The last great PS2 game

Picture this daily routine: get up early, head off to school, sit through a day’s worth of classes, maybe take part in an after-school activity after the final bell rings, then conspire with your friends over how best to spend the rest of your day.

Picture this daily routine: get up early, head off to school, sit through a day’s worth of classes, maybe take part in an after-school activity after the final bell rings, then conspire with your friends over how best to spend the rest of your day.

Sounds like the average day in the life of a high schooler, right?

Well, it is—at least until corpses start mysteriously appearing on top of telephone poles and television antennas every time a heavy shroud of fog rolls through the area.

Such is the case for the teens of Inaba, a sleepy hamlet nestled in the Japanese countryside in Atlus’ Persona 4. P4 is the latest and most refined addition to their long-running Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series, whose basic premise “awakens” a group of teenager protagonists’ collective ability to summon “persona,” inner beings used to combat an encroaching malevolent force.

The basic idea of P4 may sound like the “average group of young people discover powers and use them to save the world” type deal you see in 99 percent of all RPGs ever, and in some ways, it is. But the game’s twist is that its story is localized around average (and unabashedly anglophilic) Japanese high schoolers who work together to solve a serial murder mystery in their community instead of single-handedly stopping some epic apocalypse.

Actually, Atlus is known for delivering games that do more than simply cater to that overused, lowest-common-denominator cliché of the genre. And like its faux-Tokyo-based predecessor, Persona 3, P4 is as much about social interactions as it is about saving … whatever is it you’re trying to save.

In many ways, though, P4 is almost entirely the opposite of its urban-hip, streetwise older brother. Rather than a huge metropolis to explore, you’re given a quiet rural community in the Japanese countryside.

Instead of getting to know a lot of people, you form more closely-knit, personal relationships within a smaller pool of friends. Gone too are most traces of P3‘s dark overtones, overtly replaced with a sunny aesthetic and confident mood.

Yet, P4 is actually the smarter and more mature game in most respects. With its smaller cast, friendships and relationships flow with more rich detail, intimacy and vulnerability than they did in P3, and as a result both script and characters feel that much more authentic.

P3, as great as it was, also fell back on another age-old trick—archetypal characters. But the newest Persona presents us with a cast of characters as flawed and multi-dimensional as anyone you might have known in high school, had you stopped to talk to them.

And as much as I loved P3‘s brooding persona-summoning conceit (which had your characters blowing their brains out in order to conjure up their monstrous Ids in battle) P4‘s replacement system, your party donning pairs of otherworldly glasses, is just as strong because of its themes.

Thematically, P4 is about viewing life through a lens, echoing the sense of loneliness and high school alienation the game presents through its characters. The game also riffs on the concept of reality television. Inaba’s serial killer doesn’t really outright kill people—first the victims are kidnapped and thrown into an alternate reality inside … uh, TV.

Appearing as the “star” of their own show, the victim then essentially acts out a reality-TV representation of deep-seated desires and feelings, and if they aren’t rescued from TV land, end up dead. Given that some of the would-be victims are your friends who are forced to physically confront these inner feelings in the form of grotesque doppelgangers, this gives some direct insight into their insecurities and complexes in ways that most games can’t.

P4 also incorporates elements of life and dating sims, giving you incentive to form and strengthen in-game relationships that result in more powerful persona. With its bizarre story and non-traditional style, the result is a niche-y RPG that comfortably blends social interactivity with good old-fashioned dungeon crawling and pummeling.

That being said, this game doesn’t play like most other RPGs, and your time playing is divided more or less equally between life in the real world and exploring dungeons in the TV realm.

Some may be turned off by the game’s quasi-linear structure when interacting in the real world—basically you go to school, engage in a few dialogue trees that can change the way your friends perceive you, and hit up the streets of Inaba once school lets out.

Alternately, there’s the more traditional side of the coin, the TV realm. There’s a higher level of personal freedom here, since your party has to manually traverse each of the game’s dungeons, and the combat is solid. It’s also hard.

It’s a good thing you can find and level up other Persona, because the different abilities they have really come in handy in P4‘s battles, which are numerous.

Atlus’ reputation for creating hardcore, 70-plus hour RPGs is in full swing here, and don’t be surprised if you’ve got to grind your way through a dungeon three or four times before you’ve leveled your party enough to progress.

Sure, it’s a non-traditional structure, but so is just about everything else in the series—even the game’s infectious Samurai Champloo-meets-J-pop beats, which are guaranteed to get stuck in your head. Despite the fact that no one in this day and age has that much time to devote to a single game, P4 is undeniably engrossing once its story really gets off the ground (around hour 10).

What few flaws the game has are more than compensated by its inventive and engrossing gameplay. Rest assured, Persona 4 is the best PS2 RPG since Final Fantasy XII, and if it’s the last great PS2 game to come out—which it likely will be—it’s a great legacy to end with.