"There is currently no better reason to buy a PS Vita than Persona 4: The Golden."
Eight months after its North American launch, the PS Vita is still suffering from a dearth of quality RPGs. While our friends in the East enjoy titles such as Ragnarok Odyssey and Tales of Innocence R, we have comparatively less titles to boast about; Dungeon Hunter isn't exactly a triple-A title, and Disgaea is an acquired taste. This fall, the Vita's stateside RPG drought seems poised to end, with the aforementioned Ragnarok Odyssey being slated for a late-October release, and, perhaps more importantly, Persona 4: The Golden set for November. Is Persona 4: The Golden a goldmine of excellent gaming, or is it fool's gold to trick people into buying a Vita?
Due to his parents going abroad for work, the protagonist of Persona 4 moves to the rural Japanese town of Inaba to live with the Dojima family, which consists of his uncle Ryotaro and younger cousin Nanako. It's also around this time that bizarre murders start occurring in the town, starting with a TV announcer, then a girl attending the protagonist's high school. The bodies are found in grotesque shapes and conditions, and the police are puzzled as to the nature of the murders themselves due to the Midnight Channel, a channel that is broadcast to all TVs that show the victims before they are murdered. At this point the protagonist finds out he is able to pass through TVs into a parallel world, and he and his new friend Yosuke Hanamura are able to enter the TV world via a large TV inside the town's large shopping complex. Within the TV world, the two meet and befriend Teddie, who helps them investigate the murders. The protagonist and Yosuke awaken their Personas, physical manifestations of their inner strength. Realizing that the murders take place when the victims are trapped in the TV world and attacked by monsters called Shadows, the pair resolve to catch the criminal responsible.
Persona 4's story is a very different beast from the previous entry in the series. While Persona 3 was more of a fast-paced thriller, Persona 4 follows a more methodical pace, similar to a well-written mystery novel. As the protagonist and his team track the murderer, many plot twists and red herrings are thrown into the mix in order to keep the player guessing. What results is an incredibly well-told story that truly drives the player to press on just to see what the next plot point has to offer while also trying to piece together the answer to the mystery, something that is distinctly lacking in many RPGs today. It's also important to note that while the main game is intriguing, the backdrop of the game is no slouch, either.
While investigating the murders within Inaba, the protagonist also has to attend to his life as a student at Yasogami High School and as a part of the Dojima family. During this period he can befriend and help many people solve their personal problems and dilemmas, as every character the protagonist meets as a tale to tell. Ultimately, these independent character-driven asides are a journey of healing and self discovery: whether it's a young man coping with the death of his sister, a woman attempting to bond with her stepson, or helping a father and daughter through a heartbreakingly estranged relationship, the individual vignettes unique to each character are all very well presented. They cover themes such as sexual identity and orientation, coming to terms with death of a loved one, or living within the shadow of past generations. The characters themselves are written well and incredibly compelling, and I have to give extra kudos to Atlus for creating a child character that I can actually like.
The graphics have received an upgrade for the Vita release: the character models and environments look better, the artwork is crisp and clear, and the anime cutscenes (which are more numerous now) are rendered beautifully. That being said, however, it still doesn't come close to pushing the limits of the PS Vita; that's not a strike against the game, just don't expect the game to have graphics on par with Uncharted: Golden Abyss. The art style utilizes an anime look that has tinges of uniqueness while also being comfortingly familiar.
Persona 4: The Golden is unparalleled in the audio department, continuing the musical style found in Persona 3. While Persona 4 has a fewer number of memorable pieces, the soundtrack in its entirety is far and away superior to that of Persona 3. Shoji Meguro's music is very fitting with the game's themes, environments, and setting; I doubt I could ever get tired of his music. The voicework is top notch as well, with some excellent performances that lend authenticity to Persona 4's colorful cast.
Where Persona 4 truly shines is its gameplay. The battle system is turn-based RPG combat at its absolute finest. The battle system is lifted directly from Persona 3, but also adds some tweaks and improvements that make it much more enjoyable; the battles are fast-paced and engaging - there are no long and involved summoning scenes or over the top attacks, but the attack animations still manage to impress even after the hundredth showing. Knowing to identify and exploit enemy weaknesses, as always, plays an important part in the game. Unlike in Persona 3, however, there is no longer a complete incentive to just down all the enemies with their weaknesses and employ an all-out attack; while it's certainly a valid strategy, as it also can unleash new combination attacks from certain characters, most enemies that are downed will become dazed and lose a turn if they are hit with their weakness again. It's also important for the player to guard the party against their own weaknesses, as a battle can quickly turn south if the enemy gets a lucky critical or hits a character's weak point at the wrong time – I think Persona 4 is honestly the first turn-based RPG that actually forced me to make tactical use of the guard/defend option in order to survive a boss battle.
