If you’re like me, you have a very large backlog of games you’ve bought but never played. The Vault is based on this very concept. Until recently, I was completely unaware of the existence of the Persona franchise. But I knew that ATLUS’ games had a large following and are largely considered cult classics. Having spent more hours with Persona 4 Golden than I’m willing to admit, I understand why.
In the last year we spent indoors, we played a lot of games. Some, like Prey, offered unique experiences, while others, like BioShock Infinite, told some unforgettable stories. Each one helped us make it out of quarantine, in its own way. But not one gave us what we were really looking for. Sea of Solitude brought the issue of loneliness to the table and Outriders helped us stay in touch with our friends. But none of these made us feel comfortable. Luckily, Persona 4 Golden is your favorite comfort food, in a gaming format. It offers a seemingly safe environment, in the context of a very strange adventure. It’s like going on vacation in the town where you spent your adolescence. It’s kind of a familiar feeling wrapped up in a fresh adventure. Hear me out:
Vacation in Inaba
The plot of Persona 4 Golden starts off as a seemingly simple story. We are taken back to the tender age of 16. Your family sends you off to stay with your uncle, Dojima, and his little daughter Nanako in the provincial town of Inaba, for a whole year. Your first night in Inaba proves to be eventful, however, as, through a strange dream you awaken your Persona. Personas obviously play a major role in the story.
The first challenge you face is to integrate yourself into the small community of Inaba, since you are practically a “stranger” there. Fortunately, this is easily solved, since you make friends at school straight away. You immediately click with Yosuke, Chie, and Yukiko who become your new best friends. Through your new company you learn about a local urban legend, according to which on rainy nights, a mysterious figure appears on TV. You confirm the myth and while trying to test if what you see on TV is true, you also discover that you can stick your hand through the TV.
Inside the TV
You try to explain what happened to your new friends, but they obviously don’t believe you. To prove you’re telling the truth, you all get together in front of a big TV at the local mall, and you jump inside. You discover there’s a whole world inside the TV, vastly different from the real one. There, you meet a strange bear, Teddie, who promises to guide you and tells you how things have been a bit strange over there lately. Many people come and go inside the TV, but Teddie has no idea why.
Inside the TV, your friends are confronted with parts of themselves that they refuse to accept. Facing the dark side of their soul, they also unlock their own Personas. Personas are the supernatural powers you use to fight the enemies you find inside the TV. They’re supposed to be an extension of oneself. Or something like that.
The mysterious murders
At the same time, a series of disappearances have been taking place in Inaba, with the people who disappear, ending up dead after a while. It is clear that there’s a serial killer in the town. But soon, people from your school as well as your friends start to disappear, so you, along with your friends decide to start researching the murders. You discover that the figure that appears at night on TV foretells who will be the next to disappear. When the victim disappears, the image on the TV becomes clearer and that’s when their dark side starts appearing on TV, revealing their deepest desires.
It doesn’t take long for Scooby gang to connect the dots and realize that the world inside the TV and the murders are somehow connected. Recognizing that the police would never believe such a scenario, you decide to and take matters into your own hands. At first, you really have no idea what you’re doing, and you try tackling each case separately. Gradually, however, everything starts falling in place, as you find valuable allies in the course of your journey. TL;DR: You’re trying to solve multiple missing person cases, and take down a serial killer, all while fighting shadows with your Personas inside a TV. How cool is that?
Persona 4 Golden’s charm
The story is definitely the strongest aspect of Persona 4 Golden. It’s what will get you into the game at first, but it’s the rest that will get you hooked. Persona 4 Golden is a complete package, no two ways about it. It may not please those looking for top-tier graphics, but let’s not forget that this is a 2008 game, which was re-released in 2012 for the PS Vita. What it lacks in graphic presentation though, this game makes up for it in vibes. Persona 4 Golden is overflowing with character and style.
