Persona 4 Golden appeals to two specific groups: those with a Playstation Vita looking for a solid port and those looking for an excuse to buy a Vita despite the handheld’s somewhat bare lineup. A glorified tribute to one of the Playstation 2’s last great JRPGs, Persona 4 Golden tweaks and extends Persona 4’s mechanics and story. For the most part, the changes are welcome. However, despite Persona 4 Golden’s careful treatment of its base material, its changes are somewhat shallow.
Persona 4 Golden’s storyline is a slightly extended version of Persona 4. For those unfamiliar with Persona 4, the game goes through one year of a normal high school student (you). Moving to the sleepy, rural town of Inaba to live with your uncle and cousin, your arrival is shadowed by the shocking and grisly murder of an announcer woman recently outed for an affair. The nature of her corpse – dangling upside down from an antenna – sends the town into a maelstrom of hearsay.
Immediately following the murder you hear rumours of a channel appearing on rainy nights called the Midnight Channel, and after a brief investigation, you find out you can enter televisions and combat globular, amorphous beasts called Shadows with the help of objects called Personas. Further investigation into the case revolving around the murders (another murder follows) in Inaba are broken up neatly by having to attend high school. In short, the game is an absurdly entertaining time management simulator.
Persona 4 Golden is primarily a port of additions, not changes. The major selling points of this version of the game are the newly accessible areas, the increased freedom during the evening, the ability to play during the closing months of the game, and more endings. Also, I can go on a skiing trip and go to the beach. I can dress up everyone in Power Ranger outfits like some jabbering branch manager on a power trip. Most of all, I can make more friends. Two major Social Links: the Aeon and the Jester, are available, with both directly affecting how much new content in the story is obtainable. Experiencing the bulk of new content depends on your completion of these two links.
However, despite it being a port of additions, there are changes. Some of them are big. For one, a few characters have different voice actors. Some sound similar to their Playstation 2 counterparts. Some do not, and the experience can be somewhat jarring playing Persona 4 Golden after playing the original. The fishing minigame is changed, a card sorting ‘minigame’ called Shuffle Time depends more on basic arithmetic and sheer dumb luck, and Persona inheritance is no longer left to random fusion chance, but by selection. New players to Persona 4 will be unfamiliar with Golden’s changes, but those already aficionados of Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei tsunami of campy high school mystery rom-coms will notice the changes right away.
For the most part, Persona 4 Golden moves away from its infamous ‘too damn hard’ Atlus roots. Instead the game readily holds the player’s hand, with narrative clues, critical save points, and new weapons and armor, all of which bolster the protagonist’s formidable arsenal. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but if you’ve already played Persona 4, then you can find yourself overcompensating even on the more difficult levels, and the game’s idea of increasing difficulty can seem somewhat shallow.
For instance, later on one of the level gimmicks requires you losing your main item sets and instead relying on the items you find on that specific level. This has nothing to do with the enemies becoming more intelligent or varied. Several enemies are still carbon copies and palette swaps of earlier enemies you faced before, and once you’re familiar with key strategies on how to deal with certain opponents, you can extend this to most enemies of the same type. As a result, the idea of ‘a more difficult game’ comes off as a bit lazy.
Of course, this is not to disparage the game as some sort of Shin Megami Tensei tricycle ride. The game compensates for its lack of advanced AI and instead utilizes enemies that increase difficulty by exploiting weakness mechanics, leading to heightened levels of cheapness. Enemies are more likely to callously exploit the weaknesses of your Personas and your party members, so the difficulty level is parallel to the level of infuriating enemy design, especially in the latter levels of the game. Expect gnashed teeth and annoyed grunts.
Though I claim Persona 4 players will realise the changes in Persona 4 Golden, the caveat is not all changes are noticeable. Some quests, for example, have gone through complete revamping, and unless you pay the utmost attention to the changes and their purpose, completion of certain social links may prove impossible without a guide. Likewise, the graphical capability of the Vita, though slightly improved to take advantage of its OLED display and resolution, is only slightly more detailed than the Playstation 2 version. This would not be a problem had it not been for a very specific level later in the game whereupon you race towards the boss, and along the way a series of ruin jut out from blankets of fog and sunlight. This area uses the Vita’s capabilities to its fullest, and comes off as a bit jarring simply by the virtue that it is much, much prettier and more detailed than the rest of the game.
Furthermore, though the game does provide a new ‘arc’ to the overarching investigation, none of it has any lasting gravity. The new character Marie never changes the endings in any real substantive manner. There is nothing about her character that sheds more light on the nature of the fog or the Shadows or the television world that was missing from the original Persona 4, and therefore her actual impact is minimal. Likewise, though the game boasts a short epilogue of events after Persona 4 Arena, nothing really happens in the epilogue that would suggest Atlus’ direction for Persona 5 or any major changes. Your team members have chosen to reflect more deeply about themselves (manifest through different hairstyles), and the events of Persona 4 Arena is brushed aside as ‘that incident during Golden Week’.
Now, we shouldn’t assume Persona 4 Golden’s changes and additions are bad or needless. While nothing necessarily changed from Persona 4 regarding the overall story direction, the game still crafts some solid new characters, and polishes some old ones (especially the Shiroku shop lady and the bumbling detective Adachi). However, even the final epilogue is still nothing more than a feel-good pat on the back for having slogged through a hundred hours of game time.
Instead, what matters about Persona 4 Golden is that the game is proof of Atlus’ understanding on how to modify and tweak its games for pareto improvement. Though the changes can be initially awkward and slightly uncomfortable, ultimately they allow for a more streamlined, engaged experience. It’s meatier, with more things to do and thankfully more time to do them. Though there’s nothing new for the overarching story, there is so much polishing in Persona 4 Golden that nevertheless it shines with a mirror finish.