The exploration of the game, however, is slightly disappointing. While the general maps and environments in the real world are well-designed and interesting, things fall apart in the TV world, where dungeons are just a amalgam of randomized floors and occasionally static areas. While at the beginning this isn't a huge problem because the dungeons are mostly straightforward, later dungeons will basically necessitate backtracking, forcing players to return to already navigated areas that often have completely new layouts in order to progress. This is doubly problematic because the mini-map, which fills as the player explores each level, does not store the layouts of even static areas. In Persona 3, the randomized dungeon crawling was tolerable because it was one long dungeon that required no backtracking at all. However, in Persona 4, the developers seemed to want to utilize the unpredictable dungeon crawling of the previous entry, while also having puzzle solving and exploration elements of more traditional dungeon design. As a result, dungeon exploration becomes a somewhat frustrating affair later in the game. This doesn't become a huge enough problem that it breaks the game, but it does prove to be somewhat of an annoyance.
However, the reason for such a design becomes immediately clear once the player is able to get through one or two dungeons. The party is limited by how much SP (mana, essentially) they have at any point, especially the protagonist due to his versatility. SP-restoring items and cards that regenerate HP and SP after battle are rare, and returning to the TV World's hub does not recover any SP. Later in the game there is a character that will allow the player to restore the party's SP at the hub, but as it requires a large amount of money, it isn't cost-effective to consistently rely on this service. As a result, dungeon crawling in Persona 4 largely becomes one of resource management and intelligent combat decisions to conserve as much SP as possible. Due to the time-limited nature of the game, it becomes incredibly important that the player does not spend too much time in the TV world, as it can take up time that can be used on equally important tasks in the real world.
Outside of the TV World, players can engage in a multitude of activities such as fishing, reading, tending to a garden, working a part time job, eating out, spending time with friends, and more. These activities all contribute towards increasing the stats of the main character or party members' abilities, but again, due to the time-limited nature of the game, decisions of what to do each day often boil down to what would be the most efficient course of action for the player. The most important of these activities, however, are likely the Social Links.
While the protagonist is living in Inaba, each character he befriends will bestow upon him a Social Link. Social Links are the cornerstone of the main character's growth, as each Social Link corresponds to a different arcana, and each arcana can have around ten different Personas unique to it. As a Social Link is increased, its respective arcana becomes stronger within the protagonist. This ties directly into the protagonist's ability to acquire multiple Personas – he is also able to fuse these Personas to create a new one, and if the arcana of the resulting Persona is high enough, it will gain a power boost when it is created. In this way, every system and action in the game is linked; actions outside of battle directly and indirectly affect how strong the protagonist becomes in the TV World.
It should be noted, however, that each Social Link has a predetermined 'ideal' path that yields optimum growth. While Persona 4 is more flexible than its predecessor in that certain Social Links will yield different storylines depending on the player's choice of which sport or art club to join, each character arc has only one generally favorable outcome. It would have been incredibly interesting if the player could have greater control over how the arcs progressed, with different end paths depending on the player's responses to the Social Link.
Persona 4: The Golden has a massive amount of content, above and beyond what most RPGs, both eastern and western, offer today. The main game itself would take most players at least 40 hours to complete, but between a large amount of unlockables such as costumes, side quests, PS Vita-exclusive content, and replay value due to the multitude of Social Links, the extra content can cause the main game to run up to 70 or even 80 hours. This doesn't even include the possibility of second or even third playthroughs for those dedicated enough to see everything the game has to offer. The player can also customize the difficulty of the game during subsequent playthroughs, so that it can be as hard, or as easy, as the player desires. There is currently no better reason to buy a PS Vita than Persona 4: The Golden. It has more content and enjoyability than any other Vita game currently on the market, and also has one of the best stories of any video game, period. If you enjoy RPGs in any form at all, Persona 4: The Golden is a game that you need to experience.