I don’t have a long history with RPGs, either of Western or Japanese origin. That’s something I’m trying to rectify. I have started many RPGs in the past, but I always fizzle out or end up starting over. Now I’m on a mission to really give the genre a chance, and it’s helping me think about video games differently. The length was always what kept me away from the genre the most, but now I’m starting to realize how much that length can be a benefit if used properly. It allows for more development of characters, worlds, and mechanics. Persona 4 Golden was the first stop on my RPG journey, and it will be a hard act to top.
I could talk for days about the story in Persona 4 Golden, but let me set up the basics. Persona 4 is about a high school kid from the city who moves to a small town named Inaba. This town was recently struck with the sudden death and presumed murder of a news anchor. At the same time the boy was met in his dreams by a strange man named Igor and told that the next year of his life would decide his fate. The main character soon learns about a rumor going around about “the midnight channel”. The rumor is that if you stare at your turned off television at midnight on a rainy night you will see your soulmate. You do this, and as you see the girl on the television you put your hand up to it and end up being engulfed by it. Shortly after this, the girl is found dead. You and your new friends soon discover that you have the ability to enter another world inside of the TV as well as summon “personas” to fight the “shadows” that live there. From there, you spend the year and the game uncovering the mystery behind the murders, saving future victims, making friends, and learning about the nature of the TV world.
That plot setup is the right level of absurd while also very personal and grounded. It doesn’t have a huge scope, but it still feels like everything matters. The game is contained to the town of Inaba. Inaba is a small and quiet town on the countryside, and all of the local businesses are being driven out by the introduction of a new big box store, Junes. One detail I love is that the shopping district in the game where you can buy weapons, items, etc. and go into other stores to increase stats or for story purposes also contains plenty of stores that are out of business and remain that way throughout the game. It does a good job of showing the struggling nature of the town, and even the positive and happy ending can’t fix that. Those businesses aren’t coming back, the town just learns to deal with that fact and move on. This setting is one of the strongest things about Persona 4. So many games are about globe trotting, huge wars, or quests to save the world. Persona 4 feels so much smaller than that and is therefore more relatable while still remaining fantastical.
But while the plot of Persona 4 manages to stay entertaining throughout with constant new developments and twists, the thing that really makes the game’s storytelling stand out is its cast of characters. The English localization of the game is incredibly sharp, and the high quality voice acting helps bring these characters alive. Every character in your party, along with a few notable others stand out in a positive way. The protagonist doesn’t go through much from a character development standpoint, so the game uses the development of Yosuke and to a lesser extent Chie, Teddie, and Yukiko to progress the plot during the opening hours. The aforementioned four alongside Kanji, Rise, and Naoto form one of the best casts in any video game. The band of misfits idea is well worn territory, but Atlus implements it well here, and by the end of the game you believe that this eclectic group are real friends that you don’t want to say goodbye to. I have to give a special shout out to Kanji who, brought to life by a great performance by Troy Baker, manages to be both the funniest and the most endearing character of the group.
The thematic undertone to Persona 4 is about embracing your true self, which is embodied by the shadows and personas. By playing through the game, you get to experience each of your seven party members come to grips with who they really are. A lot of this is presented through the critical path, but the social link system allows you to dive even deeper.
Before I get into social links, let me explain how time works in Persona 4. You have a calendar, and each day you get an afternoon and an evening to do what you would like. There are points in the story where this control is taken away from you, but the majority of the game follows this structure. You can use this time to work part-time jobs or study to increase stats, dungeon crawl to level you characters or progress the story, or work on your social links. The social link system is the most compelling system in the game. Depending on who is available, you can choose to spend time with your party members, your other classmates, your family, or some other characters that you meet along the way. These are short vignettes in which you get to learn more about the character and improve your relationship with them. You can accelerate this by choosing dialogue prompts that please the character you are with. The social links, which all deal with these characters discovering their true selves, are incredibly endearing and make you care about the characters in a real way. There are also a lot of them. The writing in the game is so good that I was naturally drawn to certain characters and wanted to see how their personal stories would play out. It is possible to max out all of them, but you are unlikely to do so in your first playthrough. It’s a shame, but it does make the schedule managing more engaging and makes the prospect of a new game plus run even more enticing. If anything is going to get me to play through all 80 hours of this game again it’s the promise of Naoto’s social link. The game also does the real smart thing of giving you reasons to prioritize the most story relevant characters. Each of your party members will gain new abilities in battle as a result of leveling up their social links. Further more, your uncle Dojima and his daughter Nanako are some of the only social links that can progress during the evening. These characters are the ones that the game wants you to feel attached to in the end, and I definitely did. However, it does make some of the other characters seem a little tossed to the side, especially by the end.
