Persona 4 Golden: Design Review – A JRPG that hides a major dating simulator

Hello, I’m Kinglink and this week we’re doing a Design Review on Persona 4 Golden.

If you’re new to the channel, this is a design review. Rather than just saying the graphics, story, and gameplay are good and assigning an arbitrary score to the game, I look deeper at the gameplay systems and try to analyze what works and could be improved on in a game, usually using examples. Persona 4 Golden though is a massive game so there’s a lot to talk about with just it so I’m going to mostly focus on this one game this week.

Persona 4 is part of a long-running series called Persona that’s part of a larger series, which is the Shin Megami Tense series. I’ve somehow missed playing any of this series before, though I do remember playing Nocturne at one point, however I barely remember it. So I’m coming to Persona 4 Golden with a fresh look.

Let’s start looking at Persona 4 by talking about the battle system in the game. This is a JRPG so that’s always going to be a major part of the gameplay system. In Persona 4. This revolves around a turn-based battle system set up with standard attacks and a six element system with enemies having strengths and weaknesses.

Admittedly I did just play Ni No Kuni 2 recently so Persona 4’s battle system feels a touch on the slow side, but with the ability to let the party members choose their attacks, and use a “rush” system that just issues melee attack commands for each party member, the game does speed up a touch more but it could still be a touch better.

The gameplay will look a bit like most turn based battle systems you’ve seen in RPGs before, and admittedly it is, for the most part. You choose attacks, and there is a good AI for your party or you can manually control them. Even the six elements are a bit standard fare, Fire, water, lightning, wind, and then light and dark, though both of the last two are instant kills attacks for enemies.

There is a combo system here, which rewards hitting enemies on the element they are weakest on, which allows additional attacks, it works well but eventually hard enemies appear that have no elemental weakness to avoid abuse of the system, and I think that means the system is overpowered. With every boss avoiding elemental weaknesses because of this system, it’s a bit of a shame.

This isn’t a typical RPG though. While players will level up their character and gain new skills, the game is focused on what are known as Personas. Personas in this case are just sub-characters that the main characters will use to get access to their attacks and abilities. If you want a fire ability you can use one Persona and if you want a wind ability you can use another Persona. That’s at least how it works for the early game.

But pretty quickly you fill up on the number of Personas the player can carry and the player will start to combine and mix the Personas. This is where Persona 4 starts to mix up its combat, in that it has hundreds of Personas, and they can only be gained by mixing and matching Personas with other Personas or drawing special tarot cards for Personas.

It’s in the Persona system that Persona 4 starts to shine. God that’s confusing, I’ve said Persona so much it’s lost meaning. You can however think of this system as Pokemon. Though in this case you have limited space so you won’t be able to catch them all at one time, you can register each Persona you’ve carried and then resummon as desired for a small fee.

Only the main character can change his Persona with this system, as the rest of the party have set Personas focusing on a specific element, but it allows the main character to have a lot more variety and the ability to have multiple different skill layouts.

The collectible aspect works well and gives the player something to chase throughout the game, as well as give completionists a huge challenge. Though with that said, I found that I often would collect a full set of Personas, and focus on only two or three at a time. Before long I was able to load Personas up with five and sometimes even all six elements at the same time out of eight total skill slots, so they became overpowered.

There are tons of other little features in the combat that help make Persona 4 into a compelling experience. After each battle, there’s a choice of tarot cards where the player can get certain bonuses or negatives. They can get additional stats for their main character’s Persona, or change the amount of XP or Gold the player will earn, or as mentioned, get a new Persona.

The real goal of this tarot system though is to try to clear the board. If you’re able to gather all of the cards, the player starts to get bonus choices on the next draw which helps to cascade into clearing each board. It’s a way to get larger rewards and roll those rewards over. While I don’t think the tarot system is essential to winning the game, the reward system here felt unique and was quite interesting to use to try to maximize my rewards in the game.

One last thing and one I want to point out as being essential for anyone who wants to design an RPG is that the combat in Persona 4 is customizable. As the game starts, the game asks about the difficulty of Persona 4. After a couple of dungeons I checked out the actual difficulty screen and sure enough, it’s not just preset difficulty. You have the preset options for difficulty but you also can customize the game. That means to increase or decrease the damage you do to enemies or take from enemies, change the amount of experience and gold the player earns, and even restart a level or a battle on failure.

This is a great addition to the game as players can choose what they want, whether it be easier battles, less danger from failure, or even fewer battles required, which is something I’m always asking for.

I will however caution players as I messed with this in the fourth dungeon. I turned on just enhanced money and enhanced exp, playing through the dungeon normally and by the end of that dungeon I had almost reached the level players should be aiming for by the end of the game and I was only halfway through. This isn’t necessarily a major problem, but it does make it hard to go back to the normal difficulty when you’re out leveling almost everything, in later dungeons, I was able to skip entire floors of battles, though that is what I wanted… less grind.

Yet, I do want to state that the difficulty options here have ruined me for other games. The choice to make a game more or less grindy is a good thing especially in RPGs and I would have loved to see a little more generalized system that didn’t feel like it would break the game with the rewards, but this is still a great addition, and something I think every game could use a bit of.

