Persona 4

The Baltimore Sun

$39.99 for Sony PlayStation 2. Rated Mature. ***

Persona 4 is a heck of a lot like Persona 3, for better or worse.

Players who liked that game's randomly generated dungeons and virtual-socializing aspects will find more of those to enjoy here, while players who didn't won't find much to interest them this time around.

But for newcomers, there's a lot of potential here. (It's also worth noting that years after the PS2 was rendered technologically obsolete, great games are still being released for it, even if this is likely among the last of them.)

As its predecessor did, Persona 4 revolves around a group of students at a Japanese high school. But unlike Persona 3's secret campus group dedicated to exploring the great labyrinth that rose from the campus each night, these kids have no idea what they're about to get pulled into.

While watching TV one rainy night for a glimpse of the rumored Midnight Channel, the player-named protagonist sees a strange image and then nearly gets pulled through the screen to another world.

Finding out the next day that his friends at school saw the same images, he experiments with a larger television at a department store, and this time he and his friends Yosuke and Chie fall through the screen into a strange, foggy world inhabited by a bizarre hollow clown-bear creature and the series' perennial monsters, the Shadows.

The hero and his friends decide to continue entering the Midnight Channel after they find a link to a series of local murders and vow to end them. And the way they survive against the Shadows is with the power of Persona. Most characters have only one Persona, which increases in strength over time. The hero can have many and can switch between them at will.

The battle system emphasizes exploiting enemies' weaknesses so that they're stunned and left open to more attacks, but Shadows can play the same game.

The game has a long, slow ramp-up to all this good stuff - too long. It can take an hour or more after starting the game before a player is given a few proper battles to fight, and even longer before he or she is allowed to explore dungeon levels or choose destinations during the day. The game is very talky and demands patience, but it's interesting and fun enough to be worth the trouble.

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