The last JRPG I finished and enjoyed was 2000's Skies of Arcadia for the Dreamcast. But as a kid, I played pretty much every JRPG I could get my hands on. Final Fantasy, Earthbound, Dragon Warrior, Chrono Trigger, Grandia, Suikoden, Sword of Vermilion, Xenogears, and Phantasy Star all consumed the bulk of my free time. Sometime after I started college, that all changed, and between around 2000 and the present, every attempt at playing a JRPG failed. Then Persona 4 Golden came along.
As an "adult," the bulk of my time with RPGs has been with western-style games like Dark Souls, Skyrim, Mass Effect, and Fallout. Yet I've attempted—and failed—to get into all kinds of more modern JRPGs over the years. Off the top of my head, these include: The World Ends With You, Ni no Kuni, Radiant Historia, Mario and Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story (which I did adore, but it was for the writing more than the game), Final Fantasy XII, Final Fantasy XIII, Folklore, and Eternal Sonata.
Which is all to say: this is a once-beloved genre that's gotten away from me over the years.
But something about Persona 4 kept calling me. When I picked up a cheap Vita, Persona 4 Golden was one of the first titles I picked up, and to my surprise, I fell for it.
Let's lay down the facts first. Persona 4 is a Japanese role-playing game that's equal parts murder mystery, dungeon crawler, and high school simulator.
You play a high school student who's new in town, and soon after you arrive people start dying. That murder mystery unravels to reveal a supernatural side where an urban legend about the Midnight Channel, a television program that shows people's secret dark side, is true. You and your friends fall into this television world, learn that you can summon powerful allies called "Personas," and decide to figure out what's going on.
Figuring out what's going on comes in the form of two parts: high school simulator and dungeon crawler. In any given simulated day, you'll go to school, take an exam, try to hang out with some cute girls, find an important clue about a murder, and do some dungeon crawling to find more information.
The game plays out over the course of a year and in most respects, you'll do an equal amount of life simulation and battle.
The simulation part is what sets it apart from other games in the genre. You go to school, meet friends, and can pick and choose what you do otherwise. You can hang out with certain people to increase link between them (and provide a boost in battle), you can spend your time studying, you can work to improve basic skills, and attempt to date one of a handful of different girls. The characters at your side include a boy struggling with his sexuality, a pop star hiding out in the small town after deciding to leave show business, a tomboyish girl who love kung-fu movies, and more.
I think context is important to point out here. Persona 4's a universally well-loved game, but it stuck with me because I played it at the right time. I'd just moved to a new state where I didn't know anyone. I was trying to make new friends (and failing). I was also trying to figure out what to do with an absurd amount of free time.
Persona 4 offered a curious kind of escape. I could solve many of my own problems in its world. Making friends was as easy as talking to someone at the right time. Nobody says no to you. Nobody judges you for talking to them too often. My character was charming, suave, and well-loved, but didn't have to try to be any of those things.
The combat system is turn-based, with the primary system based on summoning different personas to fight different enemies. It has depth without being overly-complicated, and the Persona system strikes a balance where you can basically ignore the complicated bits like fusions (combining multiple Personas together) or dig in deep to optimize it.
What's especially nice about the combat system is the amount of room it gives lazy, anxious players like me. By default, the computer controls most of your party. You can set tactics for them, and they do what they think is best. This means you're only managing yourself in combat, which makes battles quick. You can take over control at any time, but I only bothered during the harder boss battles. There's also an option to hit a button and set your whole party to spam basic attacks against enemies, which is particularly helpful when you're grinding away in a dungeon but also watching a TV show on the couch.
Also helpful to someone like me: I can hit the power button on the Vita and take a break from the game. No hunting for save points for twenty minutes. No stressing about getting through a dungeon before dinner's ready. No worrying that I won't have time to do anything in the game. It solves one of the big problems with JRPGs: I rarely have the time or patience to play them. With Persona 4 on the Vita, it's just as easy to play for 20 minutes as it is for two hours. If anything, it showcases that portable systems are better suited for dense JRPGs better than a console.
It's also well written, packed with weird characters, and has enough surprises to make the 70 or so hours you'll spend with not feel like a slog. It has the right amount of goofy. Where games like Final Fantasy tend to rely on melodrama these days, Persona sticks closer to the type of drama you'd call a guilty-pleasure. It's aware that it's pretty over-the-top, and that self awareness keeps it from teetering over the edge.
Persona 4 sparked an interest in JRPGs enough that I picked up a copy of Bravely Default to fill the void after I'd finished it. Even more curiously, I didn't care for Bravely Default at all, and found it excruciatingly boring to play. Which makes the special charm of the Persona series all the more interesting to me. For now, I've started playing Persona 3: Portable, so we'll see if it's a one off, contextual trick that got me to enjoy Persona 4 as much as I did, or if there's something in that series as a whole for me.