Fighting games have undergone a renaissance this generation. From rescuing series previously surrendered to hiatus status (Marvel vs. Capcom 3), to reseeding an existing franchise’s roots (Mortal Kombat 9), to pushing the mash-ups in novel directions (Street Fighter X Tekken), developers have given gamers reason to keep their fight sticks sitting in their laps rather than a closet with discarded Rock Band peripherals. Persona 4 Arena falls squarely in that mash-up category. As a studio collaboration between Arc System Works (BlazBlue: Continuum Shift) and Atlus (Persona 4), the fraternization ranks high on the skeptical execution scale. So how well does a supernatural RPG translate into a system of quarter-circle stick rotations and multi-button combos? Outstandingly so.
Persona 4 Arena transcribes a narrative more complex than fighting genre norms. Players usually select one character from their unlocked roster, roll through a string of random opponents in Arcade mode, vanquish the game’s boss, then watch a brief slideshow of how that individual’s life changed after the tournament. Mortal Kombat 9 (2011) did one better, revising the series’ original trilogy into a lengthy, sensible story and crowning a canonical champion. The fights in Mortal Kombat, however, gave context to the story. Persona 4 Arena is just the opposite, and I recommend players try the dozen available stories if they have even the slightest interest in the Persona universe. A standard two-hour playthrough, then, lasts upwards of twenty.
Persona 4 Arena is assuredly Japanese.
During those twenty hours, Persona enthusiasts will reunite with many familiar faces. Yu Narukami, Persona 4's main character who finally finds his voice, has returned to the town of Inaba in the midst of a national holiday, and a reunion with the Investigation Team lays the groundwork for half of the subsequent storytelling. The Midnight Channel has reappeared, much to the protagonists' lukewarm reception. This unearthly television program helped the group solve a rash of serial murders the year prior, but instead of disclosing another potential victim, the Midnight Channel is broadcasting a Grand Prix tournament with the Investigation Team as its participants. This leads into the game’s battle royale premise as the gang ventures back into the TV to catch the show’s culprit.
The campaign begins on a grim note, with friends forced to fight each other against their wills, but that tone takes a darker shift during the story of Labrys, a red-eyed woman blamed for the Midnight Channel’s resurrection and the narrative’s setting. Her arc blurs the boundaries between man and machine, and while the twists chiseled away my expectations of where I thought the fiction would go, I applaud the writers for literally saving the best for last. I enjoy being told or shown a good story, and having that desire fulfilled in a fighting game no less makes the discovery even sweeter. Her emotional toils reveal a depth previously unseen in Persona’s heroes/heroines. Labrys’ existence and eventual escape also ties together the involvement of Mitsuru, Akihiko, and Aigis (Persona 3’s protagonists), who dispelled the Shadows of Tartarus three years ago – Evokers not included.
Dammit, Yosuke, are you even reading my review?
With an ample emphasis on comedy and tragedy, fans should revel in the new information surrounding their mainstay favorites. Besides Persona 3’s roster, players can pursue the heroics of Yu, Yukiko, Chie, Yosuke, Teddie, Kanji, and Naoto from Persona 4. Seven friends sharing a like-minded goal contributes to some obvious story overlap during animated cutscenes, but each individual’s plot follows a separate path with different adversaries and reactions to the hardships unfolding around them. These reactions take the form of lengthy inner monologues and the intermittent spoken conversation. Prepare to read through twenty minutes of text boxes between every one-round fight. Although my background with Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, and other verbose RPGs acclimated me to this much silent text, fighting game gurus averse to windy diatribes will prefer the Arcade mode’s shorter cutscenes and strenuous difficulty. People still itching for a challenge, however, will find that itch scratched in the merciless Score Attack mode that enhances opponents' health and speed while players strive to build high scores.
And regardless of the four-year difference since the last Persona installment, most of the voice actors reprise their respective roles, with only a few exceptions. Players selected Yu’s dialogue at prompted moments in Persona 4. Here, voicing the originally mute protagonist is Johnny Yong Bosch, who, among other anime roles, portrayed the conniving Tohru Adachi. The shift from the series’ timid detective to high school student should not sway anyone despite the continuity break, though the pun-loving Teddie and fearless Chie find themselves governed by fresh actors, too. Teddie retains the same un-bear-ably ignorant personality, but Chie’s actress performs less admirably. Her original voice actress perfected the tomboyish attitude of a spirited girl infatuated with steak and kung fu movies. Sadly, her shrill new voice lends itself poorly to rekindling interest in the character.
