One of the worst nightmares for a Japanese high schooler living in a major city is to be uprooted from there in order to go to live in a small town somewhere in the countryside. Persona 4 Golden starts exactly with that nightmare, only to propel the protagonist into something much worse.
As soon as he moves to the minuscule town of Inaba and goes to live with his policeman uncle and his daughter, strange murders start to happen around him, quickly dragging him into a complex mystery revolving around an hallucinogenic alternate world inside the TV, his schoolmates and the search for one’s true self.
The plot of Persona 4 Golden is one of the most complex and interesting in the last few years of JRPGs, and RPGs in general, based on an extremely solid cast made of varied and beautifully described characters that show an amazing degree of progression through the story and on plot devices that never really get old, despite being sometimes rather crazy.
It’s hard to describe much without falling flat into the trap of spoilers, as the story of the game is a set of Chinese boxes in which each mystery hides another, deeper level of complexity. Suffice it to say that Persona 4 Golden is the perfect amalgamation of the best anime tropes and an awesome thriller, mixing the usual Japanese school life with deeper themes that enrich it rather masterfully, hitting that sweet spot between realism and fantasy that is rarely achieved both in games and anime.
Being a port from a PS2 game, graphics are a direct derivation from those that appeared on the venerable console by Sony, but Atlus remastered and polished them to make them extremely crisp and pleasing to the eye. Persona 4 Golden definitely doesn’t show its age in its PS Vita incarnation. The best job has been done on the 2D panels that represent the characters, that have been remade for the new resolution and look absolutely fantastic.
All in all, while we don’t see extremely high polycounts or textures with staggering resolution, this is most probably one of the best looking games on the PS Vita, even thanks to an art direction and style that can only be defined tight as a drum. Every aspect of the visuals fits together beautifully, from the 2D panels to the 3D representation of the world, passing by the stylish UI.
One of the most pleasing elements is the painstaking detail with which the world is depicted. While the graphics are definitely cartoonish, it’s rather obvious that Atlus went to great lengths in trying to bring to life a Japanese town and its surroundings as realistically as possible. Portable games often skimp on this kind of small touches, saving on the environmental design in order to keep resources available for the main characters, but this simply isn’t the case with Persona 4 Golden.
Even better is the amount of care put into flavor details that set the atmosphere, but that most developers would simply overlook, like the change between winter and summer uniforms as the seasons move on. Add to that some of the best anime cut scenes that we’ve seen in a while, and you get the picture: Persona 4 Golden simply looks beautiful on the fantastically bright and crisp LED screen of the Vita. You can check out the gallery below and see for yourself.
The audio of the game is enriched by a well rounded sountrack with a slightly retro style that fits the visuals definitely well, and proves pleasing through the whole game. I can’t remember a single song or tune that I wouldn’t listen to on its own, and I’m known for having rather selective musical tastes. Composer Shoji Meguro simply did an excellent job in underlining every aspect of the game and of the story and that’s something that you can very seldom say about games nowadays. In most cases there’s always one or two tracks that simply don’t fit very well. In Persona 4 Golden I couldn’t find even one.
Things take a rather radical steer for the worse with voice acting. While most voice actors did an adequate (while not particularly faithful to the original Japanese, unfortunately) job in portraying their characters, there’s no real spur of excellence to be found anywhere. Unfortunately, though, there’s a single voice that almost spoils the whole experience.
The voice used for Chie Satonaka in the localization of the PS2 version of Persona 4 wasn’t exactly exceptional. A new one was selected for Persona 4: Golden (the same that appeared in Arena and in the localization of the anime series), managing, for reasons that I can’t fathom, to do a much worse job. It’s probably more a matter of direction than the fault of the new voice actress herself, but Chie’s overbearing personality has been exaggerated to such extremes that she has become absolutely unbearable. She goes all over the place between high and low pitches, with an effect that can only be described as grating, completely ruining one of the most important characters of the game.
Obviously neither voice actress (new or old) has the slightest thing in common with the original (Yui Horie, an extremely experienced and versatile star actress that lent her voice to countless anime and video game main roles), that sounded much more fresh and juvenile, and could communicate Chie’s peculiar personality without blathering like a complete clown. Unfortunately Atlus USA persists with the policy of replacing star-level actors with average voices hampered by mediocre direction, and while it may be understandable due to budget reasons, it still cheapens the experience considerably.
If there’s one game that would have benefited enormously from the inclusion of the original Japanese voice track, this would be it. Unfortunately Atlus decided otherwise, and it’s a real pity. Luckily the localization of the script is much better, and even goes as far as including the typically Japanese honorifics, that simply can’t be translated and that localization professionals normally seem to resent, but that contribute quite a lot in setting the atmosphere and defining relationships between characters (and they’re normally and tragically lost in lesser translations).
Persona 4 Golden‘s gameplay is an extremely clever mix between the dungeon crawling and leveling that you normally find in JRPGs and the day-to-day progression typical of Japanese dating sims.
The game’s story spans a whole year, and during every day you’ll have to decide what to do, splitting your time between the typical activities performed by a normal high schooler (going to school, studying, part time jobs, spending time with friends and so forth) and your “secret identity” as part of the investigation group to solve the mystery behind the murders of Inaba town. Both areas are equally important to the progression of the story, but the decision on how to pace yourself through them is yours, creating a lovely sandbox environment where you develop your character however you like and every little decision has important consequences on your progression and performance.
