The Persona franchise hasn't been popular for long in the West. Spawning off the even more niche Shin Megami Tensei series, Persona uses a combination of powerful storytelling and strong themes to show growth. In Persona 5, the theme was to fight against oppressive powers like teachers, business owners, and politicians. In Persona 4 Golden, the theme is truth. Not only big picture truths like wanting secrets revealed but small truths that humans face every day. Persona uses this thematic drive not to hand the players a message, but to engross them in a world of relatable characters. It's a fantastic use of the "show don't tell" idea of teaching a lesson. Now that Persona 4 Golden is available for PC, it's time to discover the truth once again.
You play as Yu, a student arriving in the country town of Inaba. His parents, planning on working abroad for a year, send Yu to stay with his Uncle Dojima, a local detective, and his young daughter Nanako. Soon, rumors circulate of a Midnight Channel that appears on rainy nights. Those that appear on the channel get discovered dead days later. Investigating this himself, Yu discovers not only the grim reality of the Midnight Channel but the curious ability to phase into the TV.
Within this TV world, Yu and his friends unlock the ability to summon their Persona, a manifestation of their own inner thoughts and feelings. As more people get thrown into this dimension, the group decides that they'll use their new abilities to save these victims and attempt to track down the serial killer. It's the protagonist's goal to find the Truth behind all these events. The truth behind the murders, the truth about each character, and the truth about why these events are transpiring in Inaba.
Sure, the story of youths getting power and saving the day is a bit cliche, but the formula works. While Yu discovers the TV World on his own it's by rescuing potential victims that the party grows. Characters trapped in the TV world face a dark reflection of their personality flaws. Those afraid of getting forgotten, get told they're worthless, those who can't find strength get told they're weak. Atlus manages to not only show us who each character is but also put their secrets on display giving us a peek into their minds.
How do I spend my free time in Persona 4 Golden?
Much like Yu's scheduled time in Inaba, Persona 4 Golden takes place over the course of a year beginning in April 2011. You get to play out nearly every day of the Protagonist's life; you'll go to class, hang out with friends after school, work a part-time job, and when you want to... hunt down a serial killer.
Gameplay splits into two different genres. Time spent in Inaba plays out as a Visual Novel/Social Simulation game, you go to school and hang out with friends. Inside the TV World gameplay shifts into a turn-based dungeon-crawling JRPG. The availability of each dungeon is tied to days on the calendar so you can't just leave dungeons for too long otherwise you'll fail to rescue a victim. Whether you clear the dungeon immediately or leave it till the last minute is up to you. Transitions between the JRPG gameplay and the slower social interactions cause some abrupt tempo changes. Even as the plot reaches a natural crescendo as you're closing in on the killer you'll find yourself spending the next hour completing daily tasks.
Persona 4 Golden's exclusive dungeon and the True Ending also have an unintended negative effect on the overall flow. You've watched the party come together, face their fears, and achieve their goal. There are a few threads left hanging but the story does feel complete at this point. A 4th and 5th act can feel tacked on to an already complete tale. While it's clear the True Ending dungeon could only be at the end it would have been easy to place the Golden dungeon earlier. It's a shame that they feel so unnecessary, as they're two of the best dungeons in terms of both gameplay and story.
Important characters you meet in Persona 4 Golden start a Social Link with the protagonist. Each Social Link levels up when you spend time with the character and learn more about them. Completing Social Link events depends on growing your friendships and understanding with these characters. The levels of Social Links are also drip-fed throughout Persona 4 Golden to promote continual character growth. Character growth is nice but none of their developments come across in group cutscenes. These scenes happen regardless of Social Links with individual characters making it impossible to change these characters' reactions. The majority of Social Links are easy to come across, but some with odd requirements are missable.
Free time is also useful for improving the protagonists' personal stats which in turn opens up more jobs and access to Social Links. The freedom to decide on what you want to do is nice however, having so many options can be stressful. You'll try to plan out your next in-game week of activities and hope that no set holiday or story event occurs to get in your way.
Unlike a lot of other video games where you can reach a boss at your own pace Persona 4 Golden always has a consistent momentum that the player needs to follow. People can play Persona 4 Golden in whatever way they want, but there are optimal ways to play. If you're someone who has issues with missing out on content or feels stressed by a finite amount of time in-game then Persona 4 Golden might cause frustration. There is a New Game+ mode that will carry over some aspects from your previous save file but at the cost of another 40-50+ hours, this might not be appealing.
What is the gameplay like in Persona 4 Golden?
When you do manage to peel yourself away from the care-free life of school and life you'll be diving into the dungeons of the TV World. Each victim thrown into the TV World created a new area based on their desires. For example, one party member's greatest insecurity is running her family's inn when she's older. This desire to escape manifests her dungeon as a castle that she is the princess of, waiting for a prince to take her away from responsibility.
The story driving these dungeons is compelling but the dungeon structure leaves a lot to be desired. Whether the dungeon looks like a castle, a video game world, or even a strip club, it's the same tile pieces with a fresh coat of paint. The pool of chunks used to create these dungeon floors is also quite small. Dungeons are primarily straight lines and 90-degree angles, the most daring change-up is when a room is a double-wide box. In the beginning, you'll scrounge for items and explore every nook and cranny. When you're a few dozen hours in and can tell what chunk is behind a door based on the predictable enemy and treasure placement, the system loses its shine.
