This game isn’t just golden. It’s solid 24 carat gold.
Persona 4 Golden is one of my favourite games of all time. It has a deep, compelling story and also features layered and intricate gameplay. It is one of the few games which manages to blend story-telling and gameplay extremely well, but it’s not for everyone.
You’re teenager with grey(!?) hair, who moves from the big city to the small town of Inaba. Nothing interesting ever happens and being the new kid, you’re the talk of the town. But not for long. A series of peculiar and gruesome murders takes place; and by accident, fate bestows the burden of investigating these murders on you. After testing a rumor floating around at school that people are visible on TV at midnight, you discover you can enter a secret world by falling through a TV screen.. It is a strange and eerie world, where mysterious and vile creatures called ‘Shadows’ reside and which seems connected to the strange murders. You investigate the place with your school friends, and discover that you have the ability to summon a ‘Persona’ from the depths of your soul, which can protect you from the Shadows. These Personas can gain levels through battling, and can be fused to form more powerful Personas. The protagonist has the unique ability to carry multiple Personas and swap these during battle. The plot which follows after the first two hours is profoundly intriguing, creating a gripping atmosphere in some periods and a greatly relaxed one in the others, often misleading the player about the identity of the murderer and the events.
The game progresses day-by-day, using a calendar system. You go to school, and then you have time to go into the television, hang out with friends and increase social qualities. Effectively managing your time is key; if you ignore any of these three gameplay aspects, it will make the game much harder for you in the long run. This life simulation aspect is very relaxing and allows you to rest from the sometimes intense sessions of working your way through the battles. The atmosphere and universe are very believable, even though it has fantastical and unreal elements at its core.
Persona 4 Golden is at heart a turn-based RPG; all your progression is aimed towards making you stronger in battle. As you set out to rescue those lost in the TV world, you progress through multi-floored dungeons with a randomized, maze-like design. In these differently themed dungeons (there is a dungeon based on a bathhouse, a secret laboratory, and my personal favourite; an 8-bit video game) the player encounters Shadows and treasure chests containing goodies to aid you during your quests (such as weapons and healing items). It is important to note that Shadow confrontations aren’t entirely randomized. Shadows appear as black blobs in the dungeon, and will pursue the player upon notice. Hitting the Shadow will take the player to a separate battle view mode, much like other turn-based RPGs. The combat system is superb. It has nice depth to it, but is also surprisingly simple to grasp and there is not a single mechanic that feels unnecessary. Personas and Shadows have attacks of different types, and as you’d expect, they also have weaknesses and strengths to certain types of attacks. After some battles, a draw of cards will take place, with cards granting you benefits such as extra money or an additional Persona (collecting them is very much akin to ‘catching them all’ in the Pokémon series).
An ingenious feature of the combat system is the fluidity of the easier battles (boss battles can take very long); after landing a critical or super-effective hit, you receive a ‘One more!’ prompt and the same party member is allowed to perform another attack. You are also able to deal massive damage to all enemies in one turn when they have all been hit critically; a so-called ‘All-out attack’. These two features make the battles so much quicker and enjoyable, in particular because sessions in the dungeons can last very long, and be quite repetitive. If you absolutely detest dungeon-crawling and repetitive battling, you may not like this part of the game.
However, what makes Persona 4 Golden such a unique game, and such a good RPG, are not the battles in particular, but the way the story and the gameplay are connected. In most (if not all) video games, story and gameplay are very separated; the story is told through cut scenes or dialogue, and has no influence on the gameplay whatsoever. In P4G, this is different. The narrative is very character-oriented, and the largest part of the games immense storyline is told through interaction between characters. With certain persons you can form special bonds, called Social Links. By spending more time with them you not only learn more about them, but also increase your potential in battle. How does this work? Every Persona has a certain type (for example, Sun). Every Social Link also has a type. If you increase your Social Link’s level, Personas with the same type will get an experience boost (the higher the level, the higher the boost) when they are fused out of other Personas. Personas from party members may get additional skills and these party members may also get extras when you spend more time with them. Not only is the plot well integrated into the gameplay, the narrative is also extremely well-written, growing strong feelings of attachment to the characters, plot, and universe of the game. The game mainly focuses on the endeavours and psychological issues of teenagers, and this way, the game opens a portal to many mature themes and back stories not explored often in video games such as depression or a struggle over sexual preference. The dialogue, however, is not heavy handed and the game does not take itself too seriously; at times, it’s rather silly and lavishly decorated with bear puns. The voice acting is great and very realistic, and really helps once your eyes get tired of reading after a couple hours of playing. Once you have maxed out the Social Link, you really feel that you know the characters’ personalities – as an added bonus their Persona will transform into a more powerful one, too!
As you may have deduced, levelling is key in this game. You can level Personas, your own character (the level of your character determines the maximum level of the Persona gained from fusion), Social Links, and also Social Skills. There are five “Social Skills” in the game (Understanding, Expression, Diligence, Knowledge and Courage) which can be levelled up by performing certain activities in your free time (such as eating an enormous dish at the local Chinese food restaurant) and taking jobs (such as folding cranes). They can prove very useful because they are necessary to start some Social Links and choosing certain important dialogue options, or just to earn more money. This game is heaven for fans of levelling stats, and combined with the fun gameplay and a story that surprises you, this game really hooks you.
Those fearing the game involves typical, over-the-top dialogue and animation present in other video games and animated series from Japan, rest assured, it does not. Persona 4 Golden looks like anime, but the game is not over-the-top at all. It includes the occasional ‘fan service’ moments (for example, a scene in which a few characters act drunk and behave completely out of character), which stick out like a sore thumb but are luckily not frequent.
The game’s presentation is very good. The menus and dialogue boxes look slick and benefit from a colour scheme very pleasant to the eyes (using mainly soft yellow and brown colours). Inaba is divided into several different sections, such as a central shopping district and your high school. Within the borders of these districts, the player can move around freely in a cell-shaded, three-dimensional world. Travelling between the sections of Inaba goes quickly by selecting the place you want to visit in a menu. Load times are almost instant.
It is noticeable that this game was originally created for the PS2 – images aren’t extremely sharp, and animations seem a bit old-fashioned, but the game still looks appealing. The dungeons are decorated in a certain theme; which usually fits the personal struggles of the victim locked inside of it, and look quite nice. Shadow and Persona designs are uniform, and are often psychedelic-looking animals or shapes a psychotic person may think of. Important events in the storyline are sometimes presented in beautifully animated cut scenes, but sadly, there aren’t too many of them. The music is of many different styles, but most of the time a piano is incorporated in some way. The tracks repeat themselves quite often over the 70 hours of initial playtime, but it is not bothersome as they fit the mood the game creates very well.
In conclusion, Persona 4 Golden is amazing and unique game. The narrative is great, the gripping story and emotional and the gameplay intelligently designed, and on top of that, P4G is also very addictive. It does everything it tries to do very well (no element is unnecessary or unfinished) and has a fairly polished feel about it. The game is not suited for people who do not like reading, or repetitive turn-based battling. It’s also not for those who can’t afford to spend the time on a 70-hour long game, but I firmly believe it even appeals to those who would usually not dare to dip a foot into the JRPG genre. Persona 4 Golden is a must play for everyone.