If you haven’t heard, Persona 4 was one of the greatest games on the PlayStation 2. Successfully combining the role playing and character development aspect of dungeon crawlers with the relationship building mechanics of dating sims, Persona 4 was unlike any other traditional role playing game. In their infinite wisdom, Atlus has ported the game over to the Vita and instead of simply throwing the game onto a cartridge, they threw in all sorts of additional content while at the same time making changes and enhancements to pre-existing gameplay systems. Veterans of the game might furrow their brow over the changes but the good news is that the celebrated Persona 4 “experience” is still there. And it’s still amazingly fantastic.
There are two kinds of people in this world, those who played Persona 4 and those who haven’t. In the interest of serving both masters this review will be broken up into two parts, one detailing the primary gameplay experience and the other identifying additions and enhancements made to the original game. Veterans may want to skip ahead to find out what Atlus has crammed inside the tiny Vita cartridge.
Midnight Channel? Personas? Bufu? What is all this?!
Persona 4 Golden uses a number of long standing gameplay mechanics from the Shin Megami Tensei franchise including the Pokemon-like collection of monsters and focusing combat around the exploitation of elemental weaknesses. The game opens with the player character moving to the sleepy town of Inaba while his parents spend a year abroad. His arrival heralds a series of strange murders involving an unknown assailant casting victims inside the Midnight Channel, a supernatural realm that feeds on a person’s suppressed desires, where they are killed by manifestations called Shadows. Taking it upon themselves to solve the mystery, the hero and like minded high school friends travel into the TV realm rescue the victims and find out who is responsible for the crimes. Complicating the investigation is hero’s obligation to academic and extracurricular pursuits along with the all important goal of making friends and strengthening relationships.
Inside the Midnight Channel, the game plays similarly to a dungeon crawler. Joined by three party members, you’ll traverse a series of dungeons, modeled after each victim, battling Shadows and mini-bosses before confronting the end boss. Shadows can be found slinking along the floors, their size indicative of the battle’s difficulty in relation to character levels, and by sneaking in from behind you’ll start the combat phase with a pre-emptive strike. The key to success in combat is using your party’s Personas to determine the monster’s elemental weakness in order to gain additional combat turns. However, the rub is that you don’t know what Shadows are weak or immune to which requires some degree of trial and error. Striking against an enemy’s weakness will knock them down for as much as two turns and if the party can knock down all enemies, they will launch a devastating all out attack that clears out weakened foes or significantly damage stronger enemies. Note that enemies also have the ability to attack your party’s weaknesses and it is likely you’ll suffer the horror of a party wipe at any time. Successful management and development of Personas will keep you afloat during combat. While your party members are limited to a single Persona, the hero is gifted with the ability to summon multiple creatures that are acquired as a post-battle rewards or by fusing two or more together to create new Personas with inherited powers.
When not saving people from their personal terrors, much of your time will be spent in the real world dealing with real world problems. As a student at Yasogami High, there’s constant pressure to do well on midterms and the pop quizzes teachers delight in springing at a moment’s notice. Outside of the classroom, you’ll spend time with friends in order to develop Social Links. Social Links are incredibly useful because they boost the amount of experience points newly fused Personas earn, grant exclusive abilities for your party’s Personas and gives party members bonus combat functions such as team attacks and recovering others from particular ailments. From a narrative perspective, these Social Links offer a deeper look into the personal lives of friends and acquaintances who will look to you for advice, guidance and a shoulder to cry on. Goofing around with friends, studying and working part time jobs will raise the character’s Understanding, Diligence, Courage, Knowledge and Expression attributes. Certain actions, such as talking to specific people, calling someone out or getting out of eating poorly made food require obtaining specific attribute ranks.
With the dearth of things to do, time quickly becomes your greatest enemy. Having to balance the pros and cons of every activity may sound daunting until you face a harsh truth: you simply cannot do everything the first time around. Thankfully, the New Game+ mode will transfer character attributes, the Fusion compendium and other useful systems you spent hours developing into the next game.
It won’t take long before returning players notice that Atlus has made a number of significant enhancements and additions to the game. Although the strong gameplay that favors strategy over rote command menus is still intact, a number of pre-existing systems have been streamlined for the platform.
