For the sake of total transparency, let me be clear: I have never played a Persona game. Despite many recommendations and assurances, I have always been frightened off by the dating sim nature of the titles and the High School age of the characters. Though people insisted I would enjoy these titles, I was just too stuck in my JRPG biases to listen. That was then, and a new Pride has thrown such pretensions out the door (sort of). Though I’m still not ready to dive into an ultra-involved JRPG, Arc System Works and Atlus have developed a title seemingly made specifically to help me cut my teeth on this subject matter: Persona 4: Arena.
Persona 4: Arena was developed in cooperation between Atlas, classic RPG publishers, and Arc System Works, my all time favorite fighting game developers. Arc System Works conceived my all time favorite fighting game franchise, Guilty Gear, and the somewhat less stellar Blazblue. Clearly, their pedigree is outstanding, and even though they never reached the popularity of Capcom’s fighters, they are great franchise makers. ASW has had a hard time finding footing in the USA due to an almost universal disdain for “anime fighters,” but this game is a huge departure from their usual crop, and hopefully will set the tone for future titles.
Persona 4: Arena, is a cannon sequel to Persona 4 and Persona 3, taking place a year after 4′s conclusion. Though perhaps not outrageous for a standard Japanese fighting game, it is still surprising to see Arc Systems, a company known for its *unique* characters and designs, take on a High School student-centric storyline – something I generally try to avoid. Thankfully, I put my trust in Arc System Works to deliver a quality experience and I was not disappointed.
First off, let me just praise the characterization on display here. Non-sexualized high school girls in a Japanese fighting game!? How the hell did this happen? Even the guys are all over the place as far as personality and sex appeal are concerned, one even going so far as to be highly ambiguous in his sexual identity. But more importantly, the character’s personalities were just plain interesting, meaning I have to consent most of their appeal to Atlus and the Persona franchise. More fighters need characters that are this developed and this interesting. Though Arc Systems did a great job with the animation and art in the game (especially the fantastic UI design), it’s apparent that more Japanese developers should be looking outside the genre’s convention in order to design their heroes and villains.
Kanji, Naoto, and Elizabeth were my favorite characters in the design categories, as they were huge departures from the anime norm. Hell, it really just needs to be stated that the characters in this game are intelligently designed, with outward appearances that reflect their personalities. These are not the usual 2D, sexed up, poorly written Japanese fighter characters – they’re fully realized, believable, and truly conflicted. The story mode, something I usually avoid in Japanese fighters, actually felt worth playing through and helped me appreciate these creatures more. Though basically nothing more than a visual novel, the story mode is still significantly more impressive than anything in Capcom’s camp and much better written than Blazblue or Guilty Gear’s story lines. Sure, the plot is a little predictable, but for someone who knows almost nothing of the franchise’s past it was actually a welcome addition and ultimately helped me pick my main character.
The music is also very fun and appropriate. I’ve always had a soft spot for cheesy J-Pop, and rest assured that P4A does not disappoint! Once again, I have a gut feeling that most, if not all, of the music in the game is ripped directly out of the Persona titles. If that is the case, the songs arranged here translate very well into the 2D arena, but there’s still plenty of Arc System’s patented butt-rock to go around. The best of the soundtrack are the outliers, but something tells me that series fanatics are really going to enjoy what is on display. This song in particular has been stuck in head all day:
You might be picking up on a theme here: a lot of what this game does well aesthetically it owes to the Atlus franchise. The colors, the story, the characters, the themes and ideas – they all come from the original universe. So, though fans of the series will probably not be let down by this translation, I’m sure some Persona fans are still hesitant to try their hand at a competitive fighting game. Well, let me try to put some of those fears to rest – this is significantly easier to play than any Street Fighter, and is much simpler than Arc System Work’s last batch of fighters.
For starters, almost every single ability in the game is executed by quarter rolls and button presses. This is pushes focus away from learning complicated maneuvers or techniques and instead allows players to focus entirely on learning their character’s abilities and strategy. There are also only two attack buttons, a weak and strong, plus two Persona specific buttons that cause your persona to appear and deliver a special attack. It might seem like two characters might be too difficult to follow, but the persona, more or less, simply acts as an extension of the player. Though there’s a certain, limited, amount of control of the Persona given to the player, they’re mostly used to deliver single, powerful blows. By chaining together simple combos and Persona abilities, players can do respectable damage from even simple combos, and once those have been mastered the transition to more complicated combinations becomes a simple endeavor.
There’s also the standard dash, air dash, and double jump seen in other Japanese fighters, as well as a universal overhead attack, an elemental ability, throws, and a dash. Once again, this seems like a lot, but using these abilities is as easy as pressing two buttons simultaneously. No technique or combo in this game is out of reach for a novice player, and even beginners will have an easy time comboing and capitalizing on successful hits. By rapidly pressing the weak attack button, the characters will do an auto combo for minimal damage. Though the damage is not horrific, it is enough to rationalize use by a new player, and will allow them to hit for moderate damage off of simple set ups (like swatting someone from the sky). There is also an extensive training mode within the game, yet another feature that is simply absent from Capcom’s crop of fighters. Players can learn fundamentals quickly and easily through this mode, getting them up to speed in no time.
This is the most accessible fighting game I’ve ever played, and might even be too simplistic in terms of execution difficulty. The accessible nature of the game has me mastering complicated combos fairly easily, and I have concern that pro players will quickly find exploitable technology in the game’s mechanics. Some characters are already very lethal off of a single touch, and I question if these sorts of set ups and combos will only grow more impressive and damaging as time goes on. But those complaints, and the world they exist in, are not of the same plane as the people who simply want to play for fun. If your only objective is to continue the Persona 4 storyline and enjoy the characters in a new environment, then this game is what you’re looking for.
If you’re looking for a new technical, competitive fighting game then I would say approach Persona 4: Arena with enthusiastic caution. The game is already picking up some competitive traction, and the franchise is almost certainly going to attract new blood to the fighting game scene. The online outing also has a lot of potential, even going so far as to include custom titles for player cards and a substantial amount of stat tracking post-match. Even pre-launch, I found plenty of players to fight online, with minimal lag, so unless you’re running on an ancient network, you should be able to sufficiently scratch that competitive itch no matter where you live.
I don’t really know what else there is to say about this title. It has great art direction, interesting characters, accessible gameplay, and all the bells and whistles you would expect out of a modern 2D fighter. This is not a title to be fearful of. If you’re looking to break into the fighting game genre then this might be the avenue you’ve been looking for. The lighthearted nature of the game’s combat doesn’t require an insane amount of free time to master, and, after everything is said and done, the skills learned in this game will easily transition over to more complicated titles. For a gateway fighting game, it’s hard to do much better than what Persona 4: Arena has accomplished.
Persona 4 Arena was released on August 7th, 2012 for Xbox 360 and PS3. Review is based on the PS3 version.