The original Persona 4 was released during the tail-end of the PS2’s life cycle, two years after the system’s numbered successor had taken over its reigns at retail. Yet despite the generational leap in technology, the game was still regarded as one of the best RPGs released at the time; where other games promised bigger budgets and higher resolutions, Persona 4 hooked players with its hundred-plus hours of literal role-playing and gripping story line, not to mention an addicting game design that brought joy in accomplishing even the most menial tasks, from studying for tests to working as a part-time janitor.
For gamers who have not yet experienced the game due to migrating to next generation consoles, the PlayStation Vita re-release of Persona 4 seemed like the ideal opportunity to reintroduce the game to a modern audience. However, the current marketing state of Sony’s slow selling handheld has ironically placed the RPG on a platform with an even smaller user-base. An assortment of gameplay tweaks, graphical enhancements and brand new content have also turned Atlus’ re-release of an already great game into a bonafide system seller. Re-packaged as Persona 4 Golden, this expanded port delivers the same great console experience of the original, yet manages to create a package that is perfectly suited for portable play.
The story takes place in Inaba, a small countryside town in Japan. Players assume the role of the protagonist, a young transfer student who must spend the next year under the care of his uncle due to his parents’ job schedule. Though the town itself is initially considered small compared to his former life in the city, a series of supernatural events and mysterious murders soon shake up the entire town and all of its residents. High school rumors speak of the “Midnight Channel”, a mysterious program that only plays at midnight during rainy nights, which end up transporting the protagonist and his new friends to a bizarre world filled with monstrous Shadows, talking teddy bears and visual sets recreating the inner doubts and desires of anyone unfortunate enough to have become trapped inside. For those unable to escape the bizarre world, their despair will eventually lead to their demise, causing their lifeless bodies to reappear in the real world. Utilizing the power of “Persona”, the hero and his friends band together to save the latest victims of the Midnight Channel while also trying to uncover who or what is behind the murders.
Despite the importance of his task, the hero is still a high school student who must attend class regularly, while secretly dealing with the latest threat of the Midnight Channel after school. The power of his Persona is also strengthened by the bonds he shares with the residents of Inaba, encouraging him to establish as many connections as he can with his fellow teammates, family members, classmates and others. This balance between social life and dungeon-crawling are the two most fundamental components of Persona 4, though they are both further influenced by dozens of other systems and mechanics that slowly unravel over the course of the game.
“Slowly” is an understatement, as the game spends a good two to three hours setting up the story and its characters before you are even allowed to enter dungeons and start fighting. As daunting at that may sound, it is all for the sake of easing you into the game’s year-long premise. Unlike traditional RPGs, Persona 4’s story follows a more structured plot that progresses with the hero’s daily life, whether going to school, hanging out with friends or fighting monsters. Each day begins with players waking up in the morning, and ends once they go back to bed. The majority of the time, you’ll be attending classes at school: after that, you are given free rein to run around town, purchase items and complete various NPC quests, but certain actions will “cost” one day’s time, immediately warping you back to your house in the evening. Said actions include traveling in the TV world or engaging with Social Links, but there are other time-wasting activities as well, including fishing at the lake, eating a beef bowl at the diner, praying at the local shrine, and so forth. Evening activities are further restricted, consisting of studying, reading books, sneaking out into a late night bar, or just having a snack at the fridge.
As pointless as all of these diversions sound, the kicker is that they all benefit players in some way. Besides gaining levels the typical RPG way by defeating enemies and gaining exp, the hero also possesses several parameters (Courage, Knowledge, Understanding, Diligence, and Expression) that must also be raised through various other means. It is through these random activities that your personality traits can be leveled up, and doing so will open further doors for you; having a higher Courage level can allow for additional dialog prompts, for example, while a higher Understanding or Expression rank allows you to establish new Social Links with characters who respect those traits. Knowledge helps you earn higher grades at school, while Diligence allows for you to undertake higher-grade part-time jobs which pay more money, and open the potential for even more characters to establish a Social Link with.
Social Links also play a significant role into the dungeon-crawling portion of the game as well. During battles, players may be given the opportunity to obtain Persona cards, adding more creatures to your arsenal. These collected Personas can then be fused together to create new and potentially more powerful Personas, and may receive a bonus leveling up if the corresponding Social Link matches their Arcana. For instance, forming a Social Link with Yosuke, who is of the Magician Arcana, will strengthen the abilities of all Personas who are a part of the Magician family. This process also applies to all other Personas who are part of the same Arcana as their corresponding Social Links, which makes getting on everyone’s good side tantamount to becoming more versatile in battle.
Put simply, there is no action in Persona 4 that is a waste of time, and finding out the best way to make the most out of your time is the key to creating the ultimate party of Shadow-slayers. This facet is what makes the day-to-day activities so rewarding (satisfyingly and literally): reading a book on how to improve your study habits, then watching your Knowledge level up after a nightly regimen of studying creates the same feeling of satisfaction as gaining a level after dungeon-grinding, even though it all benefits your characters in the end. However, because there is so much to do and so many characters to interact with, it’s virtually impossible to 100% complete everything on the first run, making the New Game + option a welcome incentive for a second (or third) outing. The Vita version also includes higher difficulty levels that can be undertaken with each new playthrough, as well as the ability to fast-forward and rewind conversations and text, making the notion of replaying a hundred hour-plus game more enticing than usual. Another new feature allows players to connect to the Playstation Network in order to see what decisions the majority of players are making during the day, giving a clearer hint on whether you might be better off spending the day with one character rather than the other, or to just enjoy a solitary moment fishing or dining in order to reap the bonus rewards during that particular day. As if there weren’t enough things to do already, Golden also introduces new Social Links and activities (including home gardening and driving around town on a scooter) to drive completionists truly insane.
