So, it has been far too long since I have written anything about video games. In order to remedy this, I am going to stop holding myself to the standard long-form Press Start to Discuss articles you have all come to expect from me. I still hope to produce those on occasion, but in order to make sure something gets produced at some point in time I will start trying to post articles discussing game-related things that are on my mind. These articles will not need to be tied into a specific overall theme, presented in a more “stream of consciousness” style. With that said....
Lately, I have spent an inordinate amount of time playing Persona 4 Golden, the Vita remake of the original Persona 4, released on the PS2. This new version of the game added a lot of new features and almost totally changes that game. I decided to spent this article detailing the biggest of those changes and how they affect the overall experience of the player.
One of the biggest new additions to the game come in the form of changes to the Persona Fusion system, a mainstay of the franchise. In vanilla Persona 4, when players fused personae together to create new ones, the resulting persona would inherit skills from its “parents” based on an algorithm that took the skill list of the parents' and the child's affinity for different skill types into account, with a degree of randomness thrown in. The Golden version changes this in a very fundamental way. Instead of an algorithm determining what skills get inherited, the player gets to make the choice directly. When the player selects personae to fuse together, the result will be displayed as always. Based on the affinities of the “child” persona, a list of possible skills to inherit is created, and the player selects from the list what skills will be passed on.
The end result of this change is alleviating many of the frustration that were built into the original system of fusing personae. Before, it was quite common for players to spend literally hours of time canceling and reselecting fusions in order to ensure that the child persona received, if not an ideal, than a decent set of skills from its parents. This would cause undue frustration on the player's part because often the algorithm would favor skills that players had no use for, like status ailment skills. Even worse was when a lot time would be spent to get the right skills, but a fusion accident resulted in a different persona than intended. Many hours of time could be wasted thanks to scenarios like the ones listed above. Now that inheritance is a choice made by the player, these problems are no longer an issue.
The addition of Skill Cards, which were present in Persona 3 Portable on the PSP, also adds to this streamlining of persona creation. Each skill card has a specific skill imbued on it. Using a Skill Card on a persona will give that persona the ability associated with it. Taken with the above addition of inheritance choice, persona creation seems to be moving away from the random chance in favor of player choice and consequence. If a fused persona ends up being useless in the new system, then it is the player's fault for making poor choices, not the fault of the random number gods.
Going on with this theme of reducing the random chance element in the game, another big change is the new Shuffle Time. In both versions of Persona 4, when players do particularly well in a battle, the game awards them with Shuffle Time. Vanilla P4 presents persona cards, blank cards, and penalty cards to the player, and then makes them pick one via a mini-game. These mini-games can take the form of picking a card as they are moving, face down, in a circular pattern, a type of concentration-esque game where players keep the first matching pair they find, and a slot machine. Picking a persona card would let players keep it for use in combat or fusion. A penalty card would take away all the rewards from the battle, and a blank card does nothing.
Golden replaces this with an entirely new system. During Shuffle Time, the game creates a hand of cards for players to select from, each with their own reward like extra money/experience, healing, a skill card, or a new persona among other effects. Once they select their card, shuffle time comes to an end and they win the rewards obtained during the selection. However, there are also penalty cards that would encourage players to forfeit certain rewards in exchange for being able to pick more cards. (For example, picking “The Tower” will reduce the money earned in a battle to 0 in exchange for allowing the player to pick 3 more cards from the hand.) Drawing all the cards in a hand will guarantee that the next battle will result in a Shuffle Time, and allows players to select 3 cards from the next Shuffle Time instead of only 1.
This new Shuffle Time encourages players to make choices instead on using their reflexes to get the best results. It is now important to consider the options available during Shuffle Time to try to maximize the potential gains. Players have to look at the trade-offs and think about whether taking certain penalties in exchange for multiple benefits and/or more chances to draw from the next Shuffle Time hand. There is a degree of randomness involved, as the hand generated might not always be beneficial to the player, but it is an interesting way to force players to make bigger considerations during an otherwise small element of the game.
Another guiding philosophy that presents itself in Persona 4 Golden is online social integration with other players. This is not the usual kind of social interaction like pointless Facebook integration and other social networking features common in big name games. Rather, the game use the internet for two new features that allow users to passively interact with each other in new, interesting ways. The first of these features is the “Vox Populi”. When players are exploring the town on their in-game off days, they can access the Vox Populi, which will show the 5 most popular uses of that in-game period of time, on that particular day. Once a player finishes their day, and they are in Online Mode, their activities are added to the Vox Populi for that day. This forms a sort of guide that new players can use when they are confused about how to use their time in-game, letting them see the options they may have available. Later in the game, this is less useful because other players may have different social links unlocked, but it is very handy in the early game.
The other new social feature in the Emergency SOS system. When players are online and exploring dungeons, they are able to use this system to send a request for aid from other players. Every player that responds to this request before the start of the next battle will restore 5% of every party members HP and SP once the battle actually begins. Sending and responding to requests costs nothing in-game, so there is no reason not to constantly request and give out aid to other players. Having played with this system a lot before my own HP/SP restoration became too high to bother with it, this system creates a Journey-esque mutual cooperation where players are not directly communicating with each other with words. However, they are aware of each other's presences and work together to build up enough HP/SP to climb higher in the dungeons than any one of them could by themselves. Though both of these features are completely optional, they add a new layer of depth to the game never seen before.
Overall, it seems like Persona 4 Golden is a sign that even now, ATLUS is continuing to refine their craft despite being masters at it. None create JRPGs in quite the same way they do, and despite that they still do their best to improve the design of their games. I look forward to seeing if these changes will be reflected in Persona 5 when it gets released. It is fascinating to think about how only a couple of changes can dramatically affect the overall experience. And these are only a few of the many things added to the Vita version. Despite this, while it is clear that Persona 4 Golden is the definitive version of the game for fans and newbies alike, it may not be enough to justify the purchase of a PlayStation Vita by itself. Still, it goes a long way, especially for series fans.