In a time when some might argue against them, Persona 4 Golden stands as a testament to both JRPG lovers and Vita owners that the two ecosystems aren’t quite ready to disappear into the ether.
Although the core experience of P4G isn't all that different from its original PlayStation 2 release, a number of changes and new additions make the trek back into the rural town of Inaba worthwhile for both old and newcomers of the title and franchise. So, should you go headlong into experience this new Persona? The answer is easily, and obviously, a yes.
You, the young and silent high school student, will live in the city of Inaba for a year due to your parents being away for work. From the moment you enter the town you’re greeted by a friendly face, your uncle accompanied by his daughter, who doesn’t really give a friendly face. After arriving at home and a strange visit from a mysterious big-nosed man in the Velvet Room, your new life begins. However, not all is as it seems in Inaba as a series of murders begins to occur soon after your arrival and rumors of weird showings on the Midnight Channel on rainy days. It’s up to you and your fellow classmates to solve these occurings in Inaba when you discover you have the ability to enter a world through the television and summon powerful beings called Personas.
Still, while the simplicity and the unimportance of the main narrative may be a shortcoming of the series it gives strength to the other aspects of story. The game is primarily concerned with character development and character interactions between the extremely large cast. As the silent protagonist your direct responses to your friends will be minimal but you will see your friends sides of their selves that they hid away and see how they learn to accept their identity and reality as their own. It’s this self-recognition and acceptance of their true selves that truly differentiate Persona 4 from other JRPGs or even its predecessor. For instance, Yukiko struggles with being a successor to the local inn and being tied to the town, however, over the course of the game you’ll find that she slowly comes to terms with how she defines herself and what she should do.
All of these character interactions and relationships you have are housed under a system called Social Links. There are numerous Social Links in all and they have ten stages in total. Once you grow closer to someone you’ll level up in the respective Social Links. In order to level up you must spend time with them and make proper responses or actions when around them to maximize your affection. Of course rather than exploiting the relationship to maximize affection in order to level up you’re free to role play and choose responses as you see fit. The system doesn’t penalize you for doing so and as a result Social Links give great freedom in trying to undertake a different persona or manifest your own in the game. Social Links at first may seem like an artificial system included to give meaning to an already meaningful gameplay component but it doesn’t feel tacked on. Rather, Social Links serves to further expand and make Golden an even more impressive game.
For instance, your relationship with your bud Yosuke is titled The Magician. Depending on what your Social Link level is with Yosuke, when you create Personas of The Magician, it will receive bonus experience making it with a high starting level from the get go. Creating new Personas in the Velvet Room becomes more of a puzzle as you will need to decide if it’s worthwhile to create Personas that won’t benefit from Social Links or not. At the same time, if you wish to create Personas of a certain tarot then it’s best to focus on that respective Social Link. The relationship that Persona creation shares with Social Links is one of the quintessential, and enjoyable, aspect of the game.
The other three members of the party can be controlled manually or you can let the AI handle it. Whichever way you choose, the rules of the battle will remain the same. Each Persona can learn up to eight moves and you must take out the opposing party. Luckily systems such as One More and All-Out Attacks keep you engaged. When you attack an enemy using its weakness or land a critical hit you get a chance to attack once more. Doing so may knock down the enemy making it vulnerable to any subsequent attacks that may cause dizziness. It’s an easy way to chain multiple weaknesses and knockdown all foes on the field. You may even have an ally pitch in and dish out additional damage or hit other enemies out on the playing field. All-Out Attacks come into play when all foes are knocked down and your entire party will join and bash the enemies for a good amount of damage frequently resulting in their deaths. Utilizing One More and All-Out Attacks help to move battles along and it’s an excellent supplement to the tried and true turn-based combat system.
Going back to reality after visiting the other world is something completely different. The stark contrast in the types of gameplay you engage in is startling and may feel incohesive but it works to the game’s advantage. If you feel like hunting Shadows or finishing up some quests in the other world then you should do so. However, if you want to spend more time in the real world making friends, building yourself up to be a paragon of sorts, and undertake part-time jobs to earn money then entering the other world so often may not be best for you. The game is all about choice and choosing how you want to spend your time. However, be mindful that if you don’t have a healthy lifestyle of training in both the real and other world, you might not be so ready when fate needs you to be.
All of Golden is complemented by its excellent pop soundtrack. The vocal tunes are extremely catchy and fun to listen to. At the same time, the game’s somber and ambient tunes exemplify some of the more darker toned events. If anything can be said bad about the exemplary soundtrack is its repetitiveness. The game can easily be a 60+ hour journey and the same songs might pop up again too often for your patience. The voice acting is just as stellar as each actor does a superb job displaying emotion.
While the game doesn’t push the Vita’s hardware to the max in terms of graphics it does capture the vibrant and colorful Golden creates. Even watching the intro video you get a sense of joy just because of all the colors flying everywhere. The animations are solid and the Japanese high school life is depicted well visually. The various atmospheres and tones the game exhumes is reinforced by how the game looks and in this department Golden does well.
Persona 4 Golden is a monumental achievement in both game design and gameplay. How all the mechanics and systems come together and work in tandem to create such a meaningful experience is a feat in and of itself. To make this experience last for dozens of hours without trying your patience is another. The endless achievements and accolades that could be given to Golden shows the genre’s potential to achieve excellence but most importantly: it’s a damn good game and you should get it.