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LIVIN' AFTER MIDNIGHT
Persona 4 Golden Perfects The J-RPG Formula
BILL WOOD | JANUARY 24, 2023
I'll kick off this article with a direct statement: Persona 4 is my favorite Japanese RPG of all time and there isn't even a close second. How much do I adore this role-playing gem? I own the original PS2 version, the PS3 digital version, the fighting game spinoff, the dancing game spinoff and the PC edition even though I don’t have a PC to play it on. I also own the Japanese strategy guide and art book as well the complete manga series. I even considered buying a PS Vita just to play the updated version, Persona 4 Golden.
This in itself really isn't surprising. After all, there are plenty of hardcore Persona 4 devotees out there, the game has enjoyed a steady stream of mainstream and critical success for nearly 15 years. What’s really surprising is that Persona 4 isn’t even the best game in the Persona series (that distinction goes to Persona 5 Royal), let alone the best J-RPG ever made (that distinction likely goes to Persona 5 Royal as well). So what exactly is it that makes this quirky throwback game such a sentimental fan favorite? Hopefully I can explain.
Originally released for PlayStation 2 way back in 2008, Atlus' Persona 4 is a groundbreaking role-playing game which has seen several updates and re-releases over the years. Set in the fictional Japanese town of Inaba, the game combines old-school dungeon crawling with teenage life management simulation, which basically means warping to a remote world to battle horrific creatures while attending drama class and studying for exams. It’s a bizarre concept for a video game—or any medium for that matter—but it totally works, thanks in large part to some innovative storytelling and character development. Along with other classic slice-of-life RPGs such as Shenmue, Persona 4 compensates for what it lacks in modern convention with an overabundance of charm and personality, inspiring an entire genre of "Persona-like" games in the process. Now that the game has (finally!) been updated and released on modern consoles as of January 2023, there's never been a better time to go back and revisit the Midnight Channel.
I've played through the original Persona 4 many times but never had the opportunity to play Persona 4 Golden on the PS Vita (Sony's briefly-lived hand-held), therefore all of that version’s expanded content is new to me. Published in 2012, the Vita version of P4G already featured enough enhancements to warrant another playthrough, but combined with the numerous upgrades and quality-of-life improvements from the 2020 PC release, the 2023 console release is now an almost completely different experience compared to the original. Visually speaking, the game has never looked better. It's great to see that Atlus actually took the time to upgrade many of the textures to HD while hitting a solid 60fps on PS4/5. Gamers may take this for granted as a bare minimum of effort for such a dated title, but compared to uninspired remaster efforts such as Sega’s Shenmue 1 and 2 and even Atlus' own Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, this version of P4G is an absolute joy to behold.
[For those looking for a more detailed explanation of updates from the 2008's Persona 4 through 2023's Persona 4 Golden, I'll include a detailed list at the end of this article.]
I typically tend to overlook audio design in video games, but I cannot enough heap enough praise upon Shoji Meguro's amazing P4G soundtrack. Let’s just say if you’re a fan of J-pop, J-jazz, etc., these songs will probably end up on your permanent playlist. If you’re not already a fan, catchy tunes such as “Pursuing My True Self” and “Your Affection” just might sway you to become one. Atlus regularly stages Persona-themed live concerts to rabid audiences in Japan, and for good reason. The series has spawned a wealth of brilliant tracks over the decades, including P4G's unforgettable Junes department store jingle. Once you’ve heard it, it will never, ever leave your head.
Gameplay-wise, P4G adheres firmly to its J-RPG roots. If you’ve played any of the Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest games, P4G's turn-based combat system is literally identical with a few fresh dabs of paint. Stat grinding is practically a prerequisite, resulting in the satisfaction of leveling your team up from woefully inexperienced to absurdly overpowered. Thankfully, the combat system features rush-down and auto-attack options to get you through the grind with a minimum of tedium. The dungeon layouts quickly become dated and repetitive, but it helps to remember that P4G is very much a PlayStation 2 title at its core, it was released in an era when conventions such as procedurally-generated dungeons were still high-concept. This tried-and-true formula still holds up for many like myself, but your mileage may vary.
