Glancing out of my train window one morning for one fleeting second I saw a rabbit watching back. It was a surreal moment, extending in perception to fill far longer than the time it took us to rattle past at high speed. As I turned my head back around I was struck by the question of freedom; here was I, far the superior being, yet trapped inside a carriage of hurtling metal on my way home to fulfil my family duties having spent the day ensnared in an edifice of concrete giving my eight hours for someone else. This small ball of fluff, on the other hand, was entirely free to sit by the railway line and just revel in its existence, potentially planning its next lady-rabbit conquest as it nibbled nonchalantly on a nearby blade of grass. While it may well be that this freedom led almost immediately to the rabbit becoming a fox’s dinner or a body full of shot from a protective farmer minding his early planting that stark difference was still there – freedom, in all its terrible glory.
Really, when you boil down all the constituent parts, it’s a perception of freedom rivalling that of the rabbit’s that separates Persona 4 Golden from the crowd. Taking the role of a high school student you are ripped from the big city and thrown into the provincial city of Inaba. Almost immediately the rural tranquillity is shattered by a grisly murder, and it quickly becomes apparent that it’s up to you and your Scooby-gang to kick off an investigation and start saving lives. That’s not all though, as soon you soon hear rumours of the Midnight Channel, a show that appears at midnight on rainy days and seemingly predicts who will be targeted next in our expanding mystery. Oh, and the killer’s favoured method is to throw people through TV screens into another world where their inner selves become their worst enemy. Include the obligatory combat, levelling and collection exercises and you’ve got a JRPG to be proud of.
And yet, away from the story you are almost entirely free to spend your time as you wish – after you have progressed past the first couple of hours and the implicit tutorial they provide that is. As soon as the game rushes you through the school day you are left with an entire world of choices open to you, a myriad of people and jobs to pick and choose from as you decide who or what you will spend your time with. This simulation aspect of the game is one of the strongest features of the Persona series and it doesn’t disappoint in this iteration; each one of the many relationships you can forge provides a compelling story that develops as you grant it extra time. Your friends all exist on their own schedules and you will find yourself counting the days until you know that special someone is available again for you, their story drawing you in and pulling you away from the many other diversions. Oft times adult (in the good way!) these tales are remarkably well written and many will resound with those of us with more than a few years of life experience – even the presence of teenage dating is welcome, with P4G never overstepping the bounds into a full bishôjo (or even eroge) sim and instead ensuring that the characters are depicted (and voiced) in keeping with your expectations.
Every now and then however you’ll have to park your life as a Japanese high school student and instead get your tough hat on and head off to rescue the murderer’s latest target. Instead of the never-ending tower of Tartarus from Persona 3 here each dungeon is a self-contained set of floors, visually and musically themed around the character trapped within them. Each dungeon is graphically distinct from the next, and you can’t help but be impressed with the care and thought that has gone into the design of each one. Apart from a few story linked floors each dungeon floor is randomly generated and populated each time you enter it, allowing you to grind another few levels or drops by simply exiting and then re-entering the floor. The turn based combat is dominated by the tactical consideration of trying to attack your foes’ weaknesses. You can utilise seven different attack types (well, nine if you count the irresistible Almighty type and the non-damaging debuff skills) and if you manage to use one that attacks your target’s weakness you are rewarded with a second go. While the lower difficulty levels allow you to run through each dungeon hardly breaking a sweat the higher levels demand your absolute attention, proving themselves devastating to the unprepared.
Of course, whatever the difficulty level you have decided to go with you’ll have to employ the power of multiple persona to get you through. Persona are representations of your characters’ inner-selves, brought into line by their ego and then projected out whenever you need one of your party to perform any vaguely fantastical act. Each one of your party members will hold one persona, but you yourself will be able to collect and utilise many more throughout the course of the game. Able to chop and change between your persona at a whim each battle may see you employ many different personas to make sure you have access to the correct offensive skill or defensive quality as and when you need them. As you gain experience so do your persona, and your abilities and stats are intrinsically linked to them. However, instead of keeping one favoured persona and nurturing it through the entire game to gain access to more powerful spells you’ll instead have to constantly smash and smoosh your persona collection together in order to fuse ever more powerful variants.
