Persona 4 is a very interesting game. Originally out on the Playstation 2 in Japan in 2008 and everywhere else in 2009, it was surprising because (obviously) by this stage it would seem like everybody had moved onto the next generation (PS3 & 360). This game came out during a time when new games on the PS2 were becoming directed at small children (due to how much cheaper the PS2 became after its prime), so it became debatable as to whether this game would actually fly after the console’s mainstream value had already reached the top and is now climbing down. Fast forward 7 years later, Persona 4 has 1 of the most dedicated cult followings from both Japanese and non-Japanese fans. It spawned Cosplay, Drama CDs, Manga, 2 Anime TV shows, spin-offs and sequels (Including, believe it or not, 2 fighting games called Persona 4 Arena and ‘4 Arena Ultimax, and an alternate story called Persona Q on the Nintendo 3DS). Even the name Persona 4 is like Street Fighter 2 in the sense that the number at the end lets you know which characters are going to be involved. Then in 2012, Persona 4 Golden was created for the Playstation Vita. So what can be said about it?
Like its original PS2 version, Persona 4 Golden is so good, but also so big that it has to be played at least twice in a row (I’ll explain why). Our story follows a primarily silent silver-haired protagonist who is known in the anime & manga as Yu (but in the game you can call him whatever you want). He’s a city boy who arrives in a small rural town called Inaba to stay with his Hard-boiled Detective uncle, Dojima, and Dojima’s daughter Nanako, who is about 5 or 6 years old. Shortly after moving in, Yu goes to school, where everything is normal, with the exception of a rumour that’s going around. Something about a TV show called “The Midnight Channel”. The rumour is that if you stare at a TV screen that has been switched off on a rainy night at 12am, your soul mate will appear on the screen. Soon after hearing about the rumour, a murder take place. The victim was a TV Announcer who had appeared on TV, and then appeared on the Midnight channel. Curiosity had finally set in for Yu and his new friends, Yosuke (another city boy who moved to country and is the son of the manager of Junes. The Wal Mart-like superstore that is ruining the local businesses) and Chie (The Martial-Arts-Movie-loving Tom Boy who eats like Ron Swanson), when 1 of Yosuke’s fellow employees (a girl he likes) is later murdered after appearing on TV and then on the Midnight channel as well. The connection between the fellow employee and the announcer? The Employee found the announcer’s body, has appeared on TV, and then appeared on the midnight channel. Our heroes eventually find out that they can enter the TV, which leads to a strange world full of fog, is inhabited by shadowy monsters called Shadows, and also contains a bear-mascot looking character called Teddie, who helps them leave when the very idea of entering this TV world was too much too soon. However, this didn’t stop them from coming back to have another look, and they end up acquiring what are known as Personas (guardian forces/fighters/aeons created when human beings accept their true, hidden selves, and embrace them fearlessly). As the main character, Yu’s case is special because he can have multiple personas, while the rest have 1 persona that evolves when they develop or overcome something in their lives. With these Personas, our main characters find out that they can actually rescue people who appear on the midnight channel, many of whom become part of your team, including Yukiko (The classic Japanese beauty with a silly sense of humour, and Chie’s best friend), Kanji (The Billy Idol/Spike-from-Buffy inspired rebel who likes knitting, sewing and beating up the biker gangs who wake up his mother at night), Rise (A former J-Pop singer/TV Idol/Model who leaves the business to live a quiet life in Inaba), Teddie (Who switches role from guide to fighter later on), and lastly, Naoto (The androgynous teenage detective who came to Inaba to help the local police in the murder case).
Now onto a very good reason to play this incredibly long game twice (1 play through takes a minimum of 65-70 hours). It’s the social links. Persona 4 is not only a Japanese RPG, it is also a slice-of-life dating simulator (similar to its predecessor Persona 3). When you are not fighting shadows and bosses in the TV after school or on holidays, you are living your life as a High School student. Throughout the days, you will have an opportunity to make friends, develop those friendships and even have a girlfriend (But try not to have more than 1, or the others will find out). By developing these social links, several things happen. The main feature is that when these social links level up (1 to 10), they can help you create stronger Personas, and social links with party members actually strengthen those members by providing unique abilities that can’t be acquired by levelling up, as well as other helpful abilities, like withstanding fatal attacks and helping up party members who have been stunned or knocked down. The other main feature, especially when it comes to going out with your friends/party members, it provides possibly 1 of the best platforms for character development I have ever seen in a video game! Don’t be fooled by the first month of the game (the story takes place during a year of school), these characters are absolutely fantastic, and by the time you get to the end, you feel like you know them like real people…which is pretty impressive. But now onto the “play through twice” reason; Some social links can only be started when your main character has acquired high levels of certain qualities, such as Courage, Knowledge, Expression, Understanding and Diligence. Some social links build these skills up, while doing well at school, going to certain restaurants and part time jobs also do this. But building these skills up also take away time that could be spent developing social links, so this is where the 2nd play through is almost necessary. So, my advice? Build up your skills and some social links (mostly your team) in the first play through, and then in the second you’ll be able to build more links, and therefore acquire more stories and more character development…also, Persona 4 on the PS2 has 3 endings. Persona 4 Golden has 7…and some social links provide 2 choices, so if you chose 1 in 1 play through and finished it, then choose another.
