It's rare for an RPG to handle one of its many interconnected systems as elegantly as Persona 4 Golden has handled literally all of its own. It hasn't accomplished that feat by limiting the number of those systems: Between managing your character's attributes, Personas, equipment, day-to-day activities, items, party members and interpersonal relationships, Persona 4 Golden spins a lot of plates simultaneously.
In a genre typically characterized by making the player care about story or mechanics — but rarely both at the same time — Persona 4 Golden makes the two abstracts inseparable.
The more you learn about your neighbors and classmates, the stronger you become in the game's multitude of dungeons. The more the mystery unfolds in those dungeons, the more you care about what happens to your neighbors and classmates. Not that you need that motivation in either direction. Dungeon diving and Persona-collecting has an undeniably addictive progression to it, which is all the more devilish on a gaming platform that can go with you to work or school.
Moreover, the insulated storylines of each Social Link you encounter unfold beautifully, tackling mature subject matters like sexual identity and coping with familial loss with a surprisingly respectful tone. When tackling less serious subject — like lunch, or finals, or Porky's-esque teenage hijinks — the tone is decidedly less mature, but no less captivating.
Persona 4 Golden is an exceedingly memorable game, despite its many moving parts and 50-plus-hour span. Most days during your main character's yearlong stint in the sleepy town of Inaba aren't punctuated by supernatural events or attempted murders. The quieter days spent deliberating between going to the movies or spending time with a friend feel special. The big events, the school trips and vacations are excitedly anticipated by your friends, sometimes weeks in advance; and never, ever fail to disappoint.
Now that I'm on the other side of the final credits, I wish it had never stopped.
These past few years have seen the release of massive, gorgeous open-world titles that gamers and critics lauded for their capacity for virtual tourism. I would argue that Persona 4 Golden does the same thing, albeit for a much smaller, much less exotic locale. No video game — and few works of fiction of any sort — have captured the feeling of battling the complacency of growing up in a small town this perfectly.
As with all good coming-of-age stories, though, that complacency is gradually overridden by a deep appreciation and fondness for your adopted home. That change reaches its peak right near the end of your year in Inaba; a finale which is relatable, grounded, and more emotionally grueling than any other game's conclusion in recent memory.
In the hours leading up to that conclusion, I was ready for Persona 4 Golden to be over. I had sunk almost 60 hours into it, and was ready for the story to end. I was ready to move on to other games which I'd been neglecting. Now that I'm on the other side of the final credits, I wish it had never stopped.