Talk about your same as it ever was: The original Persona 4 came out as the PlayStation 2’s death rattle was getting louder, and yet it still managed to be one of that system’s best (and most underappreciated) games. Persona 4 Golden, Atlus’s new and portable HD update to the 2008 original, is now one of the PlayStation Vita’s best, absolutely must-have games—even though it scarcely takes advantage of a single one of the Vita’s shiny new touch and tilt functions.
That such is the case should tell you a lot about the masterpiece that was (and is) Persona 4. New visitors to this JRPG universe are likely to see a turn-based dungeon crawler with spirit- and element-based avatars and wonder why they shouldn’t just go back to playing Pokemon Black 2. But spending even just a few hours tooling around the tiny and troubled town of Inaba will quickly change even the most jaded gamer’s mind. This game is that good.
It starts with the game’s central premise, which finds you, as the new kid in town, unexpectedly embroiled in a murder-mystery worthy of Supernatural or The X-Files. A serial killer’s kidnapping victims and tossing them into a world that can only be accessed through television screens. If they remain trapped too long, they end up consumed by the shadows of their deepest, darkest feelings.
Luckily, you and your group of new high school pals are not only able to visit the TV world, but also able to summon and control Personas, these freaky and widely varied mental avatars that can help lay the smack on the shadows that inhabit the TV world. There are 150 of them in all—take that, Pokemon—and in one of the game’s best and most strategic mechanics, you collect and fuse them together to create even more powerful and interesting Personas.
The world of Persona 4 is governed by two immutable forces—the weather and the calendar. This is a game that gets you to care passionately about the next’s day’s forecast. Given that every time the fog rolls into Inaba—a sure bet the day after several days of rain—anyone imprisoned in TV World bites it, you’ll be hawking the news with the alarming regularity of a Here Comes Honey Boo Boo addict.
Your time, meanwhile, is a resource almost more precious than your health bar. Before long, you’re quite literally occupying the shoes of a typical teenager faced with the daily question: How should I spend my time? The ways in which you answer that question in this universe come with even more complex tradeoffs than they do in the real world: Sure, you could spend your afternoon at soccer practice and buff the social link rankings that fast-track bonuses for creating certain types of Persona, but you won’t get any cash because you’re not at your part-time job and dude, what about the big test on Wednesday and finding a girlfriend? The rain stops tomorrow!
Every one of these choices has some kind of impact on how powerful you and your Persona army will be when you venture into the next dungeon.
Those who played the original PS2 version already know this stuff, but they’ll want to dive back in to experience the extensive sheen Atlus has applied to this redux. The visuals have received a healthy HD buff, but it’s the voice acting here that’s the star of the show. It’s nothing short of spectacular, selling each and every character in Inaba, whether it’s the annoying/adorable quirks of your core pals or the familiar bluster and cluelessness of the teachers at Yasogami High. Golden adds half again as much voicework to the mix as existed in the original, so even though most of the storytelling is conveyed by text, the experience is still dynamic and hilarious.
There’s also a new character and social link to pursue, the mysterious and poetry-loving Marie. She adds a sullen/seductive attitude to the mysterious Velvet Room, but you’ve gotta wonder what she and Igor, your Persona-fusing spiritual mentor, have to chat about while you’re off slaying shadows.
Persona 4 Golden has a few online-based additions but these are less interesting. In a weak nod to Dark Souls, you can access thought bubbles that give you clues on what other players did in certain dungeon rooms. You can also send SOS-like help requests to other players when your throwdown with an unexpectedly powerful shadow is about to go seriously south. In return, you get some words of encouragement and a little stat bonus that carries over into the next battle. It’s a nice idea, but it doesn’t really impact the experience in any meaningful way.
You might have expected the developers to modify gameplay to feature the Vita’s touch-screen functionality, but it turns out that keeping the original control scheme was a far better call—this was not an experience that needed to be gilded with gimmickry. If you didn’t get enough of the soundtrack playing behind your dungeon battles, you can use the touch screen to select and play songs from the game’s soundtrack in the extras menu, and that’s about it.
With its ridiculous array of activities and side quests that augment a story that’s deeper than the queue at a One Direction ticket sale, this is a game that’ll suck weeks of your life away—and have you enjoying every minute of it. The fact that you can now savor that feeling in an airport terminal or the back seat of a city bus is one of the best gaming gifts of 2012.
+ Deep and engaging gameplay
+ A healthy bonus dose of fantastic voice-acting
+ So much to do, your head will spin
-Online features don’t add much to the experience
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Release Date: 11/20/2012
ESRB Rating: Mature
Source: Review code provided by publisher