Release Date: August 7, 2012
Developer: Arc System Works
Platform: ARC / PS3 / X360
Fans of the Shin Megami Tensei universe have longed for a fighting game related to any entry in the series for years now. Though never quite reaching mainstream status, the SMT franchise garnered a cult following since its inception, notably in Japan and the West. The spin-off franchise, Persona, is not directly related to the ‘main’ franchise of Shin Megami Tensei; while the two share stark similarities in themes and creatures, Persona took a strange tonal shift with the release of Persona 3.
Compared to previous entries in the series, Persona 3 was decidedly lighter in tone, albeit maintaining a reasonably grim atmosphere and story. Nevertheless, it sold well enough for a re-release which offered a continuation to the story and new modes of play. Persona 4 released two years later and enjoyed even greater success; in fact, it could be argued that both P3 and P4 were bigger brand names than Shin Megami Tensei itself. It was only a matter of time before the cow was milked for more profit, and fortunately in the case of Persona 4 Arena, everyone benefits.
But this isn’t a role-playing game. Not by a long shot. Developer Arc System Works took the casts of Persona 3 and 4, a colorfully mixed bag of teenagers, talking bears, and heavily armed fembots, and pit them against each other in an over-the-top, televised brawl. Sound ridiculous? It is, but thanks to a long and entertaining story mode and the thumb-blisteringly tight gameplay the creators of Guilty Gear and Blazblue are known for, Persona 4 Arena is more than easy to swallow.
Stylish, 2D graphics make up the bulk of this game. Characters are highly detailed and fluidly animated; movements and attacks are responsive and easy to grasp visually, while the soundtrack is a delightful mix of fan-favorites from previous games, courtesy of composer Shoji Meguro. Regrettably, while the character designs — uniformed High School — suit a role-playing game fine, they lack the distinctive flair commonly present in fighting games. Fans of the original games will welcome seeing their favorite characters duking it out, but newcomers may come off longing for some variety.
The various fighting arenas are colorfully designed and offer some of the best visuals I’ve seen in a 2D fighting game in years. Settings range from High School classrooms haunted by the phantoms of students to nightmarish television sets. Story mode offers a handful of animated cutscenes sprinkled between loads and loads of onscreen text and static imagery. Although fully voice-acted, the story mode does little to titillate the player visually and feels more like a visual novel (in fact, it pretty much is).
Persona 4 Arena is a hyper-kinetic, technical fighter that those familiar with Guilty Gear or Blazblue will feel right at home with. Players may select from 12 unique fighters hailing from the casts of Persona 3 and 4, each offering radically different styles of combat; from good ol’ fashioned fisticuffs to circus clown tomfoolery. Each fighter comes equipped with two attack buttons: ‘A’ and ‘B’, weak and strong attacks respectively. What separates P4A from most current fighters, however, is the addition of the titular Persona. These bizarre psychopomps manifest with the click of either the ‘C’ or ‘D’ button and assist the player with additional attacks. Actually, let’s have resident bear Teddie demonstrate the game’s basic mechanics in a helpful video below.
Let’s explore an aspect of the gameplay that’s been the center of some controversy since the game’s release in Japan: auto-combos. Every single character in Persona 4 Arena has what is referred to as an ‘auto combo’: a pre-set sequence of attacks that can lead into a super combo assuming they have sufficient super gauge meter. Auto-combos are achieved by pressing the A button a certain number of times in rapid succession. This allows even the freshest of the fresh to pull off some sick-nasty moves, but what does this mean for veterans?
And herein lies the source of some of the controversy regarding this game, controversy that was subverted by recent tournaments (somewhat) and high-level gameplay. But why bother learning anything beyond auto-combos if spamming a single button is actually effective? Well, the long and short of it is: they aren’t very effective. Auto-combos do less damage than, say, custom combos. They do, however, provide faster super meter gain and increase the rate at which you regain ‘Burst’ (a defensive technique all characters share that, if timed correctly, knocks an attacking opponent back and offers some breathing room for the initiator). For veterans, relying on auto-combos to do the job is a poor method of victory, but they do have their uses.
In addition to Personas, the cast has access to moves that inflict various status ailments to their victims. Truly, P4A takes the setting and premise of the original RPG and incorporates it into the fighting genre and not only succeeds, they run away with it. Status effects like stun or swapped controls have been in fighting games before, but those familiar with the spells and themed quirks of the Persona games will embrace the fanservice while hardened fighting gamers may enjoy the added depth to combat.
What Persona 4 Arena does right, it does well: the cast is well-rounded and early impressions from fighting game communities worldwide indicate that the game is surprisingly balanced. Fighting game novices may find difficulty in dealing with some members of P4A’s cast; namely Kanji, the resident ‘grappler’ (a character relying on grabs to deal impressive damage), or Elizabeth, a ‘zoner’ (a character whose primary strategy involves a keep-away game via projectiles). However with practice, as is the case with most games of any genre, overcoming these seemingly immovable obstacles will become second-nature. After all, part of the fun of any fighting game is embarking on a journey of self-improvement.
Fortunately, P4A is equipped with tools to help ease new players and even veterans into its mechanics. The game comes with an in-depth ‘lesson mode’ that teaches new players the basics of gameplay, along with a more advanced challenge mode (ala the one present in Blazblue) that serves as a primer for each member of the cast. The latter mode is a decent guide for understanding a character’s playstyle, but not all the combos shown are viable in actual competitive play. That’s fine: challenge mode, at the very least, does a spectacular job of shedding some light on the strengths (and weaknesses) of a character.
Unless you’ve got buddies to play with (or a local ‘scene’ of fighting game aficionados), online multiplayer will be your number one source of competitive play. Fortunately, ASW implemented Blazblue’s netcode into their latest title, and P4A benefits from some remarkably stable online gameplay. Matches initially begin as laggy, but as soon as the round starts, my experiences have been largely positive. That is not to say that lag has been completely excised; some matches will just wind up being awful. The player is given the option, though, to dodge matches he or she deems unplayable, thanks to a green or red bar next to a potential opponent’s name. These bars offer some insight into connection quality, and whether or not lag may play a role in the match.
Overall, the combat is intense, fast-paced, and visceral — far faster than anything I remember in ASW’s Blazblue. In fact, I feel like I’m playing a slightly stripped down version of Guilty Gear — which is likely why this game is garnering so much positive feedback from the fighting game community. Guilty Gear was a solid fighter operating at breackneck speeds, renowned for its colorful cast of characters and deep, rewarding gameplay.
Besides Capcom’s Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, Guilty Gear was largely regarded as a standard of 2D fighting games. Persona 4 Arena is at it’s core a multi-layered fighter that manages to generate obscene levels of excitement even at low-level play, all while being very technical despite not quite living up to the legacy Guilty Gear left behind. That’s not to besmirch the new kid’s credibility in any way; P4A is a remarkably fun fighter that goes beyond merely cashing in on a game’s runaway success.
- Slick visuals and upbeat tunes keep gameplay fresh
- Responsive controls
- Multi-tiered gameplay mechanics for players of all skill-levels
- Compared to some recent fighting games, cast is notably small
- Story mode, while interesting, is not very interactive and feels too much like a visual novel