Updated: Oct 21, 2020
About 8 years ago my best friend had a job where he was traveling a lot. He was subject to long train and plane rides followed by overnight stays at hotels. He was very much into mobile gaming and always had his PS Vita with him. He was never was much of an RPG fan and historically gravitated more towards sports games and action platformers such as Castlevania. He called me up to rave about a new RPG game he was playing. I was a little shocked because I distinctly remember trying to get him into RPG’s when we were kids and he never had the attention span. I guess now that he had all this time to play video games, he was finally ready dive into a game that might take a little longer to finish. Anyway, the way he raved about this game kinda shocked me. The way he described it to me almost didn’t sound like a RPG. It had elements in it that are reminiscent of dating sims. The game he was playing was Persona 4 Golden on the PS Vita.
Now, at the time, I had heard of the Persona series from the Playstation 1 era. I knew that they were RPG’s from a very famous game studio that was known for their exceptional RPGs. I didn’t even know they had made a Persona 3 let alone 4. Anyway, I humored him and listened to his gushing as he played through the game. He was so enthusiastic and into it. The way he described it sounded like this to me at the time…
“So, you play as a transfer student from the city into some backwoods school in Japan. You make new friends, and together you summon demons to fight the bad guys. All the while, you become closer to your friends and you can even start a romance with some of them”.
I know, screams traditional Japanese RPG’s right? Here I was coming from the whole Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star and Dragon Warrior (Quest) world, and he’s talking about an RPG where one of the goals is to be a good friend?
He went on to say that when he finished the game, he felt like he had relived his high school years. He had even found a group picture of the characters you play and made it his desktop wallpaper to remember them. I thought it was funny (and a little creepy) and asked him if he was going to photoshop his face over the main character.
Years went by, and I never got around to buying a PS Vita, so I had never gotten to play the game. I always wanted to, but I wasn’t about to buy a PS Vita just to play one game.
In 2020, Atlus ported and released the now famous Persona 4 Golden to the PC (nearly 10 years after Its PS Vita release). I now didn’t have an excuse to not play it. So I bought it at launch on Steam and dove right in. I told my friend that I had started playing it, and he was really excited. He hadn’t touched the game since then, and he couldn’t wait to relive the story through my virgin eyes. It was a lot of fun… I would text him every morning on what I had accomplished and ask him questions about what he had done differently.
Needless to say, I probably pumped about 180 hours into the game in 2 months and experienced every facet the game had to offer. I was so into it, I even immediately played through it a second time to defeat some secret boss and achieve all the goals I didn’t have time to complete or haddent discovered the first go around.
The one thing my friend never mentioned to me was how great the music was and how it captures every moment so perfectly. I found almost every song to be an ear worm, and I would hum and whistle it unconsciously enough that even my wife started doing the same… and she hates video games! Every night I would play the game for several hours, and every time I’d jump in my car to run an errand, I would listen to the sound track.
This game is quite the experience, and I’d like to follow the tradition of my best friend, to gush about it to you to see if you are willing to give it a try.
This far into the article I really haven’t spoken much about the game itself, but more covered how it impacted two people that played it. So now I will transition into the game overview.
Persona 4 Golden is unlike any RPG I’ve ever played. While it shares JRPG elements of turn based combat, magic, mana, weapons and armor to upgrade and quests to complete that are both completely optional and absolutely necessary to progress the story line… it turned out to be so much more.
P4G is a story you live through the eyes of the protagonist. While he is the main character, the game has you acting out his role. I guess you can say that P4G puts the “role” back in Role Playing Game. You influence so much in the game by the decisions you make and you will make a LOT of decisions. You find that the main character (Yu) is really… you.
Yu is the child of two “city life” working parents who apparently are too busy to be parents so they shuffle you off to live with your uncle in the sticks to complete your Jr. year of High School.
On your train ride to the fictional Japanese town of Iniba, you fall unconscious and into a dream like state. You are sitting in the back of a 1970’s retro limo floating through your subconscious called “The Velvet Room”. You are then greeted by a creepy goblin of a man with a giant nose and some sexy intelligent blonde dressed as a bell hop. They go on to explain that they are going to guide you through your fate. The old man (Igor) whips out some Tarot cards and explains certain things you are going to encounter in that ambiguous “fortune teller” kind of way. You wake up from your unconscious state and your train arrives at its destination.
Your Uncle and his daughter pick you up at the train station, then they take you back to their humble home to show you the room on the second floor where you will live for the next year. You are enrolled at the local school and you are introduced as the “new kid” that came from the big city.
