If you’ve never played Persona 4 (or any iteration of Persona 3) you’re in for a wild ride. A bizarre series of homicides coincide with your arrival in the rural-ish city of Inaba. Forming an investigation squad with an emerging group of friends, you soon discover people are getting sucked inside televisions before being murdered by an anonymous killer. This is admittedly ridiculous and probably an obstacle for those incapable of (or ill-prepared for) appreciating some of the more zany aspects of modern Japanese storytelling, but while this mystery is Persona 4’s driving force – it’s not its heart and soul.
If anything, Persona 4 is about time management. You spend nearly a year living day-by-day in Inaba and there are considerable amount of things to occupy your time. Studying, going to work, and engaging in other menial tasks raise stats necessary for interacting with friends. Bonding with said friends establishes Social Links. The amount of time invested in building Social Links corresponds directly into the strength of the persona you’re able to forge inside their respective classes. Those persona develop skills and fuel your path through the TV World, which basically amounts to a series of different dungeons. Technical this renders Persona 4 as a Pokemon-lite* optimized turn-based role playing game and dungeon crawler infused with Japanese culture and also probably a dating sim. Or, in layman’s terms, Persona 4 is as much about making friends as it is fighting monsters.
It’s simultaneously an OCD nightmare and godsend, and a constant tug of war between the quest for statistical perfection and a legitimate desire to see the full narrative arc of your Social Links. It’s a lot to take in, and Persona 4, taking three or so hours to settle into any sort of identifiable rhythm, might not be easy for audiences not used to its systems. To get a better understanding of the beautiful gears that make Persona 4 tick, please take a look at my sweeping 2008 review of the original game. For everyone else, the remainder of this review will focus on how the tweaks and additions contained in Golden affect Persona 4’s experience at large.
Right off the bat you’ll notice Atlus switched the voice actress for Chie. Initially I perceived the new actress as overly excited and I didn’t care for the dorky flourish she added to Chie’s voice. It sounded forced, almost conforming to typical stereotypes for a default lively character and lacked any of Chie’s previous vulnerability (especially in scenes when Chie starts screaming). As time went on it didn’t bother me as much, but that initial shock made it seem like Atlus damaged my favorite character. Teddie also has a new voice actor, though he sounds so close to the original I didn’t know it until I read a news article stating such. In any case, Golden maintains an incredible amount of spoken dialogue, and even returns the old cast for new quips and added scenes.
The bulk of Golden’s new content is back-loaded into winter months, but bits and pieces are parsed throughout the summer and fall season. For example, a new subplot emerges where everyone gets mopeds. This allows your character (after some courage-building exploration) to visit a new beach area and also explore the previously cut-scene only Okina City. Okina isn’t much; it’s movie theater is now freely accessible for Social Link building, there’s a fairly expensive boutique for some bonus clothing, and some NPC’s offer new quests, but it feels like new content. Mopeds are also reasonable for a new vignette involving a weekend beach trip for the team, the likes of which implicate Kanji in one of Golden’s more hilarious scenes.
Other tweaks have wormed their way into Persona 4’s architecture. You can now leave the Dojima residence at night and walk up and down the shopping district. This makes taking the bus to either the hospital or tutoring job more coherent, but it also presents opportunities to spend time with any of your Social Links whom also might happen to be out that night. You can’t actually raise their levels at night, but rather accumulate points into that nebulous total necessary for a rank up. There’s also a new, night-only shop that specializes in trading scare loot for equally rare items.
A small but significant change has also been introduced into the Velvet Room (read: persona fusion workshop). Shin Megami Tensei’s penchant for demon/persona-fusing has always relied on a rather haphazard element of luck. Circumstances vary, but usually the skills that would carry over from the two (or whatever) demons/persona in play wouldn’t be under your control. You could either live with the consequences, or do what practically everyone did; exit the Velvet Room, go back in, and hope you get dealt a better hand. The thrill of eventually hitting the lottery wasn’t worth the potential time invested, which I suppose is why Golden bites the bullet and allows you to pick and choose what skills will carry over into your new persona. MegaTen purists may scoff at this option but, in reality, it’s a concession to accessibility and a smart move for those of us who just want to get on with the show.
Another progressive move is introduced with Golden’s online capabilities. The weirdest of which is an option, “voice,” to see what the rest of the player base did on any given day. When tapped it floods the screen with text bubbles citing the actions others chose to take. There was always a dominating majority and it was usually “go inside the the TV.” As someone who preferred to one-and-done every dungeon I didn’t find this feature especially helpful, but I suppose it can be beneficial to see who’s spending time with certain Social Links at distinct points in the year. Another option, S.O.S., presented itself when exploring dungeons. This was said to call and ask for assistance from another random player while crawling through dungeons, but the few times I tried it nothing happened.
