As with the original version of Persona 4, you are given the option to name the protagonist. However, since his name was established in Persona 4: Arena to be Yu Narukami, this will be the name that I refer to him by: it flows better in text than ‘the player-character,’ or any derivation of the same.
Perhaps the greatest compliment that I can pay to Persona 4: Golden, the Vita port of Atlus’ critically acclaimed RPG from 2008 of the same name (sans the subtitle) is that, frequently, I felt as though I was playing the game for the first time again. That a handheld console can deliver such a picture-perfect (and, in several places, improved) port of a game so stuffed to the brim with things to do, and find room to add extra content is nothing short of extraordinary.
While this praise may seem rather heavy-handed, when you consider the portable version of Persona 3, which–while still a commendable port–was rather stripped down, it’s clear that, heavy-handed or not, it is definitely apt. I would go so far as to say that Persona 4: Golden is the best console port that has hit the Vita thus far. I know I’m off to a bit of a one-sided start, and I promise that this review isn’t going to be unmitigated praise from start to finish, but I felt that expressing my admiration as to the quality of this game was an honest way to start. Now that it’s out of the way, we can move on to more serious matters.
If you’re at all familiar with Persona 4, then the first part of this is going to sound very familiar: after all, the game is, as far as the story and core gameplay, goes unchanged from its original 2008 release. You take control of the player-named (male) protagonist, hereby referred to (as mentioned in the above disclaimer) as Yu Narukami. After his parents take jobs abroad, Yu moves to the rural town of Inaba to stay with his uncle and young cousin, Ryoko and Nanako Dojima. Though it is usually a peaceful town, a series of grisly murders begin in Inaba shortly after Yu’s arrival. These murders seem to be connected to the Midnight Channel: an urban legend among the youth of Inaba. The legend goes that, when one looks into a powered-off TV on a rainy midnight, they will see their soul mate. After being convinced to test out this legend by a fellow Yasogami High School student, Yu discovers that he has the ability to enter a bizarre TV world, prompting him to begin investigating the murders, alongside some of his new friends.
It is difficult to recount the plot for Persona 4 without entering spoiler territory, because of its mystery-novel flavour: realistically, just about anything could potentially spoil. The characters within it also heavily drive the plot, which makes going into any detail about the members of the Investigation Team – the friends Yu ventures into the TV world with – just as problematic. At the same time, though, this interconnectivity between plot and character is one of the strongest parts of the game’s narrative. It’s refreshing, at a point in time where many games seem to forgo having main characters with significant backstories or character arcs, to be reintroduced to a game where the entirety of the plot’s progression is based on these same things.
In order to be able to enter the TV world safely (and voluntarily, for that matter), one has to be able to control a Persona, described within the game as an interior facet of the consciousness that assists in overcoming adversities. However, in order to gain the power to control their Persona, a person must confront their Shadow, which is basically their dark side, the part of them they don’t want anyone else to see. Because of this, at some point or another, you’ll have to see both the best and the worst of every person who joins the Investigation Team. Since watching your team members confront their dark sides is an inherent part of the game’s story, Persona 4 does an extremely effective job of making you feel connected to each member of your team. In fact, (though this is purely subjective), Persona 4 is the first JRPG I’ve played in a long time–possibly since I played it the first time–where I can honestly say I didn’t find any of the main characters unlikeable. Since you know every facet of the other members of the team, it’s very easy to find some part of them that’s at least partially relatable, which is always the key to crafting a good character.
Given the gameplay style of Persona 4, which is divided into two distinct halves, the presence of likeable characters is an absolute must. While in Inaba, things take on a more social aspect, where you decide on which activities you’ll partake in each day. These can range from the purely productive – studying or working a part-time job, for example – to leisure activities, like forming your Social Links, reading, fishing, or cruising around Inaba on your scooter. There is also the option of diving into the TV world. Once there, gameplay becomes classic dungeon crawling, where you navigate through differently themed areas fighting monsters and looting treasure, usually in pursuit of the staircase that will bring you up (or down) another floor, and closer to whatever goal you may be pursuing at the time.
While you’re in the TV world, it becomes extremely easy to lose track of time. Searching each floor for the staircase will take time in and of itself, but more often than not, you’ll find yourself covering every square inch of any given floor to find every treasure chest in the area, or another group of Shadows to fight to grind yourself up another level. The combat itself isn’t so complex as to be abstruse, but boss fights, and even fights with the smaller Shadows you haven’t encountered yet often require thinking about. Most of the smaller Shadows, and even some of the bosses, have weaknesses to a particular element. If you hit a monster’s weak spot, or score a critical hit, the monster will become downed, and the character that struck the blow will get another turn. If you manage to down all of the Shadows in a fight, you’ll have the option of performing an ‘All-Out Attack,’ where all of the characters in your party will deal heavy damage to all Shadows in the enemy party. This is where the brunt of your damage will come from, so aiming for weak spots or upping your party’s chance for critical hits will always be a central part of your combat strategy.
This mechanic makes it so that smaller fights can become extremely easy, but you’re never completely out of the woods. Each Persona has its own weakness, so your party members will all have static weak points, while yours will vary, depending on which Persona you currently have equipped (you’re the only one who can swap them in and out). So if an enemy hits someone’s weak point, or pulls off a critical hit, that party member will be downed, and that enemy will get another turn. This can make smaller battles tense if they’re a stronger Shadow, or one you’ve never faced before, because you can potentially get hit for a lot of damage extremely quickly.
It would also be prudent of me to mention here, while talking about Shadows and Personas, that the designs for them are top-notch. If you’ve played Persona 3 before, some of them will look familiar, but others are brand new, and a few of the boss Shadows in particular are the most distinct enemies I can recall seeing in an RPG.