Genre: Role-Playing Game
Reviewer: Marcus Way
Overall: 9.5 = Must Buy
To say that Persona 4 Golden is simply a re-release, or even an enhanced one, is something of an understatement. Unlike its handheld predecessors, Persona 3 Portable in particular, Golden has not sacrificed anything in its transformation to a handheld format. Instead, thanks to the decision to develop for the PS Vita instead of the PSP, the exact opposite is true: it is packed with so much new and improved content that it completely eclipses the console original. To best Persona 4 is no small feat, given that it’s a fantastic and highly acclaimed game, but Atlus has done so with Golden; in the process, they have created not just one of their best titles, but one of the best role-playing games to date.
As a newly arrived big-city transplant to the small town of Inaba, you find yourself the talk of school. You are a silent protagonist whose interactions with the world are limited by and to those of the institutional confines of a teenager (i.e., high school, part-time jobs, dates, etc.) and various options selected from a handful of responses. Later established in Persona 4 Arena as Yu Narukami, Golden simply allows you whatever name you enter at the beginning. You find yourself in Inaba as a guest of your uncle Ryotaro and younger cousin Nanako after your parents set off for a year to work abroad. It is with your arrival that the first murder occurs, which is quickly followed by a second. From that point on, you have the remainder of your time in Inaba to discover and stop the killer.
It’s slow going at first. Golden is nothing if not up front about its intentions, considering that the first four to five hours are spent doing little more than talking with your uncle and cousin, exploring the areas of town, and getting acclimated with the layout and functions of your high school and bedroom. These hours aren’t wasted, however, and those who don’t mind an extended sequence of world and relationship building will find this time both interesting, as the murder mystery unfolds, and useful, as you find yourself settling into the world and the character’s routines. This is also when you meet three of the characters who will become your closest friends and fellow party members: Yosuke, a classmate recently transferred from a larger city so that his father can run the newest location of the Junes supermarket chain; and friends Chie, a tomboy who loves steak and kung-fu movies, and Yukiko, a reserved but popular girl who works at her family’s inn. If the game loses you during this part, there’s no reason to continue; however, if you are like me and enjoy being slowly immersed into new worlds, then 70 to 100-plus hours of adventure await.
It’s after meeting Chie, Yosuke, and Yokiko that the game proper kicks off. Through your conversations with them, you learn of a mysterious television program called the Midnight Channel. Rumor has it that those who tune in at midnight while it’s raining will see their true love. Your curiosity leads you to see this for yourself, which leads to the startling realization that those who are shown on the channel are actually in danger and that you have the ability to enter the television to help them. A pattern emerges where those who appear on the news eventually begin to appear on the Midnight Channel, but not quite as themselves. The group of friends peg down what needs to be done: those put inside the televisions must be saved before a fog sets in after it rains. The period between the rain and the fog gives you the time needed to prepare. And what you are preparing for is a journey into another realm to save the kidnapped townsfolk, which entails battling through a dungeon and defeating their Shadow. Shadows are those sides of us that we deny and that our egos are too weak to keep in check; however, going by an admittedly unique take on Jungian psychology, those who defeat and accept their Shadows will then be able to harness them as powerful Personas.
Personas take the form of wildly varied creatures that are summoned during combat. Their designs are a hallmark of the series as they range from a titan wearing an ancient-Greek-styled panoply to a levitating pumpkin wearing a wizard’s hat, to any number of nearly indescribable creatures adorned with spinning blades, floating orbs, and garish masks. Each Persona is of an Arcana, a class that is derived from the tarot card system. There are several Minor cards and 22 Major cards, and in addition to Personas, each Major card is associated with combat abilities that are broken down by physical and elemental attacks. These associations not only determine those attacks the Personas are best at handling but also those they are weakest against. Knowing this system of strengths and weaknesses is crucial as those hit with an attack they are weak against are knocked down, giving their enemies another attack. It’s a fairly involved system due to the sheer number of cards, but fortunately, some follow a more traditional pattern that makes their relationships easier to understand, such as the Death Arcana being weak against light attacks but strong against dark attacks.
Personas are further strengthened through Social Links, those bonds that you forge and nurture over the course of the game. Social Links are actually quite important as their leveling affects both Persona and character. On the Persona side, enhanced links allow for stronger abilities to be gained and for newer, stronger Personas to be fused. From the mysterious Velvet Room, represented by the backseat of a limo, you encounter Maria, an exclusive character to Golden (and a quite prominent one), Igor, and Margaret. Igor guides you with cryptic advice throughout the game while Margaret assists with the fusing process, offering her own Social Link by requesting certain Personas. As you level and your Social Links strengthen, you will be able to fuse special Personas, but they can only be created after you have the perquisite Personas in your possession. Most of the time, however, you will be fusing two or three Personas to create whichever you can, and new to Golden, choosing which of the abilities you want to carry over into their eight skill slots. While fusing will gain you new Personas, the only way to gain the perquisite tarots that represent the required Personas to fuse them is through combat.
