Review: Persona 4

Susan Arendt | 11 Dec 2008 10:30
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RPGs in general, and JRPGs specifically, tend to have a certain feeling of sameness to them, but even before you find the meat-flavored chewing gum to complete the quest to make the bandana-wearing fox like you better and thus give you a discount on healing items when you're fighting monsters inside the television, you'll know there's something different about Persona 4 for the PlayStation 2. It maintains just enough of the traditional RPG framework to feel familiar, but then takes a hard left turn and heads straight into Weirdville, and what a marvelous trip it is.

You begin the game as an ordinary high school student stuck visiting your uncle out in the sticks for the next school year. Shortly after you arrive, a serial killer begins kidnapping people, killing them and hanging them upside down from telephone poles and TV aerials. At the same time, rumors begin circulating about the Midnight Channel, a TV show that only appears on rainy days when your set is turned off, and you soon realize that the victims show up on the channel a few days before they die. You could do the smart thing and leave it to the police to solve the case, but pffft, who's really more likely to find the killer: trained professionals or a bunch of high school kids? Exactly!

You and your pals discover that the Midnight Channel isn't a TV show, it's a reflection of a mysterious world inside the television. In order to rescue the killer's intended victims, you must actually climb through the TV and enter that world, guided by its sole inhabitant, Teddie, a bear suit. Not a guy in a bear suit, just a bear suit. This alternate reality is where Persona 4's dungeon crawling takes place; each victim is in a new location, created by their own personal inner demons. Each one is essentially the same general combination of passageways, doors, and stairs, but the variety of d├ęcor - from a bathhouse to a strip club - keeps them from feeling too terribly repetitious.

The monsters you take on via turn-based combat inside the TV - called Shadows - are some of the most wonderfully bizarre creatures you'll ever encounter. Floating eyeballs whose accompanying bodies only become visible when you hit them, wireframe fish, strands of DNA, Iron Maidens, tables (complete with place settings) and a myriad of other bizarre things that I can't begin to describe will all attempt to do you bodily harm as you make your way to the top of each tower. Persona 4 does have a certain grind aspect to it, but slogging your way through enemies is much more enjoyable when you're constantly amused and surprised by the creatures that are trying to kill you. You'll also find the game requires a minimum of mindless grinding - you'll gain just about all the experience you need to take down a boss simply by traveling the distance to reach it.

You're not alone in your quest to track down the killer, of course; you have a band of buddies helping you with your detective work. You can take three of them with you into battle. They're all pretty powerful, so which three you choose largely comes down to personal preference and play style. If you're big on micromanagement, you can choose to give them all direct commands, but if you'd rather speed up the action, you can give them more general directions, such as Conserve SP (magic) or Act Freely. The A.I. is surprisingly intelligent, not only remembering which attacks work best against which enemies, but also making smart use of healing and physical attacks. There were rare occasions when I wished my computer-controlled allies had used a different battle tactic, but for the most part they made the same choices I would've selected for them.

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