Atlus wins the gold medal!
In the span of five years, the Persona series has vaulted from the deepest niches of gaming into one of the leaders of the RPG genre. The pinnacle of the series, Persona 4, was one of the last great titles for the legendary PlayStation 2. Now it has arrived on the PlayStation Vita, re-tooled and ready to stand tall amongst the RPG crowd once again. The monster slaying, persona summoning, date simming action is now on the go, leaving Persona fans with no excuses to ever interact with the real world again.
Once the game begins (following the awesome dancing intro), you take on the role of a second-year high school student who is transferring to Inaba for the upcoming school year. Soon after you arrive, a murder takes place in this peaceful town and you hear of a strange rumor that says you can see your soul mate in the television on rainy nights. As it turns out, these two events are not unrelated. The rumor known as the Midnight Channel actually leads to a world inside the TV where Shadows roam about, claiming the lives of victims thrown into it. It's up to you and your new stable of high school friends to enter the TV world, save the victims, apprehend the criminal and bring peace back to Inaba.
The above is a very brief synopsis of Persona 4's story. The mystery takes many twist and turns throughout the 100-hour experience and through it all you and your friends live out your lives as Japanese high school students with a very important extracurricular activity. In school, you learn the rigorous Japanese high school curriculum, hang out with friends, flirt with a few lovely ladies, join school clubs, take part-time jobs and so much more. In words, this mix sounds strange and cacophonous, but it actually creates a great symphonic concert that stays strong through each movement.
All of the overworld content in Inaba is great, but Persona 4 Golden is an RPG first and foremost, and for that glorious combat experience, we must traverse into the TV World. Here, you and your party can summon Personas, the manifestations of many mythical people and creatures from various cultures. The Personas have the ability to summon magic attacks of the Fire, Ice, Wind, Electricity, Light, Dark and Almighty elements, as well as powerful physical attacks and various support skills. Each character brings their own weapon to the fray, but Persona attacks will be more useful the vast majority of the time. By default, you only control the main character, with the other party members controlled by AI. The AI actually does a good job in battle, and it gives an interesting experience to those who are used to controlling everyone in other RPGs. Each character can be set to specific tactics, such as Healing, Conserve SP, or Full Assault. That said, Direct Command is available in the Tactics menu, allowing control of everyone, and this gives you the most control over the battle. Setting up strategy against the bosses is much easier when you have control over every party member's moveset.
Finding the opponent's weakness and exploiting it is key to victory. Once you've discovered it, using that type will knock the opponent down. Knock every enemy on the field down for an All-Out Attack to do more damage, or hit the enemy with the attack again to make it Dizzy and lose its next turn. Some enemies (including most bosses) don't have weaknesses and the only recourse is to wear them down while keeping your party healthy. It's a bit annoying, however, that weaknesses can be random; many enemies that have weaknesses have ones that are completely arbitrary, with trial and error being the best way to figure out what those weaknesses are.
Golden adds in new combination attacks. Certain pairs of characters can unleash a tandem attack following an All-Out Attack for extra damage. There's also the ability to do extra damage as the party rides in on their motorcycles/scooters (how they got those into the TV world is anyone's guess). Other than that, this is basically the same battle system as Persona 4, but there's nothing wrong with preserving a strong battle system.
After battles, Shuffle Time occurs. This time around, the game is not about following moving cards, but trying to clear the board of cards in order to gain a Sweep bonus. Each arcana has its own abilities (Emperor levels up your Persona, Temperance offers a Chest Key, and so on). Thrown into this mix are new Personas, Skill Cards, and EXP and money bonuses. Certain cards offer the chance to pick up more cards before the counter runs out. Picking up every card in a round grants you a Sweep bonus which adds +2 to the counter of the next Shuffle Time. It's a fun little game that makes Shuffle Time more interactive than previous installments, but at the same time, the extra move granting Shuffle cards come with penalties such as removing EXP, money and items, so it's not always worth it to go for the Sweep bonus.
