Review: Persona 4

For the first two hours of Persona 4 you’re watching a game, not playing one. Your inputs shunt the dialogue along with no other output in the traditional gaming sense.

Rather, this extended introduction acts as a primer, settling you into the rustic town of Inaba just as your character, who arrives there from Tokyo at the game’s start, acclimatises alongside you. Together you make close and likeable friends at the local high school. You watch as your uncle and host gets worn down by his job, working a spate of murders as a detective. You visit the new neighbourhood superstore (owned by one of your friends’ parents) and hear the familiar real-world tale of how its arrival has harmed smaller local businesses (owned by another).

Persona 4 asks that you understand and appreciate its world before being allowed to play with it. It’s a gamble that pays off. The town of Inaba has the close-knit atmosphere of a rural community and as such draws you irresistibly in. The murder mystery has the air of Phoenix Wright about it, grisly subject matter handled with a light touch, and the fact that you enter into its drama third-hand – via your uncle’s daily recollections at the dinner table – leaves you dying to find out more yourself. Then, when you’re finally given the run of the town, your investment is great enough to carry you through the long and winding adventure that follows.

This journey takes place in two locations, the town and an esoteric twilight world accessed by literally climbing into television sets at an appointed hour. It’s here that Inaba’s missing persons are found, struggling blind against their inner demons. Your task is to save these people, more often than not school friends, from the dungeons and bosses that have manifested from the darker sides of their personalities and imprisoned them.

If nothing else, questing through issues of self-esteem and insecurity is a welcome change from battling goblins for crystals. And, while the conceit could so easily have appeared twee, your investment in the characters and the deft skill of the scriptwriters inspires a genuine desire to fight for their psychological freedom; you feel compassion for their brokenness, a rare emotion to videogames.

A smart, elegant battle system offers depth but also brevity, so that ascending each dungeon’s floors is never a chore. The collect and breed mechanic, in which you catch and summon monsters, the eponymous Personas, is compelling, and a social top-layer adds yet more variety and complexity to the package.

The result is one of the most interesting Japanese videogames of the year, a crowning achievement for PlayStation 2 and a game that transcends genre to deliver an experience wholly distinct and relentlessly compelling.