Somewhat wonderfully, the fusing action brings us round in a smallish circle back to the links you have been forging with Inaba’s residents. These social links don’t just exist for you to feel all warm and fuzzy inside as you level them up and help people through the travails of life – no, instead they also provide bonus experience to persona as you fuse them. This experience boost can be massive – fuse a persona matching a social link type that you have maxed out and you’ll find them propelled through many levels, quickly boosting their stats and learning nearly all of their available skills. In fact, the whole fusion process has been streamlined, with the Vita version allowing you to actually pick and choose the skills that your new persona inherits from the older ones. All in all it makes the whole process so much more enjoyable, allowing you to craft your persona as you see fit. Favoured skills are taken forward through many iterations of persona with your own combat bias witnessed in those skills that you just keep on making room for. It’s a perfect merging of two seemingly disparate game genres, a life simulation and turn based battles – on paper it shouldn’t work, but in-game you’ll find yourself moving into and out of each part with ease, the sum of the game’s parts proving to be far more valuable than when taken separately.
But, move away from all of these gameplay elements and you’ll find the quality abounds everywhere you look. Take the concept of the TV for example – the unobservant will see it only as the portal to the other world, a cheap babysitter for Nanako, but instead it proves itself to be an even more central feature. The camera that follows you through your dungeoneering escapades is low-slung and reminiscent of dolly-slider camera footage while throughout the normal world the fixed camera points seem to be positioned exactly where they would be for a reality TV show. Combat screens that display rectangular static in the middle of the screen increase the feeling that the player is positioned as a watcher of the Midnight Channel, while the gaming fourth wall is cracked fully when you double tap the Vita’s screen and a TV overlay pops up allowing you to watch unlocked shows. In Persona 3 we were treated to a party who wielded their weapons with a certain amount of amateur charm, whereas here in Persona 4 Golden from the moment combat begins your party looks like the dynamic action heroes of a popular show. Take a further step back and the truth hits you – you are (obviously) experiencing Persona through a screen and the original PS2 release would have been on the TV screen. It’s a magnificent realisation of something that every other game would just ignore but here is incorporated into the overall experience in a seamless way.
Even though it was first released back in 2008 for the PS2 Persona 4 Golden isn’t just a port - it’s as if it’s a definitive version all bundled up with a massive expansion pack in one. There are new social links for this version of the game, giving you more relationships to explore than you thought possible - including one that can provide you with a new epilogue video. A new ending exists for those brave or stupid enough to find it, and mini-games such as bug catching have been added. Okina City is now a location you can visit and walk around, offering both a clothes shop to outfit your party in new costumes and a branch of Cafe Chagall which lets you receive skill cards from your equipped Persona. Online functionality has been grafted on also, allowing you to see the most popular actions other players took outside of the TV and giving you an SOS option while battling in the dungeons. If another player answers your real time call then you will receive a small boost to your health and spirit – not essential then, but helpful in those long grinding sessions. Finally members of your party can gain valuable additional skills from boosting your social link with them, as well as a powerful new Persona for them. In a world full of bland HD upgrades or unwanted extras Atlus have piled additional features into P4G and every single one of them fits flawlessly while expanding and adding to the overall quality of the game. This isn’t ‘just a port’ – this is almost an entirely new game squeezed into the mechanics and story of the original.
There’s a moment where you will fully appreciate the quality and hold of P4G and it comes right after you finish the game for the first time. You’ll enjoy the ending you’ve earned but then there will be recognition of a huge Persona shaped hole in your life. Persona 4 Golden is so much more than just a mere game, it’s a wonderful experience that grabs you by the beard hairs and drags you in, dominating your spare time and idle thoughts until you have reached that ending. And then? How to dispel your ennui, to bring back the joie de vivre? A New Game Plus will call to you, unfinished social links and potential relationships will demand your attention and any other game you had queued will pale in appeal by comparison. And who can argue with quality like that?