Although Shin Megami Tensei is technically the flagship RPG franchise over at Atlus, its spin-off Persona series has made huge strides in finding mainstream appeal in recent years. While Persona 5 may have done most of the heavy lifting, Persona 4 Golden (P4G)—the enhanced re-release of the PS2 classic—was also an instrumental part in getting the series on the map. Part of the benefit of being released on the tragically doomed PS Vita meant that it was that much easier to stand out from the slim crowd of games on the platform, and P4G was quickly lauded as one of the few must-have buys for the platform. After stronger-than-expected sales from its surprise Steam release in 2020, P4G has now found its way to the Switch and we’re pleased to report that it is still a thoroughly delightful RPG.
P4G places you in the role of a city-dwelling silent protagonist who moves to the rural town of Inaba to live with his uncle and cousin for a year while his parents work abroad. While your character seems to adjust well to his new life, things are tense around town as there’s a serial killer on the loose who’s consistently evading the police. Your character and his newfound friends then quickly get wrapped up in the mystery when they discover the Midnight Channel, a mysterious 'other world' that can be accessed by crawling through a TV screen. The killer is using the Midnight Channel and its abundant population of Shadows to murder his victims, but you soon realize that you can battle Shadows using your Personas and free the victims before it's too late. You and your friends thus set out to save the killer’s victims while also stringing together clues to try and deduce who the killer is.
Despite the rather intense premise, P4G's narrative feels notably lighthearted, which makes its darker moments all the more of a gut punch. There are some very real, emotional events to be experienced in this story, and much of their weight is due to the increased focus on character development. Though previous Persona games certainly featured strong characters, it feels like P4G places much more importance on fleshing out each member of the 'Investigation Team' with individual arcs while also taking the time to highlight more small, mundane moments between them. These little moments add up and elevate the cast from feeling like ‘party members’ and more like friends and people with real depth to them. This greater focus on relationships and character development makes the plot that much more gripping.
Gameplay follows the standard Persona formula of mixing together social sim elements with traditional JRPG gameplay, and it’s executed here brilliantly. Though your character may be a badass supernatural warrior, they’re also a high school student first. The demands of studying and socialising don't go away just because the killer kidnaps another victim. Thus, you spend most of your weeks attending school, participating in clubs, hanging out with friends, and working part-time jobs. Often, these activities will boost various social stats in traits like intelligence or diligence, allowing you to better relate to the various people in your character’s life.
This is especially important given that many characters feature Social Links that greatly enhance both the story and gameplay. Each character’s Social Link will progress an optional sub-narrative centered around them, and progressing to each new step in their story will grant you benefits in finding and fusing Personas that you use for dungeon exploration. Plus, progressing Social Links for party members will cause them to become more effective in battle with things like extra attacks or more powerful versions of their Personas. It’s not possible to max out every character’s Social Link in one playthrough without sticking to a ruthlessly strict schedule, so you have to ultimately pick and choose which characters you want to get closest to.
This is a larger mechanic of managing the life sim side of the game, as your character has a limited amount of time to spend on any given activity each day. Most days you’re stuck in school till the afternoon, so you only have time for one activity before night comes. It’s up to you whether you spend your time exploring the latest dungeon, hanging out with a friend, or studying for the upcoming exams, but your actions will always have consequences further down the line. Neglect furthering some Social Links, and you’ll have a tougher time shoring up a sharp team of Personas to fight with. Skip out on studying and you might not be able to form a particular Social Link until you’ve hit the books enough. Ignore exploring the dungeon too long, and you might run out of time before the next victim dies. There are usually no wrong answers about what you should do next, but there’s always a give-and-take to whatever you choose to do.
Luckily, there is an online option that can help give you some guidance on what might be the best option. When your character gets some free time, you can connect to the Vox Populi online feature to get tips on what other players chose to do with that day in their playthrough or what Personas they chose to fuse. You’re usually given a handful of answers here, but this at least pushes you in the right direction without holding your hand; it’s like giving you the benefits of a written or video internet guide without taking away the autonomy and magic of experiencing the game yourself.
