Given the PlayStation brand’s history as a rich platform for role-playing games and meaningful experiences, it’s strange to think that, almost nine months post-release, the PlayStation Vita has yet to receive a traditional Japanese role-playing game. That all changes with Persona 4 Golden, and what a stellar debut for the genre it is. This magnetic journey through social relationships and self-acceptance hits all the high notes of its PlayStation 2 namesake while infusing a wealth of new content and remarkable production values. As a port, Golden positively gleams with polish, but as an RPG, it soars. Extraordinary characters, a gripping narrative, addictive gameplay, and haunting charm that lingers long after your battery runs dry… these are hallmarks of a masterpiece, and while no video game is perfect, Persona 4 Golden comes closer than any game on the PS Vita before it.
If you’re worried that you’ll miss a story beat by jumping gung-ho into the fourth entry of a saga, breathe easy. Much like Final Fantasy, the Persona series (under the Shin Megami Tensei brand) is comprised of games that are mostly disconnected at the narrative hip, yet possess similar worldviews and are thematically linked. For Persona, that theme is Jungian psychology, and the games are so named for their story and gameplay references to the social masks – the “personas” – that we all wear to face the outside world. These manifest themselves in-game as summoned creatures that allow the main characters to do battle with malicious Shadows – the dark, twisted “other selves” that, try as we might to keep buried in our unconscious, possess feelings and emotions that are undeniably our own. Shadows and Personas are two sides of the same coin; a vile reminder of unconscious terrors, and the strength to accept their place in who we are. Characters learn to wield Personas and gain new powers as they face their inner selves, and ultimately move closer to accomplishing their mission.
In Persona 4, that mission is to catch the culprit behind a string of high-profile murders that have rocked the sleepy country town of Inaba. The nameless hero leaves Tokyo and arrives in town for a year-long stay with his uncle, but it doesn’t take long for trouble to brew. The hero and his new friends notice a connection between the murders and the Midnight Channel, a mysterious television program that only airs in the dead of night during rainy weather. The gang soon discovers that the Midnight Channel is a projection of a world inside of the television, and when someone goes missing and appears on the Midnight Channel, they’re too often found dead mere days later. When these disappearances move closer to home and friends’ lives are put in danger, the gang dives into the TV world in search of answers and the kidnapped.
This tale earns points for creativity alone, but the urgency and allure of the investigation sprouts from the way time is divvied up throughout your journey. The hero has only one year to spend in Inaba, and social aspects of his life must be managed alongside the string of murders and kidnappings. With the clock ticking on another person’s life, should you dive into the dangerous TV world to begin your search? Or should you study for upcoming midterms, take up a part-time job, seek romance, and spend quality time with party members and schoolmates alike?
The answer seems obvious at first, but no decision in the game is without gravity and repercussion. Wait too long to start a rescue attempt, and the TV world’s multi-leveled dungeons and difficult encounters may prove insurmountable. Ignore the social needs of your buddies, and the bonds of friendship that grant extra power to your Personas will falter. Stay ignorant of the extracurricular activities offered at your school, and you’ll be a loner devoid of stat bonuses to factors like Diligence, Courage, and Expression, which impact your ability to make certain decisions and deepen relationships. You only have time for one or two activities each day, so your life in rural Inaba becomes a balancing act driven by the need to grow in the outside world so you can progress in the TV world and move closer to solving the case.
In this mysterious land where Shadows and talking cartoon bears dwell, the bulk of Persona 4’s gameplay can be found. Moving up or down through randomly-generated floors of themed dungeons, you’ll encounter impressively bizarre enemy designs with elemental strengths and weakness just waiting to be exploited. All of your skills and magical attacks are bestowed by the Persona you have equipped. By finding new Personas in victory rewards, fusing favorites to create new varieties, and leveling them up for stat boosts and new powers, your arsenal will expand. It’s not unlike Pokemon, and the addictive qualities of that game are here wrapped up in boundless strategic depth and an unrivaled sense of style. I became attached to certain Personas along the way, but fusing my favorites and discovering new attacks is always a thrilling prospect.
