If there's one word to describe Persona 4, it's "polished".
That is no faint praise, keep in mind. In the years since Persona 3 made its debut, Atlus has had more than half a decade and three full re-releases to expand, refine, and fiddle with the formula it established in 2006. Just as well, Atlus' competitors have also had the chance to copy, improve on, and even subvert that distinctive style.
Perhaps it's fitting, then, that Persona 4 Golden is the game to take the Persona formula formula to its zenith, employing the strange alchemy that birthed such an unusual game design in the first place to turn an already sterling title, well...golden.
Persona 4 Golden (PS Vita) Developer: Atlus Publisher: Atlus USA Released: November 20, 2012 MSRP: $39.99 [Buy]
For all that's new in Persona 4 Golden, its predecessors displayed more ambition in their design. Persona 3, of course, broke the mold to find new life in an ailing genre, and its FES add-on brought with it more romance, more plot developments, and an epilogue starring my android wife, Aegis. Persona 3 Portable brought still more tweaks, as well as fulfilling Atlus' original vision of a gender-selectable protagonist, and a fresh perspective on the story. And yet, to express ambition is not solely to seek sea changes and dramatic turns.
Persona 4 Golden is definitely ambitious, debuting with the conviction that an already classic formula can be improved. Such boldness could easily turn out to be foolhardy, Team Persona's confidence tainted by hubris and greed.
Thankfully for fans, newcomers, and gaming at large, the case is the exact opposite. In Persona 4 Golden, the rock-solid foundations laid by Persona 3 have been cemented further, the few remaining flaws polished out, and each facet honed and carved to diamond-grade invincibility.
The myriad changes, tweaks, and additions to Persona 4 don't feel tacked-on, like FES' "The Answer" epilogue was accused of being, nor do they smack of vague purpose, the way Portable's female campaign sometimes tasted. Persona 4 Golden has been improved in every way, from style to play to technical prowess, and even to narrative, and yet preserves the core of the series' inimitable experience.
Of course, my effusive praise means little without a bit of concrete information. One had best expand upon how Atlus made Persona 4 Golden the definitive Persona game (post-Persona 2, at least).
Golden's tweaks, rather than piling on top of the base game, act more to fill in the gaps in Persona 4's flow, be it in the game's day-to-day life-simulation aspect to its Social Link relationship-building. New Links - most notably new girl Marie - provide players with more social ladders to climb, more characters that grow out of their initial anime stereotypes, the better for you to grow attached to as you hang out with them from day to day. One new link in particular brings a rather momentous opportunity to twist the game in an utterly unexpected way. Returning players may be in for a shock come the end.
The ability to hang out with friends in the night adds more variety to player's nocturnal routine, since it's more fun to hang out with a spunky martial arts-buff after dark than to study or fold envelopes. The addition of scooters to visit new locations, including a beach and a nearby city - adds new locations to spend time in and improve stats with. Bug-catching and gardening side activities nicely complement fishing, and fits well with the rustic Inaba lifestyle. New events fill in some of the odder stretches of time, where the schedule seemed to suddenly jump forward for no apparent reason. Still more improvements abound, but the end result is a fuller, more diverse daily schedule, with much less "dead time" between major story events (a definite benefit for the New Game+ mode).
In a nod to contemporary Internet features - Demon's Souls in particular - a new "Vox Populi" function allows players to connect to the PlayStation Network to see the daily activities other players did on a given day, lending insight as to ideal strategies, and reducing the need to have a walkthrough in lap as you play.
The improvements extend to Persona 4 Golden's weakness targeting-centric battle system, as well. The game's revision of the post-battle "Shuffle Time" minigame makes rewards more meaningful, and victory more engaging (and rewarding). Buying costumes to wear in the dungeon also makes the crawl more entertaining (not to mention fashionable). And the ability to bring scooters into combat for special attacks lends a fun bit of absurdity into the heat of battle.
