There’s nothing new about the concept of a protagonist coming to terms with their inner self, being thrust awkwardly into an unfamiliar environment or overcoming the handicap of absentee parents: such tropes are particularly well- worn in Japanese role-playing games. What’s extraordinary about Persona 4 Golden is that it makes these ideas feel new, this smart, contemporary mystery nimbly avoiding the common pitfalls of the genre. You may rarely leave the ostensibly sleepy town of Inaba, yet by the end you’ll feel you’ve been taken on an unforgettable journey.
Naturally, Inaba isn’t as quiet as it first seems. As you arrive, this small hamlet is shocked by a murder that coincides with some suspiciously inclement weather, and a shroud of fog that lifts only to reveal the corpse in question. Your detective uncle is busy with the case, leaving you even more isolated than you’d expected to be. And just as a pair of friendly classmates help ease your transition, another murder occurs, seemingly linked to an urban myth involving watching a particular TV channel at midnight.
Indeed, the TV plays a key role as the story of these apparent serial murders unfolds, its screens acting as a portal to a netherworld that you and new friends Chie and Yosuke can investigate. As students start to go missing, your small group plays detective as you figure out you may be able to stop the murders. So you’re fighting demons within these labyrinths while negotiating the pitfalls of school life, not just in terms of keeping up your studies at a crucial time of your educational life, but maintaining the social ties that become so important during adolescence. A languid, linear opening soon gives way to a compelling rhythm of school days and extracurricular activities, as real-life choices affect your abilities in the supernatural world. You can spend time in part-time jobs to earn money or increase particular skills, or hang around with other characters to forge social links, from practising high-kicks with the tomboyish to joining sports or music clubs, or even spending time with your uncle on the rare nights that he makes it home from work. Most nights you’ll get the opportunity to play big brother to his daughter, a wise-beyond-her- years youngster who tragically uses the TV as her escape from her lonely existence.
Yet if the TV is an escape for poor Nanako, it’s a prison for others. You’re given a time limit to rescue each missing student, lending the game an urgency rare to JRPGs. Their dungeons are manifestations of a dormant part of their psyche: there’s a steamy bathhouse for a biker student confused about his sexuality, for example, while a shy girl has constructed an elaborate fairy-tale realm where she awaits her Prince. Rescuing each character isn’t so much about forcing them to confront their inner demons, more to accept this side of their personality they might rather others didn’t know about.
Uncomfortable truths emerge in a manner that says a great deal about adolescence, Atlus boldly confronting thorny subject matter and handling it with an uncommonly delicate touch and no little humour.
As just about every action has a tangible consequence of some kind, even the more mundane elements of school life are meaningful. You might be asked to answer some surprisingly tricky questions during lectures, for example, and while answering correctly isn’t vital, doing so can increase your knowledge rating and thereby open up certain dialogue options. With after-school clubs and part-time jobs to consider, the options are
overwhelming: what happens when band practice clashes with a soccer match or you’re just settling down to study when a classmate phones, asking to hang out?
The ties you choose to strengthen determine the abilities of the personae you create to fight on your behalf in the TV realm – the stronger the link, the more skills you can pass on when fusing personae to create more powerful creatures. Brisk, dynamic and tactically satisfying, P4G’s battle system is still arguably its least interesting element. It’s a relatively straightforward turn-based affair with a few twists: hit an enemy’s elemental weakness and you get another shot, another character might join in with a bonus attack after a critical hit, while downing all opponents at once gives you the chance to pile in under a cartoon dust cloud. The protagonist is the only character under your control, though your team-mates demonstrate remarkable intelligence in combat, and you can set their tactical approach before each battle. They can also be quite easily revived; it’s only game over if you fall.
That should happen a little less often than before. There are new connectivity options that allow you to see the choices other players made at that time – useful if you need a suggestion
for where to head after school’s out – and you can issue an SOS in a dungeon, with a boost to your HP and SP numbers if someone answers your call. There’s a new character with
a melancholic backstory, while a few of the original’s narrative gaps are filled in.
Is it enough, though, for Persona veterans to double-dip? Broadly speaking, this is the same game we’ve played before on PS2, but the addition of fresh personae and social links, and the sheer range of activities available at any one time did much to dissipate our expected fatigue. It all adds up to the definitive version of one of the finest JRPGs ever made: Vita’s portability makes it easier than ever to get caught up in this expertly woven web of secrets, lies and adolescent angst.