An enhanced version of a PlayStation 2 classic, Persona 4 Golden is a deeply layered, complex JRPG that brings an experience unlike any other onto Sony’s latest handheld device. An experience which almost justifies the platform's hefty price tag.
Assuming the role of an ordinary Japanese high school student living in a large unnamed Japanese city, Persona 4 Golden starts out with your character moving to the seemingly normal countryside town of Inaba. What awaits you is a grisly series of murders that quickly has you travel to the mysterious ‘Midnight Channel’ world - a world inside the TV - alongside fellow students and teeenagers.
Trying to boil down Persona 4 Golden’s plot is like trying to defuse a nuclear bomb with five seconds left on a countdown timer, nearly impossible. Overly engaging, and with an inexplicable power to draw you in, the story that unfolds never steers towards the mundane or boring. Even if the game itself does fall into somewhat of a lull at times.
For one, Persona 4 Golden takes a fair amount of time to ‘get started’, as it slowly peels back the layers that will eventually form its gameplay structure - which is about two/three hours. By no means are these first few hours boring since that ever-engaging story draws you in and sees you wanting to know what’ll happen next. even if it does begin to feel like you’re watching the game rather playing it. Instead it paints a picture of a game that too often feels like it has the training wheels on for just a little too long, though once they begin to come off everything goes off the hook.
Jumping into the aforementioned TV world to rescue people before they’re murdered by a mysterious killer, hanging out and spending time with yours friends in order to develop Social Links, trekking through dungeons or just wandering around town completing side-quests, there’s plenty to see and do in Persona 4 Golden once you get into the meat of the game.
Though while it certainly has an open-world like feel to it, the events of the game adhere to a very structured timeline. Since the the story spans across twelve months, with days passing just like normal once you go to school, spend your evenings doing whatever and finally go to bed, the pressure of finding out who’s behind the murders is a constant point of conflict. Even here, however, Persona 4 Golden once again falls into a lull with the game’s admirable pace coming to a screeching halt once you rescue someone from the ‘Midnight Channel’ world.
It’s during these ‘downtime’ sections, where you’re usually waiting for the rescuee to recover so you can uncover a possible new clue about the murder mystery, you’re free to play however you wish, though for the most part you’ll be developing your Social Links. Social Links are exactly what they sound like, the links or bonds you have with people socially - or more specifically, your friends. The Links you discover with the various characters in-game are tied to a different Persona ‘type’, and the more developed that Link is, the more experience and genera bonuses that ‘type’ receives when you bond Persona’s.
While the concept of a video game pushing social interaction should inherently be a weird concept in theory, in practise it’s actually a lot of fun. As my in-game Social Links developed I became more attached to the characters, getting involved with their personal dramas and even finding myself preferring some over others in a very real, almost high school fashion. Persona 4 Golden very much feels like a ‘life simulator’, and in the context of Social Links smashes this goal.
Now, Personas in of themselves are a complex, thoroughly deep mechanic of every Persona game, and in Persona 4 Golden this is no different. Personas are spiritual reflections of what each person holds in their heart, and here are represented physically by tarot cards and used by your character and your party members to battle monsters/bosses in dungeons. Each Persona, like above, have their own type, as well as their own strengths and weakness.
Actual gameplay is structured to resemble a classic JRPG turn-based system, complete with levels/stats/items/magic abilities and party management, and although it may sound like it would be a rather rigid system, it flows quite naturally. Up to four characters can be in your party at a time, and possibly one of the best things is not having to control NPCs if I didn’t want to - although you do have the option of selecting tactics such as ‘conserve SP’ ‘support us’.
By default they go about on their own and I was reasonably okay with this, since you’ll have little to no trouble defending yourself by the average monster. It’s only when you come to face with an especially strong monster or boss that some level of strategy and planning needs to be employed, and it’s here the advantage use of Social Links work in your favour.
While you can collect new Personas simply by battling random monsters in dungeons, the best way to collect an elite roster of Personas is by visiting the ‘Velvet Room’, an interdimensional space where an old man, a professional looking women and a reblioous teengager girl (an exclusive character in Golden) live. It’s here you’re able to fuse Personas together, and depending on your characters level and Social Links you’ll be able to create incredibly powerful Personas that’ll give you an edge in battle. Like Social Links themselves, learning what types of Personas you need to create the higher tiered types is certainly recommended.
Aside from having plenty going on, and separately from stumbling in regards to overall pace, Persona 4 Golden can feel a little mundane. This usually creeps up during those ‘downtime’ sections and in dungeons, which certainly adheres to Japanese role playing video game design by having the player trek through a seemingly never ending barrage of same/same corridors and battling the same monsters over and over - there is a nice variety of monsters, however it always feels like you’re going up against the same ones.
Despite how repetitive or mundane Persona 4 Golden can get, thankfully the hefty amount of recorded dialogue and infectiously boopy music can liven up the experience. Since the game does have it’s fair share of cutscenes it’s a joy to see that the development team didn’t just go with simple text. And since the actors themselves do a reasonable job of bringing a fair amount of energy to each of their performances the characters are given a certain sense of life. Even if they are just still images on the screen.
Unique to the PlayStation Vita version is the addition of online functions, which feel like a missed opportunity sadly. If you find yourself in danger within a dungeon you’re able to send out an SOS to nearby players, who in theory will come to your aid. I say ‘in theory’ because I was unable to get anyone to come to my aid, a lack of fellow players around my house. Further, the ability to check in on what other players around the world have been doing in the game, represented by on-screen speech bubbles, is a shallow experience that really should had seen time spent elsewhere.
Neither of these elements take away from the experience, just feel a little wasted. Though in regards to the SOS feature I feel like it was developed with the Japanese market in mind more than Western ones. Aside from these new inclusions, the addition of new Social Links, more lines of dialogue, anime cut-scenes and more certainly gives plenty of reason to fans of the original reason to play all over again.
The Final Verdict
Persona 4 Golden was an experience and a half. I’d never played an entry in this long-standing, and overly popular series before now, and least to say it’s won me over for life. The most interesting aspect which drew me in was that heavy ‘slice of life’ vibe the game goes so out of it’s way to create. After all, I’ve always wanted to know what it’s like to live as a Japanese high school student who jumps into a TV world.
At no time during Persona 4 Golden was I bored with the story, moreover it was the glaring issues regarding its pacing and the somewhat repetitive nature of some of its mechanics that I feel holds it back from being considered perfect. Despite all of it’s problems, Persona 4 Golden is undoubtedly a true classic, a game that’s, at least in my opinion, the PlayStation Vita’s newest ‘killer app’.