Noticeable changes have been made with the Card Shuffle system. The “Try Your Luck” nature of the mini-game was tossed out in favor of having the player select any two cards from a dealt hand of Tarot cards. Cards can increase (or decrease) the amount of money and experience earned, reward Skill Cards that bequeath abilities to Personas, refill health and magic points, boost a Persona’s stats or level them up. Adding a layer of strategy are cards that increase the number of cards that can be picked up and others that change their values. Successfully collecting all cards in a hand yields a Sweep Bonus that guarantees another Card Shuffle at the end of the next battle.
Persona 4 Golden makes use of the Vita’s network functionality in such a way that allows other players to aid you in battle. An optional feature, connecting the Vita to the PlayStation Network will allow you to send out SOS alerts before the start of a battle that will be received by other Vita owners who, by tapping “Send Aid,” will yield a small boost to your party’s health and magic. As promising as this setup is (more responses equals a bigger boost), the SOS function only works when a large number of people participate and for as long as I’ve been playing, I have yet to receive more than three shoutouts. Outside of the Midnight Channel, switches to an L.A. Noire -esque mechanic and reveals the community’s most popular decisions as to how the time should be spent. It’s a nice idea in theory but as there is no “right” way to spend time outside of mission critical events, the feature is more of a suggestion rather than a de facto decision making device.
The Fusion system has been streamlined to accommodate the handheld nature of the experience. In the original game, fusing Personas together in order to create powerful creatures was almost impossible without a FAQ and an extraordinary amount of patience. Replacing the FAQ is an in-game Persona catalog that specifically indicates which Personas needed to be mashed together to create something else. How Personas inherit abilities is no longer dictated by a throw of virtual dice. Instead, in a significant departure from the Shin Megami norm, the player is asked to choose which abilities are to be carried into a fused Persona. As helpful as that is, I feel as if much of the challenge of fusion is lost. It’s nice that I don’t have to consult a website or other hint source to get what I need and no longer to I have to spend upwards of half an hour to ensure certain abilities get inherited.
Apart from the gameplay enhancements, additional game content can be found in Marie, one of two new Social Link characters who is similar to Persona 3’s Elizabeth, a moped that makes areas outside Inaba accessible, new events, an expanded epilogue, and costumes. There’s also a TV Guide-style interface that can be called up when double tapping the screen and offers different types of “programming” including game trailers, live concert performances of Persona music, a collection of soundtracks and Midnight Channel mini-game. You can even view a series of lectures that describes the nature of Personas and mythology as they relate to the game in great detail.
Clearly, Atlus has gone out of its way to treat fans of Persona 4 with something that retains what made it such a hit with series follows but also finds a way to bolster mechanics and gameplay elements in such a way that is friendly towards the system and newcomers. This isn’t a slapdash, self-congratulatory effort. This is a masterpiece.
Persona 4 Golden has been given a visual facelift and while the original game had a foggy look to it, the visuals in the update are crisp, clean and detailed. Character models, both NPCs and Personas, are considerably more refined and their intricate details are far more noticeable than before. The animated cutscenes have also been redone, offering parity to the high quality animation seen in the Persona 4: The Animation series. Giving the visuals a real kick in the seat is the slick TV-style presentation bookended by a fantastic color scheme that employs bold color choices in wonderfully stylish way.
This is one of the best role playing games in the genre because it eschews the traditional formula with a system that has withstood the test of time. Combat is far more methodical and strategy dependent than most turn based RPGs because it exists in a constant state of constant flux. The player is often called upon to switch from offense to defense at the drop of a hat and knowing when to simply hang back a few turns in order to get the party back to full strength. Because of this system, battles against Shadows are hardly tedious but exhilarating (especially boss fights).
As fantastic as the combat is, the game shines when the main characters are allowed to act like teenagers. The story is filled with all sorts of funny and tender moments, from the disastrous school camping trip, the awkward misunderstanding at a love hotel to helping Yukiko realize her dreams of creating a future outside of running a hotel. The characters are developed so well and are defined by their experiences, trials and tribulations that when it comes time to say goodbye, it is difficult not to feel upset.
Persona 4 Golden is, as far as I’m concerned, is the PlayStation Vita’s killer app. Atlus has done a great service to the platform by not just porting a four year old game but adding a great deal of content that makes the experience seem fresh and new fro those who’ve already played through the game. A great story, genuine humor and excellent combat, Persona 4 Golden is the complete package. There is no reason why this game shouldn’t be part of your Vita’s library.