The lights are on
High school contains the most important years of a person's life. They take the classes that almost always decide what career path they will follow, where they will go to college, and possibly even how well they will succeed in life. However, high school is also where a person will make friends that last them a lifetime: it's where people face some of their greatest struggles, and thus make their strongest bonds. Persona 4 Golden captures the ideas of high school perfectly, and creates an experience unlike any other I have ever seen in any other medium. Quite simply, it's one of the greatest games ever created.
Persona 4 Golden begins with the player's character arriving at the small town of Inaba, in the middle of the Japanese countryside. Soon after his arrival, mysterious murders begin to occur in Inaba, where people are found hanging off structures such as telephone polls on foggy days. The player's character and his new friends unintentionally discover that a local rumor centering around a television that appears at midnight on rainy days is connected to the murders. They also discover that they have the ability to enter another world through television screens, and so they declare to solve the mystery of the Inaba murders and prevent anyone else from suffering the same fate. This is the main story that Persona 4 Golden revolves around, but in reality the bulk of your time will be spent outside of the TV World in Inaba, spending time with your friends and other people in the town.
Most of the main characters in the game have a Social Link tied to them, which the player's character can develop over the course of the game. Each of these links is associated with one of the twenty-three Major Arcanas associated with the Personas the character can use over the course of the game (more on that below). Social Links are developed by spending time with characters in various ways, such as studying with them, going to the movies, or hanging out. Some are tied to going to specific clubs, or taking certain jobs. The Social Link mechanic exemplifies Persona 4 Golden: nurturing the bonds you share with other people, and thus becoming more powerful, as well as creating relationships that feel genuine and wonderful. They really show off how great P-Studio's writing is, but are also only the tip of the iceberg. In reality, the best of the writing and character development comes from when all of the main cast spends time together. I loved seeing all of the characters banter back and forth, because it made them feel like real characters that were just normal high school students, like myself. Also, the player can choose to go further with certain females and choose them as their girlfriends, which create unique story moments. One minor complaint I have with this is that the main storyline doesn't really acknowledge these relationships (for example, I chose Chie as my girlfriend in my first playthrough, but when I would compliment her as cute in parts outside of the Social Link parts, she would act flustered as though we weren't dating).
Inside of the TV World, the cast fights beings known as Shadows through manifestations of their own psyche, which are called Personas. Each of the characters belongs to a certain Arcana, but the player's character has the ability to use multiple Personas across all Arcanas, instead of just a single Persona. The player can fuse these Personas to create stronger ones with new moves and abilities, and this is where Social Links become important outside of character development. If you're fusing a Persona of the Magician Arcana, for example, you'll want to develop Yosuke's Social Link, and the higher the rank is, the more experience the newly fused Persona will receive. So, Social Links have implications both in and outside of battle, which makes them feel useful besides just being story content (which I would have been fine with in the first place).
You wield that wrench, Yosuke.
In terms of combat, Persona does not move outside the realm of normal turn-based role-playing games that much. If a combatant performs a critical attack on an opponent, however, they will receive an additional turn to attack. This inspires diversity and adaptability: the player's character can change Personas during battle, so it's in your favor to have multiple Personas ready to suit different situations, instead of just having one really strong one that will get you through most battles after a few turns. I wasn't exactly wowed by the combat system, but it doesn't really have any problems. I would have liked a bit more explanation on certain status ailments, but in reality I could have just looked those up myself. One mechanic in battles I did enjoy quite a bit are All-Out Attacks, where the group will all collectively attack all enemies (this requires a situation where every enemy has been knocked down and cannot attack until they get back up). The cast will attack the enemies in a dust cloud, and the first time I saw this happen I couldn't help but smile and laugh. It just seemed like the sort of thing teenagers in this situation would do; "HAAAAAAAAA!"
The soundtrack of Persona 4 Golden is truly wonderful. Most tracks can instantly inspire certain emotions, such as Signs of Love making me feel homely, and Backside of the TV getting me psyched up to enter a dungeon and take on some Shadows. I've listened to several of the tracks extensively since I started playing the game, most notably Reach Out To The Truth and Shadow World. If I even try listening to a few seconds of the song that plays during the credits...well, tears well up from the memories I have of my time in Inaba.
I did not have the pleasure of playing the original Persona 4, but Golden does have notable additions that I can appreciate. First and foremost, the fact that it is portable has made playing much more accessible, and is something I have struggled with while trying to get into Persona 3 FES (I have now moved onto Persona 3 Portable instead). There are new Social Links in the form of Marie and Tohru Adachi, and also the addition of beautiful animated cutscenes. In addition, there are more Personas to acquire, and areas to explore, as well as new events such as the beach and ski trips. Those two events had some of my favorite parts of the game, so it would be hard for a person like me to imagine the game without them. I cannot compare the game to the original, but considering how much fun I did have with the game, and the fact that I'm planning to do multiple playthroughs makes me think that the game is a worthy purchase for anyone who did play the original.
In the end, what makes Persona 4 Golden so grand is that it takes everything that encompasses high school, even the negative parts, and turns it into something that is only wonderful, and makes me wish I could actually do high school all over again. The friendships that the player's character creates over the course of the game have inspired me to make stronger ones in my own life, and it is these friendships that ultimately make Persona 4 Golden shine brighter than almost any other game I have played. If you own a PlayStation Vita, like role-playing games, or great character development, you owe it to yourself to play Persona 4 Golden. Go buy it, and experience one of the best years of high school you will ever have.
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