Persona 4 Arena is the latest fighting game to be developed by the legendary Arc Systems, a Japanese developer with a pedigree almost unmatched in the genre. Previous titles include the Guilty Gear franchise, Blazblue and Arcana Heart 3, so there’s little to suggest that P4A would be anything other than great. However, whilst the quality of these games can’t be denied, their appeal to a mass audience outside of the hardcore fighting game community certainly can be. So will P4A be another superlative fighting game played by an established minority, or will it crossover to the wider audience that these games have always deserved.
Well, whilst it’s true that P4A has certainly made a big effort to fit in and make itself more accessible to the uninitiated, it still hasn’t made life easy for itself. For a start, the story and cast are based upon a series of Japanese RPGs which arguably make the game less approachable to newcomers than, say, last month’s Injustice fighting game that had Batman and Superman in it. Having never had anything to do with the series before (or any other RPGs for that matter), I probably didn’t appreciate the cast as much as some, but like all Arc titles, it’s hard to argue with how varied and balanced the respective play-styles are. Half the fun of fighting games is learning about the different characters and finding out which ones “fit”, and P4A, despite having a smaller roster than some, gives you more than enough options to find that special someone to focus your attentions on.
Blazblue featured a pretty clunky beginner control scheme, and thankfully Persona has discarded this somewhat half-arsed stab at accessibility. Instead we have various options within the game that allow even novices to go on the offensive or get themselves out of sticky situations without the need for long, complicated button combinations or precise timing. The most prominent of these is the auto-combo which unleashes a reasonably long and pretty looking combo just by mashing the light attack button. It’s a nice way of ensuring that everyone gets to achieve something more than the occasional jab, but although they do far less damage than regular combos, it’s still a little jarring when an opponent is merrily beating you down by mashing one button whilst you’re trying to do something clever.
That’s not to say that P4A is in anyway a dumbing down of the Arc formula, Wii Boxing this ain’t. There are still a lot of mechanics to learn and remember, and despite the ongoing attempts at bringing in newcomers, this still isn’t exactly an entry level fighter. Although only 4 buttons are used for attacks, we still have an array of air-dashes, chainable combos, double jumps, hops, counters, instant kills, the Burst system and of course, Personas. Each character has a Persona that can be called for either a unique light or heavy assist at any point during the fight, so long as it doesn’t take too many hits as this causes the Persona to break, resulting in a serious loss of super and special moves. It all takes a fair while to learn and use appropriately, and will require players to continue to visit P4A regularly in order keep on top of it, this still isn’t a pick-up and play party game.
All the usual fighting game modes are here, from training and combo challenge mode, to the Arcade and intensely tricky Score Attack mode. The story mode is long and thorough, and has clearly had a lot more time spent on it than most fighting game titles. This will delight fans of the original RPG series as it picks after the events of Persona 4 and will keep those who are interested reading extended sections for sometimes over 10 minutes. Personally, I found it a little difficult to not skip past sections and thus lose track and consequently, interest. Luckily, for others like me with no patience, the online mode is very solid and seems to have one of the genres better netcodes. There’s nothing particularly new about it, but there really doesn’t need to be when the simple act of playing rounds with different opponents is as fun as it is here.
We’ve waited a long time for Persona 4 Arena to come to Europe. The rest of the world have had it almost a year, and in that time it has won awards, become a tournament regular and established itself as not just an RPG offshoot, but a quality title in its own right. So in a way it’s a shame that it’s finally been released so hot on the heels of perhaps the most hyped fighting game of the year, Injustice. Are people who may not get involved regularly in the genre going to buy the hyped, noisy and exceedingly good game with Batman in, or the classy, rewarding and perhaps even better game with 13 Japanese RPG characters? Sadly, I suspect P4A’s tardiness may cost them dear.
However, whilst I’m not convinced it’s going to win over legions of new converts, fans of both fighting games and the Persona series will have plenty of reasons to adore this, and for anybody who likes both, this will be like several Christmases at once. Persona 4 Arena was absolutely worth waiting for, I just hope that there are enough like-minded souls ready to peer past the shadow of the Superman and friends and enjoy one of the strongest fighting games of the generation.
Reviewed on PS3