As you progress through the dungeons, you will encounter both lesser and greater Shadows. The weaker Shadows are the grunts, those monsters that populate the various floors and will give chase once your party has been spotted. Their stronger counterparts are those that serve as dungeon bosses, either those of major characters or one of the sub-bosses that appear for one battle in each dungeon after a character has been saved. The weaker Shadows are represented by crawling black and red blob-type-things—the black for weaker enemies, the red for stronger—and a strange walking hand. The hands are rarer monsters that will run away as soon as they are spotted, while the blobs will dart towards your position. Position is important in the dungeons as a blob that reaches your flank or rear gets an early advantage in combat and is allowed an extra attack; conversely, if you attack an enemy from the rear, then you start the fight with an advantage and gain an extra attack for your party. If two enemies are near one another, you will have to automatically face the other after felling the first in back-to-back battles. However, unlike the bosses and sub-bosses, the weaker Shadows can be skipped, often by running past them before they become aware of what’s happening. Skipping isn’t always advised as grinding is often key in advancing due to the experience, cash, and materials netted by defeating enemies. As advanced weapons and armor are fairly rare, even with the many treasure chests strewn throughout the dungeons, it becomes important to gain enough coin to purchase better items through a shopping channel, and the material to create stronger items. Fighting offers another benefit, which is, as mentioned earlier, the chance attain one of the tarot cards that bestow a new Persona.
Your primary source for such a card is the post-combat sequence Shuffle Time. If certain conditions have been met during combat, a handful of tarot cards are displayed for you to pick from. These can range from minor cards that increase your summoned Persona’s stats, be it an extra point in endurance or magic, a replenishment of health and skill points, an experience or coin boost, or offer less of something (e.g., no items, half coin, half experience) to draw more cards. There are also some neutral cards that end a shuffle, and rare cards, which allow you to draw more without a tradeoff. There is a bit of a meta game here as taking a chance and getting less experience to draw more cards might lead you to greatly increase your Persona’s stats through a good draw, increase multiple stats in one go, or end up with a bad draw that forces you to take cards that do nothing but lower your earned cash and experience. Persona tarots will randomly come up in the Shuffles, and these will allow you attain, discard, or, if you lack the room, swap out Personas. Your friends are restricted to one Persona, but you can have a number of them on deck, and can switch between them throughout combat. This is important because you might face an enemy with a strong electricity-based attack but have an otherwise strong Persona summoned that just happens to be weak against that element.
The characters are just as important as their Personas, and Social Links advances benefit them as well. Aside from getting ever closer to attaining their Persona’s ultimate form, characters also learn additional skills for combat. One of the most useful of these learned moves is the follow-up attack, which allows one of the other party members to follow a weak attack on an enemy with an additional, slightly more cinematic move. Another unlocked move is the ability for a character to step in and take a mortal blow for you, and although death in Golden is less punishing than before (you simply restart from the staircase on the floor you died on), it’s still a handy addition, especially for the extended boss battles. Non-vanguard members can also assist during combat by engaging in a Cavalry Attack, which is when an off-screen character enters to deliver a quick strike on the enemy, or in the case of Rise, an idol who functions in a support role, joining in the pile-on after all enemies have been downed for an All-Out Attack. The combination of Social Link enhancements, elemental-based moves, and the ever-changing status of enemy strengths and weaknesses makes for a very satisfying combat system. Even better, you can ‘rush’ enemies with physical attacks to auto-battle weaker foes for grinding as well as set your party members for either direct or AI control.
You will want to build relationships for more than just the stat boosts, thanks to a great script, solid translation, and excellent voice acting. The people you interact with go beyond your main group to other secondary characters, including a hospital nurse who is struggles with the loss of her patients, a student trying to come to grips with a dying absentee father who has returned to make amends before it’s too late, and even the brother of one of the initial murder victims. These links also strengthen your Personas, but more importantly, they come together to build a world rich with character and personality. The additional voice acting, estimated in one interview to be an additional 40%, greatly enriches the interactions, with many of the ‘Hmm’ and ‘Err…’ vocal dialog leads from the original being replaced with full conversations. Many of the topics are fairly heady but fit in well with the game’s themes of struggle and acceptance. Some of the issues are quite sensitive, but keeping in mind that the events are being viewed and discussed by adolescents who spend most of their days sussing out just who they are, even the more insensitive comments play a role. Golden adds more relationships to the mix with two new Social Links, one for Maria and one for Ryotaro’s junior partner, Adachi. These not only flesh out the storyline, in terms of both the investigation and in understanding the other realm, but they also add a dungeon and an epilogue that extends the game for several more hours.
