Persona 4: Arena is an interesting beast. Technically a fighting game, it springs from the loins of an RPG franchise - a lineage it wears proudly, to interesting effect. At the core, you go head-to-head with another character and must use your abilities skillfully in order to beat them; much like Street Fighter, perhaps, or BlazBlue for that matter. The reference to BlazBlue was a deliberate one; Persona 4 Arena (P4A), you see, is developed by the creators of that very game, giving it instant credence amongst fans of digital pugilism.
The characters on the roster are drawn largely from that of the PlayStation 2 game, Persona 4 (and its recently reviewed PlayStation Vita re-release, Persona 4 Golden.) While you don’t need to be familiar with that game to enjoy the plot of P4A, it certainly helps; the story is a fantastical one and will likely take some time to get your head around if you’re not already well versed in the universe.
That narrative is presented in the game’s story mode, by way of (lengthy!) pre-match cutscenes. Each character you choose will then reveal their version of events; as you go, you unlock more characters, whose stories overlap and expand on those you’ve already discovered.
It’s a neat system, although this naturally means there’s some repetition; a factor that irks somewhat largely because of the extreme length of time some of the story sequences can take to play out. Some of them, in fact, take around half an hour (all the while, you’re repeatedly pressing buttons to advance it) between each fight. A four-fight campaign, then, can take upwards of 90 minutes to play through. If you like Persona 4’s story and presentation, you’ll like this too (it’s very much along the same sorts of lines), but there will definitely be some who could care less.
Fortunately, story mode’s hardly required, and if you do want to play through it without reading all that text, you can skip between fights or even save for later resumption should your attention wander. There are loads of other modes to attract your attention, including the game’s typical - but welcome - online mode.
Persona 4 Arena made headlines last year when it was revealed to be the first (and, given the late stage of the PS3’s lifecycle, likely only) game to be region-locked on the system. This news was swiftly followed by a delay outside of the US, making fans of the franchise even more furious than they already were. When the game releases on May 9th, it will be some nine months since it hit consoles state-side, fragmenting an already niche online audience.
As it stands, it’s difficult to review the game’s online modes, as what few players are currently available (before its local release) are likely a long way away from us, so the rather laggy experience is difficult to blame on anything other than the speed of light (something even Arc System Works, a great developer, can do nothing about.) Pending interest, we’ll update our coverage of the game post-release with our thoughts on the online mode; until that time, this review refers exclusively to offline components of the game.
While the game is set in the Inaba region of Persona 4, and uses that game’s “world inside a TV” setting as its backdrop too, P4A also includes characters from Persona 3. We won’t ruin the narrative (as it’s either unimportant to fighting game fans, or critical to fans of the franchise), but we will say that fans are unlikely to be disappointed. About the only aspect of this side of the game that does frustrate is that the character’s inner monologues are typed out over the background images, rather than in deliberately created text boxes. The visual effect of this is invariably confusing; making out text that’s presented over random background images is hard work and especially frustrating when compared with the title’s otherwise flawless (and exciting) presentation.
Spoken words appear in the black text box, like in the above screen, but inner monologue text is printed directly over whatever image is currently being displayed (the bit above the text box in this example)
The fighting mechanics are fun to explore, fusing (much like the RPGs) a combination of character and persona-based attacks into a fluid and varied set of gameplay options. A classic 2D fighter, you (depending on your character) have a range of different attacks at your disposal, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. While a lot of this is familiar, P4A brings enough new tricks to the fighting game table to warrant its existence as a fighting game alone, over and above the fan service it delivers to enthusiast followers of the franchise itself.
One of those tricks is, of course, the Persona attacks. In Persona, if you’re not familiar with it, you can summon special creatures called, well, Personas. This is no less true of P4A; here, once you’ve earned enough power (like a super bar in another bar, only filled much more frequently), you can call forth your persona to execute special abilities.
Another new arrow in P4A’s quiver is the inclusion of status effects; special attacks can leave your opponent inhibited or afflicted with a damage-over-time infirmity that will shift the balance and require that they adapt to the new conditions. It’s a fun, if (generally) minor, twist on the classic formula.
There’s also a crazy-powerful super move called an Instant Kill that does exactly what you think it does, however it’s not as overpowered as it might first sound. Experienced P4A players will have plenty of time to counter it, should someone attempt to use it against them, and you won't have enough meter (called SP Gauge here) to pull it off often. Rather than a race to execute the Instant Kill move, then, it’s probably best suited as a move by which a pro player can quickly dismiss a noob they might encounter, or as a way of embarrassing someone should you manage to pull it off.
For some inexplicable reason, the game isn’t full-screen by default (at least, it’s not on PS3 - the version tested.) Instead, it occupies the inner 85% or so, with black borders above, below, and to the sides of the action (even in menus, cutscenes, etc), framing it in like some sort of overscan compensation. There are controls to adjust it, but they’re not your typical “stretch it out” type as you find in many other games. Here, it’s like the game doesn’t match the aspect ratio of the TV, and no matter how you fiddle it, it feels like the end result is a compromise of some sort.
All that aside, though, P4A does something unique; it somehow manages to create a game that is both true to its (non fighting game) roots and yet also a very well executed fighting game in its own right. The characters all feel distinct from one another, and the simple control option (where just spamming square will chain together combos) lets people who wouldn’t normally wander into this sort of arena have a fighting chance, without stopping the hardcore from enjoying themselves too.
The story is both true to P4A and of value on its own, even if there’s a lot of reading required to get through it all, and the chance to spend time with the investigation team again is greatly appreciated - even though Persona 4 itself was a very long game!
If you like fighting games, Persona, or - better yet - both, you’ll be well served by Persona 4 Arena. It’s familiar yet unique, and has enough stuff that’s all its own to warrant its existence. Based on the game’s reception and sales overseas, chances are good there will be more to come; jump in now, even if it’s a year after the States, so you’re ready when the next game hits - hopefully at the same time here as it is over there.