Version tested: PlayStation 2
If you're familiar with Persona, all you need to know about the latest instalment is a brief checklist of changes and improvements: direct control over team-mates in battle, a range of themed dungeons replacing Tartarus, Persona 3's single tower, and a welcome shift in setting from the city to the countryside.
If you don't know Persona, things are a little more complex: this is Harvest Moon through a glass darkly, or Animal Crossing with sex crimes - a foppish blend of dungeon-crawling RPG and convoluted social sim, dressed up in David Bowie's mid-seventies wardrobe and set to the tune of some radiantly bizarre pop-jazz hybrids. If that sounds a little too much to take in, don't panic: despite the daunting concept, now is just about the perfect time to hop on this particular school bus, as Persona 4 is stylish, clever, and surprisingly approachable.
Newcomers will find plenty of wilful surprises, not least the game's opening two hours, which give you little to do but plod through reams of text as the story shuttles you from one cut-scene to another, occasionally flinging in thirty seconds of anime, while painstakingly piecing together a large cast and simple mystery one atom at a time. Your only duties during this period, besides pressing the circle button to inch events forward by a single sentence, lie with occasionally trying out an attack move, or, when directly questioned, selecting one of three interchangeable platitudes as a response, most of which have no effect on how things unfold.
But such handholding isn't purely introducing you to Persona 4's mechanisms - despite its hardcore credentials, they're largely traditional and admirably clear-headed. What it's actually doing is syncing you with the game's internal rhythms, bringing you in close so you can hear its pulse.
And even after the early grip eases, Persona remains an RPG at its most politely autocratic - a world in which you follow the designers' quietly-stated demands and fit your life around their unwavering schedule, deepening friendships, taking after-school jobs and joining social clubs when instructed to, in order to level up enough to beat regular challenges. If modern RPGs tend to foreground choice, Persona 4 is about obedience: it's steering and you're pedalling - but if that sounds like a fairly raw deal, it simply highlights why the appeal of a game can never be reduced to the design of its machinery.
The story's simple but suggestive. You've moved from the city to the rural community of Inaba to live with your uncle for a year. Uncle Dojima's both a stressed-out family man and a cop of the hardboiled quips and loosened-tie variety, and as the game kicks off, he's knee-deep in the mysteries of a local murder. As the plot deepens and the bodies start to pile up, things take a supernatural turn as school friends alert you to the existence of the Midnight Channel - a secret world lurking on the other side of television screens, which seems to offer a glimpse of the murderer's next target - as well as an opportunity to save them, by stepping inside and exploring labyrinthine dungeons, each themed to that particular victim's internal struggles.
It's a deft blend of writers like Koji Suzuki and, to a lesser extent, Haruki Murakami, and thoroughly exploits the tried-and-tested unsettling powers of misty lanes and flickering television sets, as it slowly pays out the length of its year-long narrative with a lazy elegance. In Japanese literature, horror is something intrinsically tied to the domestic experience, erupting in living rooms and office parks rather than haunted houses and spooky woods, and Persona's clash of genres is built upon exploiting the chill of the familiar as much as a surprising juxtaposition of the uncanny.
The characters help. Cast as a mild-mannered dandy, a fiercely tidy and almost effeminate new kid in a bustling school, you're quickly introduced to a range of Scooby Doo allies, including Kung-Fu obsessed Peppermint Patty-alike Chie, wry but sensitive Yosuke, and refined and aloof Yukiko. Nuanced personality traits and scripting allow the largish cast to rise above the limited animations of their 3D models, while the anime cut-scenes and character art are enough to create a sense of stylised elegance the game itself can't hope to deliver in-engine.
The RPG elements are admirably refined. Exploring the randomly-generated dungeons and battling the wandering Shadows (all of whom are visible prior to attacking, allowing you to choose to avoid them or attempt a pre-emptive strike) is a pacey process, and while there's not much mechanical variation from one location to another, with exploration limited to uncovering the odd treasure chest and hunting for the staircase to the next floor, the visual designs differ significantly, the entirely unexpected tilt of the fourth dungeon in particular likely to become something of a series classic.
