Persona 4 Arena Review
Developer: Arc System Works
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Very few fighting game franchises really endear themselves to me, especially given that many of them require quite the time investment to even get to be decent at it, much less great. That isn’t to say there haven’t been some, however. The Mortal Kombat franchise was one I frequented back when it was just a trilogy, and I’ve followed the SoulCalibur games since its beginnings. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about Persona 4 Arena seeing as how I never really got into Arc System Works’ other games like Guilty Gear and BlazBlue. Despite that, I thought I’d give it a shot since I really enjoyed its PS2 RPG predecessor. My curiosity was rewarded.
Persona 4 Arena takes place two months after the original Persona 4 game, as the main character (named Yu Narukami for the purposes of this game) returns to Inaba to have a reunion with the investigation team that helped solve the grisly murders that had once taken place there. If you missed out on first game, it goes like this: It is said that anybody who watches a turned off television at midnight on a rainy night will see their soul mate. This phenomenon was dubbed the Midnight Channel. The truth of it is far more tragic, as what would appear instead were victims just days before they would be killed. There exists an entire world within televisions that molds itself depending on the thoughts of a person that is thrown inside it. However, a shadow will eventually emerge from the individual with personality traits they are ashamed of, and denying their existence will make them grow stronger and kill their original host. Those that can accept their shadow selves will eventually gain the power of a Persona, which is a summonable “self” that can aid in battle.
Even though the mystery had eventually been solved in the first game, the Midnight Channel has returned again and to make matters worse, several of the original investigation team members have gone missing. When Yu and his friends enter the TV world again, they find that Teddie, who now calls himself General Teddie, is putting on a P-1 Grand Prix where friends must fight against friends to see who is the strongest. Not only that, but their friend Rise is acting as MC for the tournament and both her and Teddie don’t seem like themselves. Throw in a mysterious high school girl claiming to be the school’s Student Council President and it’s time for the investigation team to solve another mystery.
While many fighting games have tried to spin interesting stories that try to justify why the characters in the game are throwing down with one another, I’ve never seen one pull it off as successfully as Persona 4 Arena. While it is still crafted within a tournament framework, probably the most cliché plot element of fighting game storylines, the story simply works and you wonder how it could have been done any other way. The Story mode gives you access to just a few characters at first, and as you reach a certain point, more characters unlock and you can grasp the tale from all angles. It behaves much more like a visual novel, as you spend more time reading what’s going on than fighting, although there are a few illustrations and anime cutscenes that help drive the point home. Each one is told from that characters perspective, and some of them, particularly that of newcomer Labrys, are very powerful and exceptionally written.
Of course, there is still an Arcade mode included, which pits you against a series of randomly chosen opponents, save for a few points where a cutscene plays and the person you are matched against is someone very specific. Anime cutscenes and sequences of dialogue will also flesh out the tale in this mode, but nowhere near to the degree that the story mode does, so it’s not really the best way to get a feel for what’s going on in the plot. Still, some achievements and gallery items can only be unlocked this way, so you’ll likely be playing it anyway.
Everything looks very sharp, as many locales from within the PS2 game have been recreated as fighting arenas, and some of them have some very dynamic backdrops. You may see Shadows lurking about, or random TV’s turning on and off advertising the fighting tournament that you are currently taking place in. The various characters and Personas also animate very fluidly and really shows off how stunning an HD Persona game can look. Much of the music from Persona 4 made the transition into this title, with a few tracks even given remixes exclusive to Persona 4 Arena. If you don’t like Jpop, you’re out of luck, though for what it’s worth there are some Persona 3 tracks present as well. While most of the English voice actors have returned to reprise their respective roles, I was disappointed to find that Teddie and Chie had been recast. There isn’t anything wrong with the new talent, as they do a good job of capturing the personalities of those characters, but it’s a bit of an adjustment after becoming so accustomed to their predecessors.
I was also disappointed to discover that there are only 13 selectable fighters in Persona 4 Arena. The cast consists primarily of Persona 4 characters, but there are several from Persona 3′s roster as well. On the one hand, it does aid in maintaining proper balance between all of the fighters, but there are a number of other combatants from Persona 3 that could’ve been used that would have been a blast to play. Anyone who says that Koromaru, the Persona summoning dog, would not have made for a fun character is a liar.
In battle, each character has two standard attack buttons, and two buttons for Persona attacks. What makes the fighting system so versatile is that you can have an attack animation for your Persona in progress and still use your character to unleash other moves. While your Persona is exposed, your opponent can attack it and cause it to disappear, and doing this four times will cause a Persona Break. During this time, your Persona is useless, though it will come back on its own after enough time has passed. You also have an SP meter on the bottom that dictates your ability to utilize your more powerful attacks. You gain SP from inflicting damage or receiving it, though once your health becomes critical, your character will “Awaken” and grant them a longer SP bar while filling it some to boot. During the final round of a match, if you have over 100 SP, you can utilize a finishing move that will award you instant victory if you’re fortunate enough to have it connect.
The nuances of the fighting system go even deeper than that, but despite all there is to learn, the tutorial does a good job of covering the basics while ensuring you get some practice in to use the skills in a practical situation. And you’ll need the help, as the game’s AI is brutal, even on the normal difficulty, although you can knock it down to easy for the sake of getting through the story. If you’re confident enough to take on the world, Persona 4 Arena has its own online mode complete with a ranking system that awards level-ups after enough experience is gained. You don’t earn anything from ranking up (aside from bragging rights and a few achievements), but it’s there to match you up with others of your skill level.
Rounding out the package are a Challenge mode that gives players an opportunity to see how many combos they can pull off, as well as a Score Attack mode that will pit you up against difficult CPU opponents to see how many points you can rack up. There is an impressive amount of content here as the Story mode alone will run a player 20-30 hours depending on how fast they can read. There are even multiple endings and branching paths dictated by choices made by the player, so some characters need to be played more than once to achieve 100%.
Persona 4 Arena is definitely in the running for fighting game of the year. Not only is the fighting system well balanced and more user friendly than other titles in the genre, but it’s well presented and has enough content to justify the asking price. Fans of the Persona 4 game on PS2 will most certainly be delighted, but fighting game fans won’t want to pass it up either. It’s a bear-y awesome game!