one for you?
Jason: Yukiko. Next question.
Kirk: And here I thought you were going to say, "Mitsuru."
Jason: Oh, are we counting Mitsuru? Mitsuru. Next question.
Kirk: Atta boy. Did I mention I'm all about Rise? She is great, especially since in a big shift from Fuuka (and, I gather from Rise in the PS2 version of this game), she's able to help you out in battle in a lot of cool ways. You'll get to know her better soon. Okay, next question: What is your main character's name? Mine is "Shin Sable," which is the name I also used in Persona 3. (I think it is a scientifically perfect Persona main character name.)
Jason: Mine is "Jason Schreier," which probably would not be the name of anybody who was born and goes to school in Japan.
Kirk: haaaaaaaaa Yosuke, Yukiko, Rise, and JASON SCHREIER.
Jason: Well. The main character in Persona 4 is suave, handsome, and charming. He's friends with everyone, all the girls want to be with him, and in general he's just an all-around badass. Hence: Jason Schreier.
Kirk: Ha, now I'm picturing you summoning personas in the game, and it is just delightful. Why can't we actually put ourselves into these games? I ask you. Though I guess over the last fifty-odd hours, I've been doing the next best thing.
Jason: What about the new online features?
Kirk: My vita brought those up, ever so briefly—they're cool, actually! They take a bit of Demon's Souls and a bit of Catherine, and let you see how other people spent each day, and what they did. And when you're in dungeons, you can ask people for help. I haven't actually done that yet, but I should try it. It's a bit superfluous, but it's still good. Have you used them much?
Jason: I haven't asked for help yet—I doubt anyone could help my main character from getting motherfucking one-shotted—but I have played around with the "Voices" feature, which you can activate after school by pressing a button in the corner of your screen. When you press it, you get to see a big cloud of what everybody else playing Persona 4 Golden did on that given day. It's really cool, and helps give you an idea of what sort of things you could/should be doing, in case you suffer from the Persona-anxiety that paralyzes people every day after school. Oh god, what should I do next? I have to go save Kanji, but band practice is today, and Yukiko looks so cute...
Kirk: You joined the band? Man, I'm drama club all the way.
Jason: It's nice to have a frame of reference, some sort of assurance that hey, everyone else is doing this thing too—or maybe they're doing something you haven't even discovered yet! For a while I had no idea what "Report to Fox" meant—I thought you could join the newspaper or something.
Kirk: It's really something, isn't it? The sheer amount of stuff there is to do in this game. I think that's the biggest impression it leaves on me—that in so thoroughly simulating the life and times of one Japanese high school student, it's come to occupy a terrifying amount of space in my subconscious. The variety, the pacing, the way you'll go from dungeon crawling to schedule management to social prioritizing, all so seamlessly, and with such a delightful soundtrack pushing you along... this game consists of a couple big, great ideas (the battle system, the social links) surrounded by a hundred wonderful nooks and crannies.
Jason: It really is all about the little things. Like all good JRPGs.
Kirk: Like most things, really.
Jason: The big picture is great and all, but what you really enjoy is those tiny little moments: Nanako singing every time that Junes commercial comes on; the music changing based on whether it's sunny or raining outside; students jabbering in the hall about whatever rumors or crazy things are happening in Inaba at any given time. I think it's those minor details that turn Persona 4 's Japan into its own surreal, dream-like world that you just want to spend years inhabiting.
Kirk: The specificity of everything, you know? That even the characters like "Lazy Student" and "Girl with Glasses" are unique characters who turn up throughout the story. The scarred artist in the weapons shop, and the restaurant owner who so desperately wants to fix you up with his always-absent daughter. Inaba feels like a real place to me at this point, and yeah, it's a place I don't mind spending all my time.
Back when I played Persona 3, I thought I finally got what the hubbub was about this series. But I didn't, not really. Now, with Persona 4, I finally really get it—this is why people can't shut up about Persona. Nanako. Kanji. Naoto. Junes. The soft rain on the rooftop, the ominous hum of midnight channel. There's nothing else like it.
Jason: I really do need to play more, eh? So it's pretty obvious that if someone asked us whether or not to play this game, we'd answer with a resounding YES. But is Persona 4 Golden for everyone? Should gamers who don't like JRPGs play it?
Kirk: I'd easily recommend this to someone who likes video games but hasn't ever gotten into a hardcore JRPG. Hell, I'd recommend it to just about anybody. Like I talked about before, it's not for everybody (and that's part of what makes it special), but I don't think that means there are certain groups of people (e.g. "non-gamers" or "non-JRPG-fans") who are fated not to like it. Anyone could like this game, and a lot of people who might think they wouldn't probably would, if they gave it a chance. It's almost enough to make me wish Atlus would just release it on damn iOS already so that everyone in the world who doesn't have a Vita could just play it. And then talk to me about it.
Jason: Oh, man, that's gonna cause some controversy. Persona 4 on iPad? I'd play it. There aren't many moments in Persona that really require physical controls, as satisfying as it is to feel your character's sword swing as you push in the X button.
Kirk: Well, of course, any time you say a game should come to iOS, it's controversial. I really just want more people to be able to play this fabulous game. And you know, that's totally true about the sword-swing. It's the ONE real-time control in the entire game, but it's so vitally important! (And, I'd say, even symbolically important: In order to successfully enter a battle in this game, you have to mean it.)
Jason: Yeah, and the tactile feeling as your finger presses the button is just as important as the cling of the sword swipe. That button movement is kind of essential. But we digress. Persona 4 Golden: It's great, it's a yes, and it's a game we'll be talking about for quite some time. At least until Persona 5 comes along.
Kirk: The mind boggles. But this is more than just a suitable stopgap. You and I might be playing Persona 4 for the first time, but for Vita-owning Persona 4 veterans, Golden is certainly a splendid excuse to dive back in. To head back to Inaba, to Yasogami high and the flood plains; to Yukiko, Chie and Yosuke, and the modern-day fairy tale that awaits.