The several activities that you can perform during normal days (including a few minigames) determine the moral and intellectual progression of the main character, unlocking quests and determining his social and sentimental links with the rest of the cast. That in turn influences his ability to create more powerful Personas through the Fusion system, directly affecting his performance in combat. Of course quite a few decisions also influence elements of the story, including the choice between multiple romantic interests (something that is sorely missing in most game nowadays, and that is done extremely well in this one).
Once you step into the world behind the TV the game turns into a typical party-based JRPG dungeon crawler with instanced turn-based battles in which characters can attack directly or through their Personas.
The battle system is very tight, with a great use of weaknesses and resistances that creates combat situations in which clever tactics are greatly rewarded, especially in presence of multiple enemies weak to different elements. Careful planning and the use of the right actions at the right time will make the party almost untouchable, while sloppy execution can easily turn easy fights into unmitigated disasters. While it’s not in any way twitchy like what you’d find in Action RPGs, skill is absolutely a factor, and a very satisfying one.
The only weak link of the dungeon crawling experience is the design of the dungeons themselves, that tends to be rather repetitive. Most floors are absolutely identical in looks to the other ones in the same dungeon, and while the general layout changes, an anonymous long hallway with doors tends to feel exactly the same as all the other anonymous long hallways with doors you’ll find until you’ll be ready to move to the next labyrinth.
This is definitely not to say that dungeon crawling in the game is bad. Quite the opposite, it’s definitely very entertaining, but the dungeons themselves could have really benefited from the same level of detail and design that makes Inaba town so special.
The characters of the party fight through the use of Personas, summonable entities born from a manifestation of the wielder’s personality that add an enormous amount of depth to the battle system. While the rest of the investigation team can use only one Persona for each character (their Personas can evolve, but they can’t hold multiple, nor change Persona at will), the main hero can hold a large number of Personas, and switch between them at will.
Each Persona (think of the mystical and much cooler version of a Pokémon, and no, the Persona series didn’t copy the popular series by Game Freak, as the first incarnations of both series came out in the same year) has its own peculiar look, statistics and attacks, and can be deeply personalized (pun completely intended) according to the player’s fighting style.
In addition to that they can be fused in order to create new Personas, including several special ones. Personas created with different “parents” inherit different abilities, and doing so in different days can help tweak the results further, creating an extremely deep level of customization that will keep our resident min-maxers busy for hours on end in the attempt to create the perfect team of Personas to steamroll every possible opposition.
The wide swing between combat situations and everyday life creates a perfect amalgamation of gameplay styles that can keep a player entertained for a long, long time, and considering that the game has a massive amount of content disseminated through the year of the story, an outstanding longevity is guaranteed.
One day you’ll find yourself fighting against shadows in a dungeon, the next you’ll be struggling to study enough for the midterm exams, and after that you’ll wonder what to do in order to gain the affections of your favorite between the ladies that populate the game. There’s simply a whole lot to do, and all of it is a whole lot of fun.
Atlus included a few elements exclusive to the PS Vita version of the game, adding a new and lovely character (Marie), quite a few new events and creating a multiplayer aspect somehow similar to what we found in Demon’s Souls. In most areas of the game you can check out what other players did in the same situation, maybe finding suggestions if you feel lost. During combat you can also ask for help from other players (that will heal your characters) and respond to requests of help by them.
While this particular feature is interesting and a lot of fun, granting a peculiar sensation of camaraderie and companionship (even if you never see the other players besides their nicknames), it can also affect balance negatively. While the original game was quite challenging in the fact that characters had finite resources and had to leave dungeons after exploring them for a while in order to recover, using this kind of “community healing” over and over provides with almost infinite staying power, and there’s absolutely no drawback in doing so.
Another negative note pertains touch controls. They’re dreadfully limited, as only the new features added on top of the PS2 version use them in any way. Nothing of the pre-existing features of the game has been updated in order to make a better use of the Vita’s control scheme, and that’s unfortunate, considering that the game could really benefit from a wider use of the touchscreen (I had to force myself to stop touching the screen to progress dialogue and select enemies for instance, since it didn’t work at all).
It’s also unfortunate that the online capabilities of the PS Vita haven’t been used in a more extensive way. Considering that the game is radically based on the collection and fusion of Personas, a system to exchange them with our friends would have gone a long way in mixing things up, without even mentioning the missed possibility for competitive multiplayer.
Ultimately, though, the few little flaws simply fade out of sight very fast when compared against the quality and quantity presented by the game. There’s so much to do as you progress through the absolutely engrossing and emotionally involving story, that the value of Persona 4 Golden is almost unmatched between its peers.
If you want a JRPG that looks and plays great, enriched by a complex mystery and populated by a deep and interesting cast without forgetting that lovely touch of humor that makes everything more pleasant, this is your game. It’s without a doubt one of the best, if not the best, RPG on a portable console, and if you were looking for a solid reason to get a PS Vita, Persona 4 Golden fulfills all the requisites to be that reason, and then some.