That wasn’t really much of a problem because Golden is also the easiest Persona to date. The addition of a super easy difficulty helps (and, honestly, great for those who just want to absorb Golden as a taste of Japanese culture), but the greatest change is visible upon death; you can restart from the last floor you reached with experience, persona, and money gained up to that point intact. Again, this will probably boil the blood of longtime fans, but in the not-so-rare instances that a boss takes control of your entire party and murders you in a single turn, well, I can’t say I didn’t welcome this option with open arms.
Golden’s prized assets, or at least its most publicized, are two new Social Links and an extra month and a half of time to engage them (or anything else). Adachi, Dojima’s hapless partner, assumes the Jester arcana. His narrative arc is kind of incredible in the road it forces the player down, although that’s somewhat expected given his fate in the plot. The other new link belongs to Marie, a new resident of the Velvet Room. Throughout the entirety of Golden I couldn’t figure out whether her writing was simply lazy or symptomatic of her apparent amnesia, but ultimately I developed a soft spot for her. I was there to help, damn it, and her verbal abuse juxtaposed with her oddly sentimental poetry made for one hell of a weird and endearing character.
A couple new events help fill your extra time. The most surprising of which is also the shortest; a Valentine’s Day date. Like the Christmas Eve event, you have the option of spending it with whomever you’ve entered an intimate relationship with. Unlike the Christmas event, if you’re dating more than one girl then prepare to have your soul ripped out. You reap what you sow, and I felt appropriately awful in real life when I was forced to explain why I didn’t want to spend Valentine’s Day with three of my four girlfriends. That sounds silly but after investing a combined total of nearly 200 hours with these characters, disappointing them, in any capacity, felt legitimately consequential. It didn’t matter after the fact, but for that brief moment in time Golden had me regretting my capricious policy of multiple secret girlfriends.
February also boasts a ski trip that serves as another weekend getaway for the team. Its equal parts humor and fan service, though, as a huge fan, I can’t exactly say I was serviced by the terrible bathhouse cut scene. I understand that Golden’s audience will be primarily male but that doesn’t excuse betraying established characters in favor of juvenile titillation. Stuff like that didn’t make much sense in Lunar and it doesn’t here either. Aside from that pithy complaint the ski trip is mostly consumed by an entirely new dungeon, Hollow Forest.
Hollow Forest is a bonus in the purest sense of the word. It doesn’t offer much in the way of experience, there’s literally no money to be earned, and you don’t even take your own gear in there. Due to its place in the calendar year it can’t have a major effect on your stats, and what’s left is ultimately in service on narrative closure for one character. Don’t mistake this for a lack of substance because Hollow Forest is also the most unique dungeon in Golden’s repertoire. Your magic points are halved after every battle, and some floors prompt battles whenever you open a door. Items and magic-regenerating equipment earned from chests and battles ease that pain, so it’s not as difficult as it may seem, but it was a welcomed reprieve from the mechanical monotony of Persona 4’s aging dungeon layout.
Despite being born from a four year old PlayStation 2 game, Golden really seems to pop on the Vita’s beautiful screen. Persona 4 wasn’t exactly a technical behemoth to begin with and, aside from a 16×9 transfer and that extra OLED clarity – it looks the same. It remains still entirely distinctive (Inaba bears a striking resemblance to the small town I occupied during my stay in Japan, giving it an air of authenticity), but don’t go in expecting a complete visual overhaul. Inaba does see snow this time around, along with plenty of costume changes to fit the season. The new music, while not entirely composed by Shōji Meguro, fit neatly inside the original score. It’s more relaxed, if anything, aside from that wonderfully energetic tune that compliments the fantastic new introduction reel.
In the end, in spite of the awkward opening, the lingering cut scenes, the cheap deaths, and implausible plot, Persona 4 remains an endearing and alluring experience based entirely on the strength of its characters. Nanako still breaks my heart when she talks about trying to relate to her father (and remains the most realistic child in a videogame not named Clementine). The handling of Kanji and Naoto’s gender issues, respectively, remains incredibly progressive. And what other game actually makes the player care about soliciting advice for how to properly relate a stepmother to her child? Even with its formula lifted straight from Persona 3, Persona 4 is wholly unique in its field. Your mileage may vary on Golden’s enhancements, but there isn’t much like it, and certainly not on Vita.
* I realize this is a backwards comparison but just go with it
** all screens captured using the Vita’s handy capture tool