When you choose to go into the next dungeon, things unfold as you’d expect from a turn-based RPG. You explore labyrinthine environments laden with enemies to fight and treasures to seek, culminating in a tough boss fight at the end to cap things off. Though dungeons are still procedurally generated like in P3P, their implementation here feels much more pleasant thanks to the heightened focus on tailoring each one to the story. Every dungeon is thematically linked to the victim contained within, which gives each one its own identity, and they never overstay their welcome. Dungeons are only about a dozen floors or less here, which means that they end almost exactly as you start feeling like the floors are blending together.
Combat follows the same One More turn-based system that Persona fans have come to love, which pushes players to be strategic in how they dismantle enemy teams. The goal of most encounters is to identify enemy elemental weaknesses and use the correct attacks to exploit them, but there’s an additional layer to be considered with resource management. There are very few ways to replenish SP, which is what you use for most special attacks so you have to consider how a cast will affect not just your current battle, but also your general run on the dungeon for that day. You can’t reasonably explore higher floors if a couple of your characters’ SP reserves are tapped out, so making sure that you reasonably pace yourself is important to ensure you reach the boss quickly enough and with characters who are well-equipped to handle the fight.
Between dungeon runs or when you’re out and about after school, you’ll often visit the Velvet Room to forge a better team of Personas for yourself. While all your party members in combat only have access to one Persona, your character is a ‘Wild Card’ who can host multiple Personas at once. Each Persona comes with its own unique mixture of stats, elemental affinities, and skills, and the best way to get the most powerful ones comes from fusing them in the Velvet Room. Doing so will cause you to lose the Personas you used as fodder, but this is often a fair trade given that you’re usually trading up for something better. This is especially true if you’ve been mindful about keeping up your Social Links, as these will grant big experience and stat boosts to many new Personas that make them even more powerful right out of the gate.
Luckily, one improvement made for the ‘Golden’ release of Persona 4 was the ability to manually choose which skills the new Persona would inherit from those being fused. There are some restrictions in place, but this allows you much greater control over shaping your team and greatly reduces the headache of leaving this critical aspect of team building to chance. Manual skill inheritance isn’t the only improvement being brought to P4G either, there are all sorts of new tweaks to this version both big and small. Changes like being able to do more activities at night help to open up more options for managing your time effectively, while new Social Links, Personas, and an extra late-game dungeon, add lots more to do and see compared to the original PS2 release. Unlike its predecessor’s ‘final’ versions which were each incomplete in their own ways, P4G is easily the definitive way to experience Persona 4.
Visually, P4G shows its age a bit due to the simplistic models utilized for most characters and enemies, but there’s still plenty to love about the offbeat and occasionally bizarre art design of many enemies. On the other hand, the character portraits in dialogue look incredibly clean and bright in contrast to the somewhat muted 3D visuals. And while Persona 5 is easily the most stylish entry in the series, P4G still manages to show some characteristic flair with over-the-top attack animations and smooth menu transitions. P4G may not be exactly a looker by today’s standards, but it's perfectly acceptable for a quick and dirty port of a Vita game. Plus, it all runs without any noticeable frame rate hitches or resolution drops.
To match the general tone, the soundtrack features a potent mixture of pop and rock tracks that help to set the bouncy atmosphere and keep things light. Though there are some tracks that get a little irritating from sheer repetition—seventy or so hours is a long time to sit with some music—the sheer catchiness is hard to resist.
Over ten years later, Persona 4 Golden remains a thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing RPG that, for the most part, has stood the test of time. Although its visuals might be a bit dated, the gameplay and story presented here do more than enough to justify the purchase, while all the tweaks and additions that came with this ‘Golden’ edition round out most of the rougher edges from the initial PS2 release. If you're looking to give the Persona series a shot, Persona 5 Royal is a good place to start, but P4G is an excellent entry in the series and one that we would recommend you pick up when you can.