It’s gold, Jerry! Gold!
In 2008, I wrote a review for the latest chapter in Atlus’ Persona series—Persona 4—that clocked in at 3,319 words. Now, I’ve been tasked with not only re-reviewing the game that was Persona 4, but also everything it has now become in its new Vita-ized form, Persona 4 Golden.
This is going to be impossible.
In the interest of time—and my sanity—this is not going to be an all-encompassing review, at least in terms of what Persona 4 was as a game. Instead of telling you specifics about its features or gameplay elements or tangible details, allow me to explain what made the game special.
Persona 4 was the follow-up to the utterly impressive Persona 3, a game that revived a classic side series to Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei brand. Persona 3 emerged as a breath of fresh air in the world of Japanese RPGs, and initially I worried that Persona 4 might be walking too closely in its footsteps. However, the game—and especially its characters—grew into something magical, something even beyond what Atlus had crafted in Persona 3.
The secret to Persona 4 was that it understood something so many games don’t: the vital importance of connecting the player to a game’s world and characters. It was easy for people to brand Persona 4 as “an RPG mixed with a dating sim,” but the game’s social elements weren’t there to give people an opportunity to chase a virtual girlfriend. The process of exploring and strengthening the relationship your character had to his teammates, family, and acquaintances—known as “Social Links” in Persona lingo—created real connection and concern for that which you’d be fighting to protect. It can be hard for you to understand just how important this aspect of Persona 4 was if you haven’t played the game—not to mention hard for you to appreciate how much so many games fail in this task when compared to Persona 4.
In Persona 3, this concept worked well—in spite of the fact that its cast succumbed to some of the trappings of stereotypical Japanese RPG casts. The changes Atlus made in this regard in creating Persona 4 was what made it so fantastic. Its characters—both major and minor—felt relatable, extremely likable, and surprisingly real.
With their heavy focus on preset storylines and uncustomizable characters, Japanese role-playing games live or die by the characters they ask you to emotionally invest in—and more than almost any other JRPG in the history of the genre, Persona 4 makes you legitimately care.
After its main release, Persona 3 received a follow-up revision in Persona 3 FES. This update added new storyline elements interspersed into what already existed, revised gameplay elements based on player feedback, and added new, more hardcore postgame content. At the time, Persona 3 FES felt like a welcome layer of polish to what was already an expertly crafted offering—but it wasn’t enough to massively change what was already in place.
It would’ve been easy for Atlus to do a similar job in bringing Persona 4 Golden to Sony’s still-young handheld. In fact, I’ll be honest: simply giving me the original Persona 4 on the Vita might have been enough for me. This is a game that I always knew would work wonderfully on a portable system powerful enough to handle it, and being able to join Yosuke, Chie, Yukiko, and the rest of the gang when and where I want has been an absolutely enjoyable experience. More than that, however, this game is downright gorgeous on the Vita’s screen. While the sleepy countryside town of Inaba and its inhabitants haven’t necessarily received a huge upgrade in quality over their PlayStation 2 debut, they come off cleaner and crisper on the smaller—and higher-resolution—screen the Vita sports. Speaking of crisp, Atlus artist Shigenori Soejima’s Persona 4 character portrait art pops with detail, vibrancy, and color here; I couldn’t get over how gorgeous the Persona 4 Golden’s artwork looked when I first started playing it, and no matter how many hours I put into it, the never failed to impress.
Luckily for us all, Atlus didn’t just do a quick port job when prepping Persona 4 Golden. In nearly every corner of the game, something has been added, expanded, or improved. Like Persona 3 FES, new character interactions and special events are spliced into what already existed; here, that effort feels far more expansive and varied than what we saw in FES. New content can be as small as a quick interaction happening on your walk to school that didn’t exist before, or as big as a completely new section of Inaba that opens up once you earn your motor-scooter license.
What about gameplay? Huge, huge changes have happened here–and as somebody who put nearly 120 hours into the original Persona 4, I thought some of them felt downright blasphemous. In all but the highest difficulty, death in battle now means going back to the last floor advancement you made in a dungeon—not your last save, as was the rule previously. Now, fusing together the demonic helpers known as Persona to make bigger, stronger assistants is so much easier than it was before, as you can directly pick the skills you want your new creation to inherit, and you can earn Skill Cards to give those Persona skills they’d never have been able to earn in the first place. These changes can indeed feel like cheating to the more hardcore Persona fans out there, but they also make the game friendlier to players who may have previously been overwhelmed by Persona 4—or those who simply want to escape some of the grind the game required.
