Persona 4: Arena presents an interesting concept. It is the marriage of two of the most obscure genres in gaming: JRPGs and fighters. It is the lovechild of two of Japan’s most prolific video game developers: Atlus and Arc System Works. It is quite possibly the very first game of its kind and it is undeniably bizarre and impeccably Japanese. Yet the most redeeming component of this fascinating hybrid is that it is good. Very, very good.
Every inch of it is good. All of the game’s components are shiny and functional. It sports an overall quality or polish that can be seen in every mode, character and feature the game has to offer. It’s clear from the start screen to the ending credits that this title was crafted with a generous helping of Japanese love. You begin at the snazzy, constantly changing main menu, which is loaded with game modes. The frequently changing music and characters give the game a kind of freshness every time you boot it up. The sharp yellow and black interface makes navigation a breeze.
The game is a visual and aural treat, especially for fans of anime. The character sprites are sharp, colorful and detailed. The stages are diverse and lively. Although the actual designs are unique, there’s no denying that the general style of the game is reminiscent of Arc’s own BlazBlue. Of course, anyone who has played BlazBlue knows that this isn’t exactly a bad thing. Battles in Persona 4: Arena transpire with brightly flashing lights and screen filling magical explosions. The bold, sharp graphics are gorgeous and the game is dazzling and almost overwhelming in motion.
Each of the characters is distinct and unique. Fans of the Persona RPGs will recognize characters from Persona 3 and Persona 4, but newcomers will be introduced to host of bizarre, interesting individuals.
The game’s music is absolutely superb. The soundtrack combines a wide variety of genres. You have the metal and hard rock that Arc’s fighters are known for, plus dramatic instrumental pieces, catchy pop tunes with sultry vocalists, gripping ambient and much more. Arc knows that the soundtrack is fancy, so they’ve included all the pieces in the gallery for your leisurely listening enjoyment. I’ll also mention again that the music at the main menu changes every time you return to it, which gives you a chance to really hear all the different kinds of music they’ve included. Those who pre-ordered the game for the free soundtrack made a great decision.
The game-play system is one of the simplest I’ve seen in a fighter and quite probably the most simple in any anime fighter. There is a basic set of tools that each character has access to. These include techniques like sweeps, bursts, all-out attacks and furious actions. Because these are all powerful tools if used correctly, remembering them will allow you to play with some level of competence with any character.
These systems are part of an overarching effort to make the game as accessible and easy to grasp as possible. The developers know that some Persona fans may never have played a fighting game before, so they’ve made it simple enough for anyone to pick up and play. Players can mash the light attack button to execute a full combo that will end with a super attack if you have enough meter. That’s a full combo, ending with a super attack, that’s performed by mashing one button.
All this talk about accessibility may lead one to think that the game doesn’t offer much competitive depth, but this isn’t true at all. As with all fighters, you’ll need to dedicate some serious time to the game if you want to become skilled. Although you can mash out auto-combos and all-out attacks, there are several more arcane systems that the best players will have to familiarize themselves with. These include throw escapes, various cancels, instant blocking and much more. Although the game is accessible enough for anyone to enjoy a few bouts, you will still get much more from the game if you learn and practice the intricacies.
The balance of accessibility and depth presented in this game is truly remarkable. Fans of the Persona series that just want to enjoy the game’s story (and oh boy, the story) can do so without feeling like they need to learn much about fighting games. Depth craving fighting fans that think this game is just for genre newcomers or series fans should think again. In combat, the objective is of course to deplete your opponent’s health (or…erm…HP) before they deplete yours. There aren’t nearly as many characters as you’ll find in some of the big name fighters, but this makes each fighter distinct. Each of the game’s 13 characters is completely unique and they each offer a different play-style. Yukiko can zone and control space wonderfully, Yosuke is a super-fast rush down monster and Kanji is a disturbingly mobile grappler. Some characters, like Naoto, are beyond such simple explanations.
