Persona 4 Arena is the fighting game-sequel to Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and 4. The actual game was made by veteran fighting-game developer Arc System, and the story was written by the team at Atlus, the developers of the Shin Megami Tensei series. P4A is both an excellent fighting game and a solid addition to the Persona franchise.
As a fighting game, P4A is fantastic. While I’ve played Arc System games before, I’ve never enjoyed them as much as other fighters. This game, however, is truly excellent. The combat system is enjoyable and actually manages to successfully incorporate mechanics from the JRPG it is based on. At its base, the game is a four-button fighter: two strong and two weak buttons. One set controls your character’s attacks the other your Persona’s. A Persona is a magical manifestation of the character’s inner strength, often taking the form of a mythical or historical figure. It moves and attacks separately from your character and is a key component in many special moves and supers.
The characters have universal overheads and sweeps. You perform both moves by pushing both character buttons at the same times. Each character, of which there are 13, has their own R-Action move, activated by pressing both strong buttons. When you do this move, part of your health turns blue. The blue health recovers over time, but if you are hit at any point during the recovery period you will lose all of it. If your health runs low, you will enter awakening mode. This reduces the amount of damage you take, increases your SP Gauge, or super meter, by 50 points, grants you access to a new super, and gives you 50 extra SP. This feature makes the end of matches very exciting, as players are suddenly given more options. Fights that are already equal become even more tense, and players that are losing are gives another chance to turn the tide. Still none of the benefits of awakening are unbalanced and skilled players will be able to compensate for them when their opponent becomes awakened. One of the great positives of the game is the auto-combo, which is the best I have seen. In Street Fighter x Tekken they were far too weak. In P4 A, they are actually useful. You need to sacrifice part of your health, like you would in an R-Action, but only if you continue the auto-combo into the finishing super. The combo will also do less damage to your opponent then it normally would, but you gain additional SP. Thankfully, the combos are do not remove the skill from the game, and are not enough to win a match on their own, but they do let new players feel like they have accomplished something and gives them a fighting chance.
Some traditional features from the Arc Systems fighters appear in this game, too. You have a Burst meter, which can be used to cancel most moves into other moves, break an enemy’s combo, or gain SP, the resource you use for supers or EX moves. I found that it added an interesting new dimension to the fight. There are also instant kills in the game, though they require 100 SP to activate and can only be used on the final round of a match. I’ve only seen it twice myself, and both were blocked, but it hardly seems like a game-breaking move.
The most impressive thing about this game is that integration of the Persona into the fighting is seamless. When I first saw the system in action, I was worried it would be awkward, but the Persona feels like a natural extension of your character. The closest analogue to it would be the Stands in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. If your Persona is hit, you lose part of your Persona Gauge. When you lose your entire gauge, you enter Persona Break, and you are unable to summon your Persona for a decent period of time. This discourages you from spamming Persona moves and makes you use it like any other resource. The status effects from the RPG are also integrated well and help deepen the connection between the two games.
There are numerous modes in P4 A, including the basic training, versus, and arcade modes that are common in most fighters. All of these work as you would want them to, and the online net code is mostly okay, though bad connections still suffer lag and framerate drops. The remaining modes are story, challenge, score attack, and tutorial. It’s in these modes that P4 sets itself apart from other fighters. The challenge mode teaches basic and advanced combos for all the characters, which is very helpful for players no matter their level of experience with fighting games. The tutorial does a good job of teaching both basic and game-specific mechanics, which is important in a game that has so many special rules. From a gameplay perspective, the story mode is poor. It’s mostly a visual novel with a few ludicrously easy fights thrown into the mix. While it largely succeeds as a story, it’s not so much fun to play. Finally, score attack pits you against AI with special rules and challenges you to get past them with the best score.
The game looks great. It combines the dynamic animation and detailed art of the Blaz Blue series, with the occult esthetics of the Shin Megami Tensei games. This combines to create a presentation that is awesome in every way. The pixel art used for the in-game characters looks phenomenal. It’s a crisp translation of the 3D models and portraits from the previous Persona games on PS2. The 3D effects and backgrounds compliment the characters and help enhance the game’s look. The game moves at a great pace with no framerate issues at all, and the animations are smooth and fun to look at. Menus are as good looking as the rest of the game, which may seem like a minor point, but it’s nice all the same. Shoji Meguro, the main composer for the SMT series, does another wonderful job here. The soundtrack is fantastic, with new songs as well as favorites from Persona 3 and 4.
The fun I had with Persona 4 Arena was derived from both the story and the gameplay. I found the fighting to be fast, fluid, and intuitive. The cast is incredibly diverse and balanced, and each character has some unique characteristic that makes them fun to play. Online or local, I enjoyed competing against others. From a gameplay perspective this is one of the best fighting games to come out this year.
On a story level, I was both impressed and disappointed by P4A. Some of the character stories were as heartfelt and full of personality as any in the mainline SMT games, but because the game forces you to experience the same story from the viewpoint of multiple characters, it can quickly become tedious. The story was at its best when it is going over information for the first time. This is especially true for the new character Labrys and the Persona 3 characters. I found their stories to be more interesting because there was information about them that I did not already know. The story isn’t exactly friendly to newcomers, and certain affinity with the characters and the series is going to be necessary to understand and enjoy this game. Even then, you will need to have played both Persona 3 and 4 to get the most out of the story. While I would still recommend this game as a fighter, those looking for an entry to the franchise should go elsewhere.
Persona 4 Arena is an awesome game. There is a lot here for fans of both fighting games and Persona. Though it is difficult to recommend to gamers who are not fans of the genre or the franchise, especially as the story mode can seriously drag at times. Still, this is a great game that is definitely worth a purchase.