The visuals of Golden feature the same slightly super-deformed character models of the PS2 original, while sprucing up the background details in subtle-yet-distinctive ways; forests are filled with more trees and paved lands, indoor restaurants and shops have more items strewn about to create a more lived-in feel, and the textures have been sharpened up in order to partake in all the knick-knacks and details. What the game lacks in facial expressions and polygons it more than makes up for with a visually striking art style that is present in almost every single part of the game…if you’ve never visited a Japanese city before, it might be presumptuous to call Persona 4’s recreation “authentic”, but the number of finely-crafted set pieces and Japanese traditions imposed by its residences certainly makes the setting feel authentic.
Strangely enough, the game’s most impressive visual style comes from its menus: featuring a color scheme and motif that resembles ‘70s television, the bright colors and fonts are really striking while also serving as a metaphor for the game’s bizarre “world inside the TV” premise. The Vita version takes this aesthetic a step further by including an array of bonuses categorized by TV channels. Such bonuses include all of the game’s Anime cutscenes and music for replaying, live concert performances of the most popular songs from Persona 3 and 4, trailers and commercials for every game in the series, and many more unlockable features including the surprisingly informative classroom lectures about the nature of Persona and Shadows. As portable bonuses goes, Golden has truly set the benchmark for which all other Vita games must adhere too. These bonuses can also be accessed within the game itself just by merely double-tapping the screen, taking the TV channel surfing concept one step beyond. The jukebox and live concerts should prove especially welcome, as the Persona series is renowned for its excellent soundtrack, prompting players to unconsciously hum along as they “Reach Out For The Truth” while mentally deciphering the incomprehensible (yet delightfully catchy) Engrish lyrics.
Let it not be forgotten that amidst all of these features, there is still a traditional RPG battle system in there. While inside the TV world, there are multiple dungeons that must be navigated in order to reach the top floor and rescue the latest victim. Though you are free to enter the TV as often as necessary, you are given a deadline via the in-game weather report, which lets you know when a foggy day is approaching. Fail to rescue the person before the fog sets, and the game will end. Failure can also occur should your party also fall in battle, though a new restart feature allows you to start over on the first floor of each dungeon while keeping all of your levels and items up to that point.
Battles take place on a separate screen between party members and Shadows, where both sides take turns attacking each other. You have your standard assortment of commands including attacking, defending, and using items, but the most strategic element revolves around each enemy’s weakness; hitting a Shadow that is weak to fire spells, for example, will momentarily stun your opponent while offering you an additional turn on the spot. Should you manage to stun every enemy on the field, your entire team can band together for a devastating All-Out-Attack that could wipe out the entire enemy group in a combined blow. Further abilities come into play during these advantageous periods, including newly-added combo attack between characters that is similar to Chrono Trigger’s Double Tech skills, except that they occur automatically.
Be warned, however, that your team’s Personas share their own weaknesses, and those enemies are granted the same additional privileges should they strike you with an appropriate ability. Though battles can be finished within seconds thanks to a well-timed attack, they can just as easily end badly for you should an enemy unleash a powerful spell that plays on your weaknesses. Particularly deadly are the Mudo and Hama spells, which are designed to instantly kill should they successfully land (and are guaranteed to do so should your Persona prove weak against them). Though the battle system is easy to learn and the enemy weaknesses are easy to exploit, players must learn to keep on guard at all times through every means at their disposal, including defensive spells, consumable items, or equipping a Persona that is resistant to the current enemy’s repertoire.
Should you require an additional boost in battle, Golden has introduced another network-enabled feature called the S.O.S. With a single tap of the touchscreen icon, players can send help messages that can be viewed automatically by anyone currently playing at the same time, while similar messages may appear in your own game. To respond, all one needs to do is touch the message back, which offers a small replenishment of health and SP to the original correspondent. The more people that respond to one message, the bigger the recovery you’ll receive. Though there is no reward for responding to the on-screen requests, the game does keep track of the number of times players have assisted other players, creating a fun-yet-optional Good Samaritan feature that also allows for partially customizable messages and an overall satisfying feeling of knowing that “You are not alone”, as the game informs you during those moments where the community boost comes in handy.
There are dozens of other mechanics and features that would make this already lengthy review nearly double in length. Simply put,Persona 4’s portable port retains all of the highly polished features, addictive grinding, smartly written (and often hilarious) writing of the original, with even more additional features added to an already meaty package that also includes new cutscenes, events, and characters that further enhance the likeable cast of characters to new heights. Calling the Vita version “Golden” isn’t just a rebranded title, but a truly accurate description of the quality of this expanded re-release, making handheld gamers feel as if they have truly “struck gold”. If you were still on the fence over purchasing the Vita, you now have a very strong incentive to take the plunge.
Note: The Persona 4 Golden review was written based on the Vita version of the game provided by the publisher.