Each character possesses a Persona, which is basically like a much cooler, much stronger version of themselves. They can attack in conjunction with their Personas to craft some scary offensive strategies. If your character or their Persona receives an attack while the Persona if visible on screen, the Persona will vanish and you’ll lose one Persona stock. You start each round with a stock of four and if you lose all of them a Persona break will occur. This is a period where you can’t use your Persona or techniques related to them such as bursts. It isn’t a long period of time but your team is at a definite disadvantage and your opponent will take the opportunity to kick up the offense. Some characters are more Persona dependent than others.
The game refers to its meter as an SP gauge, a term I understand is borrowed directly from the Persona RPGs. SP is consumed to use skill boosts, super attacks, cancels, and probably something else I’m forgetting. When your character’s health is depleted to around 30%, they will enter an awakening state. Awakening increases your SP gauge to 150 (from 100) and allows each character to access their awakening super attack. This is less of a ‘comeback’ mechanic than seen in some other fighters because it does not increase your character’s attack strength or defense and it doesn’t give them any other frightening advantage. However, you can do a lot more with 150 SP than with 100 and some characters (like my favorite Aigis) only get access to their best super attacks during awakening.
So, to summarize, it gives the loser an advantage but not one that will pull them from defeat’s jaws without some skillful play.
This goes along with the overall sense of balance in the game. The characters manage to be completely unique without any individual being far superior to another. Some fighters like Mitsuru do possess more tools than others, but every character has the potential to beat another. This means that player skill is still the largest determining factor. This precious, tenuous balance is not often seen in fighting games at launch, so this speaks volumes about what Arc has accomplished.
During battles, each player has a spectator, or navigator, who will cheer them on. Initially this may seem like a feature designed to simply motivate the loser (“A round of applause for both sides! Don’t worry, you can win the next match!”), but in reality the navigators actually give invaluable advice. When Rise yells “Don’t run away! You’ll take more damage that way!” or “Don’t lose heart! You can still make a comeback!”, she really means it. The spectators remind players after even the most heated battles that it’s all about having fun.
To get you playing, the developers have included a nice tutorial mode. This mode introduces you to each of the game’s mechanics in rapid succession. You’ll want to further acquaint yourself with these mechanics in the fully featured training mode. Once you’ve got a handle on the basics, you can pick up some useful combos and well…challenge yourself in challenge mode. This mode includes dozens of combos for each character, some of which are very difficult to execute. These can burn you out at first but feel free to get comfortable with the game in other modes and come back later.
The game’s story mode is easily the single player main attraction. Each character has their own story. The little details towards the beginnings don’t really add up (or matter, actually) but they all tie together for the cumulative ending. The story is presented in a visual novel style that is, again, similar to that seen in the BlazBlue series. However, the sheer amount of dialogue and narration in each campaign is a bit shocking. The campaigns last about an hour and a half each depending on how quickly you read. There is lots and lots of reading to be done, although dialogue between characters is voiced. The voice acting felt appropriate to me. Some of the dialogue is really cheesy and much of it feels a bit kiddie even, but it’s hard to dislike.
One of the most interesting things about the story mode is how infrequently you are actually required to fight. During a two hour story campaign, you’ll only get into about five single-round bouts. If I remember correctly, one of the characters doesn’t fight at all during their campaign. This is especially good news for anyone who only wants to experience the game’s story without being bothered by getting to into the fighting systems and what not. It’s almost as if the developers are saying “Forget about counters, cancels and bursts. Just mash auto-combo and enjoy the story”.
Not counting Shadow Labrys there are 12 characters, so you can expect to spend at least twenty hours completing story mode, and that’s if you read on the fast side. The story focuses on the one newcomer to the Persona series, Labrys. Therefore, the story can be enjoyed by both newcomers and series fans. Series fans definitely get the better end of the bargain though, because the characters make countless references to characters and events from Persona 3 and 4. There’s no telling how many inside jokes or Easter eggs I missed out on by not having played the RPGs. Suffice it to say, if you’re a series newcomer like me, you’ll be quite interested in what exactly happened in that “Inaba murder mystery” after playing Arena.
