I’ve never been very adept at managing my time, nor have I ever been very good at maintaining social relationships. Persona 4 Golden, however, has taught me that I don’t need to be proficient at either of these things in real life, simply because playing this game was enough to make me feel like a master at balancing my friendships and hardships in perfect harmony. Persona 4 is a Japanese role-playing game that was ported to the Playstation Vita with a shiny new title, Persona 4 Golden. To go along with its new title, Golden also adds a number of balancing tweaks, some new plot elements, social features, and multiple other gameplay features that weren’t included in the original Playstation 2 version. It’s no secret that Persona, as a series, has set an extremely high pedigree when it comes to role-playing games. Persona 4 Golden is held to that same standard, and is expected to be just as polished, just as detailed, and just as engaging as its predecessors. That being said, does Persona 4 Golden live up to the prestige that comes with the name?
Persona 4 Golden takes place in the suburban Japanese region of Inaba. The main protagonist, simply known as Hero --the player has the option to name him--, is a teenage boy in his third year of secondary school. Hero is from the big city, but due to his parents occupations, he is sent to Inaba to live with his uncle, Ryotaro Dojima, and his uncles daughter, Nanako Dojima. While there, the player makes friends with a multitude of characters with varying personalities. These relationships are strengthened as the gang investigates a series of mysterious murders that have been going on in Inaba; all while figuring out the mystery behind “The Velvet Room,” and battling through a seemingly impossible world that resides within TV sets. This story, and the relationships that are formed during it, is one of the most memorable and heartwarming I’ve ever had the pleasure of participating in. And it’s because of my deep admiration for the narrative that I will leave the details of which for those who have yet to experience its masterful presentation.
Persona 4 Golden is a classic Japanese role-playing game, with a dash of time and relationship management layered on top of it. The player takes the role of their Hero, an average teenage boy whose duties are to attend school, make friends, and save the day. The first of these duties is pretty straightforward. The days pass by according to the different times of day: morning, afternoon, and evening. Monday through Saturday, unless interrupted by some sort of break, school is to be attended until the afternoon, with Sunday being the weekend. During school, the player attends lectures, answers questions, and takes tests. Succeeding in school will successfully increase the players Knowledge. Knowledge is one of the five Social Qualities within Persona 4 Golden, the others being: Courage, Diligence, Understanding, and Expression. These skills can be leveled up in various ways, from reading books to eating colossal amounts of meat. These Social Qualities are also required to use some dialogue trees, so it’s important that the player spends a considerable amount of time in progressing them.
After school, the player has the most freedom in what he or she chooses to do. First and foremost, they can choose to enter the TV World and battle Shadows to level up, get items, and get materials. Entering the TV World brings the player to a central hub that’s connected to multiple dungeons ripe for exploring. Within these dungeons are the likes of treasure chests and Shadows. Treasure chests often hold useful items that sometimes require keys to get at, while the only thing that can be expected from a Shadow is a fierce fight. The battling is a traditional turn-based, squad-based system. Parties consist of Hero and three other party members of the players choosing. Each party member brings a unique skill set to the table, which is largely based on their Persona’s “Arcana,” or type. Every party member, save for Hero --who can switch and summon different Persona’s in and out of battle--, is confined to the first Persona that they unlock; so picking which party members to include is crucial to success when it comes to the tougher battles. To initiate a battle, the player leads Hero through the dungeon until they encounter a Shadow. These Shadows roam aimlessly until the player steps into their sights. Depending on where the player attacks the Shadow, either in the front or back, it is possible to get an advantage before the battle starts. However, if the Shadow attacks the player before they have time to react, it’s the Shadow that will have the advantage come battle time. During battles, the player controls all four party members and is responsible for keeping them alive. Actions, such as basic physical attacks, are available to every party member, as are magical attacks --known as skills. Magical attacks, however, are based on the skills that the party members Persona currently knows. Also, different magical attacks can either consume some of the party members HP or SP. Damage dealing actions are not the only ones present during battles. Actions such as analysis, tactics, items, and escape are available to the player as well. Analyzing an enemy will reveal what moves have already been used against the specific foe, whether or not the foe is weak to specific types of attacks, and an assortment of other useful information. The tactics option lets the player bring some autonomy to the battle; controlling party members actions by basically making them either offensive or defensive. The items option allows the player to use any consumable item they’ve collected over the course of their journey, and the escape option lets the player begin looking for withdrawal routes from the battle. Contextual battle options are also at the players disposal, should the time arise. For example, one of the contextual events involves knocking down every enemy on the battlefield by either critical striking them or hitting a weak point; this triggers an event called an “All-Out-Attack.” This event will cause all party members to pile onto the enemies on the field, dealing high amounts of physical damage. After the battle is won, if the player is lucky, a situation known as “Shuffle Time” will occur. During Shuffle Times, a random selection of cards appear that the player must try and clear. These cards have various effects on various things. For example, one card levels up the current Persona that the player has selected, while another card restores some HP and SP to the party. These cards are even capable of granting different Persona’s to the player. If every card is successfully cleared during a Shuffle Time, the player is awarded a Shuffle Bonus, which guarantees a Shuffle Time after the conclusion of the next battle. Simply put, Shuffle Times are marvelously rewarding. Persona 4’s battle system is one of the most robust and fulfilling that I’ve ever played. Each dungeon is unique and worth exploring. Every battle is an intense blast, and if playing on higher difficulties, can require quite a bit of strategy.
