Persona 4 Golden is an enhanced port of a Playstation 2 game that many regard as one of the finest JRPGs of the modern era. The Persona series is actually a spin-off of the hard as nails Shin Megami Tensei games, which would best be described as a mature Pokemon (replacing cute critters with demons.) At the time of writing Persona 4 is enjoying a surge of popularity in the British Isles. Golden has been touted as a system seller for Sony's Vita, an anime adaptation is currently being released on DVD by Manga Entertainment and it should be noted that the fighting game follow-up Persona 4 Arena was released on current gen consoles, to high acclaim, earlier this year. Despite being a huge RPG fan, I never got the chance to play the PS2 version of Persona 4, but after recently acquiring a Vita I was keen to remedy that gap in my game playing record.
The story takes place in the town of Inaba, which has recently suffered a spate of murders by a killer who has a knack for leaving corpses dangling on TV antennas. A local urban legend suggests that it is possible to predict who the killer's next victim will be by watching the fabled Midnight Channel that screens on inactive TVs during the witching hour on rainy days. For a laugh protagonist Yu Narukami and his high school chums decide to investigate the rumor, only to discover that it is actually genuine. Those marked for death are visible on the Midnight Channel as they have been tossed into a shadow world, populated with monsters, which is accessible by literally stepping through a TV screen. As one of the select few able to enter the shadow world it is up to the player controlled Yu to prevent further deaths by saving those trapped in the shadow world whilst at the same time trying to uncover who is behind the series of supernatural homicides.
What's neat about Persona 4 is that the battles in the shadow world are only a small part of the gameplay experience. The story runs over the course of a year, with each day simulating a high school student's life. Preventing the actions of a murderer go hand in hand with studying for exams, hanging out with pals at the after school clubs and earning some extra scratch via part time jobs. By interacting with other characters Yu can increase his social links with them, which rewards you with entertaining anime-esque cut scenes and bonuses that will aid you in battle. Forming deep bonds with party members will grant them new abilities as well as allowing you to fuse stronger Personas (the physical representations of your psyche, which are summoned in order to cast magic.) It's just as well that this is a game and not real life. If a Persona's power is tied to how social you are I fear the killer would wipe out all life in my town, as I am such a reclusive hermit.
In terms of combat Persona 4 adopts a no nonsense turn based system. Levels entail dungeon crawling through a number of floors before eventually reaching a guardian who has to be vanquished. Bumping into the shadow creatures, that patrol the stages, triggers battles were the aim is to deplete your enemy's health by attacking, casting spells or using items. In combat the onus is on exploiting elemental weaknesses to knock opponents off their feet. For example, if you strike a monster that is weak to fire, with a flame-based attack they will topple to the ground leaving them exposed. Managing to down all the adversaries on screen permits your team to perform a powerful group attack that will eliminate all but the hardiest of foes.
From time to time winning an encounter will kick off the Shuffle Time mini-game were players can earn some extra goodies by selecting from a random hand of tarot cards. The cards can grant Yu with new Personas, extra coin and restore the party's health pool. Shuffle Time does however have the potential to break the game by offering permanent stat boosts to your Personas. If you prioritize on picking those particular cards it's relatively easy to train up an overpowered Persona with capped ratings of ninety-nine across all their attributes. Golden's newly introduced online functionality can also reduce the game's difficulty as it allows fellow players to replenish a small amount of your health and mana pool every time you enter combat. Just be sure to be nice and return the favor by tapping on their requests for aid whenever they flash on the screen. Kudos to Atlas for utilizing modern technology to add an unobtrusive sense of community to what is a single player game.
Having not played the original Persona 4 I had to conduct a little research to ascertain what new content had been seamlessly integrated into this iteration of the game. My findings left me gob smacked at the wealth of additional stuff that has been added. There's a new dungeon, extra cut scenes that flesh out an already rich story, new social links that raise the number of NPCs you can form relationships with to over twenty, not to mention the option of getting a scooter license that eventually allows you to ride to new areas not found in the Playstation 2 version. Other new features grant players customization with respect to their party's spells and appearance. The skill card system can be used to teach Personas new abilities they would not otherwise learn naturally whilst costumes can be worn should the default attire of your team not be to your liking. If you want to go into combat wearing bikinis and Halloween costumes you can do that. In my game I decided to make the main character go in drag as I felt it would help him mix in better with my otherwise all female team. My psychologist reckons I am using the game to act out on my repressed cross dressing fantasies... but I can assure you he is mistaken.
I could gush all day about how excellent Persona 4 Golden is, but with the word count of this review already exceeding one thousand I better start to wrap things up. Needless to say the whole package is as close to perfection as a game can get, from the stellar gameplay to exceptional presentation. Visually the game looks great despite its age. Even though the graphics have only been slightly polished they still look good, as the wonderful art direction has stood the test of time. The soundtrack is so outstanding that I regularly listen to it on Youtube whilst browsing the web. I can also praise the voice acting, even though I am sure some fans will be disappointed to learn that some parts had to be recast in order to record the new scenes. For what it's worth, from the brief samples I have heard, I think the newcomers do a better job at conveying emotions than the original cast did.
Persona 4 Golden delivers on everything an RPG fan could want. The dungeon crawling segments are engaging, thanks to the strategic combat that never drags, but it's actually the story that will hook players in. Trust me this isn't one of those games were you skip the cut scenes in order to jump straight into the action. There's lots of lighthearted fun to be had, but the story isn't shy about venturing into dark territory when the occasion demands it. The cast of characters is one of the most memorable ensembles I have ever seen in a video game. It will be a long time before I forget the likes of Chie the tomboy who loves Kung-Fu movies, Adachi the inept detective who has a habit of blurting out sensitive police information or Nanako a video game child who amazingly isn't annoying. Given that the Vita's library of games is sparse there's no reason why an owner of Sony's handheld shouldn't own a copy of Persona 4. Buy it now or I'll toss you into the TV world were you'll be forever trapped in an episode of Honey Boo Boo.