Arc System Works has been around for a couple of decades, but it was in 1998 when they gave the world an alternate style of fighter in a scene run by Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. When a genre is run by titans like those, achieving success with a new mold seems like quite the daunting task. In actuality, Guilty Gear was not only a shockingly solid fighter but it gained the developers just the right amount of fame to continue into the future with follow-ups and others titles such as the Blazblue series and of course this year’s fighting game of honor, Persona 4 Arena. Borrowing the Persona license from Atlus, their partners-in-crime for this project, ASW dives into new territory in creating a new anime-style 2D fighter in their established rubric from a well renowned JRPG series. How exactly does it transition you might ask? As it turns out, pretty damn well.
As I have already mentioned Personas 4 Arena follows the same basic format as the Guilty Gear and Blazblue titles, but makes like Usain Bolt and speeds ahead of its predecessors in a flash of lightning. P4A improves on the formula in every aspect and makes wonderful usage of the JRPG franchise’s characters on the stage of combat. Never has character movement been so smooth or controls so responsive in similar 2D fighters. The combat engine is also quite forgiving should timing be slightly off or if button mashing should prevail in the face of precision fails. In other words, should you drop a combo at any point in time it is pretty much your fault and you should be ashamed of yourself. Of course this is considering you’ve gone through the hour or two it may take to memorize a character’s advanced combos and have them battle ready.
As easy as that all might sound, the learning curve is tricky for anyone not innately a fighting game fan. P4A is not a game that can be coasted through by button mashing an entire match; far too much strategy must be considered between burst meters, SP gauges, awakened states, one more cancels, and character specific power-ups such as Yukiko’s Fire Amp or Elizabeth’s Mind Charge. A truly competitive match will rely on the right timing and clever usages of the aforementioned skills. Getting used to incorporating these tactics will take time, more so for those not already familiar with the genre. The difficulty of the AI will also prove to be an obstacle for newcomers, but grasping the basics of combat is more time consuming then it is difficult.
A fighting game’s soundtrack is often not a point of focus as it usually serves as background noise for the actual matches, but this ladies and gentlemen is not your ordinary fighter. Not to mention when the majority of the tracks are taken from the very RPG titles that inspired the game whose nostalgia factor alone can crack a smile on any devoted Persona fan’s face, the soundtrack becomes one of the best features. Certain favorites such as Persona 4’s famous battle theme “Reach Out to the Truth” have been remixed into a more feverish version to go along with the pace of combat. Without the music of old, the game’s impressively detailed story mode would also be quite insufferable.
Persona 4 Arena breaks the common ideas of many typical fighting game modes; there is no better example of this than the story mode. When 2011’s Mortal Kombat came out it crushed the image of what a fighting game’s story mode could be. Before then we have accepted the thirty second text accompanied freeze framed tableaus at the end of Capcom fighters as the protocol for recognizing when we have experienced someone’s journey. Mortal Kombat gave us movie like scenes of characters conversing about the tournament and interacting between fights. Persona 4: Arena endeavors to expand upon the original story of its RPG counterpart and is presented like reading a book on a television screen. Truly only fans of role-playing games and the Persona series will have the patience to sit through each character’s story mode; each one is so text heavy you will often find yourself forgetting you get to actually fight at some point in time. The pacing isn’t necessarily balanced, but those who enjoy a well-focused story (or reading) will find it pleasant despite the player controlled areas being almost non-existent. Certain characters are more captivating than others, especially since several overlap one another. The coherence of the story is impressive even if it feels like trying to jam a cylindrical peg into a square slot in terms of how well a fighting game serves as the platform for a sequel.
Other game modes that P4A boasts include a score-attack mode in which you are pitted against computer controlled foes one after another in an attempt to rack up the highest score. Network allows for online play which works surprisingly well with barely any semblance of lag at all. Challenge mode teaches you the combos of each character from the basics to the bread n’ butter crowd pleasers. The Theater allows you to watch videos of saved fights whether they be your own or other competitors via online play. The overall presentation of each mode, especially the Arcade mode (which I’m hoping doesn’t need an explanation) is absolutely charming in a paparazzi reality-show kind of way. From the fighter taglines which boast their most obvious features both positive and negative to Rise’s commentary on the progress of every fight, Persona 4 Arena is easily a fighter well geared for spectating as much as it is for participating.
While it is true that certain characters seem ill-matched against others, there are no actual balancing issues which would hinder players from winning with their favorite persona-users. Elizabeth will rely on her vast repertoire of elemental special moves while Mitsuru excels at rush down and distancing strategies. Awakening moves become available after taking around 75% worth of damage and adds entirely new opportunities for fighters when they need a second-wind the most. More well-rounded characters like Yu Narakami can execute a sweet looking auto-combo which only relies on connecting with the first shot, where as those who excel in the fray like Chie gain the ability to rain meteors down across the screen. For each character, awakening maneuvers seem to either compensate or add a new dimension to each move-set.
It’s difficult to really pinpoint anything P4A doesn’t do well. Visuals are stunning and incredibly well-drawn and detailed, the soundtrack is phenomenal, and the gameplay is a gold standard for any future 2D fighter. Story mode could provide some more player-controlled parts and while a creation mode for a game like this is ultimately unnecessary it would be interesting to build an original creation using this art style. These are potential additions however, not changes and therefore I can confidently say nothing about the core experience should be changed. Newcomers to the genre are welcomed to begin with Persona 4 Arena, but being a quick-learner is a desired skill especially before jumping into online play. It goes without saying that interests in the origin product will help in embracing this title; either way Arena is looking like a prime addition to the many fighting game community events, even if its popularity in America is destined to be overshadowed by the following in Japan.
Fun Factor: While I have enjoyed many fighting games in my time, I have never been happier playing one than with P4A. The ultimate fulfillment of fun will be achieved by those who are fans of both the Persona series and fighting games. Addressing the game purely as a fighter however, it doesn’t get much smoother or enjoyable than this.
Difficulty: P4A provides you with all the tools and teaches you how to use them before you jump into competitive play, but newcomers will require an acclimation period. This isn’t your grandpappy’s button masher, be prepared to earn your victories.
Length: Completing story-mode in its entirety is practically an RPG all on its own; each segment can take 30-45 minutes to get through if you aren’t speeding through the text. Aside from that match length will vary based on competitors.
On the Negative Side: Story-mode appeals only to the most hardcore Persona or RPG fans and even then it could use more player-controlled fight sequences and less repetition. Hit boxes can seem a bit odd at times, but are not difficult to get used to.
Bang for Your Buck: One of the best fighting games on the market today. Enough said.