During my first impressions of Persona 4 Golden I described that I had concerns about going backwards to that game from Persona 5 Royal, specifically that the game’s mechanics would be noticeably worse in such a way that it would feel too archaic. I worried that many quality of life features might not be present, or that there might be less complexity in the battle mechanics that would make fights blend together more or lose their appeal more quickly. Having now finished P4G, I thought it might be helpful for anyone else who has that concern to write out my full thoughts and be able to direct them to an article describing piece by piece just what makes these two games mechanically different. Understanding those specifics may be key to helping someone understand whether or not P4G would still appeal to them.
The Core Gameplay Loop
While neither Persona 4 nor 5 is broken up formally into chapters, both of them have a rough chapter structure that follow very similar beats. At the beginning of the chapter you learn about the problem – a character who is in trouble or a villain that is up to no good. That problem leads to the discovery of a dungeon, a supernatural location for the heroes to explore which will inevitably be capped off by a boss battle. You have a limited amount of days to conquer the dungeon and defeat the boss before the bad thing you are trying to prevent happens and you get a game over. During the couple of weeks or so that you have to focus on the dungeon, you also have other responsibilities like going to school, hanging out with your friends, and building up your social stats. The push and pull between your mundane life and your supernatural life makes up the core loop of the game. Do you spend energy in the real world building up your friendships to give you money and power for the dungeon? Do you clear the dungeon quickly to make more time for your real life? These time-limited periods and the choices you make in them create the essential gameplay loop of Persona.
4 and 5 are essentially the same in this regard; what sets them apart is complexity. The dungeons in Persona 5 are authored – they have a specific structure that every player will see, with planned puzzles to solve and story beats to play out. The dungeons in Persona 4 are procedurally generated – their structure varies from run to run but the spaces are emptier as a result. This isn’t to say there are no dungeon puzzles; later game dungeons in P4G do find ways to create specific challenges for you to overcome by having you revisit previous floors or having floors that can only be exited a specific way. But generally the dungeons in Persona 4 are a lot simpler, requiring you only to wander around a series of hallways in order to find a staircase until you reach plot.
Persona 5 intentionally breaks up the action of its dungeons by having scripted moments where you have to leave. This is tied with the rules of the metaphysical universe in that game – something often has to be manipulated about the real-world creator of the dungeon in order to alter what that space is like in their mind’s eye. It means a dungeon can never be run in a single day – most take a minimum of three: one to reach the halfway mark, one to make it to the boss, and then a dedicated day for the boss battle. In this way P5R makes you pace yourself and forces breaks when exploring. P4G has no such forced breaks – if you have the resources to make it all the way through a dungeon in a single day, you can play it all at once and then have the rest of that chapter to focus exclusively on your character’s mundane life. In my experience, I found my desire to optimize my number of days by doing a dungeon in a single sitting ultimately had a negative effect on my game experience; there wasn’t enough back and forth to keep the gameplay varied and interesting. For this reason, someone playing P4G after having already played P5R may want to be aware to pace themselves, as the game is not going to script a healthier pace for you.
How your character spends his life at school and with his friends is a big part of the Persona experience. Relationships with friends are called social links, and mechanically these links give you boons when creating personas associated with the arcana of the social link. For example, P4G’s Rise and P5R’s Ann are associated with the Lovers arcana, so befriending them in their respective games makes personas of that type more powerful when you fuse them (more on that mechanic later). Social links with party members also make those party members stronger, unlocking new actions they can take in battle such as restoring an ally’s status conditions or surviving mortal blows. At the highest level, a maxed out social link changes the ally’s persona, giving them better resistances as well as a useful ability for avoiding attacks that target down their weakness. These features are common across both games, although notably in P4G every time a party member’s social link improves they grant some kind of benefit, whereas in P5R party members do have social links that don’t grant new abilities.
The tradeoff here though is that none of the social links for characters who do not join your party do anything in P4G, outside of the base effect of making fusions of that type better. This has a huge impact on your incentive to develop social links with non-party characters. In P5R, spending time with the kid who unlocked the Tower arcana not only improved those personas but also improved my party’s gun-based skills. In P4G, developing the Tower arcana can be completely ignored with no noticeable mechanical effect or drawback, particularly because Tower is one of the persona types that has to be developed through special fusions and you will never stumble on one organically. The promise of mechanical benefits to the relationships encouraged me to seek out characters in P5R that I otherwise may not have been interested in, and the game shows you what skills you’re going to unlock next – and at what level – to help you make more informed decisions about where you are spending your time. While the quality of the storytelling in P4G’s social links is rock solid, the mechanical incentive to pursue them is much weaker.