Combat is important in a JRPG but I started the discussion there because… admittedly I think I spent the least amount of my time with the combat systems. Less than a third of Persona 4 Golden’s run time seems to focus on the dungeons. There is an ability to replay dungeons to get more rewards or hunt for quests that people give you. There are also additional bosses, but for the most part, the player will be focusing on other pursuits.

A big part of Persona 4 is the story. A quick note, I’m going to try to focus my talk about the early parts of Persona 4, without venturing into the later parts of the game, to avoid spoilers. I have far more to say, but I don’t think it fundamentally changes my opinion on the game itself or how the story is delivered.

I’m also going to leave major parts of the story for players to discover. The quick version is this is a bit of a mystery story with people winding up dead, and the player working to save them in dungeons created by Midnight Channel, a whole other mystery. Sadly, I don’t want to say more because of spoilers, but I will say the game did give a satisfactory explanation.

Persona 4 starts with our main character arriving Inaba in a rather massive opening. This opening segment took me at least 3 hours to even get to the point where I was making meaningful choices. I’ve been calling our main character, “the main character” because that’s who he is. Once again we have a JRPG where the main characters say nothing and can be named anything.

I’m just going to start here. I don’t have a problem with a voiceless main character. With the name Kinglink, I think it’s obvious that I have grown used to that in Legend of Zelda. Nor do I care if the main character isn’t a major part of the story. But Persona 4’s main character rubs me the wrong way. First, everyone calls him Sempai to refer to him, which is a good generic term, however with the lack of personality that the main character has, I wonder why he’s not able to change genders.

As I played the game, I thought of multiple ways this could happen, and while some of the dialogue or situations are intended for a male main character, the fact he’s so strictly defined as male is strange because almost nothing else about him is defined. Is he studious, is he lecherous, is he more athletic or club-oriented? These are just questions that the player can make up.

Now some scenes might have to be reworked for a different gender, but those are probably far and few between and it’s something that feels sorely missed because the main character feels like such a blank slate here.

On the other hand, that blank slate also hurts the story a bit. A voiceless main character can work in a video game. But when there are so many scenes, including many dating scenes between the main character and a single other character, it’s awkward to have characters monologuing at the main player for most of the game. The game does a good job in many situations, but there are equally as many scenes that just feel strange with the limited responses the main character gives.

There are also clear moments that are set up for a male players, such as the other male characters getting the main character to get his bike license so they ride two people to a bike to feel the girls … ugh, press their breasts to the backside of the guys…

The thing is this is a game from Japan, which isn’t surprising as a Japanese RPG, but it relies heavily on tropes like this that are from Japanese anime and manga about horny high school students, which I get the setup most of the time due to watching a lot of anime and reading a lot of manga back in college but this will feel out of place for anyone not familiar with these tropes.

The bigger problem with Persona 4 is that some of the game feels quite awkward. Part of the reason is the tropey nature of the game, and part of the reason is the localization. Now I understand some of the issues with localization as I had to deal with part of this when working on Saints Row 2. Most games don’t have variable length fields for text and JRPGs don’t. The window text that appears is a standard size and the size, cadence, and layout of a joke will be important. There have been RPGs that also limit the number of text panels that will show, I don’t know if that is an issue with Persona though.

Translating between languages that have a huge difference between word size and style, most noticeably for us was German which has compound words, and Japanese and Arabic, both of which used extended characters, rather than ASCII, causing other issues due to people not using localized string format, or localized strings at all. There’s also the non-breaking-space, but that’s a whole other thing. Really, localization is a hard process, if it’s not planned for it.

So translators have to be careful about translation. A good amount of Persona 4 is very well translated and is clear. I think Yukiko’s character arc focusing on staying as a manager of her traditional inn is done exceptionally well.

The problem is there are a decent amount of other parts of the game that just feel strange or off, and a big part of this is the collision of Japanese culture and tropes, which Americans may not be familiar with, and translating these large constructs into smaller segments.

Yukiko’s translation works because her story is broken up over ten segments which allows the game to build on previous segments to explain her major decision. Trying to explain the complexities of scooter rules and having girls ride on the back of bikes needs to be done in a single discussion and it feels out of place, and that’s before we talk about the changing social climate we’re in. There are a few jokes that… perhaps have aged poorly.

Now before people get angry, I think Persona 4 Golden did a great job at translating about 80 percent of the game, especially with this being a second expanded attempt of the same story of Persona 4.

But I can’t deny there are some issues here especially with the entire game being a mystery. There are several characters I immediately fingered for being suspicious, but ultimately it turned out that it was more translation issues that caused awkward speech patterns. Even the fact that Nanako is obsessed with Junes, a department store, and sings the theme song made me feel like there was an otherworldly force causing this addiction… and then almost suddenly the game stops talking about Junes. This probably was done to set up the Junes department store as a location, yet it’s still a strange moment, and hardly the only one.

The story is a major part of Persona 4 and you get a massive amount of it. Players will sit through 30 minutes to an hour of story segments multiple times over the game, with a couple of segments potentially taking upwards of 2 hours for the major class trips. Add in a few anime-style cutscenes and it’s a pretty good time. I also would love to talk about Teddie, but again, I’ll let you find out all about him yourself.

