It’s often hard to recommend older games these days. There’s usually a sequel, re-imagining, or spiritual successor that has finessed the controls, updated the style, or overhauled the whole package for modern quality-of-life standards. In the Persona franchise pantheon, Persona 5 and Persona 5 Royal became the measure of progress in the Persona pantheon. The flashy JRPGs ooze pizzazz, from their wildly dressed heroes, to slick menus and reimagined takes on the former games’ repetitive dungeons.
And Persona 5 was the first entry into Persona’s deep world for many people. It certainly was mine, but after writing a glowing essay for Polygon’s 2017 Game of the Year list, I was told by Persona fans I knew (and in the our comments) that in fact Persona 4 Golden — the definitive version of Persona 4 released in 2012 — was still superior in many ways.
The problem was that Persona 4 Golden was also locked away on the PlayStation Vita, a portable that, at best, has become a fun way to play indie games, but never managed to rival any handheld system produced by Nintendo, and isn’t exactly easy to track down now unless you want to go to the secondary market. Not many fans were going to buy a defunct handheld to play a single game.
But Persona 4 Golden on Steam captures all that magic for me. It’s a direct port of the original game; there’s no new story, dungeons or characters. And yet, that’s exactly what I want. The personalities of this game are larger than life, and deserve to fill up a bigger screen than a Vita handheld. Finally, everyone who wants to do so can try one of the best Persona games.
I should know, the Vita is how I first experienced this game. After I had diligently played everything I could to help judge Game of the Year in 2017, an upcoming holiday trip to my boyfriend’s family’s home seemed like the perfect moment to dive into Persona 4 Golden. I started feeling really sick the morning of our flight there, and ended up spending a good portion of the trip holed up in a separate guest bedroom to avoid infecting everyone else over Christmas. By the time we’d returned home a week later, I’d practically inhaled more than 40 hours of Golden, the nasty cold giving me the perfect opportunity to savor its long mystery.
And Golden lived up to the hype, even with the flashier sequel still fresh in my mind. The story of the protagonist’s trip to sleepy, rural Inaba is immediately shrouded in mystery, after a body is discovered hanging from a TV antennas. One murder becomes two, and your character and his new friends soon discover a strange world inside the town’s television sets.
Inaba’s characters are endearing, and Golden’s pacing gave them all time to win my heart. The procedural dungeons weren’t always compelling, but the combat clicked for me after Persona 5. I preferred being able to capture a persona during Shuffle Time over having to negotiate ambiguous dialog prompts with a knocked down Shadow, a feature even the improved Persona 5 Royal still wasn’t able to correct. For every quality of life point I could award to Persona 5, Golden won me over with a stranger tale that felt like it had much higher stakes. Life in small-town Inaba may not be like bustling Tokyo, where 5 is set, but I think this helped bolster the narrative and keep an admittedly surreal story safely on the rails.
The story’s strength comes from unraveling its central mystery. Golden has stakes. You do have to suss the killer out on your own, and you can get it wrong. There’s also a heart-rending moment when those stakes become very real. Persona 5 has a key betrayal too, but there’s never a chance to flub your investigation, or side with the traitor, both options that make Persona 4 more interesting.
This is a theme that continued throughout my time with the game. Golden may be a little kludgy in the details around the game compared to later releases, but the story and play themselves do so many things right that it’s hard to care.
Those details come through much better in this surprising new release, as well. All of the art — still shots of the characters during dialog, background textures, and character model textures — has been polished. Golden is weirdly gorgeous running at 2560x1440, especially since the character models themselves can only be improved so much from the original game’s PlayStation 2 framework. I found myself spending a lot of time absorbing the background details that were once muddied on a tiny screen: the furniture in the Dojima residence and the food on their dinner table, the signs across Inaba’s quaint shopping district, the ominous rooms found in the alternate Midnight Channel dimension. Hell, even the ever-present fog looks better.
The PC port doesn’t offer too many other additional bells and whistles, but keyboard and mouse support is nice when I want to lean back and spacebar myself through long stretches of story.
This adherence to the original game has its ups and downs, though. Since there are no story changes, there aren’t any improvements to the clumsy handling of Kanji and Naoto’s story beats. Atlus’ reputation for mishandling anything LGBTQ-related has been firmly cemented at this point, but this was definitely the game where it first felt like a major issue. That’s regrettable, because it’s still a huge caveat marring what is overall an incredible game, and the company has at least attempted to do better with other recent releases.
For the many fans interested in finally diving into the 100-plus hours of Persona 4 Golden, this Steam port offers the ideal solution — though I know many will still be hoping for a port for Nintendo Switch. (Atlus has not yet made any mention of a Switch port.)
If you’re excited to play Persona 4 Golden again, or curious to dive for the first time, the game is still as excellent as it was when it was first released eight years ago, just finally more convenient.
Persona 4 Golden will be released June 13 on Steam. The game was reviewed using a download code provided by Sega. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.