When I reviewed Persona 4
on the PS2, I considered it to be the greatest game on the PS2. With Persona 4 Golden I found myself reevaluating that idea, except now it might just be my own personal 'Greatest Game Ever,' replacing a game that has for sixteen years been untouched. That game is Chrono Trigger, a title that has been able to withstand the test of time and is something I regularly play, no thanks in part to the DS release in 2009. Playing Persona 4 Golden on the PS Vita I constantly compared gameplay aspects, story elements, character interactions, and even the music. Did Square's Dream Team just get toppled by the team at Atlus? For me that's something I'm going to have to mull over a bit further, but I will outright say that Persona 4 Golden is a game that justified my Vita purchase and is easily one of if not the best game I have played all year.
For those who have played Persona 4 in the past, know that the story hasn't changed, but for those who are new to the series, let's do a quick recap. Players are dropped in to the shoes of a nameless protagonist (but let's just go with Yu Narukami for now), shipped off to the sticks of Inaba to live with his uncle and cousin for a year while his parents are out of the country. Now don't let that cheery new intro video fool you, something very wrong is happening in Inaba, and it's not even a day in to his new life that Yu starts experiencing some strange goings on. It all starts with a dream about a place called The Velvet Room, occupied by series icon Igor. He has some idea of what's up, but won't let on more than necessary, for this is Yu's journey, and he is merely a facilitator in this young man's quest to find out what's really going on in Inaba.
The first day of school itself is an eventful one, Yu makes his introductions, kids talk of a television channel that only appears at midnight on rainy days, a dead body is discovered hung up on some TV antenna, the usual stuff. The night doesn't go much better, as Yu finds he has the power to enter the TV in his room. Not all the way mind you, but enough to give him a decent scare. With this new power, he finds another world on the other side of the TV glass, and this is where he finds his Persona, along with Shadows, the evil feelings of people made manifest. From there it's a mad dash of school life, personal growth, and trips to the TV world that keep Yu, and you, busy for the whole school year, trying to unravel this mystery and find the person or persons responsible for these heinous acts. This isn't your typical forty hour JRPG trip, by hour fifty I was about two thirds through the game, and that's just if I were aiming for the earliest ending. This game will require multiple playthroughs if you want to see everything, unless following a FAQ to the letter feels like an enjoyable experience. Pro-tip, it doesn't.
A lot of joy from playing Persona 4 Golden comes from forming bonds with the characters and seeing how each of their stories play out. Some of them are quite touching and evoke more emotion in just a few hours than some whole games try to do in their entirety. The characters are smartly written, though they fall in to some tropes every now and again. But it's amazing to see that Atlus and their writers have taken the time to flesh out a number of characters and give them each a unique perspective on the goings on in Inaba. How is Yosuke coping with being a city kid who's had to move out to the boonies because of his family? How does a slain classmate's brother feel now that he's in high school, only without his sister? Each of these individual storylines is worth visiting, and the excellent localization is as on point as ever and makes these characters stand out in genre that is known for having shallow characters that are easily forgettable.
The amount of stuff just crammed in to Persona 4 Golden makes the original look tame in comparison, and a lot of the little day to day things have been reworked. Players now have a lot more options in how they choose to grow in terms of the five non-trackable stats that deal with things like diligence, courage, and understanding. There are also a lot more side jobs and distractions too, like bug hunting, maintaining a garden with Nanako, or riding your moped to the neighboring town to catch a movie or pick up some clothes for members of the party. Yeah I'm a sucker for being able to dress up the characters in a variety of clothing, having my party look like a set of secret service agents is strangely satisfying. Even going out at night has been reworked to give players a greater flexibility in the minutiae of managing friendships, keeping up in school, and defeating shadows.
Managing relationships has been a big part of the Persona series, and it's absolutely imperative to pay attention to them in Persona 4 Golden. Maintaining and building friendships will create Social Links, these links in turn give players more power when creating Personas, the monstrous beings that aid Yu in his quest. These Social Links also pop-up in some seemingly random places, like while working a part time job at a hospital, or joining the school's basketball team, but you'll find that they all have a purpose, and it's worth seeing each of these links to their conclusion as it will give you the power to create Persona of the highest levels that have some of the most powerful skills in the game.