To say that the gameplay is where Persona 4 falls apart would be a bit harsh, but to say that the game would be completely unremarkable if not for every mentioned up to this point in the review would be entirely fair. I should make it clear from the start that I did enjoy the act of playing Persona 4. I never thought that the gameplay aspects were getting in the way of my enjoyment; they just weren’t enhancing it that much. Starting with the good, the actual moment to moment combat is solid. It is a basic four person, turn based battle system in which most of the strategy comes from exploiting elemental weaknesses as well as buffing and debuffing allies and enemies. The boss fights specifically require a fair amount of strategy and don’t allow you to just cruise through the game.
Characters issue their attacks by summoning their personas. Each of your party members has a set persona with a set upgrade path from which you will have to choose certain skills, but the player character can summon any persona. At the end of certain fights you will be given the ability to “welcome a new persona into your heart”. You can then fuse personas to create even more powerful ones that will carry over traits as well as come with their own set of them. This level of customization around your main character allows you to be more flexible with the rest of your party makeup because it means that you can fill whatever role is not being filled elsewhere. Finding new personas and fusing them can be a lot of fun to experiment with, but the system isn’t perfect. There are UI changes that could make the process more digestible and system level changes that could encourage more experimentation.
But despite some minor gripes, all of that works as intended. What doesn’t work are the dungeons. They can be such a slog to get through. The problem is that they are just boring in every way. They are aesthetically bland, the music (despite being fantastic for most of the game) is dull and repetitive, the layouts are uninteresting, and worst of all they are long. Long, empty hallways for multiple floors with only enemies here and there to fight. I enjoyed the battle system, but I found myself avoiding enemies in order to get out of the dungeons. The one cool thing that they have going for them is that you can sneak up behind an enemy and hit them in the back to gain an advantage in a fight, and they can do the same thing to you. That’s a fun concept, but the ambiguous form of the shadows and the poor camera controls make it more frustrating than anything. This sounds like a minor complaint, and in the grand scheme of things it is, but you do spend a significant amount of time in those dungeons, and they just feel like filler.
In fact, I would say that filler is probably the only thing that hampers the story in the game as well. There is a dungeon towards the middle of the game that is building towards a climax that is obviously not going to result in anything major. That’s fine as it breaks up the pacing of the game, but the ending to the previous dungeon had already done a good job of that, and there is no satisfying payoff. The ending of the game also feels like filler with a typical “true mastermind” type of ending. This rarely works for me as it gives the villain no time to develop, and it was no different in Persona 4. There are two great antagonists towards the end of the game, and I was completely satisfied by the end of the last fight. And while I wanted to spend more time in that world, I didn’t want to spend it going through one last dungeon. But again, these are just minor flaws in what is otherwise a fantastic experience.
Persona 4 Golden is a great version of a wonderful game. This is a game that will tug on your heart strings from all directions. It will fill you with joy and bring you to the verge of tears. And when all of that is said and done, it will leave you with a feeling of emptiness. I normally don’t like games with protagonists who serve as nothing but vessels, but in Persona 4 it made me feel like I was the one forging the friendships. This only made it that much harder to say goodbye when it was all said and done. The want for a game to never finish is truly the mark of a great game, and I wish that I could just roam the streets of Inaba with Kanji and Rise for the rest of my life.