As a big fan of Atlus’ Persona series of roleplaying games, I had my doubts about Persona 4 Arena. Developer Arc System Works has proven time and time again that it’s got the chops to create some of the finest 2D fighters in the world, yet with P4A the company was attempting to build a fighter in its own trademarked, hyper-kinectic style that also somehow retains the crucial elements fans loved about the Persona titles, that initially built the canon for the game. It’s hard to imagine two gaming genres as disparate as fighting games and epic Japanese-style roleplaying games, and yet I’m relieved to report that P4A is not just a great mashup of Persona and Arc System Works’ fighting game mechanics, it’s one of my favorite fighters of recent years.
Keep in mind that I did not say “one of the best new fighters of recent years.” We’ll get to why that’s important in just a moment.
If you’re unfamilar with Atlus’ Persona games, a quick primer: In short, the Persona franchise is a modern Japanese-style roleplaying series that tasks players both with battling demons and with surviving the rigors of a Japanese high school. The vast majority of the game’s key characters are high school-aged teens (with all the drama, sarcasm and hormones that implies) with the ability to summon and control the titular Personas. Think of Personas as aspects of one’s personality that manifest as giant, supernatural creatures and grant their users all kinds of useful magical abilities. In Atlus’ Persona RPGs the characters used these Personas to battle shadows throughout the many floors of a giant otherworldly tower that replaced their high school every night.
Notice how complicated that backstory gets? Yeah, and that’s massively condensed. That must have presented a pretty massive hurdle for Arc System Works to overcome in creating a fighter based around this mythology. Traditionally, fighting games have had little to no story — they only needed enough to justify the virtual fisticuffs — so how would they have to change to incorporate a massive, pre-existing storyline?
The answer, at least according to Persona 4 Arena, is that every aspect of the fighting game has to be infused with backstory. Take the game’s Story Mode for instance: It differs for each fighter, and offers two to three hours of playtime for each, but the majority of one’s time in this mode will be spent reading screens of scrolling text. Occasionally you’ll find yourself drawn into a fight, but with these battles ending in a matter of minutes, the Mode is pretty much entirely dedicated to telling a story. While that may offend those who bought Persona 4 Arena as a fighting game, it’s great news for fans of Atlus’ Persona RPGs. The story written for Persona 4 Arena is on par with its roleplaying forebears, and the characters are somehow fleshed out to an even greater extent than they were in their original games. There’s a good reason why Atlus has officially stated that the events of Persona 4 Arena are canonical in the Persona universe, and that that they fit in so very well.
Of course, those who were hoping for a simple fighting game could just play through the Arcade Mode, which is a Street Fighter-esque string of battles leading up to a fight with the game’s boss. While this is more traditional, it is also infused with story. Characters chat about the plot between rounds, the announcer offers canon-appropriate commentary and the ending is surprisingly lengthy and involved. The online multiplayer and versus modes are more or less standard fighting game fare, but in the end Persona 4 Arena is the most story-rich fighting game ever created. Whether that pleases you or completely turns you off to the project is a personal choice, but given that Atlus and Arc System Works wanted to a create a fighter that would have crossover appeal to RPG gamers, it makes a lot of sense — and it’s impressive that Atlus and Arc System Works were so successful.
I realize that until now I’ve focused pretty heavily on how much storytelling this game does, but underneath all of that is a very functional, interesting fighting game engine. Though characters feel a bit slower than those found in Arc System Works’ Guilty Gear series, they’re still very agile, and “hyper-kinetic” is a good description for the combat. Remember the Personas I mentioned earlier? They accompany characters into battle and functionally serve to power the more spectacular attacks the game has to offer. Unfortunately, while your Persona is throwing a hurricane at your opponent, it is standing out on the battlefield, vulnerable to attack. If your foe is able to hit your Persona enough it will cause a Persona Break which disables all of your Persona-powered attacks for a short period of time. Since Persona-based attacks are your character’s most powerful attacks, you can see how this might limit a person’s options during battle.
Though the Persona Break system is a very interesting quirk, it represents the combat’s only real break from traditional 2D fighting genre tropes. The controls in Persona 4 Arena are a relatively simple riff on the classic Capcom formula, special moves, super moves and all the other flashy attacks we’ve come to know and love are represented here, and you get about eight fights before squaring off against an over-powered boss. Hopefully I haven’t made this sound like it’s a bad thing, because I think that this level of familiarity makes sure that fans of other fighters can quickly acclimate to the Persona 4 Arena system. Likewise, it allows those gamers who bought this thing purely on the strength of the Persona brand name a chance to pick up the basics of how to punch and kick in relatively quick fashion. While it’s not yet known how well the fighting game community will adopt Persona 4 Arena, they seem pretty keen on it so until further notice you can view the fighting game system in this game as pretty solid and robust.
As I said above though, I wouldn’t quite place Persona 4 Arena as the best fighter of recent years. Instead, it’s the fighter that I’ve enjoyed the most over the past decade. Why? To put it simply, I’m a huge Persona fan. I love these characters and any chance to experience stories of their further adventures, even if they aren’t in RPG format, is something I just can’t argue with. While I would recommend the game to fighting game fans, I would first and foremost recommend it to those who enjoy fighters but also love the Persona RPG games. This is as close to a Persona 5 as we’re going to be getting any time soon, and I’m happy to report that it’s a very viable substitute while we wait.
Score: 9 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Atlus)