The most refreshing dungeon in Persona 4 Golden is the new one available only in the Golden re-release. Your weapons and items are all replaced. In addition, while slowly gaining SP during battles you lose half of it at the end. While the repetitive architecture is still in place, adding new mechanics creates enough of a difference to keep the player on their toes. Do you want to avoid battles altogether to conserve SP, or stall to regenerate SP for some experience? Even though this occurs near the end of the game, it's a breath of fresh air that Persona 4 Golden needed. This forced vulnerability can also help knock down the player's confidence in case they're getting a bit too bold.
There are no random encounters in Persona 4 Golden, you instead initiate battles by striking foes. Each character's Persona has its own affinity, Yosuke commands lightning while Chie uses ice attacks. Each character also has physical attacks, consuming HP instead of SP. The exception to this rule though is Yu, who is able to collect more Persona to swap between during your journey. With planning, Yu can show up to any fight with an advantage, or be useless.
How do I battle in Persona 4 Golden?
Knowing your enemy's weakness allows you to do more damage and possibly incapacitate them. If all Shadows get incapacitated, you get to launch a powerful party attack. Hitting an enemy's weakness also allows you to take an extra attack. You can sweep a whole room with one party member alone if you have their weakness. Don't expect to be the only one to reap these benefits though. Going into battles with a character that's weak to a Shadow means they also will knock you over and attack again. The enemy AI is also fairly competent, they'll target vulnerable party members or hit everyone at once even to incapacitate one party member. This adds some real tension, especially in some of the tougher boss fights. You don't want to be giving these guys chances to take extra turns.
One great touch to the combat is that your characters have extra actions to assist one another. If Yu has fallen down and Teddies turn begins, Teddie could get Yu to his feet. Party members can even snap one another out of negative status'. While there's a gameplay benefit just seeing the party act more like humans and less restricted during combat is a neat touch. One less pleasant decision about combat in Persona 4 Golden is the importance that Yu has in battle. If Yu gets knocked out your party wipes to the start of the dungeon floor. You can have a bag of revival items and characters with revival abilities, but losing the leader is an instant fail state. A few times throughout the story, the AI honed in on Yu's weakness and landed critical hits that forced the rest of the party to flee even if it wasn't otherwise challenging.
Defeating Persona and collecting them isn't the only way you can expand your arsenal. You can fuse the Persona you've earned together to create new ones. At first, you can only combine two or three, but as you progress you can fuze upwards of 6. Combining Persona allows them to learn moves from the base Persona. You can mix and match all kinds of abilities and strategies. You could prepare a Persona that specializes in group damage, one for buffs and debuffs, or you could even give an ice type Persona a barrage of fire type attacks.
As you reach fusing higher tier Persona you do need to be careful about reusing the same bases monsters. This could mean all your higher tier Persona have attacks from the same pool. Be careful when deciding how to level up so that you can create a diverse collection.
Fusing each persona is also an event in itself. The designs and style of persona range from a simple knight to some truly abstract designs. The 2D artwork for them as you're checking their stat screens is also very reminiscent of old TCG artwork. The inspirations for these monsters also don't just take root in Japanese legends but from Christianity, Norse mythology, and more. The different takes on concepts that a lot of the Western world knows are truly interesting.
How does Persona 4 Golden look?
For a PS2 game, that got ported to the PlayStation Vita and now again to the PC, Persona 4 Golden is looking great. Each of the character models has a pseudo-chibi form. The slightly larger heads are a bit offputting at first this effect ends up being quite charming. The character models also aren't too smooth but for an original PS2 title, you're not going to get much better. The textures and portrait art for each of the characters are fantastic, these help to emote the characters further. For Persona 4 Golden, animated scenes got added, these scenes are a nice change from walls of text but it's clear they got upscaled from the Vita port. The animation is good, but you can see how compressed the video files are. It would have been nice to have these replaced with higher quality scenes from Persona 4 The Animation, but it works.
You would be remiss to talk about Persona 4 Golden without discussing the sound design and soundtrack. Both the English and Japanese VO cast of Persona 4 Golden is impressive. This VO talent doesn't just bring a reputation either as all members of the main cast do a fantastic job bringing these characters to life. Through the course of tracking down a serial killer having to not just show happiness and contempt but rage, disappointment, and sadness. Some standouts from the English cast include Troy Baker, Johnny Yong Bosch, and Laura Bailey.
The only thing better than the vocal cast has got to be the soundtrack. There are so many instant classics like Reach Out To The Truth and Pursuing My True Self. Even background tracks as you're out and about in the city will have you tapping your toes. The best compliment that I can give this soundtrack is that even after putting the game down and walking away from the PC the soundtrack will be one I play on my phone or in my car.
Persona 4 Golden Review | Final Thoughts
Persona 4 Golden combines so many elements so fantastically. It's incredible that it comes together as such a complete package. Even more so when you consider how different some of the genres and themes are throughout the game. This game gets carried by its story, the combination of a great and diverse cast of characters all driven by the pursuit of truth. The truth behind the serial killings, the truth that they don't want to face within themselves, and the truth of what's happened in the town of Inaba. With such a strong foundation to build upon Atlus is able to add multiple genres, a large cast of supporting characters, and two extra story arcs in the mix and it's something that people have been and will continue to play. It's truly fantastic that this game is now in a more accessible place so that old fans can relive it, new fans of Persona 5 can get access to it, and those who have considered jumping into Persona have a great starting point.
TechRaptor reviewed Persona 4 Golden on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the publisher.
- Lovable Cast of Characters
- Immersive World
- Well Developed Story
- Platinum Deserving Soundtrack
- Gameplay Peaks and Troughs