The visual novel style reading can be grating if you aren’t used to it, but the waves of text are occasionally broken up by lovely high-res art and beautiful anime cinematics. And of course, fantastic music accompanies all of it. I won’t disclose any specific details but the story itself is very rich. Labrys’ tale is truly tragic and very entertaining. The story was clearly crafted with plenty of care and the game is leagues above many other popular fighters in this regard. In other words, like everything else in the game, the story mode is executed marvelously.
Once you’re feeling confident and comfortable in the game, you can try to tackle the nasty score attack mode. This mode pits you against powered up versions of every character in the game, and they are devilishly challenging. I had to try for a half an hour to beat the very first character when I started playing. This is an extremely difficult mode, and I imagine that even the best players would have a problem defeating the overwhelmingly strong AI. Don’t bother with this mode unless you’re bored by the game’s highest difficulty setting.
The arcade mode is presented excellently. The transitions between the matches are really cool looking and there’s character dialogue before each match. Playing arcade mode with a character is like playing a very condensed, very brief version of their story campaign. Persona 4: Arena was the most popular game in Japanese arcades for a long time when it released, so that should say plenty about the quality of the game’s arcade mode.
The splendid art, anime and music in the game can all be enjoyed in the gallery mode. Whether you plan to spend ages actually gawking at this stuff or simply enjoying the process of collecting it, it’s there. The main menu also includes a link to the PlayStation Store/Xbox Marketplace, where you can buy DLC for the game. So far eyeglasses, additional colors and additional navigators are available. The navigators can be unlocked by in-game means, though it seems you’ll have to pay if you want to deck your characters out with eyeglasses or extra colors. I wish they were free unlockables, but I’m pretty cheap.
Of course, everyone who picks up this game isn’t going to be a Persona fan. Some of us are just fighting fans, and for that audience the main attraction of this package will be the online or network mode. I’m pleased to report that this functions fabulously as well. Players can partake in ranked matches or player matches and customize a variety of different settings. You can create lobbies with as many as eight players, spectate matches, voice chat and all that jazz. There are no cute icons like in Marvel vs. Capcom 3, but you can customize your online title with different words and terms. There are a lot of words, so you can be fairly creative. I’m ‘Hit Confirmed Griffin’.
The net-play is beautifully smooth and virtually lag-less. There’s mandatory lag at the beginning of the match (again, like in BlazBlue), but once the fight begins it’s smooth sailing. After spending a bit of time online, you’ll quickly discover a heated competitive community. These players aren’t learning how to play the game, they’re playing it and they’re playing well. Don’t expect mercy, because you won’t receive any and the best players will indeed eradicate your HP in a flash of sparkling combos while you simply hold your controller. If you remember the basics though, there’s rarely a time where there’s absolutely nothing you can do.
Playing online will help you learn the nuances and build your skills. To further this goal, the developers have also included a theater mode where you can view your replays and the replays of others. You can download replays that other players have uploaded, as well as upload your own replays. This allows you to watch your mistakes and isolate weaknesses in your play against other characters, play-styles, etc. This is also especially useful for those instances where someone obliterates you. Review the fight and see if you can’t figure out why it was so one-sided. Although mastering the game will take an untold amount of time, there are several tools to help you do so.
In conclusion, Persona 4: Arena is a marvelous thing to behold. It has the story chops and characters of a JRPG and the high octane action of a tactical fighting game. Its wealth of content and replay value make it an excellent value. For series fans it is an epic and dramatic continuation of Persona 4’s story through a title in the fighting genre. For fighting fans it is a spectacular, deep yet accessible fighter that just happens to be based on a popular JRPG series. For fans of Persona and fighters, it must be something even more.
By being not just an anime fighter based on a JRPG but a practically flawless one, Persona 4: Arena becomes greater than the sum of its parts. It is an excellent fighting game with an engaging narrative that anyone with even the slightest interest in the series or the genre needs to experience. Come for the epic story, stay for the network mode, challenge mode, and the rest of a bounty of content. As far as fighting games go, Persona 4: Arena can hold its own against the very best.