Originally released in 2009 on the PlayStation 2, Persona 4 became the 5th instalment in the Shin Megami Tensei series and the most critically acclaimed of the franchise. So popular in fact was Atlus’ unique social-sim/murder-mystery RPG, that it’s success would go on to inspire it’s own manga, a light novella, an anime series, and even a stage adaption in it’s native Japan. With a Metacritic score of ninety, it’s difficult to imagine what could be done to improve on the already phenomenally successful title. But in 2012, the Shinjuku-based Persona team went ahead and did just that.
The result? A Vita exclusive, handheld, killer-app: Persona 4 Golden.
Set in the rural, Japanese small-town of Inaba, Golden follows the story of a teenage (player-named) protagonist, made to move to the sticks from his old home in the big city. Before having a chance to get settled though, the town suffers an unnerving tragedy. The body of a local celebrity is found suspended from a television antenna in the school district, followed soon after by the death of a student in suspiciously similar circumstances. Rumours of something called ‘the midnight channel’ result in the player-character and his friends entering into a world inside their TV sets. A place that as it turns out, appears to be connected with the towns murders. It’s an intriguing set-up, and one that is framed beautifully by an immersive selection of atmospheric, explorable environments.
Inaba itself consists of a variety of districts with assorted points-of-interest; from the busy local high-street, to the flood plains, the multi-building Yasogami high school and the reputedly haunted Shinto shrine. All of which are home the town’s typically work-shy RPG population; offering side quests and distractions alongside the main story. The world inside the TV boasts some impressively diverse environments too, providing some a surreal backdrop for the games combat.
At its core, Golden’s combat mechanics are your standard dungeon-crawler, turn-based fare, but nonetheless polished and perfected. A-la Final Fantasy XIII, the dungeons you explore in the TV realm are home to a variety of less than friendly denizens. If they catch you wandering in their vicinity, they make a charge for you, and on contact the screen shatters as you’re transported to a battle area for combat. Alternatively, if you’re quick enough to get the jump on an enemy before being spotted, you’re rewarded with an extra turn having successfully employed the element of surprise.
The usual selections of menu options apply, allowing you to choose from basic hack-and-slash attacks, or offensive and defensive Persona skills to help you through the fight.
You can also dictate how you want your teammates to act. Having the option of taking control of them entirely, or letting the AI make the decisions within player-defined parameters. It’s an inspired mechanic to add to traditional turn-based combat system, and means encounters don’t drag too much or end up feeling repetitive.
Between fights, Golden has also added a new online dynamic. So long as your Vita is connected to the web, you have the option of sending out an ‘SOS signal.’ This gives other players, trawling through their own respective dungeons, the option to lend you a hand by simply tapping an on-screen prompt. Players lucky enough to have their distress call answered, receive a modest HP/SP boost upon initiating their next battle. It’s a nice touch, and whist not game changingly useful; as a concept it does a great job of reinforcing Personas central theme. Power, gained through relationships with others.
While Golden may boast some excellent environment design and an improved combat system, it’s the games curious blend of JRPG and social-sim, which offers a truly unique appeal. Since the player’s social life and the strength of their combat-essential ‘Personas’ are intrinsically linked, the decision of how to best to distribute your free time is one that requires serious consideration.
Spending time training in the TV world is essential to solving the whodunit of the main story arc. But, stronger social links equals stronger personas. So spending time after school with friends, chatting with the family, and getting better acquainted with the various personalities of Inaba, all help build your links and subsequently improve your team.
Equipping yourself and your comrades with the right gear is of course essential too. So you’ll need money for armour, accessories and healing items. And whist there’s a certain amount of cash to be looted off enemies, you may find you’re better off working instead. A trip to the towns job-board allows you to undertake various tasks from folding letters to translating (assuming you meet the necessary stat requirements).
And while balancing all these elements (as well as studying for school exams) can be tricky, it’s actually hugely rewarding once you get the hang of it. The addition of very ‘real’ responsibilities alongside exploring a world of spirits inside the TV makes for a surprisingly immersive experience.
In short, Persona 4 Golden is a tremendous achievement. What was already a near perfect, last gen, role player; has been expertly ported and built upon, to deliver a properly unique title. The additions of online features, more characters and social links, new Atlus-animated cut scenes and new music from series vet, Shoji Meguro, are icing on an already mouth-watering cake. With in-game days already split into segments, Golden works great for the pick-up-and-play sessions that we expect from a portable, and yet just as easily lends itself to longer stints without feeling like a grind. The games environments are detailed and vibrant, and each of the main characters has a rich backstory to uncover. And the streamlined turn-based combat system is supported by an impressively deep Persona customisation/crafting system that boasts a creature-catalogue rivalling current generation Pokemon titles.
Golden is one of those games that’ll have you saying ‘just another minute’ more times than you might care to admit. But I guarantee when it’s all over, you’ll look back on it as time well spent, and you’ll be itching to do it all over again.