A top-tier role-playing game is generally a finely crafted concoction of several ingredients: an interesting setting, an engaging story, enjoyable characters and interactions, and gameplay that makes your interaction with all of the aforementioned elements feel meaningful and worthwhile. When all of these individual factors are developed to high standards, the result is an RPG of exceptional quality--and that is exactly what Persona 4 Golden is.
This re-release of 2008's excellent PlayStation 2 game takes place in modern-day Japan. The protagonist is a high school student from a big city whose parents have been sent away on business. They send him to live for a year with his uncle--a police investigator--and his young cousin in a small countryside town. Almost immediately upon the hero's arrival, strange things begin to happen in this otherwise dull little hamlet: a string of people turn up dead, and rumor spreads of a supernatural television broadcast that shows bizarre programming. The hero and a crew of his newfound classmates soon discover a horrible secret: there's a separate world within the televisions that twists human desires and hidden feelings in potentially lethal ways, and it's somehow tied to the serial killings. It's up to the group of friends to harness the supernatural power of personas, put a stop to the sinister killing spree, and decipher the secrets behind the TV world.
The contemporary, real-world-inspired setting of Persona 4 is already an excellent conceit in the heavily fantasy- and sci-fi-driven world of RPGs. But it's far from the only element that sets the game apart from the crop. Unlike most RPGs, Persona 4 operates on something of a time limit. From the day you arrive in the country village of Inaba until the day the school year ends, you advance through the game on a calendar. Dates and deadlines are very important; not only do you have important events in school and in your personal life to deal with, but you also discover that the serial killings follow a specific time pattern. You need to explore and rescue potential victims from the TV world before they are killed--a task that usually takes several days to complete.
It would be easy if you could just spend all your days fighting, but Persona 4 also puts heavy emphasis on interacting with other characters in the game. Every day presents many opportunities for various noncombative activities, be it school clubs, hobbies at home, working part-time jobs for extra spending money, or just hanging out with pals needing friendly support. Spending time on these activities benefits you in various ways: some boost your abilities, some earn you items and money, and still others increase your connections with other characters.
Some choices can even offer multiple benefits. By far the most lucrative are the connections with non-player characters, called "social links." By forming friendships and support networks with various characters, you create powerful personas to use during combat. (Some social links, such as those with your party members, also offer additional combat benefits and skills.) Thus, choosing how to spend your limited time each day becomes an additional challenge with its own risks and rewards. If you feel indecisive, an in-game feature lets you connect to an online database to see how other players chose to spend that day.
Though social links pose an engaging puzzle, they woudn't be nearly as interesting if the NPCs involved weren't engaging, memorable characters. This is one of the ways Persona 4 shines, since interacting with the game's cast is enjoyable and rewarding in itself. The characters you meet over the course of the game are relatable and believable, as are the struggles they go through. The bonds you wind up forming with characters make the various interludes scattered throughout the game (such as class trips and group vacations) even more enjoyable as breaks from a sometimes very heavy story. The quality of the game's writing and localization is an additional triumph, skillfully delivering both laugh-out-loud moments and heart-wrenching plot twists.
The story and socialization elements are only one portion of the game, however. You spend a lot of time exploring the TV world, as well. As the game progresses, the TV world expands to include numerous dungeons and monsters created from the dark, repressed thoughts of potential victims that have been cast inside. As the leader of your school friends' makeshift "investigation team," you and your pals explore these randomly generated dungeons, scouring them for treasures and occasionally solving puzzles while searching for the abducted victims. Combat is traditional turn-based RPG fighting with a twist: both you and your foes can earn extra turns by exploiting each other's elemental weakness, a mechanic that fuels some devious strategies and devastating attacks. (It's worth noting that Persona 4 Golden is slightly easier than the original game, so veterans looking for a challenge may want to pick a harder difficulty setting when starting a new game.)
