With Persona 4 Golden, Atlus could very easily have phoned it in, delivering the absolute bare minimum expected of a handheld Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 port, and still produced a genuinely terrific game. The company's 2008 PlayStation 2 effort is widely regarded as one of the finest JRPGs to grace the system, and justifiably so. A tantalizingly cerebral sci-fi murder mystery dungeon crawler with a strong emphasis on social interaction and relationship-building, Persona 4 rightfully sits alongside any RPG deemed to be the greatest of the late aughts. Following the success of their previous Persona porting, Persona 3 Portable, which improved on the original in almost every way, Atlus brings their last-generation masterpiece into the HD age on the PlayStation Vita with spectacular results. With its enhanced graphics, intelligent narrative expansions, and seamless presentation, all meticulously layered into a compact, movable package, Persona 4 Golden conclusively cements the Vita as a must-have device, and once you posses one, owning this game should be mandated by law.
Having already spent much of 2012's second-half obsessively honing my skills in Persona 4 Arena, Persona 4's exceptional fighting game counterpart, I was partially expecting that a prompt full-fledged return to the fictional countryside of Inaba, with all its distinctive rural quirkiness and constant oddity, would be a bit wearing. Yet upon booting up Persona 4 Golden for the first time, Atlus's signature design charms instantaneously washing over me, such trepidation quickly faded away. Four years later, Persona 4's story remains fresh and endlessly intriguing, and Golden does well to add embellishments that make it stand out as a unique title while also paying the utmost respect to the PS2 cult classic. The proverbial ball gets rolling in earnest, with city-to-the-sticks transplant Yu Narukami becoming entangled in a cryptic high school-set plot involving serial murders, complete with a razor-sharp technology-impelled edge that involves the death of civilians being somehow linked to a bizarre alternate universe taking place inside of mysterious television sets. Through a series of arcane happenings, Yu and several of his newfound comrades find themselves venturing into the spectral TVs, decoding the many enigmas surrounding the slayings of their fellow Inaba denizens. Assisting them in warding off the occult are their trusty Personas, metaphysical beings assigned to each character, supporting them in combat with a range of powerful, aesthetically dazzling attacks. It helps that Golden's visuals are spotless from top to bottom, making the high amount of level-grinding necessary to prevail less of a chore and more of a dream job.
There's no way around it: Golden is an enormous game. A standard playthrough, without delving too deeply into any of the side quests like obtaining all of the Personas, developing subplot-sensitive Social Links with NPCs, or other extraneous tasks in the vein of classroom quizzes and sports practices, will likely take you no less than 50 hours progressing at a considerable pace. By the time you're heavily invested in building up your five in-game sociable attributes (Understanding, Diligence, Courage, Knowledge, and Expression), Golden will have already hijacked your life. Much of the game's addictive, ultra-realistic interpersonal communication is made possible by an outstanding script, which is among the most refreshingly complex and well-written JRPGs of all time. Each and every character has a singular charisma all their own, adding increased depth to an already stunningly immersive melting pot of a role-playing universe. Atlus gives you total control over how to mold your characters as well; all the additional work you've been doing feeling out your acquired Personas and strengthening various close-knit partnerships pays off tenfold when finally applying such cultivated techniques to tricky boss battles that lie at the end of each intricate dungeon's chambers.
Golden occasionally reminds us that it's a remake of a four-year-old game by way of its strict avoidance of any sheltering handholding. Save points are spread quite thin, beneficial side quests don't advertise themselves with help from an on-screen guide, and the walls of vital-text-to-cutscenes ratio is wildly uneven. These are aspects that the casual, frequently impatient gamer, one who was probably unaware of this franchise back in 2008, will find discouraging. However, any loyal, seasoned Shin Megami Tensei player will almost certainly recognize Golden as one of the best, if not the best, entry in the series, with Atlus even going so far as to adding a chatroom-esque online functionality that can raise stats as well as an entirely unfamiliar character named Marie, whose background adds some significant profundity to a game that's already teeming with it. Even if you've played through Persona 4 a handful of times, Golden makes the one-of-a-kind experience feel contemporary in ways both unexpected and enriching.