Reason one why Persona 4 Arena is brilliant – presentation.
Wait what? You were expecting an intro? Persona 4 Arena is a fighting game! A brutal, fast paced, intense beat ’em up designed by scrapper gods Arc System Works, there’s no time for idle chit chat!
Well yes, it is based on the Atlus JRPG series of the same name but Persona 4 Arena is primarily a top notch one on one fighting game reminiscent of Guilty Gear and BlazBlue. It’s social links are quite clearly skewed towards the punch first, procrastinate later crowd.
Where was I? Ah yes, presentation. Too many of my friends look at Blaz Blue, Arcana Heart 3, Aquapazza and the like and say ‘it’s a bit anime, isn’t it?’ Which sounds harmless enough but what they actually mean is ‘the Japanese have a unique way of dressing and designing characters that I find obscure and imposing, therefore I will decide to ignore any and all potential gameplay merits that this game may indeed warrant and instead base my entire assumption and dislike of it purely on the size of that female’s bust and skirt’.
But they like Persona. Persona is ‘cool’ and ‘chique’ and ‘hip’ and all of this style translates rather beautifully and inoffensively to Persona 4 Arena, meaning that there finally exists an Arc System Works game with set dressing that my acquaintances will not poo poo in two seconds of seeing the dang thing – this alone is reason to rejoice.
Putting aside any frumpy annoyances though I must admit that it is all deliciously cool. The sharp edges, TV static, and unique high-school garb create an uncompromisingly classy visual tapestry that’s only enhanced by the head-bop inducing funk/rock/techno soundtrack. In style alone Persona 4 Arena puts itself forward as the hipster cousin to BlazBlue, making most elements of Arc System Works’ previous fighters look almost musty and antiquated in the process – Arena’s coherent style is unrelentingly gorgeous and infectious.
Sorry, what was that? The plot? Well, yeah, being tied to a narrative heavy JRPG you would expect Arena to have some narrative stone and, to its credit, there is a substantial story mode in Persona 4 Arena but it’s really not the point of the game. It’s a fighter, didn’t you hear me mention that? I definitely said that. Look up there in paragraph two, see? But yes, Persona is a series with a rich narrative so Persona 4 Arena does try, somewhat, to appease this itch in the usual Arc System Works graphic novel style of natter, natter, natter, fight, natter, natter, natter, fight, but it’s only ever really alright, with the arcs for the Persona 3 characters being the best of the bunch.
The issue with the story mode is that in being a fighter the flow is very forward focused. Persona RPG games thrive in the downtime, those moments between dungeon crawls when you really get to delve into the psyche of your character’s everyday life by waddling around, and while Persona 4 Arena does feature scenes in the school and has some very nice moments it’s all very focused and lacks the laid back nature of an RPG. So while Persona 4 Arena’s story is fine for a play through – and the fact you don’t even have to win in the fights means that anyone can get through it – it’s not the real reason why Persona 4 Arena will take up residence in your disc drive for months to come.
The reason for that is actually reason two as to why Persona 4 Arena is brilliant – the fighting. Arc System Works have honed their craft over the years – the craft of crazy aerial rave, unique character scrapping – and Persona 4 Arena is a somewhat accessible door to their world. It’s still not perfect, the door sort of slaps your rump on the way in, but it’s certainly more accessible than BlazBlue.
Persona 4 Arena manages this by putting a smart emphasis on key, universal tools and simple attack execution. Pulling off something impressive in Arena is a little easier on the thumbs than the studio’s usual fare.
Said universal tools include the expected, such as the Guilty Gear ‘oh god get away from me’ burst mechanic, Arc’s trademark forced cancel (called Roman and Rapid cancelling in past titles) and a grab, but Arena also gives every character a forward dodge, a guard crushing ‘all-out’ attack, a hop, a sweep and a health risking ‘auto’ attack, all of which are all accessed through a different combination of multiple attack buttons and possibly a direction. Throw in the basic ‘auto combo’, found by hammering the light attack button, and novice players have a solid set of fundamental techniques around which to construct a basic semblance of play.
Another element of the combat that will appeal to Persona players is the addition of status ailments. Paralysis, poison, freezing, these are things common in JRPGs but rare to a fighting game, but they are things that inevitably work well and manage to infuse every fight with a little unexpected tactical spice to keep players on their toes. They work as clearly advantageous tools for fight fans, and give JRPG nuts a nice reference point – they know these things should be employed in combat.
All this information and I’ve still not gotten to the real meat of the scrapping; the Persona’s themselves. Far from Arcana Heart-like tools the Persona actually represents half your character’s ability. In fact Persona 4 Arena’s unique controls are born from the Persona’s; two buttons represent your character’s light and heavy attacks while the other two represent your Persona’s light and heavy abilities. It’s a very unique setup and one sure to throw players that have gotten used to dialling combos through the likes of Marvel’s A-B-C system.
Every character’s Persona acts in a unique way but as a rule of thumb they generally help to augment their avatar’s natural abilities by covering their weakness’. Naoto’s Persona specialises in close attacks while she uses a gun, for instance, while Kanji’s bulky mask can help him move enemies into compromising grapple positions easier. Elsewhere, Yu’s shadow can throw projectiles or charge ahead of its owner to cover and assist his aggressive assaults.
No matter who you choose to fight with you’re always essentially controlling two entities, avatar and Persona, and learning to combine their abilities into a single offensive unit is a unique, tricky, but ultimately rewarding challenge – similar in many ways to Carl and Relius Clover in BlazBlue.
In order to negate brash spamming of your spiritual buddy every Persona has its own health bar that sits just below your own. Lose it and your Persona will shut down for a short period of time, greatly devastating your combat abilities while you wait for the recharge – only your character’s health is important in the grand scheme of who wins and who loses.
Got all that? It’s quite the labyrinthine system and explaining it in a succinct way is nearly impossible. I’ve not even touched on how the game’s more lithe control marks a return to Guilty Gear’s skittish scraps over BlazBlue’s more stompy brawls… Ok, simply put Persona 4 Arena is an Arc System Works fighter first and foremost – bombastic combos, truly individual characters, crazy aerial stunts, a stupidly impossible score attack mode; the lot – but it’s one that makes itself instantly entertaining through easy to grasp tools while still delivering a reservoir of depth for the devoted fighting fan.
Oh, you had another question? As a Persona fan, should you get this game? Yes. Yes you should. The writing may not be the series’ best but it’s a fun way to get reacquainted with old faces and, even if you’re the worst fighting game player in the universe, Persona 4 Arena presents itself in as stylish and appealing a manner as possible, implementing mechanics specifically for those people that usually spend after class hours in creative writing rather than karate.
Even if the game at first takes you off guard, much like this review attempted to, that’s just because it is a fighting game at heart and it’s not ashamed of that. But what makes Persona 4 Arena such an enchanting game is that it’s one infused with the spirit and style of two of Japan’s most interesting exports – Persona and Arc System Works. Perhaps you ignored BlazBlue because it looked daunting, well Persona 4 Arena, with its funky and suave style, represents the best door yet to a very particular style of game and ultimately – and this is the bit that really cinches it – Persona 4 Arena is arguably the best fighter to come out in recent years, and that alone is enough reason to play it, and to love it.
To read more of James Bowden’s opinions, reviews, and be assaulted by copious references to tea, please do check out his fan-focused Nintendo site at www.Nintendo-Nation.net.
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