With a ton of new content and slick visuals, Persona 4 Golden is a worthy update to one of the greatest JRPGs of all time.
It’s always a bit difficult to introduce new people to the Persona series. When I describe this series, I imagine my argument goes in the ear canal as “It’s a social sim/dungeon crawler!” but somewhere along the way becomes “It’s two frequently ridiculed genres mixed together by a Japanese company known for impenetrable RPGs!” Yes, Persona is one of those franchises; where there is a large amount of people standing off to the side, miles away from the games, while being yelled at by a group of fans who claim the former just “doesn’t get it”. I’m not too ashamed to admit I’m amongst the fans, at least in Persona 4’s case.
When I heard there was going to be a Persona 4 remake for the PlayStation Vita, I did what any sensible gamer would do. I looked at my bank account, then looked at the available games for the hardware, and decided I wasn’t about to drop $250 on a Persona 4 machine. So thank God for Christmas and generous PR, because I ended up rediscovering what makes this game so wonderful over the break and not a dime was spent. Would you believe I actually feel bad about not spending any money to get either the Vita or P4G? Probably not. Hell, I wouldn’t. But even though Persona 4 Golden may not be a system seller, it comes pretty damn close.
Persona 4 Golden’s story begins without any real complications and spends most of its 60+ hour running time along a straightforward path (we’ll talk about its third act in a bit), but that’s fine. If you prefer fast-paced narratives, this isn’t the game for you. A serial murder case may sound like an exciting way to begin a tale, but since the deaths took place in a sleepy little town, there’s not really much action to begin with. Yes, the Japanese village of Inaba has been shocked by the discovery of two bodies hanging from telephone poles. The police are stumped, and with good reason: these people were murdered by supernatural methods. You play as a city boy, dropped off by his parents mere days before the incidents, but it’s not long before you find yourself embroiled in the whole affair. Along the way, you’ll meet a frankly absurd number of Inaba’s citizens, some of which you can emotionally touch through Social Links; a mechanic where the game rewards you for spending time with these characters by providing EXP bonuses when fusing new Personae.
The individual character writing and sitcom-esque scenarios are where this game excels. All the characters in Persona 4 Golden are fully realized, even outside the game’s numerous Social Links. There’s also an intangible feel of self-awareness permeating the whole affair that really goes a long way towards making the cheesier dialogue more bearable. Pacing is another thing many games lack these days, especially RPGs, but P4G knows exactly when to throw a mess of plot at the viewer. Sure, there are days of in-game time (hours in real life time) where you’re forced down a certain path with little to no freedom, but the entertaining writing and the promise of exploring Inaba really carries those segments.
In fact, the game’s superb pacing is brought into sharp focus during its masterful third act. Don’t feel spoiled when I say the case will be solved (if you pick the right dialogue options), but major characters are put through the ringer in the process. The most I can say without getting too explicit is that Inaba slowly goes through a transformation as the case speeds towards a conclusion, ratcheting up the stakes while also making them visible on the home front. The cheerful music is replaced with a disturbing bass, and there are numerous other changes to the environment along the same lines. Since you’ve spent 40+ hours by that point exploring the town, when it starts going bananas you get a real sense of what might happen if you fail and why this would be a very bad thing.
When you’ve done enough socializing, and it’s time to go hop in a dungeon, you should be pleasantly surprised to find this is probably the most accessible release of Persona yet. Fusing together your weaker Personae to create more powerful specimen was a fairly arduous process in the original game, mostly because the skills the fused Persona would inherit were chosen randomly. Now, you can pick the moves you want that shiny new monster have, which cuts out hours of busywork. There’s also a ‘search’ function that lets you see what you can fuse, and what combinations are available to you. It’s definitely much less harder than before, and I always really enjoyed popping back to the Velvet Room to see what I could fuse.
Combat is the standard party-comprised-of-four-with-different-roles JRPG combat I’ve come to expect, with the addition of elemental weaknesses to the party members and enemies. If you’ve ever played any kind of turn-based combat system, you’re probably familiar with this one. But even though it’s been done before, I still found myself feeling exhilarated every time my party wiped the floor with a group of strong enemies. There’s really nothing quite like it.
If there’s anything about the game I think could be problematic, it’s this: Persona 4 Golden has a ton of systems for you to keep track of. You have to spend time with friends, jobs with Social Links attached can only be accessed on certain days, the main character has ‘social stats’ attached that need to level up by doing certain things like reading books, there’s fishing, sidequests, bug catching, and every single one of those activities takes some time out of your busy day. Personally, I never found juggling all these demands to be a problem – I think it’s part of the game’s appeal – but you should know what you’re getting into.
Persona 4’s music isn’t quite as eclectic as Persona 3’s tunes. You’ll mostly find upbeat light rock here, with the occasional ambient piece for good measure. It’s all music designed to loop, but I’ll be damned if it’s not pretty fantastic. There were times where I caught myself humming the game’s main battle theme to myself at my day job. It’s also worth noting that all the new stuff fits the game perfectly, and I’ll probably keep listening to it long after I’ve stopped playing.
The game also looks fantastic, especially on the Vita. All the small details present in the original game are intact, and the new 16:9 ratio makes everything look crisp. It’s not current-gen by any means, but the art direction is so pleasing that it doesn’t even remotely matter. Persona 4 Golden looks fantastic.
