Persona 4 Golden review: a welcome change of pace from Persona 5

A soothing vibe permeates the beginning of Persona 4 Golden. The protagonist isn’t navigating a sprawling Shibuya or the Sangenjaya-inspired streets that lead to Persona 5‘s Café Leblanc. Instead, he’s on a train heading in the opposite direction, leaving the crowded city behind to spend a year in the countryside.

First released on PlayStation 2 in 2008, Persona 4 will soon be available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation consoles, and Xbox consoles, the latter via Game Pass. It marks a new era for the Japanese role-playing classic, which, aside from a 2020 PC port, has been all but inaccessible to anyone without the PS2 disc or a PlayStation Vita. It’s a foreboding, pastoral adventure, and it strikes an altogether different tone than its urban sequel.

Inaba is nothing like Tokyo. You can easily see everything the town has to offer within a day — or the span of a few in-game minutes. But its slower pace makes the seemingly mundane aspects of rural life all the more compelling. Your connections, both with people and the town itself, are more intimate as a result. And once danger begins to loom in the background, the stakes become more personal as a result.

It helps that the protagonist has a much more grounded backstory than Persona 5‘s Joker. He’s not transferred because of probationary action, but because his parents moved abroad for work purposes. His uncle, Ryotaro Dojima, alongside his cousin Nanako, welcomes him with open arms in a cozy home. He is not forced to live in an attic, nor is he frowned upon by everyone he meets due to his “criminal” background. If it weren’t for the series of murders and disappearances that transpire right after his arrival, it might have been a pleasant, bucolic escape.

Image: Atlus/Sega via Polygon

The sinister events come as a shock to the Inaba townsfolk — particularly the students of Yasogami High School. Yosuke Hanamura, the first new party member, or confidant, was especially close to one of the murder victims. This spurs the protagonist, along with Yosuke and several other students, to form a group and investigate.

The team soon discovers something called the “Midnight Channel,” which presages the death of anyone who shows up on screen. Thus begins a countdown on your calendar, a period in which you’ll need to fully explore a dungeon and defeat the final boss before a lethal fog sets in. Instead of exploring the palaces of corrupt adults and shitty political figures à la Persona 5dungeons here are (mostly) focused on the people close to you.

The palaces of Persona 5 are equal parts extravagant and foreboding, and often contain set pieces and puzzle motifs to break up turn-based combat encounters. Persona 4 Golden‘s dungeons, on the other hand, will feel more like the Mementos sections of Persona 5 — procedurally generated labyrinths with intermittent battles. In 2023, they feel a bit monotonous. But by thrusting you into the psychoscapes of your close friends, who are forced to hold a mirror up to their hopes, fears, and goals, Persona 4 provides a more forward-looking experience than its sequel. It’s a cathartic story about self-reflection and honesty.

The protagonist's persona awakens in Persona 4 Golden on Nintendo Switch

Image: Atlus/Sega via Polygon

Whenever you’re not delving into dungeons, attending school, or investigating crime, you’re free to spend your evenings and days off however you like. There is a wide array of activities at your disposal, from sports and cultural clubs to a long list of secondary quests. Some are focused solely on increasing your stats, while others, like a few specific part-time jobs, can unlock new Social Links altogether. Oftentimes, you’ll be gaining points toward both progression systems in one go, which results in a synergy that makes for a satisfying use of time.

In the sprawling Persona 5, I’ve skipped activities and even secondary locations entirely. in Persona 4 Golden it’s easier to dedicate time to banal tasks with your confidants. It’s also easier to linger in Inaba’s nooks and crannies, to grow attached to the placid corners where you spoke to a confidant: the fairly plain riverbank where you and Chie practice fighting together; the restaurant you’ve eaten at a dozen times that sells a special bowl during rainy days; or that one table in Junes’ food court where the group champions victories and reflects on past mistakes.

if you missed Persona 4 Golden on PlayStation Vita or Steam, it feels right at home on Nintendo Switch (the version I tried myself). Visuals are crisp in both handheld and docked modes, there are plenty of quality-of-life tweaks around difficulty options and save files, and it runs at 60 frames per second the majority of the time, except for scenes involving fog.

The protagonist and Chie face off with two demons in a dungeon in Persona 4 Golden on Nintendo Switch

Image: Atlus/Sega via Polygon

Unfortunately, Persona 4‘s more problematic content hasn’t been updated or revised in its new iteration. It’s still mired in sexist tropes, and its representation of queer characters remains lacking at best, and harmful at worst. It may be easier to pick up and play than ever before, but its content is still intermittently hard to stomach.

Some people will understandably be put off by all of this. Yet, for all the flaws in its script, Persona 4 Golden manages to mine heartfelt stories from other veins. Persona 5 Royal is a veritable amusement park of side activities that can sometimes be overwhelming. In Inaba, however, having fewer distractions lets you focus on your bonds much more closely. It will take some time to adjust to being away from the city, especially without a smartphone constantly buzzing to let you know where everybody is at all times. But there is no need for one. You’re bound to stumble upon a friendly face on your way to the riverbank.

Persona 4 Golden will be released on Jan. 19 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on Switch using a pre-release download code provided by Sega. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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