Being a high school student can be tough. Not only do you have to balance a healthy social life with extracurricular activities, school studies, and a part-time job, but you've also got to solve a mysterious murder case that's plaguing your hometown.
Okay, so it's possible that the last part doesn't apply to you, but that's exactly how the teenage protagonists of Atlus's Persona 4 Golden spent a year of their high school lives.
A foggy outlook
Persona 4 Golden puts you in the shoes of the perfect J-RPG stereotype: a young, mostly silent, and rather blank protagonist. And an unnamed one at that - though I've given him the unofficial name of Hugo Estiban.
To be fair, unlike other J-RPG heroes Hugo isn't full of angst or anger. He's a caring and understanding fellow who wishes to befriend and bond with those around him. Which is made relatively easy thanks to the strange goings-on in the seemingly sedate rural town of Inaba, where the story is set.
In this sleepy town bodies start appearing whenever there's a foggy night. Each death happens shortly after a mysterious television channel appears, which shows the murder victims enacting their twisted inner thoughts.
Around the same time, the lead also discovers that he has the power to enter a world beyond the TV screen. He and his friends tumble through it, like Alice down a rabbit hole, to this entirely new world where the denizens of Inaba are being dropped to face their inner turmoil until it kills them.
Persona 4 Golden is a two-sided beast. There's all the dungeon-crawling, side-quests, and excessive grinding that any J-RPG fan could possibly want. But it also contains a beautiful blend of storytelling and socialising that expands upon characters and offers you new ways to grow.
Battles, fought with up to four teammates against numerous enemies, work mostly as expected. You can leave your teammates to their own devices or direct them just like you do the main character, telling them when to attack, defend, use items, and utilise a magical Persona that embodies their inner feelings.
Working as a means of doling out magical or more powerful physical attacks, these interchangeable summons carry with them their own strengths and weaknesses that directly affect how you perform in a fight.
Couple this with vast move-sets that you can expand as you level characters up, the protagonist's ability to change between a wide variety of Personas, and the strengths and weaknesses of your enemies, and the possibility for ingenious tactical play is near limitless.
Work and Play
Combat can only improve you so much - the rest of your growth must come from forming bonds with others. Building up your traits of Knowledge, Expression, Understanding, Courage, and Diligence via jobs is also key.
These Social Links are crucial to unlocking not only more powerful Personas but also new abilities for your teammates and their Personas. Reaching crucial points in friendships allows teammates to perform secondary tasks in combat - such as taking mortal blows for you, performing follow-up attacks, or even healing you after every battle.
Social Links are pretty darn essential to making the most of Persona 4 Golden, and - quite honestly - they can be some of the most enjoyable parts of your investigation. As these moments are peppered with humour, Persona 4 Golden manages to do something most games can only dream of: it makes you care.
Persona 4 Golden is above and beyond any other Vita game out there, and it vindicates Sony's claims that the Vita can play host to console-sized adventures.
It's certainly not going to be for everyone - especially as it offers well over 60 hours of gameplay to wade through. But if you're a J-RPG fan this as close to handheld heaven you'll ever be.