I graduated high school over 13 years ago, and aside from the occasional wistful memory, I’ve had little desire to go back. I’ve hung up my skater jeans, bone gloves, and prom king crown (no, seriously) a long time ago, but Persona 4 Golden has me partying like it’s 1999.
The Persona series has always hidden some dark themes underneath its high school sim exterior (Persona 3 had its characters committing symbolic suicide with guns to their heads) and Persona 4 Golden is no different. You play as a high school student moving to the country town of Inaba to live with your detective uncle and his young daughter. You arrive just as a series of mysterious murders are committed, with the killer leaving corpses dangling from the tops of buildings. Stranger still, the victims are spotted on a mysterious television broadcast called The Midnight Channel prior to their deaths.
You’ll try to solve these mysterious murders with the assistance of your friends and your Personas, supernatural beings that you collect and power up in a method that bears more than a passing resemblance to Pokemon. You can even fuse them together to create new Personas to pad out your ranks, and these fusions can gain extra stats and abilities from the Social Ranks that you have established with your friends and family.
That’s right, just like high school, you balance time with your friends and other cliques in order to enhance your standings in various arcana (the game takes a tarot theme and runs hard with it) which helps you out with your Personas and your own personal abilities. You also have the ability to study, take part in extracurricular activities, and take on part time jobs to raise stats like Expression and Knowledge, which can help you out in interactions with others in order to help boost your Social Rank. It’s a bizarre, self-sustaining organism, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t painfully consuming.
This consuming need to play Persona 4 Golden is part of the reason why this review is so difficult. Putting the game down is a task that’s easier said than done, and the game’s fiendishly perfect balance of bite-sized gameplay (you could, in theory, play for only a “day” or two at a time in the game’s timeline, which translates to a few minutes of real time) with perfectly divvied out story beats gives it that “holy shit, where did the day go” quality that all seemingly simple, but engrossing games have. Plus, this game is long…incredibly long. To be honest, I haven’t even finished the main story, and I’ve already clocked over 36 hours in the game, and there are still several months of game time left.
It also bears mentioning that Persona 4 Golden is a port of a Playstation 2 title to the handheld Vita, but it’s one of the finest ports I’ve ever seen. The graphics are simple, but crisp and overwhelmingly colorful (the yellow menu screen is sure to blast your corneas the first time you boot the game up), which provides an amusing counterpoint to the game’s darker themes. If the game focused merely on the themes of the story, which involve murder and the more base nature of the Personas (they spring forth from the more sinful desires of their owners, and are more than a little Jungian), it would be bleak and genuinely horrifying. The injection of bright colors, bubbly J-pop music (why can’t I stop humming along?), and some ridiculously cartoonish elements like the oh-so-kawaii Teddie provide a light palate cleanser to the more horrific elements. Atlus also thoughtfully added in some arbitrary Playstation Network support, which never provides full-blown multiplayer, but allows for some passive interaction with other players in a novel fashion. You can quickly see what certain people chose to do at any point in the game (went to soccer practice, spent time with friends, etc.) to help you make your own choices. Strangely, there is no option to trade Personas with other players, which seems like the most glaring of omissions.
Persona 4 Golden is pretty much the best game imaginable for fans of JRPGs. It’s simple but all-consuming, dark and frightening but syrupy and cheerful. It’s a fond reminder for old farts like me of the charming repetition of high school, even if we weren’t solving serial murders committed by a lunatic in an alternate dimension inside of the television. Now if you’ll pardon me, I have to go decide which of two girls I want to date…not a problem I had in real life…