When Persona 4 first debuted on the PlayStation 2 in 2008 late it was an instant critical and financial success. It followed quickly on the heels of Persona 3 (and the subsequent Persona 3: FES re-release), and while that game was a massive hit as well, Persona 4 saw Atlus doing all it could to both polish its own fundamental game design concepts and to wring every last ounce of power from the aging PlayStation 2 platform. It succeeded in both regards, and Persona 4 now proudly stands among the very best games the PS2 has to offer, and as one of the best Japanese-style roleplaying games ever created. It was also overlooked by many, coming so late in the PS2’s life, and after the release of the PS3.
Of course, these days the PS2 is merely a fond memory, and Japanese-style roleplaying games have become a rarity, replaced by online first-person shooters and endless rhythm game franchises. Seeing this as an opportunity to revive Persona 4, Atlus has opted to bring Persona 4 Golden to Sony’s PlayStation Vita handheld. While most other developers would simply upgrade the game’s graphics a bit and maybe throw in a new area or two, Atlus has decided to construct the definitive version of Persona 4 (in much the same way that the 2010 release of Persona 3 Portable brought a more feature-packed version of Persona 3 to the PSP). Along with all the content found in the earlier PS2 release, Persona 4 Golden includes two new characters, updated high-definition graphics, new costumes, new weapons, new Personas to discover and a number of streamlined gameplay and combat options. Content-wise, that certainly put Persona 4 Golden above its predecessors, but does that make it a better game?
Everything Old Is New Again
Persona 4 tells the story of a group of Japanese high school students who are unwittingly drawn into a battle for the fate of the universe. That sounds like a pretty stereotypical plot for any roleplaying game, but Persona 4 immediately sets itself apart from the competition in a number of dynamic ways. First, the game’s aesthetics are gorgeously stylized and colorful. Where other games might want to focus on the gritty struggle to survive, or the horrors of battling demons, Persona 4 presents itself to you almost gleefully. It’s characters and plot are well aware of the gravity of the game’s situations, but despite this they all maintain a level of cheery, self-assured invulnerability that you’d expect to see from largely naive teens. Likewise, the game’s audio perfectly matches this vibe, shifting casually from mellow jazz to upbeat hip hop to surprisingly catchy rock tracks at a moment’s notice. If you can play through Persona 4 Golden without getting at least one song indelibly stuck in your head, then you’ve got more willpower than I do.
The gameplay in Persona 4 is broken up into two distinct sections: daily life and plumbing the depths of the game’s massive dungeon system. In the former you play the role of a relatively normal high school student. You have to study, attend classes, meet with social clubs and occasionally romance one of the available locals. In turn, the dungeon exploration aspect of the game is relatively standard as well. You and a group of up to three friends are tasked with traveling downward through a number of colorful, thematically-appropriate dungeon settings where you’ll face off against monsters and hope to discover fantastic loot. These sections both serve as traditional roleplaying game elements and to further the game’s plot, but the really interesting bit is how they intertwine with one another.
We’ll get to that in a second, but first we have to explain what a “Persona” actually is. While not quite a ghost and not exactly a Final Fantasy-style summon, the Personas serve as guardians for their owners while exploring the game’s dungeons. Your characters each have standard weapon attacks, but in addition to these you’re able to call on your Persona to use its magical abilities to attack your opponents. Further, these Personas are almost full-fledged characters of their own, as they level up alongside your human characters with regular use. As you progress through the game, you’ll discover that your enemies are increasingly immune to certain kinds of attacks, and thus it’s wise for a player to keep a stable of three or four fully-leveled Personas with varying skillsets with them when they decide to enter into battle.
Now, back to the intertwining. While you can generate new Personas by discovering certain items after battle or merging multiple Personas together, the key to putting together a strong army of Personas is in establishing Social Links with the people you meet during the day. Spend time with the right person and your relationship with them will improve, allowing you to summon increasingly powerful Personas. Each of these people you can interact with corresponds to a certain sign of the zodiac and they, in turn, offer more power to Personas who share that same sign.
Yes, it’s a complicated system, but the changes made to Persona 4 Golden make things simpler than they’ve ever been. Those items I mentioned that can be used to spawn new Personas are far easier to collect now that the mini-game following most battles has been altered to allow for more strategy. Explaining the whole thing would take a few thousand words, but know that once you’ve gotten used to that particular mini-game, you’ll be able to snatch multiple Personas at a time along with a host of bonuses for both your character and his Personas.
Veteran Persona 4 players will recognize this change as a small one in the grand scheme of things — Persona 4 Golden features well over 100 hours of gameplay, so the grand scheme is pretty big — but that’s how most of the additions to Persona 4 Golden work: If you’ve played Persona 4 previously you won’t have missed these elements, but once you’ve played Persona 4 Golden, with its streamlined menus and simplified travel systems, you won’t ever be able to go back to the game’s original incarnation.