And yet, what impressed me most about Persona 4 Golden were aspects beyond refining gameplay elements or fleshing out storyline sequences. In a statement I never though I’d make, Atlus build some online-enabled social elements into the game—and, equally shocking, they add real benefits to the game. One of Persona 4’s core concepts is managing what you do with your time when not attending high school—and, given that the game only gives you basic direction in what to do in your off hours, for some, that time management was as challenging as Persona 4’s dungeon-crawling and shadow-battling. Now, should you want a little hint in terms of what direction to go, a simple press of the onscreen Voice button can tell you what the five most popular activities for that day were among other players. Then—while in dungeons—the Voice button is replaced by an SOS button, which will send out a call for help to others playing Persona 4 Golden at the same time. If answered, you’ll get an HP and SP bonus come your next battle—an option that can be indispensable given how easy it can be to find yourself drained after a handful of challenging bouts of combat.
There’s also one other new addition I really have to mention: Persona 4 Golden’s bonus features. Building on the television theme that runs so deep in Persona 4, players can access a wide variety of extra content through an interface that presents itself as a TV channel guide. Here, you can get expanded tips on playing the game, listen to the soundtrack, watch animated clips from the entire roster of Persona games, and even unlock video from two Japanese live concerts. It isn’t just the fact that bonus features such as these are often rare in gaming—it’s also the fantastic presentation on display here.
This small piece of the complete package is a perfect representation of the care and effort that went into Persona 4 Golden. In a world where remakes, HD rereleases, and “game of the year” editions vie for our attention on a constant basis, Persona 4 Golden rises above so many of them in nearly every regard.
Let me be fair, however: This isn’t a perfect rerelease. Much was made about the changes that would be in place for two of Persona 4’s cast members, Chie and Teddie; while Sam Reigel’s Teddie comes pretty darn close to Dave Wittenberg’s work in the original Persona 4, I’m still not fully convinced by the new Chie. I fell in love with how Tracey Rooney brought Chie to life in the game’s first incarnation—and, to this day, anytime I read a line coming from everyone’s favorite steak-loving, kung-fu-flick-watching schoolgirl, I hear Rooney speaking it. Erin Fitzgerald does nothing wrong in her effort to follow in those footsteps, and at times, it can be argued that she does an even better acting job—she’s just in the unfortunate position of taking over the portrayal of a character that became so beloved via a different voice actress.
Sure, that might being a bit picky—as might my hesitation at a few of Persona 4 Golden’s new elements. Some of what Atlus has added or changed here might conflict with my personal tastes for the series, but they’re decisions that I completely understand and accept as steps taken to make the game friendlier to a wider audience. What I don’t accept are a couple of additions that feel like obnoxious fanboy pandering—elements that I can’t help but feel have come about due to the popularity the game has seen in Japan among those who belong more to the anime community than they do the MegaTen community. It’s hard to really get into a discussion of exacts without providing spoilers—so I’ll just say that I don’t like how these extra new bits of fanservice needlessly cheapen a cast that the rest of the game works so hard to build up.
I can point to aspects of Persona 4 Golden that give me pause, or that I might not fully agree with—but in the grand scheme of what the game is, and what it offers, they feel insignificant to everything done right here. Just as I have no hesitation in saying that Persona 4 is one of the best RPGs ever to see release from Japan, I have no hesitation in saying that Persona 4 Golden is now the definitive way to experience that game.
Persona 4 Golden isn’t just a game—it’s an emotionally moving, deeply engrossing experience, one that stands proud among the finest moments of the gaming industry. If you’ve never experienced Persona 4 before, then this is the perfect place to start. And even if you’ve sunk 100-plus hours into its PS2 incarnation like I did, there’s still enough new to see and do here to rack up another hundred or so.
|Developer: Atlus • Publisher: Atlus • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 11.20.2012|
|10||In nearly everything that Atlus has tried to accomplish in breathing new life into their much-beloved PS2 RPG Persona 4, they’ve accomplished masterfully on the Vita in Persona 4 Golden—and if there’s ever to be a Japanese RPG that can convince you of what the genre can be in its finest hours, it’ll be this one.|
|The Good||One of the best RPGs ever released—now made even better.|
|The Bad||Atlus—somewhat uncharacteristically—occasionally taints the game with some unnecessary pandering.|
|The Ugly||I typically love relying on the game’s AI for your teammates, but when that AI fails, it fails spectacularly.|
|Persona 4 Golden is available exclusively on the PlayStation Vita.|