This review is part of My 2023 in Gaming retrospective, with Persona 4 Golden being my third favourite game of last year.
Born as a spin-off of Shin Megami Tensei, the Persona series was able to considerably outgrow its origins in popularity. Most of the credit is due to its fifth mainline entry, which was able to dip its toe into mainstream culture. But even before Persona 5 took the JRPG world by storm, Persona 4 already had a considerable fanbase. Initially released in 2008 for the by-then outdated PlayStation 2, the game gained a second life when its “deluxe” version, Persona 4 Golden, was released in 2012 for the ill-fated PlayStation Vita. Due to the small library of the portable system, the game quickly gained the status of one of the very best in there (it is, in fact, the best-rated PS Vita game on Metacritic). P4G stayed for many years stuck on the poor Vita, with multiplatform ports coming out much, much later. How much precisely? 8 years later for PC and 11 (eleven!) for Xbox, PS4, PS5, and Nintendo Switch. But what is so special about this series, and this game in particular, that makes it so worthwhile to play after all this time?
The Persona formula
Despite their differences, every mainline Persona game follows a very specific formula that sets them apart from anything else: We play as a Japanese teenager who just moved to a new town and we follow the events of an entire year, day by day. We will attend school during weekdays, explore the town during our free time, and make some friends along the way by spending time with whomever we decide to. It also happens that we have a particular psychic ability that makes us able to reach a parallel world that “exists between mind and matter, dream and reality,” as a character that serves as our spiritual guide explains to us. In that world, we fight shadows that are essentially monstrous materializations of personalities. How do we fight them? With weapons and our own shadows, which, when controlled by us, are named as, you guessed it, personas. It’s a concept quite similar to Pokémon. Every persona has elemental strengths and weaknesses, and we need to constantly switch between the ones we possess to effectively defeat the shadows we encounter. With some strategy and luck, we can recruit some of those shadows to our compendium of personas.
While completely distinct, these two facets of the gameplay structure complement each other. The actions we take during the life simulation sections will give us advantages during combat, such as stat boosts in a particular type of persona, or even the possibility to have friends to fight alongside us in the shadow world. On the other hand, our fights in the combat sections will unlock key events in the game’s extensive story.
Deadly mystery in the small town
The narrative of Persona 4 is set in a small Japanese town named Inaba. Our protagonist just arrived to live with his uncle for an entire year due to his parents going on a very long business trip. During that same time, the otherwise uneventful town becomes the center of a recent serial murder case. It happens that the aforementioned uncle works as a detective for the local police, which puts us right at the center of the action. While he doesn’t necessarily disclose details of the investigation, the people around him do, such as his clumsy assistant or his young daughter. Coincidentally, a rumor about an unidentified broadcast that appears on TVs during rainy nights, appropriately named the “Midnight Channel”, is being spread around the high school the protagonist attends. With nothing better to do, he decides to see if said rumor is true. Not only does he find it is, but that the channel turns the TV into a portal to a shadow world. Following that finding, he and the few people in the school who also experienced the same are able to find connections between it and the serial murder victims, forming together an investigation team, resembling some sort of a japanese version of Scooby Doo’s Mystery Inc. The action unfolds with the investigation team identifying future victims inside the shadow world, one by one, and saving them before they die. All of this while trying to uncover all the truth behind everything happening.
What makes this game truly special to me is how it’s able to seamlessly combine such high-stakes narrative with life in a small town. At any point in the story, all the people we encounter on Inaba’s streets will have some opinion about the current events and the consequences of our investigation team’s actions. After dozens of hours and countless visits to the same few places, we’ll know the entire town and its people, to the point where when we need to investigate something in particular, we already know where to go and who to talk to. This feeling is highly relatable to me, as I grew up in a small town as well. Despite all the cultural differences between my home country and Japan, the feeling is the same. I can’t deny that this made me appreciate this game even more.
Seeing and hearing the truth
As with any videogame, the audiovisual presentation is undeniably a key factor to determine our enjoyment of it, and P4G is a game full of contrasts in that aspect. To start, we have a very solid art direction, dominated by yellow and warm tones, from the game interface to the scenarios. Yellow isn’t my favourite color, far from it, but it works really well in this context, providing a cozy feeling to the experience. Unfortunately, all this was paired with a very basic graphics engine (even for PlayStation 2 standards) that doesn’t do justice to the amazing character portrait draws. The characters 3D models have very low polygonal counts and stiff animations, while the dungeons during the combat sections are incredibly repetitive, using the same assets in every room and hallway. This issue is even more noticable while playing at 1080p resolution or above, which is the case of the most recent ports. The positive side of this is that even on Nintendo Switch it loads really fast and performs at some stable 60fps.
While the visuals are a mixed bag, the soundtrack is solid, which is a good thing because this isn’t a short game. The predominant style is definitely J-pop, which initially didn’t match my taste, but after a few dozen hours, I already had “Heartbreak, heartbreak, it keeps on pounding” engraved in my mind.
- Engaging story and characters
- Challenging but fair combat mechanics
- Great soundtrack full of catchy songs
- Game’s small town setting is quite charming
- Dated visuals and character animations
- Exploring dungeons is a bit of a chore
Persona 4 Golden is an all-time JRPG classic that balances wonderfully a high-stakes narrative with the slowly paced life in a rural town.
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