But people who love the original game already know most of this. If you’ve played Persona 4 already, you’re looking for an appraisal of the new stuff. This console generation has seen many remakes, but very few have been worth buying. I can happily say this isn’t the case with Persona 4 Golden. Atlus has stuffed this release to the gills with new content, all of which should entertain new players and old alike.
There’s a ton of new voice acting, for one. A crucial late-game scene with all your maxed Social Links is now fully voiced, and of course there’s all the new dialogue that requires voice work. It’s really nice to hear this cast get back together and portray those endearing characters again. The new Teddie is practically a dead ringer for the original, but I’m slightly disappointed to report the new Chie isn’t remotely as good.
In case the game’s original twelve Social Links wasn’t enough, there are two more to occupy your time: Adachi (yes, that Adachi) and Marie, the new resident of the Velvet Room. Adachi’s will rank up normally over the course of the story (if your rank is high enough), but Marie’s is just like all the others. You can even date her if you like. They’re not quite up to the standard of the original Social Links – Adachi’s doesn’t really get meaty until later in the story, for example – but they’re still worth seeing either way. Also, the addition of Marie to the Velvet Room will probably result in the more impatient among you seeing more of Margaret’s Social Link. Marie controls Skill Cards, which are essentially like TMs from Pokemon: one-use cards that can bestow a certain skill upon a Persona. Since Margaret wants certain Personae with specific skills, you don’t have to hunt for the right mix of fusion material to get what you need. Just fuse the Persona and then drop a Skill Card. It’s actually very useful, especially during the later dungeons where you practically trip over powerful skills.
There are more story events, like a guy’s excursion to the now explorable Okina City where Kanji hits on a prostitute, a ski trip that unlocks a one-day challenge dungeon, and Valentine’s Day, where dating multiple girls actually results in some minor consequences. Nothing too serious, but the game actually makes a note of how many girls you’ve dated, which is more than I expected. All of this stuff might actually be superior to the events in the original, which surprised me to no end. If you want more socializing, the month of January has been opened…provided you don’t screw up at crucial moments in the story. And hey, if this isn’t your first time playing? Press the start button to fast forward through everything. I can’t overstate how much I appreciate this feature, it really made what I think is my third Persona 4 playthrough much easier.
Combat has also been slightly revamped. There are still All-Out Attacks, a powerful team effort triggered by knocking down every foe, but certain party members will combine their powers for a follow-up every so often if the All-Out Attack isn’t totally fatal. Ranking up your Social Links with your party members will also result in bonus skills, much like Rise’s Social Link in the original game. Follow-up attacks are still in play, but playable characters not in the active party can also help out with Cavalry Attacks. I never found a way to actually trigger any of these moves, but they aren’t necessary to succeed in combat. They’re more like a nice bonus.
Another major change is the new Shuffle Time. Instead of being a timing-based minigame, there’s now strategy involved. Random cards are put before you, and you can pick which one you’d like to activate. You can get skill cards, an EXP boost, a bit of healing, new Personae, a permanent boost to one of your stats, or even a free level up for your equipped Persona. But if you’re willing to risk screwing up your current dungeon run by picking a card with a negative effect, you’ll be able to pick two or three more cards. Get all the cards, and you’ll get a Sweep Bonus. That allows you to pick three when Shuffle Time appears next, which I usually found to work in my favor. Maybe getting a Sweep Bonus means you get more helpful cards next time, but the game never made that system transparent enough.
Even after everything I just mentioned, there’s also the numerous mechanics I just never found the time for, like bug catching, gem trading, taking characters to see movies, and the Death Social Link (because who honestly maxed that one the first time they played). And there’s also more to do outside the main game exclusive to this port. You can re-watch cutscenes, listen to music, watch lectures that explain most of the concepts in this game, participate in a fully voiced quiz show that asks you questions from the main game, check out the concept art, listen to a lady explain the decisions behind the character designs, and watch Japanese trailers for the various games in the Persona series. I would have appreciated some English trailers, but I can’t even make that point in all honesty since all these extras are mere garnish on a fantastic meal. Unexpected, and surprisingly tasty, but garnish nevertheless.
There aren’t really many additions that could only be done on a Vita. You can tap the screen twice to bring up the ‘TV Overlay’ (the aforementioned extras), or you can send SOS messages in dungeons. If enough players respond to your message, you’ll get a HP/SP bonus. I found this slightly intrusive, especially when SOS messages were popping up on my screen, but it’s super easy to deactivate that feature and you’ll be fine without it. If you’re given a free day but you have no idea what you should do with it, there’s a feature that shows you what other players did on that same day, which usually caused me to remember a mechanic I had totally forgotten about. However, I ended up turning it off since the game takes a few seconds after each day to send my data to other players.
Persona 4 Golden is fantastic, no way around it. It’s true that Persona 4 is so good that a bad remake seems almost impossible. But Atlus didn’t mess around here. They knew exactly what made the original so great, and delivered more of that. I knew I was going to really love a remake of what is probably one of my top 5 games of all time that I could bring with me wherever I went, but I didn’t think I would enjoy it this much. Persona 4 Golden is more of an amazing RPG, and that’s honestly all I really wanted.
(Review code provided by Atlus PR. Thanks from Velocity Gamer!)