When taking into account all you have to do and the limited timeframe that you have to do it in, Golden is as much of a time-management sim as it is a role-playing game. Your year in Inaba is broken up by the days of the week that, save for story sequences that skip the timeline along, are comprised of three periods: school, after school, and evenings. During this time you have to not only explore the dungeons and save the kidnapped but also investigate the murder in the normal world and build up your Social Links. On the odd occasion, you will also find yourself in the middle of the school day listening to a lecture that the day’s teacher will test you or a friend’s knowledge on that will result in an increase to one of your personal stats (knowledge, understanding, expression, courage, and diligence) if answered correctly. The questions can be pretty tricky, but thanks to the PS Vita’s browser, you can always pause the game to look up the answers (if you’re so inclined).
Making time for yourself is equally important because your personal stats affect how you can respond to people and situations; you might go to comfort an upset friend but find yourself forced to select a more neutral response because you lack sufficient courage. Unless you’re approached at lunchtime and accept someone’s offer to hang out—other times they simply say they would like to and you decide later—you have the after school and evening periods to yourself. You can only explore the TV world after school, which is also the best time to hang out with friends, who can be found in the school halls or in town. A new town has been added to Golden that becomes accessible once the gang acquires scooters, and this offers several opportunities to enhance and customize the party with a movie theater that bestows a new Persona skill, a coffee shop that boosts equipped skills, and a costume shop that offers a wide array of outfits that are worn while in the dungeons. Personal betterment can also be achieved at a beach, another new location, which offers a means of enhancing a skill or gaining courage, or at home in your room as you read one of the many purchasable books, study at your desk, or work at your table. In-house work involves making origami cranes, translating, and filling envelopes, each offering cash and a personal stat increase. You can also go out in the evenings now, which allow for you to take a night job at a bar or catch a bus to work as a tutor or as a janitor at a hospital. There are also times when you might run across a friend in town during the evening, which gives you a chance to boost a link. There is always something to do, and even after playing for over a hundred hours, I still didn’t meet every character or come close to maxing out every established link.
Many of the relationships you forge can be taken to the next level, going beyond friendship to form an intimate bond. In a strange move—or a bold one, depending on your proclivities—you can become intimate with multiple people. Social Links can be maxed out as friends, but the storylines tend to favor the characters becoming closer to you than you to them; for a silent guy, you’re very charming. The only time this actually comes to bite you is in a new Valentine’s Day sequence, and that is possible because the game now allows those who meet the criteria to receive a True Ending and the chance to play between December and February. This new period offers even more hours more play to build up links, max out traits, and fulfill the lingering odd quest from the townsfolk (mostly of the fetch type). While the Valentine’s Day event lays it on thick, there are still no repercussions for being a massive jerk. While that’s helpful in moving the story along with what seems to be each character’s natural story arc, it would have been nice for there to have been genuine consequences, as in previous Persona titles. Then again, I suppose I did learn that, free of consequences, video-game me would be a terrible person.
The amount of new dialog did necessitate some changes. Two of the original voice actors did not reprise their roles, and as a result, all of their dialog was re-recorded along with the new dialog by different actors to ensure consistency. Both Chie and Teddy, a strange bear-mascot-like creature that makes some great bear puns, now have new voices. While it did take some time to adjust, I ended up enjoying the new actors’ work. Chie does sound less assertive and a bit whiney, but she also sounds much more age appropriate and fits in better with the rest of the cast. Teddie sounds very similar to old Teddie, and even when he doesn’t, the new actor did a fine job and provided some of the best moments in the game. All told, this is one of the better voice-acted games I’ve played in recent memory, with each actor having great timing and inflection.
A special mention must also be made about a new extras mode, TV Listings. Accessible from the main menu as well as an occasional in-game pop-in icon, these gradually unlocked bonuses cover a wide range of Persona-related content: live concert footage of six tracks from Persona 3 performed at Persona Music Live 2008 and 2009, an extended series recap using the Japanese trailers of Persona 1-4, several sections of character art complete with snippets of explanatory commentary, a collection of the viewed cutscenes, a jukebox with 20-plus selections of vocal tracks and event and battle music, and even a fairly tough quiz in a gameshow format hosted by Teddie. Two standouts include a series of lectures on the Jungian ideas of Shadows and Personas, for additional clarity and history, as well as a Teddie extra that is only accessible between midnight and 1 a.m. per the PS Vita’s clock, in a nod to the Midnight Channel. There are even trailers for the spinoff animation as well as the Arc System Work-developed fighter Persona 4 Arena. If nothing else, Atlus has definitely set the bar when it comes to supplemental material for re-releases.
If not for the abundance of dialog and the social aspects making this a somewhat niche entry in the already niche role-playing market, I’d say that Persona 4 Golden is a system seller. For those who have been itching for a Japanese role-playing game, or just a good all-around adventure that takes the story of the party as seriously as the combat mechanics and grinding, then this is definitely the title for you. Caveats or not, this is a fantastic role-playing game and a beacon of hope in the PS Vita’s otherwise wanting library.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)