Persona 4 Golden is a pretty well-covered game 15 years after the original release. It’s unlikely that this review is the first time you’re hearing about it, and there’s a decent chance you know its reputation as one of the most beloved entries in the franchise. But it’s been a decade since Golden was first released for the PS Vita. Times have changed, tastes have changed, hairstyles have changed, and the series has evolved. A new port to modern consoles begs the question: does Persona 4 Golden hold up? And does the version bring much new to the table?
Let’s hit the high points for those of you who haven’t heard of Persona 4. Persona 4 Golden is a combination JRPG and life simulation game where you’ll split your time between exploring dungeons to solve a series of murders and spending quality time with friends, becoming a more well-rounded individual. These two halves intertwine, with the progress you make in the dungeons helping to unlock new social links with people throughout the town of Inaba and quest lines in the real world, while increasing said social links leads to boons in battle and while fusing the titular personas.
These spirits are based on a wealth of mythological and religious icons. While each party member has only one persona at a time, dictated by the story, your main character is something of a blank slate. He can hold a number of personas in his mind and switch between them freely, fusing less useful personas into more powerful ones regularly throughout the game. Personas dictate your characters’ battle strengths, weaknesses, and abilities, making fusing and improving these mythological beings vital to success.
Because ultimately, while the game isn’t terribly hard (and has several customizable difficulty settings), some thought is involved. Bosses can range from steamroll easy to seemingly impossible depending on whether you have a good persona prepared for the challenge, especially when considering elemental strengths and weaknesses. Given that hitting a weakness grants extra turns and opportunities to deal significant damage, they are key to your victories.
The dungeons themselves have unfortunately aged less than gracefully. The plain, building-block-style dungeons were nothing to write home about back in the PS2 era, but now that the newest entry in the series has more thought-out, constructed dungeons, going back to endless randomized hallways can be less inspiring. They do the job, acting as gateways to interesting battles and granting a bit of gameplay between stellar plot beats, but in 2023 they definitely show their age.
While there are some occasional clunky bits in the gameplay, the story and characters have held up beautifully. These elements are arguably the main draw here, and they remain every bit as charming as they did in 2008. By the time you finish the story, it’s hard not to feel genuinely sad about leaving the cast behind. With a playtime that can easily top 100 hours, the connections you make with these friends feel real, and this friend group feels like one you’ve genuinely made for yourself. In fact, the cast remains my all-time favorite from a series with some noteworthily amazing casts. They carry weight throughout the long story, which also holds up as one of the best the series has to offer.
The mysterious murders that your crew set out to solve are tantalizing, offering a bizarre murder method and no easy leads on motive. You’ll chase quite a few red herrings before you get it right, and the characters who are put in danger often hit close to home for your character and can make you feel highly motivated to save everyone you can.
Even though you’ll find a few quality of life quirks, nothing stops the game from feeling playable and, more importantly, bingeable. But that holds true of the original Persona 4 Golden release on the Vita, and to the later port on PC. So what does this new version bring to the table?
While the improvements brought by this version aren’t game changers, they make the game easier to play than ever, and more accessible with its presence on all major platforms. The game looks a bit better, of course, especially regarding the buttery smooth framerate. This is only hurt by the odd movement blur on characters, which can obscure the new framerate. This effect has been present on all previous versions of the games and seems to be a stylistic choice, but it held up better on PS2 than it does on a modern console. The game absolutely looks the best it ever has, but it’s not such an improvement that it’ll blow anyone out of the water.
But a prettier look isn’t the most important change. That title goes to a brand new quicksave system, allowing you to take a break in the middle of a dungeon run and return later. This is an absolute lifesaver for those without longer uninterrupted gaming times, or those like me who need to rush off to help kids on a dime. The amount of time between saves in the original version was at PS2 standards, which can be rough for today’s older crowd, which is more used to regular autosaves.
A new difficulty setting system also levels out the experience for all players, allowing you to tweak individual settings from damage taken and given to the experience and money earned. The ability to move each individually is wonderful, as you can maintain the original experience and just cut out a bit of the grind by toggling a few options. Or you can plug everything in as low as possible and walk through the combat to experience the wonderful story on its own.
Regardless of how you play the game, the auditory experience will carry you through. The voice acting is a treat, with top-tier voice talent bringing out the depth of a varied and unique cast. But it’s not the voice acting that really sets the Persona games’ audio apart. Persona is all about the music, and Persona 4 Golden is no different. While its predecessor, Persona 3, leaned on hip hop and Persona 5 famously invented acid jazz, Persona 4 offers a mix of pop and dance music blended with a ton of brass and synthesizer to make the soundtrack feel like a cohesive whole. It’s incredibly danceable, which is a good way to keep active in your seat during the dozens of hours the game will keep you busy.
Persona 4 Golden is an amazing port of an amazing game, but one shadow still looms large over a few parts: the series seems incapable of handling LGBTQIA+ themes with respect. Without going too deep into spoiler territory, two of your party members present pretty strongly as gay and non-cis, respectively. It’s not long before both are proven to be straight and cis. While this on its own could be handled well enough, it’s not long before the rest of the cast ridicules anyone making the original assumption. Gay panic runs rampant for one character, while the other is treated less seriously after their birth gender is revealed. It’s a bummer to run into in the middle of the game, and while it’s unlikely to be a deal breaker for most, it’s hard not to wish for better.
But don’t let any of this stop you. Persona 4 Golden is a fantastic game, and this release is the best way to play it. The characters are loveable, the story is driving, and the entire game is hard to put down until you’ve absorbed it all. Persona 4 Golden might just be the apex of the series so far, and really, don’t you deserve something nice for yourself?