Now here comes probably the most appealing part of the game playing the role of Yu. Yu is probably everything you WISHED you were as a high school student. He’s smart, he’s attractive… he’s instantly popular, everyone loves you, is curiously about you and wants to get to know you. I can’t tell you how intoxicating it is play the role of someone who has it this easy. Anyway, you are quickly introduced to the first 3 characters that will later become part of your traditional RPG party.
The way the game plays is day by day over the course of an entire Japanese school year that starts in mid-April and ends shortly after the new year. About two or three months into the game, you find that every day is precious, that time passes fast and you are quickly running out it.
The days are broken down into an “always automated” morning, which feeds you the next page of the story, followed by an afternoon and evening period that you (for the most part) have complete control over. The school weeks run from Monday to Saturday, and Sunday is your only break from school outside of holidays. There are countless things you can do to pass the time, ranging from spending time with your new friends deepening your relationships with them, working part time jobs, studying, playing intramural sports or reading books. This all equates to an unorthodox manor of raising your RPG stats that will benefit you through the game. Eventually you will gain access to the “TV word” where you and your friends achieve various goals and fight shadows that all want to see you dead.
As a first week of school passes, you hear of a rumor called “The Midnight Channel”. This rumor comes off as a fad that kids are doing where they watch the TV at midnight and sometimes they will see the silhouette of whomever they most desire. Eventually you are coxed into doing it. Instead of seeing the woman of your desires, you see woman in distress. You reach out to touch the screen and you find that your hand curiously goes inside the TV. Something on the other end tugs on your hand, you recoil back, hit your head and wake up the next morning. You report back to your friends and they are dubious of your testimony.
Soon, people in the quiet town of Inaba start dying in pretty horrific serial killer kinds of ways and you and your friends are able to somehow tie this to this “Midnight Channel”. From this point on, you and your fiends become ad-hock detectives trying to figure who is carrying out these murders. When you discover someone on the TV at midnight, you find they go missing soon after… and eventually they end up dead hanging dead around town. You are now tasked to going inside the TV to try to save them. Failing to do so results in their death an d swiftly ends the game (no pressure).
At this stage of the plot, I am all in. This is interesting, I love how much control I am in, and just like my friend, I’m finding real value in getting closer to my new friends.
The game is very dramatic, there is a lot of intrigue, suspense and tender moments all relevant to the plot of the story. This is all played out with music that is masterfully weaved into the emotions the story teller wants you to feel. Each major character is representative to one of the cards of a Tarot deck, and spending time with them raises your “Social Link” with them. There are great benefits to doing this as it makes you and your friends stronger and more willing to help you in a fight. Also achieving the maxing out certain social links unlocks different plot lines that might lead to better endings.
In your first couple of visits to the TV world you find that you and your friends are always confronted with their “true self”. This is the part of them they aren’t willing to except or struggling with. When they are willing to face it (and defeat it), this true self manifests itself as a “Persona”, which is more or less your pet demon that helps you fight shadows and also levels up with you. Each of your party members gets one persona, but since you are the “Wild card”, you have the unique ability to control any one of over a hundred personas you can obtain through the game, ranging in power and ability.
There are a number of dungeon crawl scenarios in the TV world which (ok, here’s where we get to the outrageously silly Japanese part) a mysterious sports mascot like creature guides you through. He also explains to you how the TV world interacts with the real world, and the dangers of “Shadows” (monsters).
That’s pretty much the way the RPG plays out. The game is maybe 33% life simulator, 33% choose your own adventure story book and 33% dungeon crawling and saving people trapped in side from demons. Your first play through will be at least 100 hours because there is so much plot being absorbed. I didn’t find these story elements to be daunting. I watched it like suspense novel I couldn't put down, only I could control where the story went.
Playing through Persona 4 Golden
Now that I’ve explained the game, I’m going to talk about my journey through the game while sparing you any spoilers. I can’t stress this enough, DON’T LOOK FOR SPOILERS. I’m not saying it will completely ruin the game for you, but knowing the twists and turns the story takes before they happen is like watching “The Sixth Sense” for the first time in the movie theater and someone leaning over to you and saying “The guys dead and doesn’t realize it”.
Anyway, this game is LONG, but not in a bad way, because if you make it all the way through the game, you’ll be pissed it eventually ends.
There are a lot of moving parts and cogs to P4G. There are many aspects of the game you need to manage, and the quicker you learn to manage your time well, the more of the game you will experience your first play through. While it MIGHT be possible to unlock everything except the super-secret optional boss you can only fight on your second play through… no human could possibly achieve this without knowing everything before hand and planning out each and every day flawlessly. There are day-by-day guides that do exactly this, but I don’t recommend using them.
