Review: Persona 4 Golden is all that glitters
It's odd to consider that even now, as an adult male with a steady career, I still have those bizarrely common high school dreams. Usually they involve finding out there's a required class on my schedule, one which I've only now learned about more than halfway through the semester, me frantic as I face the reality of flunking this mysterious course while trying to locate my pants and keep my teeth from falling out. It seems there's just something about that awkward period of late adolescence that seems to stick with many people, haunting our psyches for years after the fact. Given this, you'd think it would be crazy to willingly take part in a simulation of those times, experiencing the virtual trauma of test days and romantic confessions, while simultaneously trying to rescue classmates from the evil manifestations of their subconscious selves.
The main character (and his new Teddy Bear friend) first learns of his Persona powers.
Somehow though, Persona 4 Golden makes this fever dream work, offering up an incredibly unique RPG experience which skillfully mashes up traditional dungeon crawling, pokemon-style monster collection and "visual novel" storytelling. All of these facets are interweaved so expertly that it seems impossible not to develop a dangerous addiction to the title, and combined with the wealth of new content jammed into this amplified port of the original PlayStation 2 cult classic, ensures that Persona 4 Golden is one of the few great reasons to own a PS Vita.
P4G follows the story of several High School classmates, their peaceful town rocked by a string of bizarre murders. Things are made even more complicated once these school chums realize that the next victim is being broadcast on the "Midnight Channel," a TV program which only appears at midnight on rainy days, and only when the television is turned off. Discovering they have the mysterious power to enter the television world and summon their creatures known as "Persona" to battle there, these average teens quickly resolve to rescue any future victims, while trying to uncover the mystery behind these very strange events.
This department store big screen acts as your portal to the underworld.
Inside the television is where the true RPG action takes places, letting the self-proclaimed "Investigation Team" battle their way through each dungeon floor, collecting loot and earning EXP for themselves and their Persona. Though the randomized dungeons can become a bit repetitive, the impressive battle system more than makes up for this. By summoning their respective Persona, each character gains access to a variety of powerful skills and attacks for use in battle. Though while the secondary characters are stuck using their default monster, the main character can swap out his Pokemon-esque suite of Persona at will, allowing for a wide range of potential attacks.
The battle system is nuanced enough to be engaging, but never overly complicated.
Thankfully, the game doesn't rely on the tired RPG tactics of yesteryear, spicing up combat with some very unique features. Most enemies in the game are weak to a particular magical element, and will be knocked down when struck by an attack of that type (or a critical hit). Knocking an enemy down results in a free bonus attack, letting players either unload on their hapless victim or attempt to knock down the remaining foes. If the team can get all enemies on the ground, a free-for-all triggers, racking up massive damage as all the player characters run in for a devastating group attack (with the potential to trigger additional follow-up attacks). Players who master the art of the takedown will find themselves rewarded with "Shuffle Time," drawing from a deck of cards to acquire bonuses such as additional EXP, chest keys, and most excitingly: new Persona. These addictive rewards have definitely fueled some late night dungeon crawling, and are part of what makes P4G so hard to put down.
Persona 4 Golden's town area offers plenty of distractions.
When you aren't busy exploring the world inside the television, the game returns to a visual novel format, allowing players to join school clubs, take on part time jobs, or just enjoy some leisure time with friends. At first I felt a bit guilty letting the Midnight Channel's victims fend for themselves while I spent the weekend fishing, though the game stresses that forging the game's "Social Links" is just as important as rampaging through the dungeons. Throughout the game you're given the chance to befriend a variety of characters, spending time with them to strengthen the rank of this social link. The most obvious benefit comes when fusing together your Persona to create even more powerful creatures. Newly created Persona of the same magical affinity as a close friend will start off with a serious EXP bonus, so while that bitchy girl from drama club can be an annoyance, you'll appreciate her friendship more when your new lion-angel-demon-thing starts off five levels higher. Meanwhile, forging strong social links with your dungeon companions will give them access to powerful new skills, such as the ability to perform one hit kills following a powerful strike, or to step in and protect you from a mortal blow.
Friendship has rewards in Persona 4 Golden.
The power of friendship might seem like a bizarre mechanic, though given the game's fantastically written dialogue, you'll actually learn to care for these characters, and I often found myself shirking my investigative duties in hopes of scoring a date with Chie. Adding a further layer of complexity to these interactions are the various personality stats which one earns by completing various tasks. So, while you may have the urge to take your relationship with the gorgeous Yukiko to the next level, you'll have to spend some time building up your Courage stat (one way to do this is by eating expired food...) before being allowed to pick some of the racier dialogue options. Your access to much of the game's content is restricted by your stat levels, and players who spend every night running around the dungeons without ever taking a night off to study for the test or put in some time working at the daycare center, will find themselves missing out on the full experience.
Animated cutscenes are just one of the cool new additions to the game.
In short, as one of the many gamers who missed out on the chance to play the original Persona 4, this expertly crafted portable version is a real treat, while longtime Persona 4 fans will love all the cool new features packed in, including new areas, new social links, and the gorgeously animated cutscenes. So, if you're looking for a way to again fraternize with High Schoolers without being led away in cuffs (or if you're just looking for the best PS Vita RPG yet), definitely grab P4G. And while I'm not saying that this game will help alleviate your High School nightmares, I will say that after last night's late play session I dreamt not of my teeth falling out, but rather of my mom piloting a newly purchased boat to a tiny waterfront beauty parlor, where my old High School friends were all renting bowling equipment.
I think I'm making progress.
-Vito Gesualdi should probably see a mental health professional. Follow him on Twitter @VitoGesualdi