As someone who has been gaming since the early 90’s, most of the series I play are ones that have grown alongside me. I’ve experienced them as they went on and had the opportunity to watch them improve over time; or lament that they will probably never be what they once were. Occasionally though I’ll jump into a series that is new to me, and with that decision comes the burning question: do I start from the beginning or the most recent game? I did this dance with the Yakuza series back in 2020, scooping up Like a Dragon and then trying to go backwards to an older game when I heard that the older ones had better gameplay. The problem was, even though the RPG aspects of Like a Dragon weren’t great, there were meaningful quality of life touches to parts of the formula that had remained the same. The absence of those features made older Yakuza games feel dated in a way that was hard for me to push through, and I felt like I’d ruined my chances at becoming interested in the series by playing them in an order that didn’t work for me.
Because of this experience and others like it, I was hesitant to dive into Persona 4 Golden. It’s a game I have heard wonderful things about from longtime Persona fans, but as someone who joined the series with 5 I had a hard time imagining that there would be much it could to in order to grab my attention. Compared to a game like Yakuza, JRPGs can get really rough when you go backwards and start to lose QOL features. It is a genre infamous for not respecting your time, and while most of the positives I’d heard about P4G were related to the quality of the story and characters, I didn’t want to put up with lousy mechanics just to try to fight my way to a decent story. I ultimately decided to post about it on Twitter and the feedback I got was essentially unanimous: while P4G may have some gameplay disadvantages against P5R, it’s not so drastic a difference that it makes the game unplayable. With that advice taken to heart, I decided to stick my hand into the TV screen and fall fully into the world of Persona 4 Golden for the first time.
P4 starts out similarly to P5 in that you spend a significant chunk of time learning the setup. You have a main character displaced from their home and going to live with a guardian. You begin their school life and meet their new friends. Soon, terrible things start happening around you, and on top of those terrible things you’re also having strange dreams of eerie supernatural phenomena. The real life disasters and metaphysical adventures eventually come together and you finally hit the core loop of the game. While these broad strokes are similar, there are a lot of differences between P4G and P5R in terms of the theme and tone of the mysteries, the nature of the supernatural forces at play, and of course practical differences in terms of gameplay.
One thing that is not different between the two games is the quality of the soundtrack. Persona 4 and 5 are distinct thematically and as a result the musical styles that define them are different as well, but the execution is stellar no matter the genre. Walking around the overworld is a blast as there are multiple vocalized musical themes that play as you navigate the small town of Inaba. And while it is hard to beat Last Surprise as a battle theme, P4G’s theme is still solid and there are lots of memorable numbers to be enjoyed. “Heartbeat, Heartbeat” and “Studio Backlot” have been playing in my head on repeat with no signs of stopping, with the latter making a great ‘get pumped’ song for chores or other unpleasant matters of real life significance.
So as I mentioned, Persona 4 Golden is set in a town called Inaba. Your character (whose canon name is funnily enough ‘Yu’) came from an unnamed big city to live in Inaba while his parents are traveling internationally due to their jobs. Yu’s arrival in the normally sleepy town seems to herald trouble as a series of murders begins to take place immediately after. As Yu and his friends Chie and Yosuke investigate the murders, they begin to learn that they are connected to a local urban legend called the Midnight Channel. Supposedly looking into a turned-off television at midnight on a rainy night reveals your soulmate. The legend isn’t wrong, per se, as falling into the world behind the television is how people meet a Shadowy version of their inner self and, by accepting that self and coming to a deeper understanding of the persona they show to the world, unlock the magical power of that persona. This is very distinct from P5, where the metaverse represents a distorted perception of reality and personas represent the spirit of rebellion held by those who dare to stand against the powerful.
Personally, I am really happy to see how different the two games are in that regard. It would be more difficult I think to be visiting an older version of the exact same concept that I’ve already experienced. This way, I’m not bringing assumptions about the rules of the supernatural world backwards into P4G and instead can engage with the game on its own terms. Additionally, where Persona 5 was about changing the hearts of powerful villains, Persona 4 seems to be focused on inner change – recognizing the sides of ourselves we are reluctant to acknowledge or embrace and admitting they are a part of who we are. Both approaches are valid and interesting ideas to explore, and I’m looking forward to seeing the many ways in which P4G riffs off of this basic concept throughout the game.
A different story means a different cast of characters, and this was an area where I had a hard time believing the P4G stans in my mentions. Most of the folks I heard from preferred the characters in 4 to 5. While I wouldn’t say the cast of Persona 5 are my favorite characters of all time or anything, they are memorable and fun and a big part of the appeal of that game. After spending even more time with them in Strikers, the idea of liking a different cast more seemed ludicrous. I’m way too early in the game to make the final call on this aspect but what I will say is that so far I do find these characters to be compelling enough and perhaps more importantly, distinct enough that I’m not constantly drawing comparisons to P5R. I can see why you would love these characters and am curious to see where their arcs go.
