Persona 4 Golden Review
I’ll admit it: I don’t have the attention span that I used to. I can barely make it through a film without the urge to check my phone, so tackling an 11-year-old JRPG port with an average playtime of 70 hours (double that if you want to experience everything on offer) seems ludicrous in the age of thirty-second TikTok videos. But if content is king, Persona 4 Golden deserves a crown; even a decade on, it still packs in enough systems, mechanics and frenetic gameplay to fill three lesser titles, let down only by its dated dungeon-crawling and occasionally misogynistic asides.
The fish-out-of-water story that Persona 5 utilised feels more rooted here, as your protagonist is transferred from the big city to the sleepy town of Inaba. You’re welcomed as a newbie by your uncle and cousin, rather than the ostracisation that the sequel opted for. Your school peers are quick to make friends with you and the town itself is a much smaller and easier place to navigate. It would be a nice getaway, apart from all the murders that start happening after you arrive.
It seems that someone has it in for a TV reporter, as well as students connected to her. And after the bodies start mounting, your new bestie Yosuke suggests an informal investigation of your own since the police are — of course — useless. This leads to the discovery of The Midnight Channel, a Ring-esque gimmick which hints at the next victim on television at 12AM on certain days. For reasons best brushed over, you’re able to enter the shadow realm into which these victims are being thrown via a TV screen in order to locate them, fight and unite them with their shadow selves, and bring them back to safety. Meanwhile, in the real world, your task is to locate the culprit behind the killings — as well as making sure you get your homework done, bond with your friends, and completing any number of other normal teenage tasks. It’s a slow burn. Some will say too slow, and to be fair, I can see why. You’ll need to hit double digits of playtime before the game properly kicks off but at that point you’re likely to be invested in the cast enough to carry you forward.
Like all good RPGs, the characters are the core of Persona 4 Golden. They are (mostly) likeable to a fault, from the gruff detective uncle who is overworked but still finds time for his daughter, to the cast of school buddies who you recruit into your posse along the way. They all have individual personalities: Chie’s bonkers headfirst approach and Yosuke’s wise-cracking make them early favourites, but later additions are no less interesting. Each player will have their favourites, of course, but of the NPC cast, no-one is likely to be a fan of the hyperactive Teddie, the guardian to the shadow realm whose high-pitched wailing is likely to irritate from the outset.
The shadow realm here mirrors the palaces of Persona 5, but with the downside of an eight-year gap between those games (Golden is the definitive version of the original 2008 Persona 4). While procedurally generated corridors and rooms may have been interesting fifteen years ago, here they become the game’s weakness. Luckily, this is offset by the combat and persona system which is explained to you — repeatedly, so it sinks in — in piecemeal fashion. Collecting cards, forging social links with your friends, fusing different personas to create new ones with different strengths; all of these different mechanics stack as you play, adding incredible depth and sometimes an overwhelming amount of information to disseminate. It’s a shame, however, that some of that content hasn’t been updated for today’s times. The representation of (and hostility towards) queerness, unfettered sexism and other unpalatable views which rear their head from time to time really could and should have been adjusted for the modern market.
But the game succeeds despite this, and that success always comes back to your social interactions. Whether you’re staying after school to learn an instrument or chowing down with a friend at a restaurant, the game’s theme is one of connectivity and friendship, helping each other through the bad times and celebrating the good. Persona 4 Golden has the authenticity that only a group of small-town friends who have earned each other’s trust can provide. Given that the game came out only a couple of years after Twitter launched, well before social media became the toxic landfill that exists today, it’s an addictively fun and at times a genuinely heart-warming tale of time spent with real friends, in real life. And weird, murderous TV dimensions.
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