Teddie may not be human, but that won't stop him from trying to score with the series' heroines.
If I had not already been sold by the engrossing story, the gameplay would have done the trick. I no longer have the time to perfect the ins and outs of each release that graces my mailbox. Along with real-time strategy titles, the skill gap widens every day once a fighting game hits store shelves. I would be slaughtered by Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat pros should I test the multiplayer scene now. Persona 4 Arena accommodates players of the moderately skilled crowd with its innovative auto-combos. Repeated taps of the X button trigger a string of attacks weaker than regular combos, yet more than capable of diminishing a rival’s health bar without much effort. More experienced players will learn to recognize and counter auto-combos because they never change, but knowing that amateurs can pull out a come-from-behind win against veterans helps an already niche title reach a wider audience.
Instant KOs further change the nature of the gameplay. Pummeling (or being pummeled by) your opponent adds energy to the special meter. Once the meter's four bars fill, you enter an Awakened state where multi-button moves inflict more damage. Or, more risky, you can spend those four bars and chance an instant kill to end the match in a raving seizure of strobe lights and color if it connects.
Arc System Works struggled with accessibility in their previous fighting forays, so Persona 4 Arena’s low barrier to entry can be seen as a compliment rather than a criticism. Boasting a wide range of combo trials to complete, Arc’s Challenge mode ensures players do not take the brawl online without acquainting them with the four-button layout split between a character's heavy and light strikes, and two Persona attacks.
Gamers customize their player title from a list of absurd phrases. Mine reads "Blue Techno Illusion."
The bothersome netcode responsible for day-one latency issues has since been patched, too. Now matches play out with no hint of input lag, almost as if your competitor sits in the same room as you. Also, social matches let hosts create eight-player lobbies where friends and strangers can study their opponent’s approach and hone their skills for the multiplayer’s true test: ranked matches. Online, legends will be born as each win sends the victor up a graded ladder. Although my lack of skills (and low rank) arises from my inability to stick with and master one set fighter, I noticed identical behavior from my adversaries. Despite the modest list of thirteen combatants, I never saw the typical favoritism of two or three overpowered characters.
Persona may not be classified as anime, yet the flawless art style could fool anyone oblivious to its origins. Likewise, it would be too easy to write character models (and their movesets) off as simple reskins – good thing I don’t have to. Although “Fools rush in” may be Chie’s motto, who needs brains when you can do bicycle kicks? Contrary to her friend, Yukiko avoids head-on confrontations, using her fans and Persona’s fire abilities to keep assailants at bay. Kanji’s muscular physique, predictably, translates into his slower speed, as his attacks pack one hell of a wallop. The animated visuals may draw comparisons to Naruto or Bleach, but those analogies end there. Persona's protagonists avoid the "screaming makes you stronger" stereotype. Moreover, the graphics beam with the profuse yellow shades of Persona 4 while integrating identical character portraits above the dialogue boxes. Persona 4 Arena contains all the visual and gameplay trappings of the BlazBlue series, even if the presentation remains a Persona title at its core.
The writers expand on the existing Persona fiction, paving the way for future sequels (hopefully) while Arc System Works adds their first truly accessible brawler to their fighting game résumé. Who knew a long-winded RPG could secure stable footing in a market monopolized by the Street Fighters and Mortal Kombats that hail from the 16-bit generation? From the rich characterization to the complex quarter-circle combos, both Persona fans and fighting devotees will find mechanics worth recommending when not collecting pieces of artwork or listening to P4A’s “Reach Out to the Truth” remix. Atlus and Arc System Works (and the auto-combos) warrant praise for giving casual gamers like me a fighting chance, and with the bevy of training tools to aid in my gradual improvement, I continue to rebound from each loss with renewed hope.
Developers: Atlus, Arc System Works
Release Date: August 7, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3