I’d say my favorite so far is Chie, your first friend in Inaba. She’s a spunky young woman who loves martial arts and has a big, animated personality. In real life, spending time with her would probably overwhelm my introverted sensibilities; she’s that loud and outspoken. But she’s a badass who will do anything for the people she cares about, and she’ll never hesitate to put the dumb boys in their place when it is needed. Just from existing within the Persona fandom I’ve already heard horror stories about Yosuke as well as Teddie, the game’s mascot character. I’m not far enough in the game yet to see why people hate them. Yosuke is a spoiled brat, sure, but so far by the end of the first chapter he hasn’t done anything so offensive that I want to throw him into the TV and leave him there on a foggy night. And while I’ve started to get a glimpse of why people don’t like Teddie (he seems to be a pervert based on the one tiny interaction you see between him and Yukiko), I find the other aspects of his character to be fun without being irritating. Don’t pretend Morgana practically stalking Ann is wholesome; it’s gonna take a lot for Teddie to outdo that damn cat in terms of being annoying.
If it feels like this article is taking too long to get to gameplay, well, welcome to Persona. It took me hours to get to a point in the game where I felt I had reached the core loop, but once I got there and was able to see how the game mechanics work together I enjoyed what I saw. If you’ve played Persona 5, this is where the game will start to feel less featured. Your combat options are more limited with fewer elements in the game, no gun mechanic, and no baton pass for when your characters hit enemy weaknesses (at least not as early as you get access to it in P5R, it could still be here). That said, most of the missing features don’t hit too hard in terms of feeling like a step backward and the core of the Persona combat style is still strong. Testing different skills on new enemy types to identify their weaknesses and then knocking down the whole board so you can perform a potent group attack is satisfying and the challenge really amps up when figuring out how to deal with enemies who don’t have a weakness you can exploit.
One of the biggest differences between P4G and P5R is the way in which dungeons function and how you recruit personas to your side. The dungeons in Persona 4 are procedurally generated, with each floor taking on a different shape each time you visit it. You wander through hallways kicking open doors and looting chests while looking for the staircase to the next floor. Essentially, remove the palaces from Persona 5 and put the story content that happens inside of them into Mementos and you have how Persona 4 works. This is another area where I feel 4 is a bit weaker but as a veteran of mystery dungeon games, it isn’t as if this style of exploration is new to me. Where recruiting is concerned, instead of getting to try to converse with a persona when you down them all, you have to try to finish the battle with an all-out attack and then it starts an event where you receive a series of cards to choose from, one of which is a persona. Cards can also have other effects like mild healing, increased money or EXP, granting a stat boost to your persona, etc., but they can also have negative effects in exchange for getting to draw more cards. Drawing all the cards gives a sweep bonus which lets you draw more cards next time. You’re exchanging the RNG of trying to choose the right response to a persona’s question in order to recruit them for the RNG of trying to get the persona you want from card after a battle. I’ve seen a few folks say they prefer 4’s system to 5, but I think because I played 5R and have experienced the hint system for 5 I actually like that method better. In 5 I know what persona I am going to get and it’s easier to just pull off an all-out attack as opposed to having to finish the battle with one.
Combat and dungeon exploration are only half the gameplay experience, and you’ll be spending Yu’s time in the mundane world hanging out with friends, building social stats, and doing jobs to help you collect useful resources for the supernatural world. Friendships build social links that unlock new bonuses for your personas of the same arcana. Social stats are necessary to access new areas and meeting new people or to make the dialogue choices you want to; in one example, when you get Chie’s contact information, you have to present it as being “for the investigation” if you don’t have enough courage to simply ask for her phone number. The real world is also where you buy things like weapons and consumables, as well as turning in materials you find in the dungeon to make money and unlock new items in the shop.
The interplay between Yu’s real life and supernatural escapades makes for a very satisfying gameplay loop. You enter a dungeon and make some progress towards the boss, collecting personas and materials during the process. After you leave, you cash in the materials for money and in order to unlock new gear to spend that money on. Your personas give you bonuses towards social links of the same type, allowing you to quickly advance your relationships with your friends. This in turn unlocks new abilities to bring with you back into the dungeon, and fusing your personas before your next run makes stronger ones to help you push even deeper than before. This back and forth conversation between mechanics helps to keep you invested in the game and I personally found it easy to play for hours as there was always something I wanted to do next. “I’ll play a bit longer to advance with Chie. Eh, I’ll keep going to make it to the end of the dungeon. Couldn’t make it to the top…guess I’ll focus on getting money to buy some supplies. Let’s try that again.”
One ‘chapter’ in and I am really glad that I decided to give Persona 4 Golden a try. While there are certainly some mechanical aspects that I don’t prefer compared to 5 Royal, the game still holds up well and the things that are different are different enough that it still feels fresh despite being older. The story and characters are compelling and the game uses different theming, which helps the world to feel unique and creates the conditions for a compelling mystery. I’m excited to continue diving into the game and meeting more of the characters, as well as learning the secrets behind the midnight channel.