Reviewer: Philip Smith
Overall: 9 = Must Buy
Since the late 1990s, the Persona line of role-playing games has slowly emerged as the star in Atlus’ flagship series, Shin Megami Tensei. The once-sci-fi- and gothic-horror-themed spin-off has become a full-fledged franchise in its own right, with five major releases, four enhanced handheld re-releases, and myriad posters, toys, and art books. Persona 4 Arena represents a significant departure for the wide-ranging series, marking its first attempt at expanding into a new genre. Co-developed by Atlus and Arc System Works, Arena is a one-on-one 2D fighter in the mold of Street Fighter. To be more precise, Arena is in the mold of Guilty Gear and BlazBlue, two series from Arc’s roster that have proven the studio’s ability to make flashy, addictive fighters. As with their previous work, Arc does not disappoint with Arena, delivering an engrossing, feature-rich title that also just happens to sport a cast of characters deeply rooted in a series that has consumed hundreds of hours of my life.
For Persona fans, the first stop on the main menu should be Story Mode. Here, a lengthy tale set within the TV world will see the Investigation Team from Persona 4 meet, and battle against, the SEES team from Persona 3. The plot is centered on the Investigation Team and their search to track down the source of a mysterious ad for the P-1 Grand Prix fighting tournament that recently began airing on the re-emergent Midnight Channel. The gang was preparing to celebrate Golden Week with the protagonist, now named Yu Narukami, when the ad first appeared. It featured each member of the Investigation Team, along with associated unflattering taglines that serve as a catalyst for much of the otherworld-induced animosity (and great one-liners). Shortly after arriving in Inaba, Yu is told by Yosuke, Chie, and Yukiko that something else is wrong: Kanji, Rise, and Teddie have gone missing. With Naoto off working a case, it’s up to the remaining four members to figure out what’s going on.
It doesn’t take long for the team to run into problems. After arriving in the TV world, they find themselves separated outside a slightly twisted version of their school, Yasogami High. Within a few minutes of coming around, each character is greeted by a TV announcer that looks like Teddie dressed in a general’s uniform, alongside a special co-announcer, Rise. Each in turn informs the chosen character that they are to take part in the P-1 Grand Prix, and that the only way to progress to the next area is by defeating their opponent. Whoever loses is forced to stay behind, trapped by invisible walls. They quickly notice that something else is wrong, as each is behaving like their Shadows from Persona 4. As the mystery unfolds, Akihiko, Mitsuru, Aigis, and Elizabeth from Persona 3 are encountered throughout the various storylines, and unlocked as playable characters. Despite the focus on the Investigation Team, the SEES members are just as integral to the plot, and playing through their storylines is the only way to fill the remaining narrative gaps.
In order to make the game more approachable for those who never tried Persona 4, Atlus took on the Herculean task of trying to cram in the game’s 70-100 hours’ worth of characterization and storylines into a handful of screens. As a result, Arena is very heavy on text, much more so than any fighter I have ever played. There is also a significant amount of repetition within the text, as Atlus had to ensure that everyone could be brought up to speed regardless of which character is chosen from the initial playable roster. As if to make the story even less enticing to newcomers, there are very few location screens, which means that conversations will start to run into one another as characters will have similar portions of descriptive or monologue text in the exact same locations. While fans of the role-playing games won’t mind the limited surroundings, and may even be delighted at the chance to see a handful new locales, such as the Amagi Inn’s kitchen or Kanji’s living room—areas referenced and passed by so often in Persona 4—others won’t be nearly as interested. There is a bit of flair, though, with solid voice-over work throughout, and the still shots for key events look great, using the series’ crisp art style to great effect. The scenes are such a nice change of pace, in fact, that a few more would have gone a long way in adding some much-needed variety.
If you find the setting interesting but are put off by having to commit a half-hour-plus for completing a character’s storyline, there is Arcade Mode. Arcade isn’t as involved as Story, lacking the lengthy conversations and handful of decision points, but the upside is that it is much shorter, including only the key elements. Arcade is also a great alternative for those who’ve already played through Story Mode, or want to test the waters before diving into it.
