The Persona series (or more accurately the games part of the larger Shin Megami Tensei franchise) by Atlus is a series of critically acclaimed JRPG’s that for the longest time eluded me due to their exclusivity on Sony’s Playstation platforms. Persona 4 Golden (P4G) is not a new game, as it was released Playstation Vita back in 2012, so at this point it is almost a decade old. However, now that it is the first Persona game to be officially ported to PC without the use of an emulator through Steam, it is more convenient than ever to enjoy the experience as someone who currently owns no Sony hardware. This is also great in another way in that I can use this to test the waters of the franchise; if I end up enjoying P4G then I would be more inclined to play Persona 5 once it is accessible to me.
The premise of P4G is fairly simple; you are a high school student from the metropolis, transferred to the quiet, little town of Inaba for a year to live with your uncle and his daughter. The timing of your transfer just happens to coincide with some mysterious murders, and thanks to protagonist plot importance your character is destined to be the one to get to the root of the mystery. However the game emphasizes that solving the crime is not a task meant to be undertaken alone, and you are encouraged to develop friendships and bonds with the various residents of Inaba, from fellow students to individuals outside of school, to assist your goal of finding the truth.
To put it as simply as possible, P4G’s gameplay loop is basically Pokemon combined with a slice-of-life simulator. Your time is split into calendar days, and each day you have the option to do various things, from hanging out with friends to even reading a book or fishing. While there is freedom in which activities you decide to pursue, your choice of activities should have the goal of either building up your relationships (known in-game as Social Links) or improving your character’s social skills (Courage, Expression, Understanding, etc.), as improving Social Links yields important character development as well as indirectly improving combat abilities, and higher social skills allows for an easier time creating more Social Links. Story-related events have you jump into various dungeons, which is where the combat comes into play. The combat is turn-based and plays very similarly to the Pokemon games where you and the enemy take turns damaging each other until one side remains standing, and a lot of the combat strategy is oriented around exploiting enemy weaknesses and strengths. Each character’s combat abilities are dictated by their Persona, (imagine a Stand from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventures), with each Persona having unique capabilities. As the protagonist, you are unique in the sense that you’re not locked to a single Persona like your companions, and instead maintain a collection of Personas that can be swapped to suit the situation. Improving your Personas can be done through leveling up through combat, or “fusing” them to create stronger Personas. This is where the Social Link mechanic comes into play; stronger Social Links allow for stronger fused Personas.
Overall, the gameplay is pretty fun, though considering P4G is almost a decade old, I would not particularly heap praise on it as at the end of the day its combat system is a simple, turn-based one that does not have a lot of unique mechanics to differentiate it from other turn-based games. The slice-of-life simulator is actually more interesting as deciding how to spend your day can be pretty methodical, especially if the intent is to acquire and max out as many Social Links as possible (though obviously that is not required to enjoy the game). Also considering the amount of available options you have while being restricted to a set number of days, it is sort of a real-life reminder that time/priority management is an important skill.
P4G’s greatest strength lies in its writing, which honestly caught me off guard. The overall narrative of a serial murder mystery is competently executed with a surprise twist at the end (if pursuing the True Ending), though considering a central theme of the game is character relationships and identities, I place way more importance on P4G’s character writing, which is absolutely fantastic. Despite the game’s primary setting being a high school, with the central characters being high school students, P4G has a very diverse and lovable cast, and its writing gets surprisingly mature, covering the various struggles of human individuality. The differences between how one perceives themselves vs. society’s perception of them, what the “true you” means in the context of humans being multi-faceted beings and coming to terms with the more unpleasant parts of one’s personality, loss and grief and how to move on, troubled family dynamics, and even toxic gender stereotypes are all relatable life concepts that are thoroughly explored in P4G. Each major character in the game has their own quirks and issues, and through the Social Link system you get to delve deeper into their lives and conflicts, and ultimately give them a new direction in life. That is some heavy stuff for the mere high school student you play as, but as a young adult playing this game, I am happy to see it address problems a lot of people around my age bracket tend to struggle with that I don’t see covered often in a lot of video games.
That said, P4G’s writing is not invulnerable to criticism, and I do have a few gripes with how some of the characters are handled. I get this might be a Japanese culture thing, but I am not a fan of how some characters are used as comic relief, and comic relief in this game usually involves being perverted and creepy to women, which is something that will certainly not fly in today’s age. The second criticism is that to me, there was a huge missed opportunity for homosexual representation in the game, which from a Western perspective is odd due to how it explores the concept of toxic masculinity and what society believes men should be. One of your male companions goes through a character arc of coming to terms with his differences from what a “real man” is and some of his more supposedly “feminine” characteristics, and is even questioned by another friend if he swings that way, though in the end he turns out to be heterosexual (at least that’s what I was led to think) and thus is unavailable as a romance option for the protagonist. Normally I do not care for developers adding in these sorts of characters just for the sake of inclusion (like a token character) as that can come across as pandering, but in P4G’s context it would have made a lot of sense to due to that specific character’s development arc, so in a way it definitely feels like a missed opportunity. Nonetheless, I still praise P4G’s writing team for the attention and thoughtfulness they have given to their characters, which was a huge part of why I ultimately stuck through with the game despite its somewhat simplistic gameplay loop.
Another gripe I have with the game is its pacing; P4G is a JRPG that takes a long time to finish and is not something one can quickly plow through in a short amount of time. Due the game more or less taking a calendar year’s worth of activities, there is a ton of stuff to do, and in the context of trying to solve a dangerous murder mystery, at times the pacing of the game can feel a tad off. That combined with the combat’s simplicity and at-times monotonous social activities led to a few points in time where I needed to take a break from the game due to getting bored/burnt out, especially considering I was mainly in for the story and characters. This is also exacerbated by how the Social Link system is actually implemented, as sometimes building those links can be tedious, which can be an issue since a lot of the game’s writing gems are locked behind those links (for this reason I honestly don’t see an issue with people following a guide to try and maximize Social Links in a single run of the game).
The biggest non-gameplay/writing part of P4G that deserves a shout-out is its soundtrack. Having been exposed to iconic Persona tracks though Joker’s inclusion in Smash, I already had high expectations, yet I was still blown away by P4G’s music. The soundtrack is that good, and has quickly become one of my favorite video game soundtracks of all time. The themes are all very catchy and surprisingly fit the atmospheres of the locations they’re used in well, with the plus side of being great tracks to listen to even when not playing the game (some personal favorites include Smile, I’ll Face Myself and Heaven). Huge props to composer Shoji Meguro for his magnificent work.
Overall, Persona 4 Golden still holds up pretty well in 2020, and barring some poor attempts at cheap humor that detract from its overall brilliant writing, I would say its story and characters are completely worth experiencing the game for. If you never owned a PS Vita to play the original (or a PS2 for the non-Golden version), now is the perfect time to play it now that it is finally available on PC.
Rating: It is on Steam for $20 retail, a steal especially considering the amount of content that you are getting.