Persona growth has also received a bit of an overhaul, and it's all for the better. Growth can be accomplished a lot more quickly than in Persona 4, a lot of this is thanks to the revamped Shuffle Time that occurs after combat. This card system can generate a number of positive results like improving stats on a Persona, or transforming its skills in to more powerful ones. There is obviously a flip side, and later on in the game it becomes a battle with yourself to push to the envelope. Do you take the bonuses given or do you gamble on another chance to pull a card only to wind up losing all experience or gold earned in that battle? Outside of combat players can improve the other party member's Persona by leveling up their Social Links or by doing activities like catching the aforementioned movie.
Persona 4 was no pushover, and neither is Persona 4 Golden. The game can be quite difficult even on the easiest of difficulties, but what's great is that Atlus retooled some of the mechanics so that death doesn't immediately mean losing all progress since the last save point, instead players can now restart the floor of the dungeon where they perished. This little change makes it a lot easier to get back up after dying, and is something I am immensely grateful that Atlus changed, especially after the number of times I foolishly forgot to save and went up against a boss under-leveled in Persona 4 and nearly called it quits.
Moving Persona 4 from the PS2 to the Vita had me believing there would be a bit of a bump in the graphical fidelity, and I'm happy to say that I was not disappointed. The character models have received an upgrade, small details like rays of the sun and lighting make Inaba look all the more like the countryside beauty it's been made out to be. The Vita's OLED screen makes the vibrant colors and a lot of little details stand out, and you can tell that a lot of love went in to that oh-so-slick UI that is practically stealing the show. It's almost an unsung hero of the game, the aesthetics of the menus and their designs stand out as some of the most attractive in games these days.
The audio has received a few new additions since Persona 4. Shoji Meguro's soundtrack remains largely unchanged, though there is a new theme for combat that is used in addition to 'Reach Out to the Truth.' This new song, titled 'Time to Make History' is another driving rock track that does a better job of accenting the urgency of battle, and I'm really glad it's been added to the rotation. The voice acting is Persona 4 Golden is still every bit as good as the original, even with the changes to the roster. The voice actress for Chie has been changed, but she does a pretty great job of retaining that attitude that fits Chie so well. The rest of the cast returns and the new additions to the game that required new voice-work don't feel out of place or rushed, so kudos to them on their effort.
The addition of online connectivity in Persona 4 Golden is one of those pleasant surprises that I didn't know existed until I played the game, and made extensive use of them. Players have the option of connecting to the Playstation Network and in doing so can access the 'Voice' function at almost any time, and what this does is it polls player's choices for that particular spot in the game. This gives players a bit of a crowd sourced guide and can clue them in to Social Links they might not know existed. Players can also send out an SOS call while in dungeons, and if another player responds, they will be granted a little boost in hit points and skill points when the next battle begins. This can be done between each fight, so I expect it to get a lot of use when the game is widely available.
Another incredible extra is the TV Listing, a collection of videos and in-game discussions that talk about topics like 'What are Personas and Shadows?' and other topics related to the psychology behind the game, all taught by the eccentric teacher, Mr. Edogawa from Persona 3. There's also some galleries of Shigenori Soejima's art and concept work. Some of the videos included are portions of live concerts that were filmed in Japan, and commercials for some of the other games in the Persona franchise. Last and certainly not least, players can also unlock tracks from the game to listen to at their leisure, and this entire collection is accessible at any time by simply tapping the Vita's touch screen.
It's not like the guys at Atlus even had to really do anything when releasing Persona 4 Golden, they could have just repackaged the PS2 game and called it a day. The fact that they didn't, and went beyond the extra mile to pack in more Personas, more characters, more content, and extras that even die-hard Persona fans are going to be surprised by; is truly staggering. I'm absolutely blown away at how much more stuff there is in this game, and I cannot recommend this enough to anyone out there who owns a Vita. I'm still at odds with myself over whether or not I can call this my favorite game of all time, but I can definitely say it has surpassed my every expectation and you should run out and get it right now, along with something to keep the battery on the Vita from dying after playing for extended periods of time. Bravo Atlus, bravo.