My first play through I found myself opening up a text file and taking notes on things I wanted to accomplish and far along I was in each endeavor. The second time through I had spreadsheets I filled out after every day was completed because I wanted to maximize every single day and unlock every achievement. I don’t have the best memory, and there were a lot of times, a week didn’t go as I planned and I loaded up an earlier save and played through the same way only changing one or two things. My spreadsheet quickly turned into a meticulous day planner that made me feel like a project manager.
As crazy as this sounds, I had never been so invested into a video game since my teenage years before the number one source for video game assistance was the internet. This game brought me back to drawing my own maps playing The Legend of Zelda.
THINGS I WISH I KNEW SOONER
Now that my review of the game has been concluded, I’m going to get into a little bit of guidance drawn from my experiences. I made my fair share of poor decisions playing the game, and I am happy to share with you how I overcame them so you don’t make the same mistakes I did. Again, I promise to keep this spoiler free.
The game is very complex, and while it does it’s best to coach you through it, there are parts of the game you will definitely find yourself bewildered and seeking internet assistance.
Probably the most complex thing is Persona fusion. Earlier I explained that your party members obtain their Personas through facing their true self. You however, gain Personas through a process called “Fusion”. This is where you obtain Personas after completing battles, and then fusing them together to make more powerful Personas. There are well over 100 personas to unlock, and trying to unlock them all without help would take a team of people a year of constant trial and error. If you seek an internet guide for anything, this is the most acceptable for someone who really wants to complete the game with as little help possible.
Social Links are also something the game doesn’t explain well.The concept is that you meet someone in the game, your relationship is initiated (associated with a Tarot card… say “The Lovers”) and there are 10 ranks you can achieve to max the social link.You raise social link ranks by spending quality time with them.How you answer questions earns you points you can’t see, and each rank requires a certain amount of points before you will progress to the next rank.The game gives you clues if spending time with a social link will lead to you “deepening your relationship”.In the mindset of making the best of your time, once you discover you won’t gain a rank wasting an evening with a friend, you’ll find someone who rank will.The game doesn’t explain the whole “hidden point” system, and you won’t realize on your own that sometimes you have to spend extra time with a social link to get them to that next threshold (I found this out too far along in the game and it cost me not having enough time to finish them all).Also, social links are on specific schedules, so you have to catch them on the right time of day or night to even engage them.Some are only accessible once a week!Also, you could play through the entire game and miss social links entirely, and you will beat the game having never starting some them.
Skills are personality traits you can raise by performing tasks that usually consume an afternoon or evening. There are 5 stats… Diligence, Knowledge, Courage, Expression and Understanding. Some of these skills can go up simply by answering a question a certain way… like standing up for yourself in a conversation might raise your courage, but you might have to spend an afternoon in the Library studying to raise your knowledge. Why do skills matter? When you play through the story elements, you often get around 3 choices of dialogue to proceed. Some of these choices can’t be picked because you lack one of these social skills. When ranking a social links, some of the higher scoring answers are not accessible if you lack the skill level to chose it, causing you to have to spend multiple nights with a friend to go up a single rank.
Lastly… intimate relationships. Don’t get too excited, this game may be rated mature, but it’s not due to this aspect of the game. This is clean high school crush stuff. So in P4G you have the very entertaining option as the male protagonist to achieve an intimate relationship with most of the female social links you encounter. This “intimate” relationship is the equivalent of having a high school girlfriend (nothing like Skyrim or The Witcher). We are talking about high school kids after all. While it is possible to establish intimate relationships with multiple characters at the same time, them finding out about it makes for some comical (and sometimes unfortunate) storyline twists which might end up in a jealous breakup prohibiting your social link from maxing out in time. If you are playing this game for the joy of the outcomes, you do you… if you are going for maxing out all aspects of the game before time runs out, my advice is… “love the one you’re with”.
I really enjoyed this game. It oozes style, it’s fun, it has a memorable story, it has incredible replay value and while the graphics are dated by today's standards, the soundtrack will hold up forever. I am really grateful Atlus finally ported this to the PC and hopefully it’s success leads them to port more Persona games I can’t wait to play. I encourage you give this game a chance if you haven’t already so you can enjoy it as much as I did.
If I had to give this a game ranking of 1 to 10, with 10 being a perfect game, I would say this is easily a 9.5 out of 10 and a must play for any RPG fan.