Wide-eyed Anime Tropes
Atlus could tweak Persona 4 endlessly, adding new features and subtracting poorly polished concepts, but in the end the real reason to play Persona 4 Golden is that it offers an epic, engaging roleplaying adventure that features a cast of wonderfully conceptualized characters with unique personalities and an abundance of likable traits. Whether you find yourself drawn to Chie’s kung fu skills and self-doubt or Yukiko’s prim, proper appearance (which hides a mile-wide silly streak), this game offers at least one character that anyone can relate to.
On the other hand, the anime aesthetic and tonal qualities of Persona 4 are undeniable. If you can’t stand wide-eyed characters and melodramatic acting, then this probably isn’t the game for you. Then again, while it does wear its anime influence on its sleeve, Persona 4 is far, far deeper than the vast majority of teen-focused cartoons. It does feature all the familiar tropes (the stoic badass, the pretty girl who is conflicted about her family, etc.), but it also goes beyond the common concepts found in anime to explore topics like teenage sexual repression, homosexuality, the impact of broken homes on children, and the finality of death. Persona 4 may not be Dostoevsky, but it’s certainly a far more thoughtful, emotionally charged game than one might first expect on seeing its colorful aesthetic.
Depending on your point of view then, you may either be excited or upset to hear that despite all the copious additions to Persona 4 introduced for its Vita debut, the game’s plot sees the least change out of all of its various aspects. The only real change is that you are now able to strike up new relationships with flunky detective Adachi, as well as with Marie, a girl created specifically for Persona 4 Golden.
When you first meet Marie, she appears to be yet another denizen of the Velvet Room, a mysterious extra-dimensional room that you can only access via blue doors scattered throughout the game. The people who live in this room are not quite human, but seem to have a strong interest in how human life works. Marie, more so than any of the Velvet Room denizens we’ve seen to date, is an impatient brat. She starts off as cold to you, and though she will warm up as you spend time with her, she never really grows out of the “annoying teen girl” schtick she seems to cling to so fervently. As with all things in this game, there’s a reasonable explanation for that, but you’ll have to spend a few dozen hours playing the game before you discover what it might be.
Normally this might be a huge flaw, but Persona 4 Golden has one major addition that makes replaying this massive game a real joy: True portability. It may not seem it based on what I’ve written so far, but almost every aspect of Persona 4 can be boiled down to a stop-motion turn-based effort. The battles are turn-based, conversations only advance when you hit a button, and its rare that anything in the game will occur without your direct involvement. As a result, it’s very easy to slip the Vita into Sleep Mode during gameplay without fear of losing any progress, making this game ideal for long car trips, or killing time while waiting for the bus. As much as I enjoyed Persona 4 in its PS2 iteration, I don’t think I have the willpower to sit in front of my TV for another 150 hours. But given the opportunity to replay the whole thing in tiny, bite-sized chunks as it’s convenient for me, I jump at the chance to play Persona 4 Golden.
That convenience seems to be a theme with Persona 4 Golden, as perhaps the most minute change actually has the largest impact on how the game is played. In the original iteration of Persona 4, if you were working your way through a dungeon only to be killed by a random monster, you’d have to restart the game from the last place you saved. Usually that just so happened to be hours ago. Instead of subjecting players to this kind of torture yet again, Atlus decided to include a new menu option that offers players the chance to restart from the beginning of whichever dungeon floor they perished on instead of reloading a save file. It seems like a small tweak, but it makes a huge difference in how fast one can complete the game. Not that this experience should be rushed, but it’s such a relief to see that we won’t have to slog through the same areas over and over again simply because a certain enemy is extraordinarily difficult.
Persona 4 Golden is what Persona 4 should have been all along. It’s a massive roleplaying game with compelling characters and interesting, intuitive gameplay mechanics that motivate players along not with design cliches, but by offering new, interesting things to see and explore. Though it’s modern setting and anime style may not appeal to everyone, those who can see past these “issues” to the core experience beneath will find themselves enjoying a game that certainly earned a place as one of the best PS2 titles, and has now established itself as one of the best games available on Sony’s Vita handheld.
More impressively, the wealth of changes and additions seen in Persona 4 Golden make it one of the few re-releases that should appeal equally to fans of the original Persona 4 and those who’ve yet to experience the series. Atlus has jam-packed this game with new content, and even if you’ve explored every nook and cranny of Persona 4 on the PS2, you’ll find plenty of novel things to do and see in its handheld incarnation. While it probably doesn’t have the power to sway those who absolutely abhor roleplaying games, those who enjoy the genre should view Persona 4 Golden as the current high water mark for these sorts of games, and, for that matter, as a perfect reason to go out and buy a Vita. Even if everything else on the system leaves you cold, at least you’ll have this one epic adventure to enjoy over the course of the next few weeks, months, and years.
Score: 9 out of 10
(This review was written using a copy of Persona 4 Golden for the PS Vita provided by Atlus.)