The remaining modes include Training Mode, Lesson Mode, Challenge Mode, Score Attack Mode, Versus Mode, and Network Mode. There are also two extra modes, Theater for viewing recorded replays and Gallery Mode for browsing unlocked bonuses. New players will find the basics covered in Lesson Mode, with the game’s core combos and actions outlined in a series of simple and easy-to-understand sessions. Training Mode allows you to practice the maneuvers learned in Lesson Mode on a highly customizable dummy; the AI punching bag can be set to a engage in a variety of stances and behaviors, and entire combos can be recorded in up to three save slots so that you can drill against more complex attacks. After a bit of sparring, Challenge Mode offers a decent amount of intermediate-level training with a series of 30 combo-centered challenges for each character. These have a sharp difficulty spike that can be frustrating, but fortunately, there are elucidating demonstrations for all but the last task. Score Attack should only be undertaken after you have a firm grasp of the game’s mechanics and have completed most, if not all, of the Challenges. While the name might imply a laid-back chase for the high score, Score Attack is in fact an absolutely brutal series of increasingly tougher battles that require as much patience as skill.
As with most fighters, it pays to invest a significant amount of time in the solo modes before taking on opponents online. That is especially the case if you’re a late arrival to Arena, as even lower-ranked players have already logged hundreds of matches. The digital release on PlayStation Network should bring in an influx of new arrivals, such as myself, but be prepared to be humbled when you go online. Versus is strictly for one-on-one play on the same system, but it also serves as excellent practice thanks to the option to assign the second player as the Computer. Definitely take advantage of that before signing on in Network. Online play offers the chance to fight against others in two types of matches, ranked and player (unranked). Ranked matches can be played as either a custom match, with specific rules set for the bout, or as a quick match, for those who prefer the standard options or just want to jump into a fight. Replays of ranked matches can also be recorded and uploaded for others to check out, and for you to study. Player matches are more casual, with wins and losses not taken into account in the ranking system, though they are tracked on a player card. Quick and custom matches are available for player matches as well, and each allows up to eight contestants to participate, with six watching the ongoing match between the other two.
Online play remains popular, whether you’re looking for ranked or player matches. Performance was solid as well, with lag creeping in only a handful of matches. In most cases, lag was noticeable during the pre-fight intro but quickly dissipated once the round started. Connection restrictions can also be imposed if it becomes too big of a problem.
Underlying all of the modes is a fantastic fighting engine that is a unique blend of over-the-top action and a subtle but complex design. Each fighter only has a handful of unique moves, which shows remarkable restraint on the part of Arc System Works. Given that each character has their persona ready to be called into action at any second, the move list could have easily been doubled for each fighter. Instead, the developers chose to expand the shared core moves and combo inputs and supplement them with others that are unique to the characters’ personalities and personas, using bold, lively animations to give the game a flamboyant look and seemingly brisk pace. For as fast as the action looks, I found that all of the clouds of dust, missiles, bolts of electricity, and dash lines make the game seem much more hyperkinetic than it is. Many matches were largely about outmaneuvering an opponent in order to unleash extended combos, but the numerous visual effects made the action seem constant, making even the slower moments seem exciting.
What helps to ground Arena is the broad template of moves that all characters share. Each character has a simple short solo combo and another that invokes their persona, and each can be extended or ended with a finisher by tapping the same button a few more times. Characters also have the same basic attack types: a light and strong attack for themselves and one each for their persona. This foundation is given additional heft by a wide array of basic easy-to-perform complementary moves: evasive actions that avoid ground attacks; furious actions that are invincible but sacrifice health; all-out attacks that can send opponents flying back or into the air after a flurry of hits; ground and mid-air throws and cancels; forward and back dashing; air and ground recovery; and a sweep. Then there are the moves more specific to Arena, such as Awakened attacks, Burst attacks, and stronger special moves that use the Skill Points bar. Arc System Works even worked in a variation of their Instant Kill attack, introduced in the first Guilty Gear. And in a novel nod to the game’s roots, some moves can inflict ailments taken from the role-playing side, such as rage, poison, and confusion, while momentum is maintained by excessive back dashing resulting in fear.
Despite the initial intimidation factor from the frenzied visuals, the handful of simple moves and combos allow for quick acclimation, while the broad template adds the kind of additional variables that can only be understood through practice. In this way, Arena follows in the same footsteps as the genre’s best in being easy to understand but tough to master.
Persona fans and non-fans alike will find a lot to enjoy about Persona 4 Arena. Those who have sunk hundreds of hours into Persona 3 and 4 will undoubtedly get more out of seeing the two groups meet during the lengthy story, while those who want a more traditional experience are well served by the abridged Arcade Mode. The numerous other single and multiplayer modes will appeal to all, offering a variety of ways to practice, unlock extras, and battle with friends. Arc System Works has done the series justice with this exceptional fighter.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)