(Note: images shown are from the PC version using an equivalent resolution from the XBox version because Microsoft makes getting screenshots off their console awful)
Ever since Persona 3 cemented Atlus’ teen-oriented spinoff of the Megami Tensei franchise into the general public consciousness, the somewhat inaccessible nature of the series has left fans somewhat disappointed. Persona 3 received an update relegated to the long-past PSP, while Persona 4 Golden was on the much maligned Vita. In recent years, however, Atlus and Sega have spread the Persona love far and wide, first testing the waters with a Persona 4 Golden PC release, and now opening the floodgates with a multiplatform release of both Persona 3 Portable and Persona 4 Golden.
The most important thing of note is that if you’ve already played Persona 4’s much-loved Golden version, you’re not going to find anything shockingly new. Outside of a higher resolution, a “Vox Populi” feature that lets you see what other players have been up to during their time in Inaba, and a mostly-irritating “rescue” feature I kept inadvertently bumping when opening the map, this is the same game that was present on the Vita, for better or worse.
If you’ve never played a Persona game before- the titles began as a high-school oriented breakaway from the darker mainline Megami-Tensei series that started way back on the early days of the Famicom. Less apocalyptic than those and with a somewhat more lighthearted tone, the games really took off in popularity when 3 introduced the “Social Link” system. You’re given one year in game to complete the game, and you have to manage your time each day wisely. Each month certain events that happen during the game will require you to traverse a dungeon and finish off a story-centered boss. During the time you’re not in a dungeon you’ll be given the opportunities to do things like build your relationships with other characters, work on social stats such as your Courage or Expression, and generally try to live a normal school life.
While veteran RPG players may be tempted to ignore these out-of-battle life sim aspects, they do it at their peril, for the Social Link system plays directly into your player character’s abilities. Each time you “rank up” one of your many friends or potential love interests, you’ll find that the game’s “Fusion” system will react accordingly. Fusion has always been a hallmark of the Megami Tensei series, and with each new iteration of Persona it continues that legacy. During Persona 4’s battles, at the end of each battle you’ll from time to time be able to collect one or more “Persona” cards, with each card being a representation of a mythological figure from various cultures.
The more you grasp the Fusion system, the better Personas you can make, with certain tactics allowing you create some massively overpowered ones and blaze through some of the early levels.
Since this article focuses on Persona 4 Golden, there are a number of systems present here that have not had the benefit of 5’s refinement. Many of them, in fact, seem specifically designed to irritate the player, instead of presenting a general challenge.
The first is the Social Link system. Essentially, in any given day you’re presented with the opportunity to spend time with a friend or acquaintance. Doing so will use up a daytime or an evening block for that particular day. The problem arises with both the exhausting number of Social Links and the sheer amount of stat-gating present. In an initial playthrough, you’ll be bumping into “You don’t have enough [Insert relevant social stat here] to do that” constantly- in everything from simply trying to respond to people, or even just in starting an individual social link. Sometimes the characters you’ll want to advance won’t even be present (rainy days block out almost all social link progress with a few minor exceptions). The RNG plays into that as well- even when following a guide, sometimes the individuals you’re trying to advance with just will randomly not be anywhere at all, and you won’t be able to spend time with them.
The social ”stat” system is similarly obtuse. For something that is so vitally important to the game, the polygonal chart that shows the player how far they’ve ranked up in their life skills conveys very, very little information. Sure, you may be “brave”, but how many social points do you actually need to gain more Courage?
And finally there’s the dungeons themselves. You’ll be spending a large amount of time in these, but frankly, outside of a few minor gimmicks, they get old very, very quickly. Each dungeon is randomly generated, so you don’t get anything close to Persona 5’s grand set pieces. It’s mostly just running through floor after floor of mostly identical hallways looking for the next stairway to the boss. I would say the ONLY benefit to these long, drawn out sequences is that the chests are randomly spawned, so early in the game you can take advantage of that to run in a dungeon, grab an SP restoring item from a chest, run back out, and then go back in and keep grabbing more- otherwise you’ll either have to waste a day to get your SP back or pay what amounts to your entire collected funds to a fox to get healed.
Many of these things are designed for a second playthrough, it seems like, but be honest- in a game that, even playing quickly will take a player a hundred hours or more, how many people will fight through the game’s systems and then decide “Hey, let’s do that again?”
The Megaten series has always been known for its incredible music, and Persona 4 Golden doesn’t disappoint. While a few tracks are repetitive and irritating (there’s one track that’s literally just one note repeated over and over followed by an incoherent series of drum bashes), the majority of the game’s music is some of the best you’ll find in any game, period. Some of the final dungeon tracks come to mind. They’ll keep you going through the hours and HOURS of grinding you’ll have to do in order to take down the game’s damage-sponge bosses.
And then we get to the story. Persona 4 Golden’s story is both amazingly heartwarming… and yet at the same time contains some of the most irritating “joke” events you’ll find in an RPG. It’s mood whiplash taken to an extreme level, especially when the individual Social Links don’t match up with whatever tone the story has taken. One minute you’ll be engaging with a character’s emotional struggles, with them thanking you, blushing and batting their eyelashes… and the next moment that same character decides to shove you into a mountain river full of a drunken teacher’s vomit because you had the audacity to… stand there while they were wearing a swimsuit.
This game leans HARD into the “Ha ha, look at the guys enduring physical punishment from the girl, ha ha, so funny” angle at times. These are the moments that really could have been improved in a re-release but were left wholly intact. It was so egregious at times that I was tempted to just completely ignore the Social Links of several characters because of their behavior. These are supposed to be friends, and yet during many of the “funny” scenes, a lot of the violence comes across as mean-spirited and crass. One character in particular seems to exist solely to do and say incredibly cringy, perverse things in an attempt to justify the violence. I won’t say his name, but he’s an absolutely awful individual who becomes completely useless around halfway through the game. He’s constantly making unwanted sexual advances on essentially every female character in the game in almost every single bit of dialogue, to outright perversity (No, it’s NOT funny to try to untie a teenage girl’s swimsuit), it’s sometimes hard to stomach.
Yet, at the same time, Persona 4 Golden still has (outside of that one character) an incredible, heartwarming story, with a premise on facing ones’ own self. If you haven’t played this game- you owe it to yourself to experience it. Yes, if you’ve played 5 you’ll definitely notice this game’s mechanics are far less intuitive than that game, but it’s still well worth a go.
A fantastic game that shows its age
I obtained this game myself. No endorsement or compensation was given for this review. I played to full, from beginning to the end.