Combat is turn-based but brisk, the Kill Bill-flavoured menus offering succinct options against a range of bizarre monsters - examples in the first dungeon alone including pairs of skewered zombies and Rolling Stones tongues that lick you to death. But if the system's slick, it's also deep, with each enemy hiding a weakness to a certain kind of attack which, if uncovered, allows you to down them for an additional battering, or team-up Disgaea-style, wading in en masse, creating a luminous cartoon rumble of dust clouds and jagged onomatopoeias.
Better weapons can be bought at a store in the village, but your main attack options lie with the Personas, mystical psychobabble alter-egos which provide a flashy range of defensive and offensive magical options. Each of your team-mates is tied to a single Persona throughout the game, while you alone have the ability to tactically swap between any that you've found, as well as levelling and fusing up to five at a time to create new varieties in the game's mysterious - and slightly seedy-sounding - Velvet Room.
Unlike Persona 3, direct control of your team is now available alongside the familiar ability to give them basic battle strategies to follow. A fairly major improvement in the context of the game's gentle upgrades from Persona 3, it's not actually as big a deal as you initially imagine: assuming control of your entire group is handy, but if you leave team-mates to work for themselves, you'll find that the game's AI has been significantly improved when it comes to taking care of itself in dust-ups.
Each of the game's dungeons can be completed over a number of different evenings, but you have to save each victim before the end of a string of rainy days in the real world, which will cause the killer to strike again (weather replaces the lunar cycle as Persona 4's primary pace-setter). But this is just one facet of the strict calendar the designers impose. The other lies in between the dungeon exploration, with the series' second defining characteristic: social interaction, based around your life as a Japanese school kid, where your days are divided, like a monk's, into familiar ritualised chunks.
Playing out through morning lessons, lunchtime corridor gatherings, after-school activities and evenings spent at home watching TV, Persona 4's friendship system is complex but faintly cold-hearted. This is either a critique of social mobility or a product of it, with each connection you forge serving primarily to level up your Social Links, allowing you to unlock strategic battle advantages amongst team-mates, or craft increasingly powerful varieties of Persona.
The game can be brilliantly mercenary; each time a potential friend casually suggests a trip to the mall, it results in the chillingly self-serving option of examining the levelling advantages you'll get from accepting their offer. Persona wants you to be popular, but it asks that you're essentially industrious with your free time. This is no trivial world of mini-games and other distractions: socialising is simply another tool in service of the game's larger RPG mission - another part of your arsenal, requiring you to callously exploit the neediness of your chums to get the most out of them.
And yet, although it reduces family and friends to a ritual, it's not an empty one. This may be a clockwork universe, but it's filled with unexpectedly personal discoveries and real warmth. Even if you're just hanging out with Chie so that, one day, she'll take a monster's boot to the head so that you don't have to, you'll still end up exploring the surprisingly delicate inner lives of the characters, probing their neuroses and back stories. Despite their Playmobil appearances and disconcerting emoticon outpourings, you'll finish the game feeling that you know them a little better, and Persona's designers have an undeniably excellent eye for the tiny little rites that make up every friendship, from the ceremonial exchanging of phone-numbers to the awkward way new acquaintances grope towards an understanding of the hierarchy of their relationship.
And inevitably, when Persona overburdens you with social responsibilities, piling up the jobs, local festivals, and basketball clubs too thickly, the choices you make are often contrary to your tactical best interests. I spent far too much time hanging out with Yumi, the enigmatic fox from drama club with a lame Sun Arcana boost, than I should have as, given the way I was playing, she wasn't really making me that much more effective in the serious business of hitting baddies in the face every night.
On top of the social elements and dungeon-crawling lies the familiar clutter of shops to visit, items to sell and weapons to collect: everything necessary to keeps a packed, if focused, RPG ticking over. As a sequel to Persona 3, this is ultimately cautious; the handful of changes it's made may be predictable, but they're no less essential because of that, and the result is a game that remains comfortingly familiar yet distinctly improved.
There are still problems - you'll have to grind more than you'd like to beat a lot of the bosses, and one dungeon, beneath the surface, is very similar to the next - but, despite the limitations to your freedom, what emerges in a carefully balanced game, revelling in a juicy contrast between its own day and night cycles, its spectral Midnight Channel and detailed domestic setting, and the child's life when shoved up against the grotty world of adults.
Powerful rather than perfect, then, Persona 4's a status ailment rather than a killing blow - it's not going to bowl you over with one strike, but it will quietly gnaw away at you until you succumb.
8 / 10