As the years have passed by, the JRPG has fallen far in the eyes of gamers. From being the must have, killer app that every platform needed (love it or hate it, Final Fantasy VII was one of the most important games in the history of the Playstation), they've now been reduced to curios, outshone commercially by their western counterparts and appealing only to a small niche audience. Critics have lambasted them for generic design, poor stories and weak dialogue, and it certainly seems that barring some exceptions the overall quality of games has diminished as the years have gone by.
One of the exceptions to this downward trend has been the Shin Megami Tensei games, not so much in being niche products (part of the appeal is that they are very niche) but in the fact they've injected some fresh ideas and concepts into the genre. Dark, heavily based on existing mythologies, and normally set in modern day urban environments, they've become something of a banner series for those who insist the JRPG can still be relevant. In particular, the Persona sub series, after a successful reintroduction to the west in 2006 with Persona 3, has become a fan favourite. Persona 4 followed in 2008 and though it emerged years after the PS2 had been rendered an outdated console, it was widely regarded as a superb game. Over time its legend has grown to the point that many now regard it as one of the greatest RPGs ever made. Needless to say then that when Atlus announced a remake for PS Vita, complete with new content, expectations were high. Whereas the original Persona 4 had sailed under most people's radars, this new version arrives with 4 years of hype behind it, along with a duty to shoulder a platform which lacks decent software to put it kindly.
Is it up to the challenge? Absolutely.
At its core, this is fundamentally the same game as the PS2 original. What that means is a game of two distinct portions that tie together in interesting and clever ways. One half is a heavily story driven social interaction game, almost a dating sim but without any of the negative connotations that term comes with. You spend your days going to school, hanging out with your friends, working part time jobs etc. Certain characters act as 'social links', each of whom has their own individual little story that can be explored by spending time with them. You can also eat in restaurants, study, or work, each of which raises certain attributes such as 'courage' and 'knowledge' which are often necessary to access certain social links or dialogue choices.
The other half of the game takes place in a malevolent world inside your television set, and is a slightly more traditional turn based dungeon crawler, but with enough quirks to make it interesting. You and your party of up to three others must tackle multi-floored, partially randomly generated dungeons, battling the 'shadows' who lurk within. These come in a dizzying array of types, shapes and sizes. You'll be summoning the titular Personas - mythological creatures who represent parts of your psyche (yes, it's weird) - to battle them. Like many of the other Shin Megami Tensei games, combat revolves around a series of elemental weaknesses that both you and the enemies have - if you hit their weakness, they'll be knocked down and you'll get an extra turn. Downing all enemies leads to a powerful 'All Out Attack' which is essential to take out certain enemies.
The real genius here is the way the two systems intermingle on multiple layers. You see, unlike every other party member, you, the protagonist, have the ability to switch between multiple Personas, each one possessing different attacks and resistances. You gain new Personas by 'fusing' together old ones, making more powerful monsters out of multiple weaker ones. So there's already a compelling, Pokemon-esque nature to gathering Personas and forging stronger ones, but there's more also. The Personas are categorised into groups tied to the major arcana of the Tarot deck - The Fool, The Magician, The Priestess etc. Each of your social links is also tied to one of these arcana (and in a nice flourish, the link character(s) represent the qualities associated with that symbol). If you're fusing a Persona that's associated with an arcana you've established a link for, that Persona will gain bonus experience. The stronger the link, the more experience the Persona will gain. When social links reach their highest level, you'll also be granted the ability to fuse an 'Ultimate' Persona for that arcana, which are generally ridiculously powerful.
The final ingredient in this addictive cocktail is time. The game takes place on a 'real-time' scale over the course of a year, and while that may sound like a lot it turns out to be nowhere near enough. All of the above actions take a certain amount of time - every day you spend hanging out with your buddies is another day you could instead be jumping into the TV and grinding out some XP in battle. It's complicated by the fact that all of the characters you're interacting with have their own schedules as well. Some links are only available on certain days or once certain conditions have been met - the sports club won't meet when it's raining for example, and you'll need a certain level of bravery before you can skip class to hang out with one character. The game also sets hard dates dungeons need to be completed by, so there's no chance of simply hanging out until you feel you're ready.
