Persona 4 is a JRPG developed and published by Atlus. It was released for the PlayStation 2 in December 2008. Atlus released an improved version with added events and features called Persona 4 Golden for the PlayStation Vita in November 2012. I played the Vita version in 2020. Parental warning: Persona 4 Golden is rated M, containing mature content not suitable for children.
Persona 4 Golden is an RPG that I hear everyone praise as one of the best in the genre — it has a challenging battle system, an addictive life sim component, and a dark murder mystery story. I could just say I agree with them, it’s a good game, and we could leave it at that.
But this is me we’re taking about. I gotta analyze the heck out of it.
Even with all of its praise, I think people miss the mark with this game. It’s more than just a really good JRPG. Like other masterpieces, it transcends the standard conventions and mechanics and becomes an experience that leaves a lasting impression. I’m still thinking about the questions it asks and the characters I met.
Persona 4 Golden begins as you, the silent protagonist, move to the sleepy town of Inaba to live with your uncle and cousin, as your parents are working abroad for a year. After you start attending school, you learn about a mysterious Midnight Channel that only appears when it rains at midnight. At the same time, strange murders begin happening when fog comes into town. You team up with your newly met classmates to find a whole world behind the TV where peoples’ suppressed feelings become reality. It’s your job to rescue people trapped in the Midnight Channel before the fog sets in and they’re murdered.
In the real world, you play a life sim, working jobs, spending time with friends, and studying for school. And in the TV world, the game becomes a turn-based RPG, where the friendships you’ve built in the life sim portion strengthen your ability to fight. Combat revolves around exploiting an enemy’s weakness – break all of the enemies’ defenses, and you can do an All-Out Attack for massive damage. You summon Personas with different elemental abilities and moves based on the situation. You can then fuse Personas to make stronger ones that can inherit moves. It’s the Pokemon battle system taken to a new level.
At first, neither the life sim nor the RPG feel especially compelling, but after the first two dungeons, the game builds momentum, its mechanics expand, and the gameplay loop really gets its hooks in you. It certainly takes a bit of patience to get into the game, but it’s well worth it.
As much as the combat grew on me (especially fusing stronger Personas), what truly impressed me about this game was the life sim. Your character has several stats like Courage, Understanding, and Expression, that affect what part-time jobs you can get, what friendships you can build, and what activities you can do. This lead to me planning out activities weeks in advance, very much like I did in Stardew Valley. I looked forward to reading a book to increase my Understanding, or working at a spooky hospital to increase my Courage.
You learn about the characters both through Social Link cutscenes and through their inner state in the Midnight Channel. One was more direct, the other more indirect through dungeon aesthetics and design. I loved both methods of characterization. I empathized with Yosuke’s angst about having to live in a small town (I’m currently living in one myself), and with Dojima and his escapism. And Nanako is just adorable and needs to be protected. At. All. Times.
However, I have some beef with how the writers handled Kanji and Naoto. These two were golden opportunities to have LGBT representation, and during both of their dungeons, the writing had strong LBGT implications, both in cutscenes and in the dungeon design. However, after their respective dungeons, it seemed like the writers tried to backpedal and explain away the previously-built LGBT themes. I mean, I guess I was wrong to get my hopes up — the original game came out in 2008, after all. But still, it’s disappointing. In the end, though, Kanji and Naoto are still complex characters that aren’t just defined by their implied sexuality. I end up with mixed feelings.
The murder mystery plot is interesting on its own, but I found the calendar events with my classmates more enjoyable. Every month or so an event happens — a school campout, a beach trips, or even a local Shinto festival. These moments are often accompanied with an adorable animated cutscene, and they helped break the day-to-day routine. These moments, more than anything else, made me feel like I actually built friendships along the way.
On the surface you could say Persona 4 Golden as a good RPG about the power of friendship. But to do so would be a massive disservice to the complex ideas sprinkled throughout the game. Persona 4 Golden is about finding the truth and committing yourself to that truth. Things can get in your way and cloud your vision – much like the fog that blankets over Inaba. Strong emotions, misunderstandings, rumors, a fear of knowing the truth, it all can seem like ignorance is truly bliss. But you can choose to put on your glasses (figuratively) and see through that fog.
Not only that, but there’s heavy Jungian psychology influences at play as well. Jung believed in a collective unconscious that we can unearth by looking at the archetypes in most of fiction — Atlus decided to replicate this by using Tarot cards. Now, Persona isn’t really interested in the occult — instead, it uses Tarot cards as archetypes for characters and themes. All the Personas you recruit all have an affinity for a Tarot arcana — and each person you meet in the game also matches with a Tarot arcana. Chie is the Chariot, Nanako is Justice, Rise is the Lovers, etc. Building your friendships with that person strengthens all Personas that are affiliated with that arcana, and vice versa.
Not only that, but each Persona, weird as their designs may be, are taken from characters of the world’s major traditions — Christianity, Buddhism, Irish folklore, you name it, it’s likely there. I ended up reading the blurbs about each one I found. Each one felt like a mini-anthropology lesson. There’s something comforting in relying on a deity or hero that someone might have looked up to in the past, in their own culture. It felt like I was tapping into that collective unconscious and using it to hold me up against adversity.
Persona 4 Golden is about more than just friendship; it’s about humanity. It’s about everything we fear, everything that isolates us, and everything that brings us together. It’s a masterpiece of an RPG, but it’s also much, much more than that. If you consider yourself a fan of JRPGs in any manner, you owe it to yourself to try this game out. If anything, at least try the original Persona 4, which I believe is available on the PSN for PS4 owners.