Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 PS2

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 PS2
As manga is to Marvel or Astro Boy is to Spongebob, the Japanese role-playing game is a related but utterly different beast than its Western cousin.

Some argue JRPGS are stuck in an old school, turn-based rut compared to the action-filled Western worlds of Fallout 3 or Fable 2. Perhaps, but if the rut runs as deep as it does in Persona 4, then the argument is moot. Even being a Playstation 2 exclusive doesn't prevent Persona from being one of the most impeccably constructed games of the past year. Sure, it would be awesome if the entire game looked like the anime cut-scenes but the stylized art direction is quite beautiful in itself.

As with the rest of the long-running series, Persona 4 is a curious hybrid of social-simulator and dungeon-crawler. Running the course of a school year, you play as a teenager whose days are spent attending class, dealing with jerk-off teachers, hanging at the mall, getting part-time jobs, going on dates and just generally forming social links with your classmates, all of which will raise your attributes and help when you enter the series' signature midnight world, this time via TV set.

This alternate dimension looks like an enormous film studio, and is subdivided into demon-filled dungeons that feed on victims' fears, insecurities and hang-ups. But it's not all shadow monsters; there's also Teddie, a talking plush bear that fills you in on the fact that people from your world are being thrown in here and killed.

See, the game is also a murder mystery. The death of a celebrity anchorwoman, and several others, has thrown the small village of Inaba into turmoil. You arrive from the big city with your police detective uncle, but it will be up to you and your Scooby gang to stop these supernatural serial killings. You'll do this by using your "personas," folkloric spirit creatures based on tarot cards (moving away from Persona 3's controversial gun-like "evokers," which had school kids shooting themselves in the head).

Persona 4 is a fascinating slice of Japanese culture filled with social commentary and intimately developed characters, but it's no easy slog. This is a hardcore-focussed game, with steep difficulty, about a hundred hours of game-play and a very slow-building storyline. But it's also the perfect epic for Westerners interested in seeing how the other half role-plays. (Atlus)