Ever since Joker, the protagonist of Persona 5, became a Super Smash Bros. character, fans of Atlus' beloved RPG series have speculated that the games might be coming to the Nintendo Switch. Unfortunately for them, Atlus instead took the Persona series outside the PlayStation ecosystem for the first time with a port of Persona 4 Golden on Steam.
Persona 4 Golden was originally released on the PlayStation Vita almost exactly eight years ago as an expanded version of the 2008 PlayStation 2 title. While dropping the game on Steam will certainly allow a much wider audience to experience the game's excellent story and wonderful cast of characters, another handheld-focused system would have helped smooth over some of the flaws inherent in a game of that age.
Dungeon crawl with friends
Bottom Line: If you don't have a PS4 and have never played a Persona game before, you're in for a treat. If you do have one, you should just pick up Persona 5 Royal and get the best the series has to offer.
- Huge amount of gameplay for the price tag
- Deep and sometimes disturbing story
- Challenges you to balance between character growth and completing objectives
- Excellent voice acting and music
- Visuals and some story elements feel dated
- Not fully integrated with PC controls
- No added content
- Hard to go back to once you've played Persona 5
Plot and mechanics
You don't need to have played a Persona game before jumping into Persona 4 Golden, and you might even have more fun if you haven't been keeping up with the series and how it's been updated.
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Like other entries in the franchise, Persona 4 Golden has you play a Japanese teen who recently changed schools. You'll divide your time between pretty normal stuff like meeting new friends, doing homework, participating in extracurricular activities, and earning some extra cash with an afterschool job, while also unlocking your destiny and solving a mystery by joining your new buddies in dungeon delves.
The plot of Persona 4 Golden is reminiscent of The Ring, with the students discovering that if they watch a staticky TV channel at midnight on rainy days they'll see the face of someone who is about to die. Set in 2011, the increased prominence of flat screen TVs is actually a plot point, which joins the prominence of flip phones in making the story feel immediately dated.
It turns out that there's another realm that some people can access through their TV screens, and if you visit, you'll be confronted with the manifestation of the darkest aspects of your own personality. For our plucky heroes, that provides a cathartic experience that gives them the power to use these Personas in battle. Those who lack the strength of will or friends to back them up die in the real world.
Persona 4 Golden cleverly draws upon the trope of the blank slate protagonist by making your character's amorphousness into a game mechanic. You alone have the ability to harness multiple Personas by defeating monstrous Shadows who reward you with tarot cards. You can then fuse these Personas together into more powerful and customizable creatures, which are also strengthened based on the relationships you have with other characters in the game.
Imagine the game as Pokémon if it was based on the philosophy of Jurgen Habermas.
The Personas are your source of special skills ranging from healing powers to the elemental-aligned attacks that serve as the focal point of most of the turn-based battles. Each person trapped in the TV world puts you on a timer until you can rescue them by exploring the procedurally generated dungeons. You have to manage your resources while fighting but also keep track of your time. This means deciding when you can afford to take a day off of the quest at hand to improve your skills or build your relationships with other characters by hanging out and talking through their problems. Imagine the game as Pokémon if it was based on the philosophy of Jurgen Habermas.
An imperfect port
Atlus has traditionally done a fantastic job when rereleasing games, adding significantly more content to Persona 4 Golden and Persona 5 Royal while also enhancing mechanics to make it worth a second playthrough. Unfortunately, Persona 4 Golden's PC release isn't nearly so ambitious.
While the Steam game comes with all the game's DLC, you won't find anything changed from the Vita version. Atlus seems to just be banking on most people having overlooked the title given how unpopular Sony's discontinued handheld was. While the framerates are unlocked and the game is bug-free, visuals designed for the Vita's tiny screen just don't look particularly sharp on a modern monitor.
Posters and other text appear pixelated and dungeons have a grainy quality. The excellent English voice acting, soundtrack, and anime-style cutscenes hold up, but the flat expressionless faces of the characters feel discordant with the heavy narrative themes. That disconnect certainly wasn't an issue when the game was first released, but as we approach the next console generation, Persona 4 Golden is clearly a throwback to a much earlier time.
The port also imperfectly harnesses the PC control scheme. You can use your mouse to click through dialogue or to target enemies with an ambushing attack, but you do almost everything else with the keyboard where your remapping options are highly limited. Most glaringly, you need to arrow between enemies when choosing who to hit in a battle rather than just clicking on the foe of your choice. I quickly wound up switching to a controller, which felt much more natural.
It's no Persona 5
Admittedly the weaknesses in Persona 4 Golden are most glaring as someone who recently played Persona 5 Royal, which released in the U.S. in March. There are so many similarities in the core gameplay, characters, and plot of both games, but Persona 5's mechanics and graphics are vastly superior.
It's tough going back to the clunky, imprecise ambush system of Persona 4 after enjoying the zippy suspense of Persona 5's stealth system. Combat also feels lacking without the nuance provided by that game's Baton Pass system, which lets you cleverly chain attacks to seize upon enemy weaknesses. Persona 4 suffers from being a product of a much earlier console that couldn't support the visual detail found in the series' latest entry.
But if you're a PC gamer who's never played a Persona title before, you're in for a treat. The characters remain as loveable and complicated as ever and you'll be able to pour more than 70 hours into getting to know them while fighting monsters or just sitting down for steak croquettes.
Persona 4 Golden isn't a perfect port and it isn't coming to the system most fans were asking for. But if you never had the chance to play a Persona title before, this is definitely worth a shot. The visuals and some of the story might be dated but the characters are so charming that it's easy to lose track of time both in and out of character when hanging out with them. Get to know them all and use your friendship as a strength in the game's sprawling procedurally generated dungeons.
Face your shadow
Fight with your feelings
There's a reason that the Persona series one of the most beloved JRPG franchises of all time. Take advantage of the chance to find out for yourself how engrossing it can be.
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