Game Review: Persona 4 Golden

This Vita gem was scheduled to be released in Australia today, but it has already been in stores for a couple of days. The Americans got it last November and I imported it back then so I could finish it by our release date. Easier said than done, but here we are.

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Platform:
PSV
Developer:
Atlus
Rating: M
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IZANAGI!

From the unhinged people who brought you Catherine!

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It’s a hectic week.
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High school life never slows down. My teachers are irritating and they keep picking on me to answer questions I have no idea about. I have to attend drama and soccer practice as regularly as I can, because they improve my expression and diligence. I should try to help out my classmates who need to find all manner of trinkets, but exams are coming up so I really should study. I should also make time to hang out with friends, but things don’t pay for themselves, so I have to work hard at a part time job. Oh, and I need to fuse a decent Persona so I can beat a grotesque shadow monster when I next go inside a TV at the local department store.

Such is the bizarre equation of Persona 4 Golden, a truly fantastic entry in one of gaming’s most unique RPG series.

THE SET-UP

P4G is an “enhanced port” of the critically acclaimed 2008 PS2 game Persona 4, which I played for about 20 hours back in the day before it fell by the wayside due to the arrival of other games. I kept telling myself I would go back and finish it, but that didn’t eventuate until it was resurrected on the Playstation Vita in gloriously remastered form.

The story of Persona 4 sees the arrival of our flexibly named, city dwelling protagonist for a year’s stay in the sleepy Japanese town of Inaba, where he faces typical teenage problems such as making friends and figuring out who he is. Yet he also has to contend with a set of mysterious murders coinciding with a rumour about a supernatural “channel” that appears at midnight on TV during rainy nights. Things get pretty Atlus as the story develops.

This guy knows what life's about.

This guy knows what life’s about.

WHAT YOU DO

The award-winning gameplay of the Persona series, honed over several games and several re-releases of said games, is at its absolute best in P4G. Your gameplay time will basically be divided into two halves. The first involves exploring dungeons, fighting battles and leveling up in typical JRPG style; the second takes on a more banal character, as you’ll be putting your time management skills to the test juggling school, work and “Social Links”, which are at the heart of the Persona series. These involve spending time with various major characters in the game, strengthening your bonds with them via a level-up system, which allows you to create stronger Personas (the entities that you use to fight the game’s enemies).

If only real life were like this...

If only real life were like this…

The genius of the game’s equal attention to both central gameplay aspects lies in the fact that each motivates the other. Fans of the JRPG grind will appreciate the various bonuses that stronger Social Links grant in and out of battle, while those more invested in the game’s characters and plot developments will be eager to push through the dungeons to see what happens next. This latter group has been handed a huge boon by P4G in the form of a revamped difficulty system. In the original version of the game you were forced to restart from your last save point after losing a difficult boss battle, which I can tell you absolutely sucked, but now you can just start from the beginning of the fight if you fail. This makes everything more accessible and far less frustrating, while gluttons for old-school Atlus punishment can still do things the old way on higher difficulties.

That isn’t the only improvement Golden makes to the core gameplay to make things more enjoyable. The original game’s “Shuffle Time” mechanic, wherein you could obtain random benefits after battle, has seen a complete overhaul that fundamentally changes what you can achieve in dungeons. You can now choose which bonus cards you want to take, sometimes taking a penalty in order to have access to more cards. It’s a risk-and-reward balancing act that can give you benefits as broad as HP and SP restoration, extra Personas, chest keys, temporary invisibility to enemies and even instant level increases. Smart use of this new system can allow you to get so much further in an average dungeon run than you could have ever hoped to before.

The new Shuffle Time is almost a game in itself.

The new Shuffle Time is almost a game in itself.

One of the PS Vita version’s most hyped additions is its online functionality, which allows players to send out SOS calls to other online players whenever they are stuck in a dungeon, potentially receiving assistance in the form of HP and SP boosts, as well as to see how the world’s players used their time on any given day. Unfortunately as I imported an American copy, which is incompatible with the Australian PSN, I was not able to test these features. However, the game also throws in so very many other changes and improvements that I have actually written a separate article devoted purely to them. You can read it here.

