You spend much of your time in Persona 4 Golden at school, but you only ever see the good bits. A couple of times a week, you might answer a teacher’s question and get an instant stat boost; sometimes you’ll hear a few sentences at the start of a class before the screen fades to black. The focus is on morning walks, lunch breaks and after-school clubs: your chances to make new friends and hang out with existing ones. If only our school days were like this.
It’s entirely appropriate, however, because this is a game whose focus is squarely on friendship. Your every relationship, or Social Link, is ranked from zero to ten, and everything you do in company – a shared bento box, a stroll on the local flood plains, an after-school kickabout, or an evening tending to your vegetable garden – works towards increasing that rank. Each Social Link relates to a specific kind of Persona, the spirits you summon in battle, and the higher the relevant Social Link rank, the more potent the Persona created. It gives real meaning, and tangible benefit, to attending to the minutiae of a Japanese schoolkid’s daily life, which only gets interesting in a traditional JRPG sense when fog descends on the sleepy town of Inaba. Because when the fog comes, people go missing. And when people go missing here, they often turn up dead.
It starts with an urban myth. Legend has it that the Midnight Channel shows your soulmate when the clock strikes 12 on a rainy night. That channel, you soon find out, is very real indeed – only it’s not showing your ideal life partner, but the most recent person to go missing. Reach out to touch the screen of the small portable TV in your bedroom, and your hand disappears inside. When you try again on a giant flatscreen at Junes, the local department store, your entire body falls through and into another dimension. Here, missing persons await you, trapped within sprawling, multi-tier dungeons, prisoners of their own psyches. You must rescue them so they can acknowledge the parts of themselves that they’d tried to hide away. If they can admit to their true nature, they’ll be able to call on a Persona of their own, and can join you in battle.
While your party members have just one Persona each, you have several options, and can switch between them at any point in the game’s turn-based battles. Enemies are weak against certain attacks. Use the right one and they fall down, letting you attack again. Fell the entire enemy team and your party joins forces for an All-Out Attack, piling on and dealing heavy damage. That, though, is as nuanced as the fighting gets. You and your party level up, increasing hit and skill points (the latter depleted by Persona attacks); Personas level up, too, learning new skills as they go, and up to six can be fused together to create new, far more powerful ones. There’s loot to take from fallen enemies, and from chests littered about the place. So far, so JRPG.