Platform: PS Vita
Let's not beat around the bush. If you own a Vita, you need to add this game to your collection, it's as simple as that. You see, in much the same way that Persona 3 was adapted, condensed, and replicated on the PSP to phenomenal effect, so too have Atlus done a simply superb job in delivering a portable version of Persona 4. Once again, the team have had to find ways of appealing to players on the go, and the various challenges that presents.
Of course, one major thing is different this time around: they've got a lot more power to play with.
This has been realised in the swathes of content that Atlus have added to the game. There's ten hours of new stuff to enjoy, new characters to meet, new scenarios to encounter, and a whole bunch of little story variations that make this portable version of what was already one of the finest JRPGs to have ever existed even better. Where P3P removed the long 3D sections where you'd be running about your day and boosting social links, replacing them instead with gorgeous 2D stills from which you could navigate easily, Persona 4 keeps the 3D environments, retouched on the Vita, but restores a navigation menu at the touch of a button.
Persona 3 was a breath of fresh air when it came along, breathing new life into the genre with its heavy emphasis on creating Social Links, and its procedurally-generated dungeon-crawling action. Then came Persona 4 - a game that ostensibly took the framework of its predecessor, and just made it better. The systems remain very familiar, and you'll spend your time divided between turn-based battling as you fight your way up floors of monstrous dungeons and boosting the relationships with your friends, but it's the writing that truly makes Persona 4 shine.
The plot kicks off with your character moving from the hustle and bustle of the big city to the small town of Inaba, where you're to stay with your Uncle, a detective, and his daughter. Just as you're beginning to make friends in the sleepy little town, gruesome murders begin to occur whenever a thick fog rolls in, with the police unable to find the killer. Stranger still, a mysterious television show that only appears the night before the fog descends appears to foreshadow the deaths, and you literally find yourself sucked inside the parallel world of the Midnight Channel, coming face to face with monsters known as Shadows, and the darkness that lies inside of you and your friends.
It's not much of a spoiler to note that the creatures you face are really the manifestations of the inner demons of the central characters: doubts, misconceptions, jealousies, whispered gossip, fabricated fronts, all are laid bare in this parallel universe and all must be fought and conquered. Both P3 and P4 are really games about the trials and tribulations that teenagers face growing up and, as such, are games with which all can identify. Though certain narrative nuggets and plot premises might foray occasionally into anime cliché, by and large the writing here is the finest to be found in any JRPG. Ever.
This is a game that manages to explore themes such as the death of a loved one, the little envies that we keep to ourselves, confusion over sexuality, and (obviously) the pervasive influence of television and entertainment media, but it does so without heavy-handedness, and with an ability to poke fun at its characters one second, and make you shed a tear the next. The difference between the characters in Persona 4 - the irrepressibly earnest Yosuke, the quiet and considered Yukiko, the occasionally hot-tempered tomboy Chie, there are too many to list fully here (Teddie...always Teddie) - and those found too often in other JRPG franchises, is that we care about these characters. Instead of being impenetrable ciphers, beautifully presented planks of wood, or resolutely one-dimensional archetypes, these are characters in which we can see ourselves and those of our friends.
Those archetypes are contained within Persona 4, but they take the form of the titular Personas - embodiments of each character's inner selves. Though the supporting cast will be stuck with one main fighting force, the player character can collect and fuse over 100 Persona cards to create a roster of varying elemental strengths and weaknesses that must be balanced and swapped around to suit the foes encountered. Battles can be tough on Normal or higher difficulty settings, and so no small amount of grinding is required, but the combat system is robust and strategically engrossing, with a revised "shuffle time" system at the end of certain encounters that can be used to gain new Personas, boost XP, and top off your HP and MP.
Persona Fusion is much more user friendly than it has been in the past, although it'll still take a little while to fully wrap your head around the sheer depth of the system. You can now choose transferable skills that the new Persona will inherit, as well as being able to win (and then buy) skill cards that allow you to purchase moves for your existing roster.
It's in the dungeons that the portable form makes the game a lot smoother and less frustrating than its PS2 counterpart, too; although some of the changes will almost certainly prove an affront to the more hardcore fans of the series. You don't have to worry about save points because you can just send the Vita to sleep. If you die in this version, you'll have the opportunity to start from the beginning of a dungeon level rather than being sent back to the entrance, and you can go away and return to the latest level that you reached. It means that instead of losing hours, you'll only lose minutes should you perish at the hands of a surprise attack. Frankly, I prefer it that way.
Another neat little feature is the addition of a social button that takes advantage of the Vita's online functionality. When organising your day, nudging the "vox populi" icon will bring up a plethora of little speech bubbles indicating the five most popular options others went for at the given time. In dungeons, it's even more helpful, transforming into an SOS which, if answered, will give your team a little HP and MP boost going into battle.
But really, it's outside of the dungeons that Persona 4: The Golden truly makes its mark, just as the original did. You have to be incredibly mindful of your tie management once more, but if you maximise the open slots throughout the day there are so many side avenues to explore, supporting characters and mini quest lines to encounter, and standalone vignettes of narrative to enjoy. Do you hang out with a new friend you've just made, or study hard fr the upcoming tests that might open up new options if you do well in them? Do you head into Teddie's world to boost your Persona levels or shoot some hoops in basketball? You have to consider the Personas at your disposal, and the nature of the Social Links - each of which is bound to a certain Persona archetype and alignment - and how you want to proceed. Of course, the strength of the writing is such that you'll most likely just grow to really enjoy the company of several characters, and pursue their friendship lines because you actively want to see how they develop.
The Social Links quickly form the fulcrum around which the game pivots once you're past the rather lengthy intro and left to your own devices. Building them up means you can create stronger Personas, unlocking more powerful abilities, untapped side missions, helpful items, and so on. Narrative and gameplay begin by seeming to be two rather separate, distinct entities, much as they are in most JRPGs. But it's not long before they're woven together more deeply than any other pretender in the genre.
Atlus have gone above and beyond what we could have wished for in terms of little added extras, too. More characters, more quests, a little gardening minigame that helps to boost Dojima and Nanako's Social Links (which I personally never managed to max out in the original), reams of unlockable bonus features that are artfully arranged off of the main menu as TV listings guide, stocked with music videos, live concert clips, series history, animated shorts from previous games. This game makes a mockery of "season passes" and "limited editions" by delivering such comprehensive content combined with excellent execution and peerless presentation. Everything is done to further our connection to the game, to the series, and the characters that inhabit both.
In short: you owe it to yourself to buy this game.
- Fantastically engrossing combat
- Masterfully written story
- Superbly drawn characters
- Extras make a mockery of every GOTY, Season Pass, and Ltd Edition for any game out there
- More characters, more quests, more Social Links - all serve to complement and enhance the experience
- It's Persona 4... but BETTER!
- It's sheer size could be considered overwhelming
- No Japanese voice option
The Short Version: As far as recreations of all-time classic games go, Persona 4: The Golden is about as close to perfection as we're likely to see. It's the definitive version of Persona 4, a packaged experience that somehow manages to exceed all of our expectations and, as such, might just be the best JRPG ever made.