Friday, April 4, 2014

Impressions #1: Persona 4 Golden

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.


Sougo said...

Ahh wow, I haven't visit here in a while, I'm glad that you're still doing these blog post. As for P4G, I'm surprise that you didn't mention the biggest additions: The 2 extra social links. I think you might want to avoid any spoilers and it's understandable. The 2 social links are a stark contrast to each other where one offers a crucial insight and development to one of the game's villains and the other is a straight out 'waifu' social link that ramp up the wish fulfillment aspect to 11. (Seriously now, you're so totally awesome that the cliche Tsundere god will fall for you)

The wish fulfillment aspect is what worries me about P5. They straight said that P5 is going to 'Aim at people Discontent with their lives' and it sounds like they're just going to copy the P3 formula again. A reason why I'll always like P3 more than P4 is that even though P4 is a much more polished, with better flesh out character - it still felt like P3 in a different skin. This is especially apparent in the 'true ending' where they ripped out the cheesy 'defeating god with the power of friendship' which make just my eyes rolls. I really wish that they tone down the wish fulfillment of the series and focus more on the characters - not how they all thinks that you are super duper awesome sauce.

newdarkcloud said...

I deliberately avoided the Social Links b/c I tried to keep this spoiler free, but I will say that I REALLY enjoyed the Jester Social Link. The scene it unlocks (both in the Bad and Good endings) is one of my new favorites.

I don't know if I would call the Aeon link "wish fulfillment", though. At least not entirely. Sure, there's an element of it there, but that link also fills the purpose of further explaining some of the details regarding the True Ending and the real culprit behind the madness in a way that makes logical sense. When you think about, learning more about the antagonists is the purpose of both links to a degree.

Since friendship = god-like super powers has become a main mechanic of the latest iterations of the franchise, it is unlikely that they remove this element. It also kinda works with the whole Jungian psychology angle they have going on. Jung believed that all gods and demons were simply constructs of the human mind. Viewed in that context, in makes sense that a protagonist with strong attachments to the world would be able to defeat a god, because that god exists only because people believe it to exist. A strong enough opposing believe would eliminate their power.

Still, you raise very valid points, and it does often feel like Aeon is merely an author insert. Shame too, since Nanako fills the role of "someone all the characters care about" much more convincingly.

Sougo said...

The Aeon link represent what I always though is unnecessary to P4. The true ending never need to exist in the first place. Sure there will still be mystery surrounding the group's powers but P4 always skirt around the issues anyways, never delve deeply into the existence of Persona or Shadows. It really exist (at least to me) mirrors the ending of P3 and even attempt to play raise the stake by showing you what might happened to your friends but never dare to go all the way through. Just smokes and mirrors - a good analogy for P3/4.

The Jung angle is really neat but ... it only really comes up strongly at that true ending. The 'god' was never the main villain of P4 and the climax never revolves around using the power of the collective belief to literally shift realities unlike P3 - and even then the protagonist wasn't entirely successful in P3. It's just a typical showdown with the 'big bad' and it was fine because P4 wasn't suppose to be about saving the world but solving these murders in this small rural town. This is why I felt the sudden ramp of '... the world is totally in danger if we fail guys1111!!!' a cop out and goes against the entire tone of P4. Furthermore, they already use the same plot device - near identically - twice already so it would be such a same if P5 goes 'me too!' on it as well - especially since P4 never needed it in the first place.

Finally, I must admit - as flaw and 1 note as she is - the Aeon link is still my favorite girl compare to the others xD.

PS: Is the a spoiler tag script? Cause the blog reallly need it :p

newdarkcloud said...

I don't think blogger has such a script, unfortunately.

Although, I don't agree that the game didn't need a True Ending. Part of the theme of Persona 4 is that you need to dig deep for the "truth", leaving no stone unturned and no question unanswered. As Kanji says after you take the Good Ending route, "If we leave any unanswered questions, we'll just be lying to ourselves."

So, in order to get the best ending, the player can't just leave it at "Oh look, there's the killer." They need to recognize that the case isn't over yet and continue to look in order to fully resolve the mystery and learn the whole truth behind the events of the previous year. It resonates thematically with the game.

Sougo said...

Damn it, look like I can't just spoil everything and anything now.

I not against with having a 'True' End. A true is neat and resonate with the theme. I do have, however, a problem with how the true end is handle - flashing a giant neon sign saying 'Pssht... maybe you should totally check around some more *wink*', sticking a 'divine' being in there just so we can have another epic battle against the god (I hear those are rare in JRPG) so that we can have that friendship scene etc... - Seeing with how it's done, I rather we just have the Good ending.

newdarkcloud said...

I see your point in that it probably didn't need to result in "epic god boss battle," but there did need to be some divine/magical element in order to explain the Midnight Channel and how the 3 "players" got their powers in the first place.