Unfortunately, despite its high quality and the praise received, Persona 4 could not compete with the high-definition titles for the honor of being the Game of the Year. An award that in retrospect, was possibly deserved.
Four years later it's finally time for the title to show its quality has no limits: we're now in 2013 and Persona 4's offering is still fantastic, charming and unforgettable, and it's capable of succeeding again on PlayStation Vita, even with only minimal changes to the formula. Very few titles can boast to ageing this well. Not only that, but also its launch on PS Vita - a platform that is struggling to gain a foothold in the market due to the scarcity of its offerings - is a breath of fresh air.
But what is it that makes Persona 4: The Golden so special? It'd be easy to say "everything". There's little weakness in Atlus' work, providing an extremely high level of quality throughout.
But above all, it's a special game because, throughout its 60 to 80 hours of play, it immerses the player in a deep and carefully constructed story, surrounded by charismatic characters with their own problems and motivations (that you'll come to know very well), and presents a combat system which is one of the most enjoyable and dynamic in the genre, and then wraps it all up in a very flashy art style and with a good sense of humor.
The centerpiece of Persona 4: The Golden is the excellent balance reached between its different components: the social simulation of the day-to-day, as you experience school life, as well as the game's other side, the dungeon exploration, as you enter the TV World to rescue kidnapped characters.
Although on paper it might seem like two completely different genres, Atlus gets both to feel so natural and satisfying, that it is almost impossible to conceive one without the other. During the day, we must go to class, interact with other characters to strengthen friendships, have fun, study for exams... all this, as well as taking a series of decisions (there will not be enough time for everything and we have to prioritize our interests) that will allow us to shape our character, providing them with the personality we want them to have.
At night, we have the unique power to enter the television, in order to investigate a series of murders that are taking place in the town where we live. The quirky world inside the TV is where the game sets aside the trappings of the simulation genre - virtual novel turns into direct control over the character, letting you explore dungeons at will and take down all the enemies standing in our way, by means of some peculiar turn-based combat.
The two worlds are interlinked further as the choices made during the day impact the nightly trips into the other. Whatever social ties you strengthen during the real world will translate into stat bonuses for the Personas (TV World entities invoked to fight on the player's behalf) during combat.
Whatever part of the adventure we are in, Persona 4: The Golden makes us want to carry on, dig deeper into the story, find out more details - to really immerse ourselves into the virtual life we're living.
The calendar system and the fact that things are always happening - both in the daytime and in the world of television - results in the game never falling into tedium or boredom. Like real life, we are always waiting for new developments with the arrival of each new day, and we plan our week according to the needs we have at that moment (for example, if a visit to the world of television is on your schedule, you will prioritize the training before the studying, and vice versa).
Perhaps the biggest problem in Persona 4: The Golden is the length of time required for a novice player to get used to the mechanics. Although, unlike other installments of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, this title is very accessible for all types of users (and offers five difficulty levels to choose from), but if you have not played any of the previous chapters the first hours can feel demanding, with much to test you before you feel comfortable with everything.
But the great charisma of the characters and the hook of the story will be enough reason to continue while learning, so you can get on with your adventure.
The PS Vita version has several tweaks over the PlayStation 2 original that, while not involving a drastic change in the game, do add some new details that will make the game appealing to those who've already enjoyed it in the past: new video sequences, new dialogue options, interaction with other players via the PlayStation Network (we can see what they chose in certain points in the story, or ask for help in dungeons), and there's a new character in the Velvet Room, Marie, with her own story and social ties.
These aren't big changes, but all this adds to what we already had and what we have been discussing here: a very long and comprehensive adventure, with many side quests and plenty of things to do (between 60 and 80 hours of gameplay), with colourful characters, almost unlimited possibilities to shape the adventure as we like, different endings and the possibility to start a New Game+ after finishing. All this in a handheld, which will make Persona 4: The Golden the perfect companion for any trip that needs to be made.
Few games on the market are as packed, memorable and satisfying as Persona 4: The Golden, the first clear candidate for Game of the Year 2013 and a title that makes the PS Vita worth owning.