What this results in is something genuinely rare in gaming - choice with actual consequence. It's not the grandstanding 'who lives and who dies' choices you often see splashed on the back of boxes, but instead something subtle and more powerful. Every in-game day is a mess of small choices that might eventually lead to big benefits. Will you spend your time after school with the band or at a part time job? Studying in the evening won't get you any immediate benefit, but it might unlock something major down the line. Jumping in the TV to battle monsters will make that next boss that much easier, but what if you want to go out with your girlfriend? With 23 Social Links (2 of which have been newly added for this version) and a plethora of other activities, it's (almost) impossible to do everything, so you're going to have to make choices about what you want to see and who you're going to hang out with.
None of this would matter of course if you didn't actually want to spend time with characters. Luckily, Persona 4 boasts one of the most interesting and fun videogame casts in years. Though it continues Japan's obsession with setting stories in high school, the teenagers who make up the majority of the main cast are far from stereotypes. Instead, they're an appealing and diverse bunch who actually behave somewhat like you'd expect kids of their age to. At Persona 4's heart there's a knockabout camaraderie reminiscent of an 80's John Hughes comedy like The Breakfast Club, full of goofy escapades and witty dialogue. Most RPGs are all about the quest, but here it's also about the downtime between the epic moments when you'll just be hanging out with your team, going to the beach or the school festival, romancing the ladies or rough-housing with the guys. This is one of those rare occasions where an RPG's extreme length (it'll take 50 hours to complete if you're racing through) helps as well - you'll spend so long in the sleepy country town the game is set in you'll adapt to the rhythms of life there, and grow closer to the characters as you live out your days with them.
It's not all teenage hijinks and hanging out after school though. SMT games have always had a reputation as dark, serious stories and while Persona 4 might be the brightest of them, there's still a lot of heavy, thoughtful material to be consumed here. Almost all of the social links revolve around some sort of issue the involved character has, and these often go to some pretty serious places. Topics such as self-confidence, depression, heartbreak and death are all explored, with a surprising amount of sensitivity and nuance, and while there's some obvious fluctuation in the quality and nature of the social links, the best are good enough that they could make compelling vignettes or short stories in their own right. Particularly notable is the game's mature handling of sexuality, which acknowledges homosexuality, gender portrayal and sexual stereotyping in an open and even-handed way. The game isn't exactly a masterpiece of introspection, but the excellent quality of the writing and the bravery of touching upon such themes means it deserves immense credit.
The quality of the game is also aided by a fine audiovisual effort and a typically polished translation from the team at Atlus. Graphically this is clearly a Playstation 2 game, but the bright vivid Vita screen and a few choice graphical upgrades help everything look clean and smooth, while the addition of new artwork and high resolution sprites helps add sharpness. Character designer Shigenori Soejima does great work producing a distinctive looking cast with his trademark style and there's a host of delightful design touches, especially the individual dungeons which boast very distinctive aesthetics. Music is a high point, with composer Shoji Meguro bringing a whole host of incredibly distinctive themes to the table - I guarantee a few hours playing will have them permanently stuck in your head. The game is also graced by one of the finest voice dubs ever, with a variety of skilled actors bringing their A-game to breathe life into the characters. Impressively, Atlus were able to bring the vast majority of the original cast back to record the (considerable) additional dialogue for this release, and the the characters who didn't have voice actors returning had their entire dialogue rerecorded.
What emerges at the end then, is a wonderfully, exceptionally crafted game that hasn't suffered one bit in being downsized to a portable platform, and in many ways has actually improved. And if that's all it was then it would still be one of the finest gaming experiences of the past year. But Persona 4 achieves that rare feat among games where it becomes more than just about the mechanical ins and outs and instead becomes about the experience. It's not just about the memorable characters, or the excellent story, or the impressive writing or the finely honed mechanics - it's all of these things, fused together into one seamless adventure that remains in the head and heart long after all the number crunching or button pressing has faded. After eighty hours in this world, after devouring every shred of content I had available to me, I still wanted one more mission, one last boss. Any excuse to spend another second in this world. That's about the highest praise I can give.