Persona 4 Golden for PS Vita raises the bar for re-releases and remakes so high it’s almost unfair. Atlus could have slapped this 2008 JRPG on the Vita without new quests, characters, or online features and called it a day. But this developer remade Persona 3 from the ground-up to fit on the PSP, so it knows its way around an update. This update, full of passion, charm and intricate gameplay, also happens to stand above the rest of the Vita’s library as the best game available for the handheld thus far.
Like Persona 3 Portable, you manage your time day by day in one main area most of the time: Inaba, a rural Japanese town besieged by mysterious murders. It’s up to you and your high school friends to solve the crimes and catch the killer with the help of your Pokemon-like Personas. To strengthen these often demonic-looking creatures you need to strengthen your Social Links — the bonds you share with the people around you: your classmates, your cop uncle, even a weird teddy bear-like thing.
Anyone who’s played Persona 3 would be right at home in this dating sim/visual novel/dungeon-crawler mash-up and like that seminal game, Persona 4 Golden never wastes my time. Free of filler, every action and decision matters. And there’s a lot of choices you need to make day-to-day. Should I hang out with the girl in drama club today? Read books to increase my Courage, Understanding, or Diligence (stats that open up new conversational possibilities)? Take on part-time jobs to increase the same stats, gain money, and meet new Social Links? Or study for midterms to increase my standing with the school populace? It’s up to you how to live your life in Persona 4 Golden. The constant stream of decision-making, stat building, and Persona collecting makes this an RPG addict’s dream.
I must emphasize, I lost myself in this title. It ranks as the best player-driven experience I’ve had this year. And its portability is a major plus for me. I can play for short spats on the bus or train — improve a few Social Links, raid a dungeon for EXP — or marathon it for hours at a time. It’s designed to be as friendly as possible without being a total pushover. Boss fights and some normal mobs can be challenging, but if you die you can restart from the beginning of the dungeon floor you lost on instead of having to load up your last save file.
New social features like a word bubble icon you can tap that tells you what decisions players made on that particular day. It can help map your own choices as you can see who or what is available to interact with. The “S.O.S” feature, which lets online players encourage you with pre-selected messages (another shade of Pokemon) and healing, was far less useful, at least in my playthrough. Don’t expect allies to suddenly appear similar to Dark Souls or Monster Hunter. This is still a solo affair.
Reward cards — the ones that grant you new Personas or extra EXP and money after battle — are now a mini-game. Some specially marked cards now grant more than one card choice at a time. Manage to collect all the cards after a battle and you’re offered the chance to select even more the next battle. This makes collecting Personas, and keeping your party healed while dungeon-crawling, much easier.
The last great addition, the ability to select which abilities fused Personas can inherit, finally makes its way to a Persona game. No longer do you need to chance it with Persona fusions. Convenient as pie.
The only real knock I have against Persona 4 Golden is that when the story kicks in, it takes its time. That’s where my patience has worn thin sometimes. Information gets repeated a lot and I found myself reading faster than the voice actor could act. I’d often skip to the next message just to get back to the game. Voice acting’s solid all around with the exception of Chie. She sounds way too over-the-top, even hyper at times, and I just wished she would calm down. She’s trying so hard and she doesn’t need to. There are glimpses of a normal, enjoyable voice in there somewhere, so the blame has to go to the director. I mean, she sounds like Perspiring Pam. I got used to it, but it’s not really something one should get used to. It’s possible to turn the voices off in the options, but I wouldn’t. There are solid performances all over here — Yosuke, Dojima, Yukiko and are stand-outs — so I wouldn’t let one bad egg ruin the bunch.
Other than that, this is as close to flawless as it gets. The JPop-inspired soundtrack will get stuck in your head. The writing and tone balances the melodrama with a weird sense of humor near perfectly. And the graphics are a wonderful reminder (remainder?) of the simple-but-colorful bygone PS2 and Dreamcast days. It’s ironic a game all about socializing sucked up so much of my time and attention, but maybe that’s what Atlus is going for. To make us all better Persona-users! It’s like VR Training for real life. When you’re not playing Persona 4 Golden (and if you have a Vita, you should be — this is the best game I’ve played all year, maybe in years) you should be out maxing out your own Social Links and increasing your own Understanding. But let me know if you find a Velvet Room, okay? I could use a new pair of specs.