Persona 4 Golden was one of the PS Vita's defining games. An expanded version of the PS2's Persona 4, which first released in 2008, Golden is widely regarded as one of the best JRPGs out there — and it's still easy to see why.
Many would argue that Atlus' series truly came into its own with Persona 4. It took the blueprint behind the already fantastic Persona 3 and ran with it, broadening its ambitions with a wider (and more in-depth) cast of characters, a better realised setting, and a heavier focus on the socialising side of gameplay.
The game primarily takes place in the rural Japanese town of Inaba, which remains one of the genre's most memorable locations. It's an idyllic, if somewhat dull place to be a teenager, but as soon as you arrive in town as a transfer student from the big city, things get crazy. A string of inexplicable murders shakes Inaba to its core, and it's up to you and your new high school buddies to get to the bottom of this macabre mystery.
But you won't be dusting for clues or questioning suspects in this particular case. Instead, you enter TV screens and explore another dimension that's filled with dangerous, shadowy creatures. It sounds mad written down like that, but somehow, the game makes it work. This is probably thanks to the title's incredibly likeable cast, who ground the experience at every turn.
Indeed, these are some outstanding characters. From stern detective Dojima and his adorable daughter Nanako, to classmates Chie the tomboy and Kanji the kind-hearted delinquent, Persona 4 is bursting at the seams with relatable and highly entertaining personalities. And you can get to know most of them through the game's social link system, which has you hanging out with your potential pals in order to deepen your bonds with them.
If you've played Persona 5, you'll already know that stronger bonds means stronger persona creation. These manifestations of your inner self will serve you in battle against the aforementioned shadows, and they act as the link between the game's dungeon crawling action, and the day-to-day high school socialising. It's the same excellent design that's been carrying Persona as a series for over a decade now, and it's especially well balanced, and meaningfully implemented, in Persona 4.
As always, the process of fusing stronger and stronger personas quickly becomes addictive. Meanwhile, you're meeting interesting new people, delving into increasingly dangerous dungeons, and powering up your party with experience points and equipment. Persona 4 takes a few hours to really get going, but once it does, you'll struggle to drag yourself away from its excellent gameplay loop.
There's only one thing that gets in the way of the game's fantastic flow, and that's the dungeon design (which is something that Persona 5 specifically set out to improve upon). Though distinct in their visual styles, Persona 4's dreamlike lairs are made up of samey corridors and not much else. The layouts are randomised each time you enter a floor, but there's no getting around just how monotonous they are to navigate. The dungeons aren't a dealbreaker — after all, the turn-based combat is the main draw of any delve — but they might be hard to stomach depending on your expectations.
But as we say, it's the battles that'll hold your attention. Both on a mechanical and visual level, combat is lifted directly from Persona 3, but it's better balanced here — particularly when it comes to squaring off against boss enemies. Hitting your opponent's weaknesses with certain skills and abilities is still the name of the game, scoring additional attacks and other party-based bonuses. It's the tactical yet approachable system that Persona 5 would arguably go on to perfect — but it's still very well executed in Persona 4.
So, how does Persona 4 Golden hold up on PS4, away from the famously crisp screen of the PS Vita? Well, the game's charming PS2-era graphics remain intact, but enhanced texture work adds some welcome detail to Inaba's intricate locales. What's more, the whole thing runs at a rock solid 60 frames-per-second — although we're not huge fans of the motion blur effect that occurs indoors. An unnecessary distraction at times.
And, of course, we couldn't possibly jump to this review's conclusion without bringing up the soundtrack. Persona 4's music is the perfect partner to its colourful visual palette, and the track list is stuffed with bangers that you'll be humming for years to come.
An immaculate RPG packed with great characters and built on a near flawless gameplay loop, it's still hard to top Persona 4 Golden. Without a doubt, there are a lot of things that Persona 5 does better, but with its bright colours, uplifting soundtrack, and superb setting, there's a unique charm to Persona 4 that sets it apart from its peers. An absolute gem of a game.