WHAT YOU SEE

This isn’t exactly a game that pushes the Playstation Vita to its limits; It is a Playstation 2 port after all and it shows. Yet the visuals have still come a long way since 2008. For those who didn’t play the PS2 original, you can watch a trailer for Persona 4 as part of a brand new “TV Listings” feature. I suggest you do, because it highlights how much has been polished up for this release. Character models look much sharper, the range of colours on display is much wider and most of the game’s backgrounds have seen significant increases in detail.

Origami_bitches

The game’s colour palette has been enriched for the Vita release.

Atlus has also added a handful of new anime cutscenes to the main story (two of which are perhaps most diplomatically described as “post-Catherine” in their boldness). These add a bit more consistency to the story beats, highlighting some of the plot’s more whimsical moments as well as its critical developments, and they are certainly welcome. A fascinating concept art gallery is now also included, which fills out as the story unfolds and comes complete with tour-style narration.

WHAT YOU HEAR

Most Atlus games tend to score highly in the audio department and P4G is no different. Shoji Meguro’s awesome soundtrack has been expanded with a few new tracks, some of which see the return of Shihoko Hirata’s vocals, and the whole thing can be listened to as part of the game’s stylised new sound test feature. There is even a small selection of live performance videos of songs from both Persona 3 and Persona 4, which is a very nice touch.

The voice acting is typically top-notch.

The voice acting is typically top-notch.

A large chunk of the story’s dialogue exchanges are fully voiced and it is here that Golden truly glitters. Each character runs the gamut of emotions throughout the story and I can’t think of any vocal performances that fail to sell the highs and lows. The majority of the cast is highly experienced and they put in a commendable effort, especially considering the sheer volume of dialogue they have to work through.

It certainly helps that Persona 4‘s characters are some of the most beloved among modern JRPGs. No-one is as one-dimensional or archetypical as he or she may initially seem, as one of the story’s main hooks is that every party member is forced to confront his or her own dark side. Several periphery characters also go through situations you may not typically see in a videogame and by the end of proceedings the game will have touched on themes as diverse as parenthood, vanity, selfishness, sexuality, insecurity and depression. You may be drawn into the mysteries and twists at the heart of the game’s lengthy story, but chances are it’s the characters that will pull you through to the end.

WILL YOU GO BACK?

Do you like Platinum Trophies? Well if you want to snag the ultimate PSN prize that Persona 4 Golden can offer, you’ll need at least two playthroughs of the story, the reason being that the ability to fuse the game’s ultimate persona is only unlocked as you play through it on “New Game +”. Typical JRPG style, sure, but P4G is certainly the kind of game that rewards multiple runs. It is very difficult to maximise all of the game’s Social Links, so a second playthrough might allow you to explore alternative Links and dialogue choices, perhaps choosing different romantic partners (oh yeah, did I mention you could do that?), with the added benefit of fully skippable cutscenes and several items and skills carried over from your first run.

Flowers?

That’s how long just one playthrough took me.

Even those who only wish to experience the full story once, which I presume will be most players, will find plenty of value for money in P4G‘s story. This is an 80+ hour game we’re talking about, and while the pacing does occasionally falter somewhat over such a marathon plot, falling into dull troughs, the next exciting development is never too far off. This is probably the best dollar-to-hour value you can currently get on the Playstation Vita, at least story-wise, because the game is unbelievably only $45 RRP. Also, a very cool bonus of existing on the Playstation Vita is that the game never has to be a drag, because you can just use the system’s baked-in sleep feature to leave the action at any point, returning hours or even days later to pick up right where you left off.

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THE VERDICT

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Good:
Addictively unique RPG gameplay, great characters and voice acting, many noticeable improvements over PS2 version
Bad:
Still some pacing issues
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4.5 VsI N C R E D I B L E

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