Video Game Review: Persona 4 Arena
Persona 4 Arena can be almost visually overwhelming at times.
There was a time during my gaming lifecycle that I was fascinated by one-on-one fighters. Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter topped the list, but I also enjoyed Dead or Alive, Tekken, Soul Calibur and more. However, as the saying goes: that was then, this is now. Fighting titles have taken a back seat (way back) to other genres in recent years, and thus Atlus’ recent release, Persona 4 Arena, faced an uphill battle to rekindle my interest. Was it equal to the task? Read on.
Old-school fighting mechanics are alive and well in Persona 4 Arena with lots of double tapping and analog stick (or d-pad) manipulation on the docket. It typically works well, though when asked to push one direction then another quickly, I wouldn’t always get the desired result. The face buttons are split into weak/strong individual strikes and weak/strong attacks from your persona.
Pressing the face buttons in pairs triggers more powerful attacks, and there are even moves that require you to hit three of them simultaneously. The three-button moves proved to be exceptionally tough for me to pull off, even in the Lesson Mode (read: tutorial), as it felt like I was pretty much enveloping the controller with my hand.
Beyond the fundamentals, each character also has a series of unique signature attacks, most of which are unleashed via a combination of stick movements and button presses. To prevent spamming, the more powerful moves are tied to various gauges on the screen, and some of them can only be used when you have absorbed a lot of damage.
There is a lot to learn and assimilate here, so if you’re new to the series I highly recommend going through the Lesson Mode a couple of times to get a preliminary handle on things — even then, expect to take some lumps from the A.I. and in bouts against other players. After a while things will begin to click, but be warned that the battle system does not embrace button mashers.
Whether you’re an anime fan or not, it’s difficult not to appreciate the quality of the hand drawn sprites coupled with the sheer amount of special effects going on during bouts. It’s exceptionally colourful and vibrant, and you’d be forgiven if early on you were to find yourself watching matches unfold as much as actively countering moves. Sure, it can be a little overwhelming at first, but you’ll become accustomed to the perpetual motion in short order. Dialogue sequences and the occasional cut scene are solid, even if they don’t match the same standards as the fights.
A catchy, surprisingly diverse mix of tracks gives Persona 4 Arena a perfect audio complement to the game’s gorgeous visuals. The voice acting is also better than expected, though if you don’t care for that anime voiceover style it may not click. I enjoyed most of it, but some of the stuff is over the top to the point of being goofy (I’m looking at you and your “un-bear-able” puns, Teddie).
There was a time when fighting games came packaged with just two modes: versus the computer and versus a friend. Compared to that, Persona 4 Arena offers an absolute ton of content, starting with what has to be the most robust story mode ever seen in a fighter.
Written as a follow up to the Persona 4 RPG, Story Mode initially allows you to guide one of four characters before eventually opening up for a total of 10. The characters’ stories each tell a piece of a larger narrative, intertwining and filling in gaps as you continue to play through them. Having never played the RPG I was unfamiliar with the back story, but the game does a pretty good job of bringing you up to speed about the Investigation Team, Midnight Channel and other important elements.
Whether or not non-Persona fans will want to invest the time in Story Mode is an interesting question as each character’s journey is a lengthy one, full of written blocks of text and voice acting. In fact, I’d say the ratio is probably 20-to-30 minutes of storytelling for every minute of actual fighting action. If that sounds like something you’d enjoy you can look forward to 20-plus hours of material, assuming you don’t skip conversations. And if not, well, there are plenty of other modes to tickle your fancy.
Arcade Mode has you fight your way through the roster in classic win-and-advance fashion, while the aptly named Score Attack tasks you with compiling as many points as possible in the process. There is also a Challenge Mode to test your combo mettle with each of the 13 characters needing to pull off 30 different combinations to complete the challenge. Local and online matches round out the offerings, with the online bouts running exceptionally smoothly following the release of a patch.
Ultimately, though, fighting games are not judged by the amount of available content, but rather by the quality of the matches themselves. On that front, Persona 4 Arena delivers gameplay that is both accessible to newer players and nuanced enough to appeal to hardcore aficionados.
Perhaps the biggest factor in appealing to newcomers is that all 13 characters share common controls for their various moves. Unlike a Street Fighter or a Mortal Kombat where diverse move sets must be memorized for competency, here learning how to execute one character’s moves allows you to pull them off with others as well. Plus, some of the simpler combos can be done simply by properly timing a series of identical button presses, so you shouldn’t feel completely outmatched.
That being said, the game definitely tilts toward more seasoned gamers as most of the game’s best moves are hidden behind combined stick/button inputs and multi-layer combinations. There is also some strategy to take into account involving the use of personas, which can be temporarily lost if they absorb too much damage, and the management of the SP and burst meters.
Beautifully rendered and teeming with content, Persona 4 Arena would make an excellent addition to any fighting fan’s collection. The learning curve is a bit steep, but serious players should find that they’ll get out of it what they put into it.