New difficulty settings allow players to take combat at their own preference. Online connectivity rears its head in the TV World in the form of "SOS'es". Players can tap a button on the front screen to send out an SOS, and other players in their own TV Worlds can respond, refilling the health and SP of the sender. Custom messages can also be cobbled together from pre-selected words to add a touch of personality (or hilarity) to the act of helping a protagonist in need.
More than any of these battle changes, however, Atlus' tweaks to Persona 4's Persona Fusion system are the most delicious, and most needed of all. The Velvet Room now features a "Fusion Search" option that displays every possible Pesona fusion between the Personas available in the player's current inventory. Skill cards gained in battle can be used to grant Personas new skills to suit a player's "build".
And in a wondrous refinement, the way fused Personas inherit skills has been tweaked to allow players to pick and choose which skills a fused Persona will inherit (not unlike the style of Devil Survivor). No longer will a beleaguered gamer cancel in and out of a Fusion for minutes or hours on end seeking just the right combination of skills. It is one of the best changes ever to happen to a Shin Megami Tensei title. I beg Atlus to include such an option in any sequel.
Golden's visuals get an upgrade, with sharper textures and a few new graphical effects lending a spiffy new sheen to the character models. Conversation sprites look gorgeous on the Vita's beautiful screen, and the already-stylish animated interface gains even more lovely elements (visit the item shop at night for a kick-ass example). New animated cutscenes also add to the production.
On the hardware front, the Vita's ability to go into standby mode at the touch of a button perfectly suits the game's lengthy stretches between save points. Never again will you need to leave a console on all night because you're too tired or hurt to rush for the save point. It's also worth noting that the Vita is now the only contemporary platform available where players can play the entire Persona series from start to finish (with the exception of Persona 2: Eternal Punishment PSP).
New voicework has also been added, including new voice actors playing Chie and Teddie courtesy of Erin Fitzgerald and Sam Riegel (who also played the duo in Persona 4 Arena and Persona 4 The Animation). Riegel's work sounds nigh-identical to Dave Wittenberg's style, and Fitzgerald turns in a quality performance as well, and while the new voice matches Chie's character (and sounds more appropriate to a 17 year-old anime girl), I find that "new Chie" tends to channel Scooby Doo's Velma Hinkle more than I would like. This is just me, but Tracey Rooney's Chie simply sounded sexier (in that girl-next-door way), and will stay closer to my heart. Purists may balk at the lack of a Japanese voice option (as offered in Persona 4 Arena), but those who would miss out on a great game to uphold a "No Japanese, No Buy" policy deserve only contempt in this writer's eyes.
Golden has also gained a good bit of ancillary content in the form of "TV Listings", a new feature accessible by double-tapping the screen, which brings up a TV-like overlay that allows players to play the animated cutscenes and old trailers for the series, listen to the soundtrack via a fun parody of Japanese music show Hey! Hey! Hey! Music Champ, and even receive basic lectures in Jungian philosophy and esoterica courtesy of a professor from Persona 3. Better yet, the game also includes some live-action footage from the Persona ~Velvet Room Live~ concerts held in Japan.
At the top of this review I noted that one word to describe Persona 4 Golden would be "polished". I'd like to change that, as well as pull a little bit from one of the game's iconic gags.
Atlus has brought Persona 4 Golden near the point of utter flawlessness. One can only conclude that they've managed to do this by maxing out their attributes. Perhaps through incredible consumption of delicious beef bowls, they've gained the Understanding to comprehend what made Persona 3 and 4 as great as they are, the Courage to believe that something great can be made perfect, the Knowledge to see what it would take to meet that lofty goal, the Diligence to actually do what it takes, and the Expression to present those changes in singular style for all and sundry to appreciate.
It's golden, baby.
10 -- Flawless Victory (10s are as close to perfect as you will get in a genre or on a platform. Pure, untarnished videogame ecstasy.)
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