Chances are you didn’t hear about Persona 4 when it originally came out in North America in 2008, or in Europe in 2009. It came out on the Playstation 2 around the time Sony’s next-generation console finally got its feet under it with the solid releases such as Heavenly Sword and Metal Gear Solid 4. Despite critical acclaim, the game didn’t exactly catch on as much as it could have. However, Atlus has taken its time and have re-released this infamous JRPG as Persona 4 Golden, with some extra bells and whistles nonetheless, for Sony’s Playstation Vita. The final product I can easily declare with confidence might just be the best thing for the big black handheld released this year.
You play as a teenaged young man who moves out of the big city to live with his uncle in the country for a year. A year complete with schoolwork, getting to know the residents of the town, and quietly relaxing… if it weren’t for the murders. A string of deaths start breaking out around the town, all of which appear to be linked to a rumor involving looking into a plugged television that is turned off at midnight during a rainy night. It is while investigating this rumor that you and a select group of classmates discover the truth about the attacks, they are caused by beings from another dimension that is accessed entering a television set. Utilizing their abilities, called Persona, it is up to the group to protect anyone attacked, and discover who is ultimately responsible
If there is one thing that can be said about Persona 4 Golden is that despite being a sequel to the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series, the plot and elements are all very self-contained. No prior experience in the games are necessary to enjoy P4G to its fullest. Don’t let the number fool you, you can still jump right in.
The second thing that will jump out to most people is that past the amount of color and cheerfulness of the game’s presentation, it actually tackles some pretty interesting psychological and philosophical issues. Issues such as one’s self-worth, existentialism, idol worship, struggling with one’s own idiosyncrasies, and sexual identity, just to name a few are explored to great detail.
Gameplay is divided into two parts. The first half are the sections where you and your party are in the television dimension guided by a sentient talking bear suit (just roll with it), fighting monsters, exploring dungeons and getting into boss battles. The combat is a basic turn-based affair, complete with elemental attacks, Rock-Paper-Scissors style strengths and weaknesses for both enemies and allies, status ailments such as Panic, Fear, and Outrage, and minor additions to the formula to keep veteran RPG players on their toes. A personal favorite of the latter is the ability to gain another turn for using a super-effective attack or getting a critical hit.
Also, while in this strange world, you level-up and obtain Personas, creatures with unique individual abilities, which help you fight. You can also fuse Personas together to get more powerful ones, all while micromanaging which abilities are passed on to the new creation. On top of Persona fusion and training, there are also Skill Cards, which allow you to grant certain abilities to certain Personas, and a Fusion Forecast that can give extra benefits to certain Fusions being performed. The rabbit hole in terms of customization and possibility is very deep when it comes to this ability. Of course, any innate fear of breaking the game is diminished by a punishing, but fair, difficulty curve that demands thinking outside the box.
The second half of the game is, in essence, a time management simulator. When you aren’t fighting for your life against bizarre creatures inside a television, you’ll walk around the small town, socialize with characters, study for school exams, and work with your party to pin down the culprit. What helps this section of the game maintain relevance is whenever you meet or get to know a certain main or support character, you develop a Social Link. Social Links are a way to determine how well you know this person due to how much time you spend with them, and these same Links give you bonuses in terms of experience points received with a certain type of Persona in the dungeon-crawling combat parts of the game, as well as Persona Fusion.
Another benefit of increasing Social Links with the main members of your party is their flexibility in combat is increased. A character you never talk to might be sound in a battle, but a character you get to know can deliver devastating one-hit kill attacks, help support the rest of the party through curing ailments, or even defend you from a lethal attack.On top of contributing to Social Links, you can take a part-time job for cash, which you can then use to buy new weapons and armor for the party, attend a garden, or even just buy a bunch of books and read in the comfort of your bedroom.
The use of these two different forms of gameplay help pace the game and establish a brilliant juxtaposition. One moment you can be fishing on a riverbank to make a deal with an old man for an antique sword on a calm summer day, the next moment can be mostly dialogue between you and your teammates discussing their next move, then the next moment be using that very sword against a towering monstrosity that is about to bring your group down.
If there is one thing I have against the game, it’s that it has a bit of a slow start. It takes a solid ten or twenty minutes or so for the plot to finally get going, but once it does, it builds up to a stunning speed. This issue is lessened by the presence of a Skip button, a feature added for Persona fans who are tuning in for the new features, but for those who are new to the game might be put off by such a slow boil.
As for the new features added to Persona 4 Golden, some are a mixed bag. The biggest additions are two new Social Links, one of a character that may surprise returning players, and another surrounding the brand new character of Marie. The result is the addition of new Persona types not present before, and more characters to get to know around the area. These new Links are woven seamlessly into the narrative and don’t detract from the main experience in anyway. A second feature is the addition of new areas of the town to explore, including the town’s nightlife. These areas are, once again, well realized and help add to an already great amount of content.
The last feature, the Vox Populi system, is a bit hit-and-miss. If your Playstation Vita is hooked up to the Playstation Network, the Vox Populi system allows an asynchronous, detached form of online interaction with anybody else playing P4G. While exploring the town, Vox Populi will reveal to you what other players decided to spend their day doing, and while in a dungeon, the hitting of an SOS signal allows other players to cheer you on and give you small boosts to health and stamina. Both features consistently work, but don’t really seem to add much else to the core experience.
Persona 4 Golden might just be the most vibrant colorful game I’ve experienced this year. From the psychedelic opening sequence to the individual Persona designs, this is a game that isn’t afraid to use a lot of color. On the graphical side of things, the models and textures have been massively updated from the PS2 version, giving a sense of smoothness and detail that is just a treat to watch unfold.
The soundtrack is an energetic use of J-Pop and original work by Shoji Meguro that never fails to get old or even grate on the eardrums, be it the first or the fiftieth time you’ve heard the track. Voice-acting is solid across the board as well, with talent like Laura Bailey, Yuri Lowenthal, Troy Baker, and Sam Riegal turning in fantastic performances.
Persona 4 Golden is an experience that has to be played to be believed. There is so much content available, it is entirely possible to experience the entire 60+ hour story mode and not see everything the game has to offer. Thankfully, there is a New Game Plus feature, and plenty of reason to go back and experience the game again, multiple endings being just one.
Persona 4 Golden is the Playstation Vita’s must-have game. It has everything one could ask for. Great gameplay, endearing characters, a meaty solo experience with plenty of room for personal expression, and so much more. This one is a keeper, highly recommended.
AAG SCORE: 9.5/10
+ Great Turn-Based Combat
+ Well-Written Story and Characters
+ Visually and Musically Unique
+ Long Shelf Life and Replay Value
– Slow Opening