With shooting games being the dominant video game genre, it can be easy to feel stuck in a gaming rut. There are only so many ways you can shoot stuff, so many iterations of death match and capture the flag you can play before tedium sets in.
Fortunately, we have plenty of options to combat shooter fatigue, from high-definition remakes of cult classics like “Okami” and “Jet Set Radio” to new titles that resurrect dormant genres, such as “XCom: Enemy Unknown” and “Mark of the Ninja.”
When I want to change things up, I turn to Japanese-style role-playing games. The subgenre featuring parties of adventurers, often kids or young adults, taking part in strategic battles against fantastical monsters has been a gaming staple for me going back to the original “Final Fantasy” and “Dragon Quest” games in the late 1980s. JRPGs, as they’re called, are my comfort food.
For the past two months, my go-to game has been “Persona 4 Golden,” a PlayStation Vita remake of a title many gamers likely missed out on, thanks to its launch on the PS2 two years after the PS3 hit stores.
For JRPG fans who haven’t played the original, “Persona 4 Golden” (rated M, $40) is a compelling, 100-hour title that stands among the best of its genre. For a certain subset of gamers, it may just justify the purchase of the spendy PlayStation Vita handheld on its own.
Set at a Japanese high school in an out-of-the-way town, “Persona 4 Golden” revolves around a group of students who investigate a string of murders and disappearances. In a plot device borrowed from C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the teens have the ability to enter a parallel universe through television sets, where they do battle against a variety of exotic monsters known as “shadows.”
The game takes much of its narrative cues from psychologist Carl Jung. To do battle in the TV world, each character must come to grips with his or her shadow, an alter-ego that represents the characters’ dark thoughts and insecurities.
In between navigating corridor-heavy levels that represent the subconscious minds of the game’s characters, you’ll do things a normal high school student does. The main character goes to school, takes tests, works part-time jobs, joins clubs and hangs out with his classmates. This between-dungeon gameplay is essential to advancing the game’s stories. As you meet ancillary characters and hang out with your fellow investigators, you’ll “rank up” your relationships. This bit of role-playing allows you to create more powerful personas for the main character to use. (In the “Persona” games, the main character can choose from among dozens of personas to wield, while other characters are limited to just one.)
The game starts a bit slowly, and some of the relationship stuff can get silly, particularly the cheesy, PG-13-rated date scenarios. But overall, the game’s character development and narrative arc resemble that of a well-done anime or sitcom. By the end of the 60- to 100-plus-hour game, you’ll be smiling along as the characters crack jokes at each others’ expense. (For those taken with the game’s world, there’s also a fighting game that came out last year, “Persona 4 Arena,” as well as two seasons’ worth of anime and a manga comic series.)
Several townfolk will also have optional errands for the main character to run, many of which involve going back into the TV world and replaying previously beaten levels in the hopes of encountering a specific enemy or object. While most JRPGs require a certain amount of level grinding before you can tackle more powerful enemies, “Persona 4’s” handling of this grind makes it less tedious.
In fact, there end up being so many optional, side activities to engage in, such as fishing, studying, building models and running errands, that you’re unlikely to see everything the game has to offer on your first play-through. To max out everyone’s social links and fulfill every request, you’ll need to start over after finishing the game, carrying over some of your stats from your first play-through.
“Persona 4 Golden” is one of the latest in a robust line of handheld games that gives the lie to the notion that developers don’t make them like they used to. With the 3DS set to receive new titles in the “Fire Emblem,” “Devil Summoner” and “Etrian Odyssey” series, fans of classic JRPGs looking for a change of pace have plenty of options.