A top-tier role-playing game is generally a finely crafted concoction of several ingredients: an interesting setting, an engaging story, enjoyable characters and interactions, and gameplay that makes your interaction with all of the aforementioned elements feel meaningful and worthwhile. When all of these individual factors are developed to high standards, the result is an RPG of exceptional quality--and that is exactly what Persona 4 Golden is.
This re-release of 2008's excellent PlayStation 2 game takes place in modern-day Japan. The protagonist is a high school student from a big city whose parents have been sent away on business. They send him to live for a year with his uncle--a police investigator--and his young cousin in a small countryside town. Almost immediately upon the hero's arrival, strange things begin to happen in this otherwise dull little hamlet: a string of people turn up dead, and rumor spreads of a supernatural television broadcast that shows bizarre programming. The hero and a crew of his newfound classmates soon discover a horrible secret: there's a separate world within the televisions that twists human desires and hidden feelings in potentially lethal ways, and it's somehow tied to the serial killings. It's up to the group of friends to harness the supernatural power of personas, put a stop to the sinister killing spree, and decipher the secrets behind the TV world.
The contemporary, real-world-inspired setting of Persona 4 is already an excellent conceit in the heavily fantasy- and sci-fi-driven world of RPGs. But it's far from the only element that sets the game apart from the crop. Unlike most RPGs, Persona 4 operates on something of a time limit. From the day you arrive in the country village of Inaba until the day the school year ends, you advance through the game on a calendar. Dates and deadlines are very important; not only do you have important events in school and in your personal life to deal with, but you also discover that the serial killings follow a specific time pattern. You need to explore and rescue potential victims from the TV world before they are killed--a task that usually takes several days to complete.
It would be easy if you could just spend all your days fighting, but Persona 4 also puts heavy emphasis on interacting with other characters in the game. Every day presents many opportunities for various noncombative activities, be it school clubs, hobbies at home, working part-time jobs for extra spending money, or just hanging out with pals needing friendly support. Spending time on these activities benefits you in various ways: some boost your abilities, some earn you items and money, and still others increase your connections with other characters.
Some choices can even offer multiple benefits. By far the most lucrative are the connections with non-player characters, called "social links." By forming friendships and support networks with various characters, you create powerful personas to use during combat. (Some social links, such as those with your party members, also offer additional combat benefits and skills.) Thus, choosing how to spend your limited time each day becomes an additional challenge with its own risks and rewards. If you feel indecisive, an in-game feature lets you connect to an online database to see how other players chose to spend that day.
Though social links pose an engaging puzzle, they woudn't be nearly as interesting if the NPCs involved weren't engaging, memorable characters. This is one of the ways Persona 4 shines, since interacting with the game's cast is enjoyable and rewarding in itself. The characters you meet over the course of the game are relatable and believable, as are the struggles they go through. The bonds you wind up forming with characters make the various interludes scattered throughout the game (such as class trips and group vacations) even more enjoyable as breaks from a sometimes very heavy story. The quality of the game's writing and localization is an additional triumph, skillfully delivering both laugh-out-loud moments and heart-wrenching plot twists.
The story and socialization elements are only one portion of the game, however. You spend a lot of time exploring the TV world, as well. As the game progresses, the TV world expands to include numerous dungeons and monsters created from the dark, repressed thoughts of potential victims that have been cast inside. As the leader of your school friends' makeshift "investigation team," you and your pals explore these randomly generated dungeons, scouring them for treasures and occasionally solving puzzles while searching for the abducted victims. Combat is traditional turn-based RPG fighting with a twist: both you and your foes can earn extra turns by exploiting each other's elemental weakness, a mechanic that fuels some devious strategies and devastating attacks. (It's worth noting that Persona 4 Golden is slightly easier than the original game, so veterans looking for a challenge may want to pick a harder difficulty setting when starting a new game.)