Review: Persona 4 is dark, strange, and charming all at once

Atlus surprised us with a refreshing role-playing experience on an aging console when Persona 3 was released last year. While this game eschews the controversial suicide imagery, it bears a striking resemblance to its predecessor. That’s not a bad thing: P4 is well-crafted, well-written, and has plenty of style. Once again, the latest Persona is one of the year’s best and marks another refined entry into the series.

Persona 4 puts players in the role of a high school transfer student, but this time the setting has changed. The hip, urban environments of the previous game have been replaced by the fictional countryside town of Inaba. The silent protagonist has moved from the city to live with his gritty detective uncle and his self-sufficient young daughter. Not long after arriving in Inaba, a series of gruesome murders and strange disappearances start to plague the quaint village.

At around the same time, the main character and his friends decide to look into an urban legend called the Midnight Channel. The story goes that if you look at a television at midnight, you will be able to see your soulmate. It is soon discovered that the mysterious channel and the murders are connected, and the person on the other side of the TV is actually trapped in another world. It’s not a pleasant place to be, and the bulk of the action takes place here.

This new world has had a big impact on the way the dungeons are presented. Instead of one large tower like in P3, the world of the Midnight Channel is comprised of a series of differently themed dungeons, each representing the fears of the latest victim. While this eliminates the eventual satisfaction gained from finally reaching the top of Tartarus in P3, it provides some much needed variety.

P4 plays out much like its predecessor. Days are spent going to school, socializing and studying, while nights are spent grinding through the dark world on the other side of the television. However, since you no longer have to wait until midnight to enter the dungeons, there is actually less time in the day to spend building social links, improving skills, or new activities like taking on a part-time job. The same goes for combat, which is almost identical to the previous game. You take control of the main character, and can issue general commands to other party members. The battles also seem to be much more forgiving this time around, as a minimum level of grinding is necessary for success.

The best aspect of Persona 4 is its writing. The strange, gruesome, murder mystery story is engaging, often surprising, and each of the main characters is well developed and relatable. Almost every aspect of their psyche is explored, thanks to the mysterious world, giving deep insights into how they think and feel. Even minor characters—like the delightfully foul-mouthed homeroom teacher—add to the overall feel of the game; if you don’t like reading lots of text, this definitely isn’t the game for you. P4 features even more dialogue than previous games in the series, but given the quality, this certainly isn’t a bad thing. Just expect to spend extended periods of time watching the story unfold instead of actually “playing” the game.

In the end, Persona 4 isn’t going to win over new fans. Instead, it represents all that is great with the franchise: addictive combat and Persona collecting, a deep, dark storyline, and surprisingly compelling dating sim elements. The 60+ hour quest is packed with so much to do it’s almost overwhelming, and the switch from a lunar system to one based on the weather helps things move along at a much brisker pace. Bottom line: if you’re a Persona fan, you will absolutely love this game.

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