The little town of Inaba
Moving to the provincial Inaba, our protagonist doesn’t seem very excited about rural life. Things there are exactly as Yosuke explains in the first hours of the game. Nothing ever happens at Inaba. The residents are few, and there are few things to do and few places to see. You don’t have the option of picking and choosing there. It generally has the problems that a small, closed-off, provincial society usually has. It’s a very accurate representation of a small town. People will either be very good to you, or they will be evil gossipers. Those of you who grew up in a small, rural town will feel right at home.
On the other hand, this dose of reality in the wrapping of a light-hearted game is half the magic. The characters in the game face the same problems we faced at their age. (Okay, maybe except for serial killers).
For a whole school year
Life goes slowly and painfully in Inaba, especially when you have to go to school. Persona 4 Golden takes place throughout an entire school year. And when I say whole, I mean the full 12 months, without missing a day. You go to school every morning, sometimes the teachers ask you random things to see if you’re paying attention and you take exams at the end of each semester. You participate in school sports teams and the drama club. You plan school events and excursions with your friends. If you need extra pocket money, you can even find a job to do after school. When you have free time you can ride your scooter or go to the cinema. In summer go to the beach with friends and in winter to a ski resort.
I understand that all this may sound a bit cringy, but I’m sure it’s meant to be. Persona 4 Golden is made with great care and attention and this is evident throughout the whole game. Teenagers can be very cringy, and that’s why this game can’t shake this feeling. But it doesn’t matter that much. Persona 4 Golden tries to be a window into another, more carefree era. And goddamn, that’s exactly what it is.
Persona 4 Golden has a colorful cast and all the characters have an extremely interesting backstory. Yosuke has never had real friends and his main arc is that he manages to become the protagonist’s closest friend. Yukiko does not want to inherit her parents’ inn but wants to try to stand on her own two feet. Dojima is tormented by the death of his wife while at the same time he finds it difficult to be a good father on his own. Rise is a famous idol (that’s Japanese for popstar) but she feels that what she shows on stage is not her real self.
And everyone has such a backstory, which due to how Persona 4 Golden plays out, you feel that you really “experience”. Of course, there are characters that you will not like or that you won’t even be bothered with. Each character has a story to tell, no matter how insignificant you think it is. That’s good, because this is a 70-hour RPG, where well-written characters are key.
At the same time, gameplay mechanisms drive you to bond with all the side characters, as every time you spend time with someone, they receive a bonus in battle, or you simply level up their Arcana. The Social Link system (Confidants in Persona 5) is a key gameplay pillar for Persona 4 Golden. There are many games that have tried something like this (most recently Scarlet Nexus), but none do it as successfully as Atlus.
The visuals might seem a bit dated now, especially if we compare it to the visual masterpiece that is Persona 5, but the same does not apply to the sound department. Persona 4’s soundtrack is one of the most iconic musical compositions in gaming. The Golden version raises the total number of available tracks to 70+. It’s still not that an, for a game that’s supposed to last so many hours, but they manage to get you into that “comfortable vibe”. There are different themes for each dungeon, which are thematically matched. But the town themes are always the same. Maybe this is meant to show that everything stays the same at Inaba. Just a thought.
While Persona 4 Golden is doing great in most areas, there’s not much there in terms of gameplay. The world does not leave much room for exploration, because let’s not forget, this is a game designed for PS2. The gameplay will be indifferent to the greatest extent for many, but it’s certainly not something you come across every day. In this respect, it has a certain peculiarity.
Time is of the essence
You may have many things to do in the game, but as in real life, your time is not unlimited. The days pass quickly and you have to carefully choose the activities in which you participate and with whom you spend your time. Inevitably, you will hardly have time for everyone and everything, but that is what will make you want to play this game over and over. You can spend your time having fun with your friends and leveling up your Social Links. Or you can hop inside the TV and train to become stronger. Or you can study to do better in your exams. You can also find a part-time job and hang out with your colleagues. The time is yours and you choose where to dedicate it.
