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 décor – 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.

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.

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