Equally thrilling are the conversations and happenings in the outside world that keep the game grounded in plausibility. The naïve innocence and post-pubescent worries of the hero and his friends (“Chicks dig motorcycles, so let’s go earn our licenses!” “Boy, studying for midterms really sucks, huh?”) are brought to life by an all-around excellent voice cast and clever writing. Moments inside the TV world where these teenagers have to face their darkest inner selves are made all the more powerful for it. When a tough-as-nails delinquent comes to terms with his sexuality, when lifelong friends realize that they each use the other for some personal gain… The gravity of it all forces introspection, but how each character comes to accept himself or herself, and the way life goes on in this quiet rural town, makes for the ultimate feel-good story. I feel for these characters in ways that only the best RPG can elicit, and by year’s end, it’s not so much the hero that is making this journey – it’s you.
And what a stunning journey it is, for Persona 4 Golden makes the best of PS Vita hardware to become one of the most well-produced games in recent memory. Everything from the gorgeous anime artwork and cutscenes to the lively voice cast and unforgettable music is polished to a diamond sheen and served as icing on a cake of fantastic RPG gameplay. Atlus could have stopped there and called this the best game on PS Vita, but tons of new content and features make Golden the definitive version of a criminally underplayed classic.
The best part about what’s new is how well it’s executed. New character Marie is integrated so well into the game that her former absence is baffling. A variety of video and musical content – including live Persona orchestral concerts and lectures on the game’s Jungian influence – can be viewed at any time by double-tapping the screen. New events and locations, including a beach hangout, ski resort, Halloween shenanigans, and a fully-explorable Okina City, are complemented by additional voiced dialogue and a massive series of gameplay adjustments that rebalance characters, add flexibility to Persona fusions, and more. A few more Vita-exclusive features round out a package that feels far more like a comprehensive director’s cut than a simple port. Vox Populi tells you how other players are choosing to spend their time from day to day, and an SOS system lets you send out cries for help over Wi-Fi from the depths of a dungeon. Should another player respond, you’ll get HP and SP boosts to keep you in the fight.
While I couldn’t test SOS pre-release, there may very well be cause to use it over the course of the game. Persona 4 Golden does not give up its secrets easily, and any gamer who’s been spoiled by the somewhat recent industry trend of declining difficulty will be in for a rude awakening when Golden’s second or third boss totally wrecks your party. The need to grind is alleviated somewhat by a battle system that places emphasis on careful planning and proper ability usage, but unless you spend a dubious amount of time in the game’s early dungeons, you’ll likely find yourself a bit under-leveled before too long. It doesn’t take long to play catch up (and there are certainly much less forgiving RPGs out there), but Persona 4 is not an easy game, and that’s worth noting from the get-go.
Then again, the real challenge is finding something to hold against this gem of a game. Persona 4’s PS2-era graphics hold up remarkably well (thanks in no small part to the resolution boost on 2D artwork and PS Vita’s vivid OLED display), but visual curmudgeons will notice a small amount of aliasing during some 3D events and cutscenes. A certain bear’s mid-battle cheers can become grating in their frequency, and while I’m told the original version had an option to turn these off, the same option seems to be missing in Golden. There’s really not much else. Some might be off-put by the initial difficulty curve, but if you’re the kind of person to hold a little bit of grinding against an RPG, maybe the genre just isn’t for you.
Persona 4 Golden is a triumph on PlayStation Vita. Hundreds of hours of portable goodness is carried by console-quality presentation, a gripping narrative, and compelling gameplay. It’s fair to say that the themes and style of Persona 4 are somewhat niche, but any Vita owner who passes on this masterpiece will be doing themselves a tragic disservice. It might not break new ground in the genre, and it might not push one million systems, but everything that glitters is in Golden.