The concept of "personas"--supernatural representations of one's projected self--comes into play during combat. Personas come with a set of strengths, weaknesses, and combat skills, which can change and evolve as the personas level up. While your party members each have a set persona throughout the game, your lead character has the unique ability to transform into many different personas during combat. This allows for additional combat strategy, giving you a way to select personas ideal for exploiting enemy weaknesses while also working to protect your own party. The main character's personas also gain experience and level up independently of his base level, usually being equal to or lower than his own.
Since eventually personas learn all of the skills they possibly can and taper off in stat growth, you need to explore the system of fusing personas to form new, more-powerful personas in combat. This allows skills from the personas used in the fusion to be passed along, and some well-planned skill inheritance combinations can result in a potent new combat persona. Social links also boost created personas with additional experience bonuses, allowing you to create much higher-level personas typically beyond your reach. Skillfully creating a persona array to use in battle can often mean the difference between victory and defeat.
These various elements improve an already-fantastic RPG experience. But what makes Persona 4 Golden an even more impressive package is how much extra content has been packed into the game over its original release. For starters, creating new personas via fusion is much easier, because the game lets you pick skills to transfer (rather than randomly transferring skills). You can also give personas specific abilities through the use of rare items called "skill cards"--a callback to some of the earlier Persona games.
Your party members are also capable of performing additional abilities during combat: depending on how high your social links are with your teammates, they can randomly cure minor status ailments and perform support attacks--even if they aren't in the currently active party. Certain combinations of party members can also perform special follow-up skills after all-out attacks to deal extra damage to already weakened foes. The Shuffle Time card minigame after certain battles has been completely redone, allowing for less random chance and more worthwhile bonuses. A network feature in dungeons rounds out the combat enhancements, allowing you to request help from other P4G players connected to PSN to deliver aid in the form of health and skill point recovery.
The improvements go well beyond combat. Two new social links--including a brand-new female character named Marie--are available to foster, and additional locations and opportunities for building other links abound. You can buy seeds and tend to a garden at home, using the crops yielded as helpful items in the dungeons. You also earn a scooter during the game, which you can use to travel to the beach and a larger city for activities, shopping, and questing. More options are available to you during the evenings, including hanging out with friends and a new job opportunity working at a hostess bar. Finally, many activities from the previous game, such as reading or working at home in the evenings to improve various stats, have been streamlined to be easier to use and more beneficial.
But these aren't even the biggest additions to the game. In the original release of P4, there was a point where a significant time skip occurred, moving the game's calendar several months ahead. In Persona 4 Golden, much of this time period is made available to you to play through, allowing you to further build social links and engage with the characters and setting well beyond what you could before. Some new story events are available during this time, and a completely new dungeon also opens up (provided you've completed some prerequisites). The new story additions also allow for some vastly different endings.
On top of everything are separately accessible in-game TV channels that offer a variety of programming. Once you unlock them, you can freely access archives of the various animation sequences seen in the game, design artwork, and promotional materials and music. There's even a lesson on the Jungian psychology theories that form the basis of the game's story, along with an interactive quiz-show series that tests your knowledge of everything related to Persona 4.
As great as Persona 4 Golden is, there are a few minor issues. The game still takes a while to get going: expect to experience about two hours of plot setup and character introductions before you're turned loose to enjoy the game at your own pace. The visual upgrade also feels a little lacking: P4G's PlayStation 2 roots show in its fairly basic-looking character models and environments and sometimes-blurry textures. The game looks like an HD remaster rather than a full remake, leaving you feeling like it doesn't take advantage of the platform's graphical capabilities as well as it should.
When it comes down to it, however, any complaints that can be lobbied at Persona 4 Golden feel insignificant when weighed against the quality of the rest of the game. Persona 4 remains one of the most engaging, thoughtful, and enjoyable RPGs of recent years, having already earned its status as a genre classic upon its original release. Persona 4 Golden's well-thought-out and well-implemented augmentations serve to make an already fantastic game even better, resulting in a superlative game experience that belongs in any Vita game library.