Now onto the building blocks. What about the graphics? The team behind the Persona games chose a more minimalist approach in terms of its presentation. The 3D Models of our characters definitely have the likeness of the illustrations that they’re based on, and the use of certain animations, poses and emoticons help present a manga-style of storytelling, but it’s the illustrations of the characters themselves, appearing with their dialogue, that people remember best when they play this game. It allows you to know who’s talking and the type of facial expression they might have when they say it (something that may not get across as easily in other games). In the process, they were able to put a ton of stuff into the game without using up too much data for the graphics (while also remaining graphically pleasing, even today). Art-wise, I absolutely adore this game, and Shigenori Soejima is 1 of my all-time favourite illustrators. To the point of having the art book for this game as among my treasured earthly possessions. The design work, presentation and character designs are fantastic and we’re provided with an instantly recognisable bunch of characters. Also the occasional use of photographs in the backgrounds add a nice touch. While there are anime cutscenes in the PS2 version, there are many more in Persona 4 Golden, and this is all without reminding you that this was also remade as an anime TV Show.
The music is done by Shoji Meguro, who has also done the soundtracks for most other Atlus games, including every Persona game, Trauma Center, Catherine and Digital Devil Saga. His music is almost instantly recognisable, as he enjoys incorporating rock with electronica, orchestral, jazz and hip-hop (that’s another thing, his hip-hop lyrics are hilariously incoherent. Persona 3 even has 1 about a burnt lasagne). His sound has become a trademark for the Persona games (and any other by Atlus in this case)
Gameplay-wise, Persona 4 is possibly my favourite turn-based RPG other than Final Fantasy X (Kingdom Hearts 2 is my favourite action RPG). There is no character who is truly expendable on your team (unless you plan to use Kanji and Chie like Mages and Yukiko like a Warrior), the dungeon crawls can be difficult (depending on your levels, your grinding amount and your knowledge of strategy and your personas), but as time goes on, it becomes easier to stay in the dungeons for longer…Especially if you have Goho-H or Teddie in your team (and you haven’t deleted his dungeon escaping ability).
The english voice acting is really good in this game, and I was surprised in Golden to find that they changed Chie’s voice actress. I wasn’t sure how to react, but in time you get used to the difference.
The story…wow…It’s 1 of my favourite stories in video game history…so much depth…so much development…so many themes, including community over convenience (Wal-Mart vs small town business), secrets, the power of the TV, the desire to ” know people” that you don’t know, big brother, and humanity’s desire, just name a few…so many possibilities…a slow but satisfying unveiling…A fun, murder-mystery game with a team that would be called the Scooby Gang if some other writer didn’t take that description. Excellent characters all around to go along with this (including Yu, no pun intended), amazing character development with a lot of excellent life lessons in the mix. The humour in Persona 4 is fantastic! Even during 2nd and 3rd play throughs, I’m still laughing at the dialogue, situations and how it all bounces off different characters. But at the same time, this game has a lot of heart. During the times when they’re at their lowest, you can feel it, and that’s something to be pretty proud of if you wrote it.
Is there anything I don’t like about this game? Possibly, but because I understand the context, it doesn’t really bother me too much. Here’s the main instance…the personas themselves. The Personas are named after or based on Gods, Demons, Angels, and Deities from different religions, and, believe it or not, from some popular fiction (like Alice in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland). Some might take offence to how important figures from their faith or religion are depicted or presented in this game, especially when it comes to Atlus deciding which Personas should be more powerful than others. But it’s all based on the overall Japanese perspective of religion. That despite many being labelled as Shinto Buddhist, most of Japan is technically atheist. But it doesn’t stop them from occasionally believing in ghosts, celebrating holidays and festivals from different religions, praying at shrines on new years day, celebrating Christmas as a day/night for dating and KFC, being born Shinto, marrying Christian, dying Buddhist (Buddhist funerals) and believing that Racoon Dogs and Foxes can shape-shift and appear human. They borrow what they want from most other religions, but many don’t ground themselves in any particular 1. As long as the choices lead to personal and social peace that fits within on their moral code, they don’t mind what you believe in. With this perspective in mind, it lessens any offence that even I might have in this area, as the game chooses to be within itself a game and not necessarily based in its entirety on the real world (Keep in mind, this game was made in 2008 and is set in 2011/12, they couldn’t predict that analogue TVs would be completely gone in Japan by then)…Also, I don’t care for tarot cards, but they’re used to define each Persona and social link.
Would I recomme – – Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes…Folks, this is possibly my all-time favourite video game, if not, it’s a permanent staple in my top 3. I say this as someone who has played the best of Final Fantasy, Metal Gear, Grand Theft Auto, Tekken and The Elder Scrolls (Morrowind excluded). Persona 3 remains a very important game in my collection, and it was revolutionary to me when I played it at first. But Persona 4 took everything that made ‘3 great, and created, quite literally a masterpiece in Role-Playing Video Games. Overall, the Nintendo 3DS does have better games than the Playstation Vita (Exclusives-wise), but Persona 4 Golden is, for me, enough to be that 1 game that made you buy a Vita, and is 1 of the best exclusives ever made (Until Atlus decides to translate it into a PS3/PS4 edition).
Overall rating: ***** (Some would rate the graphics a 2 or 3 stars, but the Gameplay, characters, character development, story and humour would each get 6 stars if possible)