Another area in which P4G lags behind P5R is in the number of activities available; specifically, activities which emphasize the interplay between mundane life and dungeon. While I would say that the most important activities in both games are those which increase your social stats and develop your social links, P5R has the added benefit of incorporating other activities that can make your life easier when exploring dungeons. Doing laundry for example allows you to restore rusty equipment and get access to special armor in exchange for some of your precious free time. Brewing coffee or making curry gives you much-needed SP restoratives to keep your party able to use their abilities in the dungeon. Playing darts allows you to improve the benefits of baton pass in combat (more on that later), making your party members more powerful. Having more activities to pull at your attention emphasizes the importance of those decisions. In P5R, I really felt like I needed the extra days afforded by the postgame to wrap up some essential tasks I hadn’t had time to finish. In P4G, those extra days felt extraneous, unnecessary time to develop the few remaining social links that I didn’t particularly have much investment in in the first place.
Similar to how the core loop of both games is similar, the basics of combat are very similar between P4G and P5R as well. A party of up to four heroes faces a group of monsters called shadows. Everyone on the field has elemental weaknesses and resistances. Hitting an opponent’s weakness causes them to be knocked down and gives the attacker an extra action. Critical hits do the same thing. Knocking down every enemy on the field creates the opportunity for an all-out attack, where your characters deal big damage to each foe onscreen. Most normal combats are about hitting enemy weaknesses while protecting your own, playing aggressively so you can quickly clear the board with all-out attacks. Bosses tend not to have weaknesses or can cycle through them, and so become battles of attrition where you focus more on keeping healthy, buffing your stats, and managing resources while recognizing the enemy’s attack pattern and developing a strategy to counter it.
P4G has quite a few missing mechanics when it comes to this aspect of the game. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that P5R did a good job of expanding on the foundation that P4G built. Either way though, if like me you are going backwards in the game order then you will probably feel the difference when it comes to combat. There are fewer elements in P4G; no guns, psi attacks, or nuclear attacks, and the elements of light and dark don’t have basic damage spells and instead are limited only to instant kill attacks. Baton pass – the mechanic for choosing which character to use next after hitting an enemy weakness – is not present in this game, which makes getting an all-out attack more dependent on the enemy staying down long enough for the character with the right element to get their turn. Finally, there are no technicals in P4G. Technicals work like crits and hitting weaknesses but are triggered by hitting enemies with status problems with certain elements; hitting a burned enemy with wind, hitting a frozen enemy with nuclear, hitting an enemy who is panicking or brainwashed with psi, etc. Without this extra tool for downing enemies who don’t have a weak point, you are more reliant on fishing for crits or hoping that an instakill spell will work on the target.
Fewer functional elements means that there are fewer specializations for your party members to fall into. In P5R, particularly when it comes to the main party and not the extra characters with the bonus content, each party member falls cleanly in line with an element. Outside of using your protagonist’s wildcard ability to cover it, if you need a specific element on the field then you need that specific character as well. This is true for the early parts of P4G but as you get later into the game, there starts to be more overlap. This particularly has a negative impact on Chie, an ice specialist whose ability to inflict ice damage is clearly outclassed by a later character. Another late-game character ends up covering almost every element, sacrificing potency for versatility and making them a good character for standard battles but a poor choice for boss encounters. While I definitely had characters who I ultimately preferred over others in P5R, I felt that their more unique specializations helped to make each one more viable compared to P4G, where certain characters were essentially obsolete by endgame.
That said, there’s one area of P4G where I didn’t feel a great loss with regards to combat, and that was the persona system itself. Personas are swappable monsters with different resistances and abilities that you earn after battles where you have finished the match with an all-out attack. Recruiting personas to your side in P4G is ultimately easier than it is in P5R because you don’t have to navigate the often-obtuse negotiation mechanic, instead just picking whether or not you want the persona out of a list of other rewards like extra EXP or a chest key. Most of the same tools for persona fusion exist in P4G and broadly are more reliable, almost always giving you the persona you expect instead of saddling you with an unexpected and unwanted transformation. Skill cards – items used to teach a persona a specific skill you want them to have – are also easier to manage, as you can sell them to the velvet room staff and then reproduce them as often as you can afford.
So for those concerned about working backwards in terms of the mechanical impact, there are clear differences between P5R and P4G that definitely show the age of the latter. There are clear ways in which the series has grown and improved from a gameplay standpoint, and losing some of those improvements in order to experience an older version of how Persona played can hurt in some places. Every person will have to decide for themselves if the differences are gamebreakers, but I can say in my experience that they were not. While I did miss the richer mechanics available in P5R, it was interesting to reflect on the ways in which the series has grown. And at the end of the day, the essential appeal of the Persona style of gameplay was still there, even if mitigated somewhat by missing pieces that made it more interesting in Royal. The rest of what P4G brings to the table – the story and the characters – are well worth visiting the game, and the mechanics are still solid enough not to serve as a barrier to the rest of the experience.