Of course, there are some things you absolutely have to do. When you discover that the murders and the secret world are connected, you have a certain amount of time to save those trapped inside the TV. If you do not succeed, they will end up dead and you in a Game Over screen.
Combat is a bit meh
Most of the combat takes place inside the TV. There, you and 3 other friends explore procedurally generated dungeons until you reach the top of each dungeon. These dungeons, although created algorithmically, manage to be extremely repetitive. They are visually beautiful and the music can be awesome, but to a large extent, it’s always the same thing over and over.
The combat is turn-based. It’s not as bad as it sounds. There’s enough depth if you want to become a Pokemon master without even playing Pokemon, but because it does not have the wow factor of Persona 5 or the wonkiness of Yakuza: Like a Dragon, it gets old real fast. At least you don’t need to grind as much as in Dragon Quest.
Personas, just like Pokemon
The Persona mechanism is still very interesting, however. Each character has his own Persona, which comes with specific unique abilities. So each character has their own place in your team. The protagonist on the other hand, has the ability to use many Personas, and even swap them during battle. This way you can adjust the capabilities of your team depending on the enemy you face.
Each Persona is represented by a tarot card. You can create stronger Personas by fusing two (or more) weaker ones. Each Persona belongs to an Arcana, a type (nature). Arcanas are linked to the characters, so the closer you are to each character (via Social Links) the stronger the Persona of the corresponding Arcana you can create. You can even collect all the Personas and fill out your Compendium (a kind of Pokedex).
Combat takes the backseat
If you’re willing to get invested, there is room to delve into the gameplay. This does not mean that the gameplay is not in the back seat. You will spend most of your gametime watching cut-scenes. While you’re not inside the TV, Persona 4 Golden looks more like an interactive visual novel. There are some big dungeon-crawling chunks spread thinly amongst even bigger story chunks. This is not a problem, as you can “share out” dungeon-crawling depending on how you manage your time. Depending on whether you are playing to see the story unfold or because you like the combat, you may grind to get to the “good parts”.
The real gameplay lies elsewhere
But if we take combat out of the equation, there are still quite a few things to do. At each point in the story you have options, which may not greatly change the plot, but can lead you to different endings. Your relationship with side characters or even your character stats, affect the activities that are available to you. If the plot is the bait, character interactions are the hook. The RPG mechanics are very well done and have definitely been a stepping stone for many successors in the genre.
In the Golden version, almost all dialogue lines are fully voiced, in both English and Japanese, except for the protagonist, obviously. Voice actors do a great job of bringing characters into life, so you will rarely need to press skip. Persona 4 Golden includes extra content compared to the base version, with more characters, an additional dungeon, and some extra events. The side stories are as good, if not better, than the main story.
Is it worth playing Persona 4 Golden?
How good a game is, is not weighed by how spectacular its graphics are or how much over-the-top gameplay it offers. In a few years, some other game will be doing all that much better than its predecessors. In order for a game to truly be unforgettable, it must make you feel something. And that’s exactly what Persona 4 Golden does. It makes you feel comfortable. It takes you to an imaginary world, which joins the realism of a small town with teenage imagination.
In the midst of so many lockdowns, all we needed to do was to go to a world where everything is a little better. And this is exactly what Inaba is. Persona 4 Golden will hit you like a tsunami of nostalgia. You will feel that you have already experienced all that’s on offer, even though you haven’t. The deja vus are strong in this one. You will definitely identify with a character, whoever it might be. Each character has their own problems. Some are more important, while others seem more important than they actually are. Everyone has their own mountains to climb, and in a pandemic, dealing with some imaginary teenager problems is easier said than actually dealing everything else that’s going on.
If Persona 4 Golden were food, it would be that cookie box you keep well hidden so that no one will ever find it. That box that you take great care of and always pay a visit in moments of need. It’s precious, and it’s something that everyone should experience.