If the combat mechanics and dungeon layouts are straightforward, the various sub-systems that complement the game are anything but. Like an unholy version of Pokémon, much of P4G’s appeal comes from capturing various devils, demons and deities (a.k.a. "Personas") and adding them to your collection for use in battle, even fusing them together to create entirely new Personas. Developing Social Links with your companions is vital as strengthening your bonds with your friends results in even more powerful Personas at your disposal. Self-improvement is equally important as focusing on your studies and work habits results in opening up the deeper portions of the game. There's even a card mini-game attached to the end of battles, giving you the opportunity to reap bigger rewards. It's a testament to solid game design that the P4G experience provides an expansive set of gameplay options without becoming overwhelming.
It's true that Persona 4 Golden looks, sounds and plays great on modern consoles, but the game’s greatest strengths—the story and characters—eventually warrants it greatest criticism. If David Lynch directed an anime series, it might feel something like this. The endearing cast of high school students and quaint rural setting are what literally bring the game to life, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself quickly becoming engrossed in the supernatural murder mystery that has overtaken the sleepy town of Inaba. Every protagonist has their own distinct appeal as well as their own personal issues to confront, and this is where the problems arise. Some of the character's narratives are exploitative and immature, possibly even offensive depending on your take. I won’t spoil anything, but let’s just say if you’re familiar with dated anime and manga stereotypes then nothing will come as a surprise. Quite honestly, this one area I tend to skim over when playing through P4G as the game's highlights definitely outshine the flaws.
My only other issues with P4G are the online implementations, which feel tacked on and unnecessary. The "Voice" feature allows you to review the paths that other gamers have selected throughout their journey before making your own decision, which is fine if you’re lost and don’t know here to go next. For me, a large part of the game's appeal comes from carving my own unique path, but it's here for you if you need it. The "SOS" feature allows you to appeal for help (and lend help) via online request, resulting in a minimal energy boost for your next battle. Seeing as P4G is already dead easy on the Normal setting, I never explored either of these features as more than a brief curiosity. Thankfully all online features are optional and you can disable them for a more traditional experience.
Perhaps P4G’s biggest setback is that it’s not Persona 5 Royal, and I totally get that. P5R is an absolutely brilliant game in its own right and it's also one of my very favorites. The game set new standards for the J-RPG by expanding upon the Persona formula, raising the bar so impossibly high that it may be difficult for newer gamers go back and enjoy the classics. I certainly hope that’s not the case, as P4G's small-town vibe provides a welcome contrast to the big-city hustle of P5R. They're both worthy titles, and I'll add Persona 3 Portable (released on consoles alongside P4G in January 2023) to the mix as well. Generally speaking, every Persona game has made substantial leaps over its predecessor, and I can't wait to see what Persona 6 (not officially announced as of this writing) eventually has to offer.
If you haven't noticed by now, I can’t provide a proper review for Persona 4 Golden as any attempt to do so would reveal my bias toward the game. Suffice to say this 2022 console remaster is something I’ve been waiting for for years, and now that’s it here, I’m pleased to say that it does not disappoint. 15 years after its release, Persona 4 is still a very special title that RPG fans should experience at least once. If video games aren’t your thing, there are the anime and manga versions that tell the same exact story. But playing through the game is really the core P4G experience, and thankfully it's never been more convenient or rewarding. - BW
Persona 4/Golden release/update details:
Persona 4 (PlayStation 2, 2008)
* Original release
Persona 4 Golden (PS Vita, 2012)
* Two new Social Links (Adachi, Marie)
* Updated visuals
* Nighttime exploration
* Larger explorable area
* Additional Personas
* Additional character outfits
* Anime cutscenes
* Online functions
* House garden to grow consumables
* In-game TV channels
* New soundtrack songs
Persona 4 Golden (Steam, 2020; PlayStation 4, Xbox, Switch, 2023)
* Japanese language option
* Enhanced graphics (HD textures, minimum 60fps)
* Quicksave option
* Additional text languages