Personas can be picked up after battles, but the best Personas will be made through Fusion. By fusing multiple Personas together, new, more powerful Persona are formed, inheriting new abilities from the fused Persona. New to Golden is the ability to choose which skills are passed instead of being randomized (finally!) as well as two new Arcana: the Aeon and Jester. On certain days there will be Forecast bonuses which grant new abilities or stat bonuses if specific conditions are met. Do not be afraid to fuse a strong Persona that you've grown fond of - the Persona Compendium will let you buy back that Persona for a fee.
Each dungeon in Persona 4 Golden is based on the events currently occurring in the story. Without spoiling, I will say that these dungeons match their intended theme well, and the cutscenes within make for some... interesting experiences.
Ready to take a break from hunting down Shadows? Back in Inaba, you've moved in with your uncle Dojima and his daughter Nanako to begin your new life in this rural town. Talking to various characters in school and throughout the town will engross you in the world of Inaba, and you can create Social Links with some of them. Each Social Link is based on one arcana in the tarot deck. Spending your time with these characters will level up the Social Link and, in turn, these leveled up Social Links will grant more bonus EXP to Persona of that arcana during Fusion.
New scenes and Social Links are littered throughout Golden, further exploring the fun and wacky hijinx of the party members. The original game had some of these scenes such as the camping trip and class trip, and Golden piles on even more. Now there's a beach trip, a ski trip, gardening with Nanako, a new clothing shop, more wearable costumes and so much more. There's even a new area, Okina City, that opens up after you acquire a scooter. The most notable of these new additions is Marie, the mysterious new girl with a crazy sense of fashion that has been all over the pre-release screenshots. She's a very interesting new addition to the story, and even though she wasn't in the initial release of the game, she feels like she has always belonged.
Visually, this is still the same game that first released on the PlayStation 2, so don't expect state of the art graphics. But with the brightness of the Vita screen, the colors really pop out in a way the PS2 release never did. The user interface has been adjusted slightly, and the changing days on the calendar look much sharper. They're small changes, yes, but they're for the better.
A few new tunes have been added to Golden. The most notable one is the new battle theme. No longer is almost every battle serenaded by Reach Out to the Truth, as a brand new tune plays during battles where you attack a shadow from the front or get ambushed. Fans of the old song should not despair, however, as attacking a Shadow from behind will trigger the classic battle theme. And since attacking from behind is the safest way to start a battle, you'll still be reaching out to the truth many times before it's all said and done.
New voice work was done for Golden to accommodate the many new scenes added to the game. The old voices in old scenes remain, except for Chie and Teddie. Their original voice actors did not return for Golden so all of their dialogue has been re-recorded for consistency's sake. Players of the original game will likely be disappointed in their new voices, but it doesn't detract too much from the experience, and new gamers won't know the difference.
Did I mention this game can top 100 hours? That's just on the initial playthrough. A New Game+ is offered to encourage you to throw another 80 or so hours at the game. Also included are various sidequests and that alluring desire to max every Social Link and collect every Persona. Golden adds new videos in the TV Listings, which include videos of past Persona musical concerts, lectures on Jungian philosophy and its connection to Personas and Shadows, a quiz show and more. During the game, if you're connected to PlayStation Network, you can tap the Voice icon to see what actions other players of the game have done at your current point in the game. And if you happen to die in a dungeon, you can send out an SOS through PSN asking for your friends to rescue you. There is so much content in this game, you may not even need another game. (I'm only slightly exaggerating!)
Persona 4 Golden is more than just a faithful port of 2008's PS2 release; it's an expanded director's cut that adds in so much more to the experience. This already splendid title has improved even further for its appearance on Sony's new handheld and is now the definitive version of Persona 4 to own. If you don't own a Vita but like RPGs, your reason for purchasing a Vita has arrived. Enjoy.
This review is based on a PlayStation Vita copy of Persona 4: Golden, provided by the publisher.