However, dungeon crawling isn’t the only thing on the menu for afternoons in Persona 4 Golden. The player can stroll around town, visiting The Velvet Room, shops and restaurants, getting a job, completing side-quests, or hanging out with friends. A central concept in Persona 4 is the idea that building and maintaining relationships is what will ultimately get the player through the crisis that they’re currently facing. Interacting with the characters, whether that be simply hanging out with them, going to a movie, having late night chats, or going on a school trip, will advance what’s known as the characters S. Link. S. Link --short for Social Link-- is a ranking system between Hero and the other characters in the game. The higher this rank, the more intimate the relationship between the two characters is. Each character has their own type of Arcana that is associated with their S. Link. The S. Link rank and Arcana have a direct relationship, meaning that, by visiting The Velvet Room, Hero is able to create more powerful Persona’s of specific Arcana based on his rank with specific characters. Since a lot of the characters that the player will be interacting with are possible to take into battle, ranking up their S. Link will also affect their performance in battle in various ways. Getting to know each and every character in Persona 4 Golden was an absolute joy because each one is so uniquely different from the last. The idea of S. Link complements the games themes perfectly while adding an interesting narrative arc that has a really nice pacing about it. Persona 4 made me want to get to know and care for these characters, and few games have accomplished such a goal.
Once the afternoon has passed, the evening sets in on Inaba. During the evening, the player has a few options of what to do with their time. If Dojima-san is home, the options are limited to things around the house; such as, tending the garden, reading a book, talking to Nanako, cooking food, or studying. If Dojima-san is out, however, the player can leave the house and go into town. Here, they can converse with friends who have also snuck out, work a late-night job, or even pray at a shrine for luck. All of these activities have their perks and purpose within the game. Trying out each one is quite fun, and finding that perfect balance of activities that maximize Hero’s time usage is exceptionally rewarding.
Persona 4 Golden is a port of a Playstation 2 title, but that doesn’t change the fact that it looks absolutely stunning on the Playstation Vita. The contemporary setting of Inaba is presented realistically and with a surprising attention to detail, from town shops to Yasogami High. The dungeons in the game are accompanied by unique themes depending on which area the player’s exploring. These themes are often surprising and always fun to explore. Character models and artwork are intricate and use colors that really pop on the Vita’s screen. Artwork on both the protagonists, the Persona’s, and the enemies during battle looks great, as do the animations. Overall, the art style of Golden is fantastic, and it’s because of this that it doesn’t suffer from being a technically old title.
The voice acting in Persona 4 Golden is outstanding as well. Characters --when voices follow their lines rather than just text-- deliver their dialogue with emotion and tact, breathing life into them better than most games can even hope to achieve. Sound effects during battle sequences are fun and upbeat. Attacks ranging from physical to magical are accompanied by satisfying *whacks* and whimsical *cracks*. The original soundtrack for Persona 4 Golden is easily one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in any video game. I would catch myself watching the intro video over and over again because of how great the title track is. Though, the title track isn’t the only song in the game that’s wonderful. From walking around the city to dungeon crawling, uplifting to melancholy tunes can be heard in the background. During dialogue, the music will change depending on the emotion of the conversation. Even the *ping* sound effects while navigating the menus is quite enjoyable.
Without a doubt in my mind, the simple answer is, yes; Persona 4 Golden absolutely lives up the the prestige of its acclaimed predecessors. Having never played a Persona game before Golden, I lept into the game head first, not knowing at all what to expect. I had no idea that I would spend sixty hours with characters that would become some of the most influential in my gaming career. That I would find a battle system that would go down as one of my favorites of all time. Or even that I would listen to a soundtrack that would make me smile every time I heard it. Coming out of Persona 4 Golden, I know now that it was much more than just a game; it was an adventure. An adventure that I had the pleasure to experience not by myself, but with all of the friends that I made during my time in Inaba.