Persona 4 Golden Review: An All-Time Classic
The concept of video games aging is always an interesting one, because older games never change. Nowadays, a game truly can age and evolve thanks to updates, but that wasn’t something older games had to worry about. When they say a game has aged, what people really mean is that their expectations have changed. Newer games have come out and reset what we expect of a genre, and some older titles simply don’t measure up to those new expectations.
Persona 4 will be fifteen years old later this year, which makes me feel very old because when it released, I was only a few years older than its protagonists and still felt like I could relate to many of their experiences, even if they were wrapped in a different culture which in many ways was different from what I was used to. Yet despite these years, Persona 4 Golden doesn’t feel like it’s aged a day. This is a game that was so ahead of its time that you don’t need nostalgia to love it in the year 2023. A few additions made to later rereleases definitely are nice and improve the experience, but the core of this game is still as strong as any RPG on the market.
The Investigation Team Is On The Case
As the new kid in town, you’re just trying to figure out where you fit in when weird stuff starts happening. People start ending up dead, and weird rumors about seeing your soulmate on TV if you watch late at night are spreading amongst the students at your high school. It sounds just weird enough that you have to try it, and shockingly, it works. Even more shockingly, you find yourself able to stick your hand right into the TV, revealing a whole world on the other side.
That’s just the setup for the story of Persona 4, which is one of gaming’s strongest. Filled with twists and turns, your main character and a group of fellow students soon turn into an investigation team determined to solve a series of murders that are leaving the local police stumped. Of course, they haven’t thought to climb into televisions and unleash the power of Personas, a supernatural entity unleashed by coming to accept difficult things about yourself. Your whole team gains access to them eventually, and they allow you to fight back in this mysterious other world inside the TVs.
The True Self
Along the way, though, Persona 4 addresses all kinds of concepts that, even today, many games would be afraid to touch. Concepts like balancing parenting and work, self-acceptance, sexuality, gender expression, burnout, familial expectation, and the true self are all balanced here, and they add a significant amount to the strong murder mystery story at the heart of the game.
It is worth noting that Persona 4 doesn’t balance all of these elements perfectly. Some of the choices it makes in exploring these themes felt like missteps even in 2008, and they feel worse in 2023, particularly when it comes to sexuality. That a relatively mainstream game was even exploring this at all at the time was meaningful, though and the fact that this cast is one of the best in all of gaming goes a long way to help smooth the experience out.
Filling Your Days
Speaking of the cast, that’s what sets a Persona game apart from other RPGs. While yes, there’s a very well done dungeon crawler at the heart of the game, it’s surrounded by a combination of life management and dating SIM elements which really help drive the game. Each in-game day you’ll have the opportunity to spend time either improving your character or building your relationship with someone. Whether it be the members of your party, your character’s family, other schoolmates, or coworkers at part-time jobs, you can get to know the game’s various party members on a much deeper level, and this has a direct impact on combat, improving various skills you’ll have available there. Maxing out every social link here is incredibly difficult without a guide, though a feature added in later ports that allows you to see what other players did on the same day should help.
If you’re not in the mood to spend time with someone, you can also do those part-time jobs for money, take on eating challenges, study up so you can do well in school, go fishing, or jump back into the TV world to train your party or go after optional bosses. There’s always something to do and ways to spend your time.
That’s good because the main game’s story does progress on a set schedule. Getting done with a dungeon early isn’t a bad idea, it allows you to focus on your social links, but you can’t just jump forward to the next part of the game. In truth, the actual RPG mechanics in Persona 4 Golden are probably the weakest element of the game, though they’re far from bad. Dungeon design and combat are both more than solid, they just wouldn’t stand out a terrible amount on their own if it weren’t for the insane amount of style that surrounds them. While on a technical level, this isn’t an amazing looking game today, the style still holds up wonderfully. Character designs, the look of the menus, the way battles look with graphics popping up on screen for an all-in attack, it takes something that would be good and elevates it to something great. Having one of the best soundtracks in all of video games doesn’t hurt, either. It even has strong voice acting, a rarity in most any game in that era.
Don’t Let Me Out
Dungeons do shift each time you revisit them because they’re randomly generated, outside of a few specific floors in each one which have important areas. They’re fine, but when I think back on them, even after having played Persona 4 three times, all I remember is the atmosphere because there’s little else worth remembering. If you take the style out of the combat, its really a pretty basic RPG combat system, though one that moves well and has a few cool gimmicks like the all-in attack and enemies and party members being able to be knocked down. There are some strong boss battles, but even few of these are really memorable. It’s simply not something I particularly care about when everything around it is so outstanding.
There are some nice quality of life upgrades for those coming to Persona 4 for the first time and for those replaying the game. All of the Golden content originally added for the Vita release over a decade ago is here. This includes several new social links, new story content, additional Personas and costumes, and more. You have the option I mentioned earlier to see what other players did on the same days, and in dungeons, you can call for help from other connected players. Perhaps my favorite is the fast-forward option. While the dialogue here is great, there’s a lot of it, and players returning to the game may want to push through scenes they’re incredibly familiar with. Now they can do so.
Even as it nears its fifteenth anniversary, Persona 4 Golden is still one of the best RPGs ever made and an absolute must-play for fans of the genre or really anyone who has spent all of these years wondering what the big deal is. This isn’t a case of having to choose style or substance. Persona 4 Golden has more of both than you can fit in a hollow bear suit. Don’t let it pass you by.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: Switch (reviewed), PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC, Vita; Publisher: Sega; Developer: Atlus; Players: 1; Released: January 19th, 2023; ESRB: M for Mature; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Persona 4 Golden provided by the publisher.