Persona 4 Golden is a bit of a hot topic on Backloggd. Despite its impressive 4.2 average score, it's been blasted by the community for a variety of reasons. People call it dull, simplistic, derivative, homophobic, and a disrespect to Persona 3 and SMT as a whole. And they're not entirely wrong.
For about 75% of its runtime, the story of P4G goes absolutely nowhere. It spreads a murder mystery over the span of 60 hours, slowing the deduction process to an almost painful crawl and relying on a series of red herrings that almost feel like filler. This isn't bad by itself; one of my favorite games of all time, NieR: Replicant, is an RPG with a slow story that still manages to consistently engage the player by filling the space in between with meaningful character interactions. Persona 4 does this, too...sometimes. I'll talk about the actual characters a bit more later on, because for now I want to focus on how Persona 4, and especially Golden, chooses to spend its downtime.
Now, I said the story is really slow for about 75% of its runtime, but what about the other 25%? Well, I actually really like it. Once the sixth dungeon gets going, the stakes are higher, the mystery moves faster, and there are some genuinely good twists. Nanako's "death", even if it's technically a fake-out, hits really hard and leads to some good character moments. Adachi is a great antagonist, and manages to be pretty menacing and entertaining for his small amount of screentime. He's a little less effective due to the final final twist, which is so stupid I don't even feel the need to discuss it here, but he gets the job done.
So, the story is pretty slow and uneven, but has some good moments. But what about the characters? Well, it's somewhat complicated. I said before that the characters feel very close together, and I stand by that. As a unit, the Investigation Team is probably my favorite cast out of the three modern Persona games. However, due to certain aspects of how some of the characters are handled, I think the individual characters are a lot weaker than 3 or 5.
Let's get this out of the way: No, I don't think Kanji is gay or Naoto is trans. Kanji seeks acceptance as a man despite his traditionally feminine hobbies and Naoto wants to succeed as a woman in a society that makes life difficult for women in the workplace. That said, while I think a lot of people fail to see these arcs through the lens of Japanese culture, I don't blame them for thinking that way. From how the game presents Naoto and Kanji's shadows, it seems like they follow the common fan interpretation. In particular, the imagery surrounding Shadow Naoto heavily supports the idea of changing one's gender. Shadows are supposed to represent people's exaggerated feelings, yes, but I don't think the game makes that very clear. It's not properly explained what they are until after Naoto joins, very late into the story and after the shadow's imagery has been burned into the player's mind.
Even with the knowledge of what shadows represent, many character arcs aren't the best they could be. I've seen people describe how Naoto and Kanji still get mistreated by the cast (especially Yosuke), even after their respective arcs, and I definitely think the game could've done better there. More broadly, I've heard people complain the characters never change: by the end of the game, Yukiko still runs the inn, Rise is still an idol, and Yosuke remains in Inaba, making their entire story arcs and social links feel a bit counterproductive. The main counterargument I've heard is, "Persona 4 is less about discovering your true self and more about accepting who you are as a person. Everyone in the game learns to be happy with themselves except for the villain." I think that's a reasonable statement, and for a lot of people it is a good message to send.
My main issue is that a lot of people aren't really happy with their place in life, and they won't become happier without some major changes to their situation. Especially for someone who is gay, or trans, or feels trapped in their choice of career, to simply be told "You just need a new mindset!" would definitely rub them the wrong way. As much as I respect Persona 4 and appreciate the message it tries to send, I think there's a bit more to it than that. Being happy with yourself isn't a simple black-and-white question. Maybe someone likes some aspects of their life, but needs other aspects to change before becoming truly content. Maybe they need to give up certain things to be better overall. Sometimes changing hurts, sometimes it can be scary, but sometimes it's for the better.
If I could change one thing about Persona 4, it would be to let the player date Yosuke. If I could change another thing after that, it would be to show more of this nuance in the characters. Maybe have some characters remain on their old paths, but still improve their situations (Rise's social link always felt like a missed opportunity in this regard). Maybe show more characters who aren't fully content with their places in life and aren't the main villain. Maybe have Yosuke treat Naoto and Kanji with more respect instead of constantly ruining his character with terrible "jokes" (again, why did you cut his romance option, Atlus?). Just give a little more hope to the people who can't make it out of their own dungeons.
With all that said, there are some things Persona 4 does very well. The atmosphere is uniquely cozy and stands out against the other Megaten games. It provides a unique combination of nostalgia, sadness, and hope through every aspect of its presentation. The gameplay is also really fun, with the fusion and time management mechanics being fun as always shuffle time mechanic making battles incredibly rewarding (even if 5 outdoes it in just about every way). The music is phenomenal, mixing upbeat, relaxing, and intense themes perfectly throughout the game's runtime. Despite how much I've criticized it, I love Persona 4. I also get why so many people hate it, especially coming from Persona 3 (which I haven't finished so don't spoil it for me in the comments). It makes a lot of mistakes, and maybe isn't quite as good as it could or should have been. But despite all that, it still manages to be great. Like vegetables.