Backing up your squadron of teenage monster-slayers are your Personas, powerful creatures that you can summon to fight for you - they're the game's version of magic spells. Your companions only have one Persona each, but you can carry a bunch with you. You collect new ones by playing a quick mini-game at the end of a fight, but to get even more powerful Personas, you'll have to Fuse them. Fusion is a bit like cross-breeding: By combining two Personas you get a third, stronger Persona that carries over abilities from both "parents." With diligent collecting and Fusion, you can create a Persona that's not only wickedly strong, but also has a wide variety of healing and offensive spells at its disposal - the perfect fighting companion.
Persona 4 isn't all about the fighting; you have a life outside the dungeons, and you're expected to live up to obligations like schoolwork and drama club practice. Socializing with friends and pursuing personal growth aren't just good for your soul, though - they actually make you more powerful in battle. Improving personal stats like Understanding and Knowledge by reading books or getting a job will open up new social possibilities for you; you can't ask out the pretty soccer manager until your Courage is high enough, for example. Friendships can in turn create Social Links that give strength to specific kinds of Personas. Hanging out with your friends after school may seem like an odd thing to do when a serial killer is on the loose, but the experience boosts that Social Links give Personas make maintaining friendships well worth the effort.
Both the dungeon crawling and the social interaction are fun in their own right, but the two combined make Persona 4 particularly refreshing and entertaining. Whenever you begin to tire of fighting, socializing or self-improving, simply turn your attention to another aspect of your life. There's always plenty of activities to pursue, and they all have a meaningful payoff. Even when you're doing small things, like feeding a cat or finding a flower brooch for a girl who wants to look exactly like her twin, you never feel like you're just completing tasks for the sake of padding out the gameplay hours.
Persona 4 is not without its aggravating idiosyncrasies, though. It's almost painfully slow to get started - you'll have to play for a solid two hours before getting to any real fighting. Teddie, who acts as a cheerleader during your fights for much of the game, repeats the same stock phrases over and over and over again until you want to poke him right in his oh-so-adorable bear suit eye. The game also only uses a handful of songs: one for fights, one for running around town, one for your house and so forth. Considering how much time you'll spend running through dungeons and getting in fights, you will end up hearing the same music so much that you may never get it out of your head without some kind of invasive surgery.
So perhaps you should simply play with the volume turned down, because Persona 4 is just too weird and wonderful to pass up. Its unusual blend of social management and dungeon crawling certainly isn't for everyone, but if it sounds even the tiniest bit interesting to you, I promise you'll enjoy it. Just make sure you hurry - Atlus games are notorious for rapidly becoming rare and Persona 4 should be no exception.
Susan Arendt has had the battle music from Persona 4 stuck in her head for the past three days.