Even for enthusiasts of other Japanese role-playing games, the Shin Megami Tensei series can be initially off-putting. From the pistol-like evokers which teen protagonists point to their heads in SMT: Persona 3 to the Jungian exploration of unconscious representations in Persona 4, the franchise habitually shirks the hackneyed mythos that is common to the RPG genre. Prudently, the series’ mechanics aren’t as far-flung- providing engaging, yet vaguely familiar rifts on dating-sim, time management, and even Pokémon-like cultivation systems.
The recent release of Persona 4 Golden for the PS Vita commendably demonstrates these qualities, providing far more than a port of 2008’s Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4. A supplemented storyline expands the portrayal of characters and bestows a bounty of new activities, while other adjustments temper the original game’s oft-vexing difficulty level. Optional online functionality extends assistance in dungeons, while subtly suggesting the route to side quests. In execution, so many small tweaks and additions are integrated into the title that Persona 4 Golden occasionally feels like a fresh experience.
Much of the power of the original iteration rose from the intimate articulation of each character. While Persona 4 avoids the oft-taboo allusions to suicide, depression, and isolation of its forefather, the title’s social relationships are richer and more credible. Mirroring previous Persona titles, lead character Yu Narukami is the prototypical tabula rasa, permitting players to rename the character and shape his personality through activity choice and dialog options. While the silent protagonist is a common JRPG trope, Persona 4’s decision to use the technique isn’t based on timeworn tradition. Instead, the game offers an unrivaled exploration of repressed inadequacies and uncertainties. Potentially, the game has the power to act as a broad Rokeach test, goading gamers to consider their own strengths and deficiencies.
For players uninterested in self-reflection, Persona 4 Golden’s plotline still carries plenty of narrative heft. Following his parents move abroad, Narukami leaves the city to live with his uncle and cousin in the town of Inaba. After making a few new acquaintances at the local high school, the city’s state of rural normalcy is upended by a series of grisly murders. Remarkably, an urban legend about a television program called the Midnight Channel proves to the catalyst for the story. The surreptitious station ends up transporting the newfound group of friends into an alternative dimension, where the manifestations of each character’s inner strength become Personas. The powerful entities are prove capable of not only battling enemies, but as an instrument to quell future bloodshed.
Most satisfying are the subtle tweaks made to Persona 4’s plotline, which not only offer a bit more character development but also provide additional foreshadowing of the game’s conclusion. Unlike, say Mass Effect 3’s revised culmination, Golden’s addenda aren’t relegated to a single sequence. Instead, short segments are flawlessly integrated through the entire storyline, refining the game’s narrative impact.
Like the previous version, the game’s turn-based combat spurs players with identifying enemy elemental types and exploiting the inherent weaknesses of each foe. Pleasingly, the rock-scissors-paper-esque battle system allows for more than just a statistical advantage. With the “1 More” mechanic, combatants can earn additional turns for preying on an opponent’s weakness. While characters can be directly controlled during battle, Persona 4 also allows players to issue general tactic orders such as “Full Assault” or “Conserve SP” which AI allies follow with a gratifying effectiveness.
For many players, the game’s fusion element will prove to be remarkably addictive. During the course of the game’s eighty hour journey, dozens of additional Personas defy collection and subsequent fusion; with synthesis bestowing some substantial new abilities. Naturally, not every amalgamation yields fruitful results, making the sporadic serendipitous discovery feel particularly fulfilling, especially if players aren’t using a FAQ to glean info.
Parties that become mortally wounded in dungeons will certainly appreciate Golden’s online assistance option. Teams close to termination can touch an icon in the corner of the screen to put out a rescue request, which allows any other players to contribute HP or SP to the party. Similarly, another command reveals how other gamers are spending their in-game day, filling the screen with word bubbles which reveal the activities of their compatriots. In execution, this elective system works much like Demon Soul’s clue system, potentially pointing players in the direction of side-quests.
To lessen the impact of frustration, defeat in the dungeons return players to the beginning of the floor, rather than making them slog from the last save point. Echoing Persona 3 Portable’s additional difficulty options, Golden offers five challenge levels, making the game accessible for role-playing recruits who just want to follow to storyline to veterans seeking a near-insurmountable trial.
Influencing the team’s competence during combat is Persona’s Social Link system, which provides a perfect complement to Shadow subduing. Fusing stronger Personas requires the protagonist to develop closer interpersonal connections with both friends and love interests. Beyond going to school during the day, going on dates, hanging out with friends, and playing sports, Golden allows players to have part-time jobs during the evening hours. Unsurprisingly, the benefit of earning money while building rapport proves invaluable, and fit naturally into the game’s itinerary of extracurricular options.
Wondrously, Golden’s inclusions and tweaks are inspired, ushering in very few hitches. Although some sticklers will take fault with the game’s rerecording of Chie’s dialog, the new actress does a competent, but dissimilar interpretation of the character that’s consistent with Persona 4 Arena’s voice work. More pressing is Persona 4’s prologue, which at an hour and a half might hinder impatient players from discovering the title’s virtues.
While many developers are happy to throw in a handful of hollow tweaks for a reinvigoration, Atlus’ remakes have consistently demonstrated a willingness to deliver the definitive version. With enough new content to goad returning gamers as well as a fastidiously polished experience for novices, Persona 4 Golden belongs in the library of every PS Vita owner with the slightest interest in JRPGs. Instead of relying of tiresome trope and hackneyed mechanics, Persona 4 offers an original, absorbing trek worth every penny of its $39.99 MSRP.