There’s just one more section of the game I’ve yet to discuss. Outside of the story, and the dungeons that don’t take too long. You also have what I’m going to call the Dating Simulator. Players will go to school six days a week, but after that, they get two-time segments, after school and evening. Players are allowed to decide what to do during this time.

The major choice is going into the dungeon to accomplish some goal, but this is rarely needed. The first dungeon is hard and will require the player to attempt the dungeon multiple times so they can heal up. However, before long the player runs into the magic fox, who will heal up your character for a small amount of money. Even on the normal cash flow, this quickly broke the game and allowed me to stay in a dungeon until I was powerful enough to beat the bosses, taking only about two to three hours per dungeon, and a single time slot.

The idea of the dating simulator part of Persona 4 is that the player has a lot of other options during this time. Players can forge bonds, conduct activities, and grow in power that will translate back into the combat system. That’s at least the theory of the dating sim, but in actuality, it’s just the core content of the game and feels like it has a minor potential influence on the actual combat. Much of the story is told as part of the dating simulator, and the players will decide what they want to do each day.

The game is played over an entire year, and unlike This is the Police, players will play through almost a full 365 days, with a few days not allowing the player to make choices. In the initial couple of months of the schedule, the player will quickly feel a bit of fear of missing out or FOMO. dute to how many options are presented.

In a single day, the player might be able to visit with party members, eat at a restaurant, go to a club activity or play sports, or go fishing. Of course, they can go into the combat arena as well. And these are only the options the game offers at the beginning. Over time the game keeps expanding the list of activities, characters the player can interact with and starts to offer jobs as well. Players will also have to balance their skills in five categories, Knowledge, Understanding, Diligence, Courage, and Expression, along with the rest of the choices.

This system works very well in the opening months while everything feels new. But by the end of the game, the process of choosing an activity becomes laborious. There’s little challenge in maxing all five skills, and even less challenge in maxing relationships with the characters players want to get to know. It’s impossible to do everything in the game in a single playthrough though, especially reading all the books, or befriending every possible character, at least it’s impossible without a guide. There are even other minor changes in the second campaign with an additional boss, so to see everything players will require two playthroughs.

But with even just 70 hours in a playthrough, I find it hard to justify an entire second playthrough for an optional boss or chasing pieces of the game you missed out on.

The biggest thing is there feels like there is a significant amount of fluff, out of a year of 365 days, there are at least three or four months that could be skipped here. Even just skipping all of summer and cutting a couple of other months might have sped up the game. Some changes to the dating formula might be needed but not much. I’m not even saying that they have changed any of the content here, but rather the way the game plays out.

If Persona 4 kept the feeling of “FOMO” where the player can’t do everything they want, and have to make hard choices I probably could have considered a second playthrough, but after seeing a majority of the content in the first playthrough there’s not a strong reason to replay the entire game.

There’s a bigger problem that nags at me with the length though and it’s not a problem with the game. I’m going to avoid a deep dive into it here, but a lot of reviews seem to be of reviewers who barely played the game. There’s a lot of focus on the first ten hours in almost every review and almost none mention how much of the game they played. Even if a reviewer did beat the game, they’re under a significant time crunch to publish that review, so I have to imagine they could have skimmed parts of the game instead of savoring them.

Imagine a reviewer who reviews an entire tv series after watching a single episode, or watching the entire film at a 1.5x time factor and I think that’s similar. It could be done but we should demand reviewers are clear on this.

However I don’t think the game’s length should be changed for reviewers, though I think reviewers should be required to say how much time they put in the game, what type of path they took (main or some sidequests), and a completion percentage, because it’s noticeable how shallow some reviews are.

Yet games should be as long as they need to be, I just think personally, Persona could have shaved maybe ten to twenty hours without losing any content from the game, maybe even creating a larger desire for a second playthrough at the same time.

Ultimately though, I have to recommend Persona 4 Golden. It’s excellent to finally get this series on PC, and I want to see more of the Persona games on PC. Besides, for all the flaws I brought up I played more than 80 hours on this game. And ultimately I had a great time. Persona 4 isn’t perfect, I would argue any game that’s longer than 20 or 30 hours will have some level of flaws, but Persona 4 does the best it can to create a customizable and interesting experience. It has a story with characters that matter, a story about growing up and making important bonds with friends, and dealing with romance while fighting shadow monsters. Just like real life.

That’s what I have for Persona 4 Golden, I hope you’ve enjoyed this video, I certainly enjoyed this game, even if it took me almost three weeks to play through the entire thing.

If you enjoyed this click that subscribe button and ring that bell to get notified of new videos first. Let me know what you think of Persona 4 and if I’m being too hard on the game, or if you agree with me.

I’ll pop up my recent video on Ni No Kuni 2, honestly, I think I like that one a bit more than Persona 4, but they’re both great JRPGs. And if you want to look at my take on player choice, which Persona 4 has a ton of, you can check that video out.

Until then, I’m Kinglink, and thank you for watching.