Persona 4 Arena can easily be dismissed as a game meant specifically for one very specific type of gamer. Atlus’ Persona franchise, a JRPG series whose last two installments were on the PS2 around the time the PS3 was getting its footing can be seen sitting on some people’s Top 10 of All Time lists, has been given the Fighting game treatment by Arc System Works, the development team responsible for the Guilty Gear and Blazblue series. Both developers and franchises are known for their products to be niche to say the least, between a fighting game with a story mode and a group of cult JRPGs from last generation, not to mention the fact that their titles have some of the most aggressive difficulty curves ever. But subject matter and history aside, does Persona 4 Arena still engage purely on its own merits?
Two months after the events of Persona 4, specifically a string of bizarre murders happening in a small town where the murder weapon was throwing a victim through a television into a different dimension, the team who solved the case: Yu Narukami, Yosuke Hanamura, Chie Satonaka, and Yukiko Amagi, reunite to hang out and reminisce. However, just when things start getting mundane, the Midnight Channel, a local rumored program that appears during rainy nights, flickers on to reveal the group in a fighting tournament lead by their cartoonish bear of a friend, Teddie. Afraid that some new threat has emerged, the group uses their special powers, called Persona, to enter the TV world to investigate. Upon entering, the group is separated and forced to fight one another, not to mention certain representatives of the mysterious Kirijo Group, in the P-1 Grand Prix Tournament with Teddie as the host. Why or by whom was the tournament created? That is the mystery these people must solve, or be forced to kill their friends.
From this rather inclusive set-up and backstory, it becomes obvious that the story can easily pass for a liberal dose of fanservice. Upon further examination, however, the writing manages to hit a beautiful area of accessibility. If you have played the most recent Persona games, you will be able to recall elements such as how the TV world works, the past actions of the associates of the Kirijo Group, or why a certain character acts the way they do. With said knowledge, certain interactions between characters have more context. Alternatively, if you haven’t touched a Persona title, the story basics are still there for those who want to know more but aren’t completely needed to enjoy the experience.
Unfortunately, the Story mode seems a bit too in love with cluing the player into the smaller details of the world to the point of slowing down any momentum the narrative should have. Too often I would be pummeled with lines upon lines of internal monologue and dialogue between characters, some of which carrying on for longer than ten minutes, before finally getting a chance to fight a match. The text never becomes full blown exposition, but the presentation can be too slow for some.
Of course writing and narrative, as much as Arc loves to incorporate them into their games, aren’t the core selling points of a fighting game,gameplay and balance are, and Persona 4 Arena delivers. The game has the usual hallmarks of a good fighting game. There are accessible and responsive controls, special attack bars that fill accordingly based on defensive and offensive actions, effective special attacks to compliment said bars, and a sublevel of counters, breaks, and combos that can only be admired. Another element, which some might recognize from Blazblue, that Persona 4 Arena utilizes is its Awakening and Instant Kill abilities. If a player hits below a certain amount of health, Awakening occurs where the player gets a special attack boost and certain attacks are unlocked, some of which are enough to turn the tide of an entire match. Instant Kills meanwhile seems to compliment Awakening by giving players an opportunity to end a match definitively. If the player is in a position where the next win declares them the winner of the match, the player can, with enough of their bar full, execute an all-powerful One-Hit KO special attack that can either secure a victory or flip the table on the opponent. Just with these elements introduced, with enough skill on both sides, every match is an absolute joy to be had because it is literally anyone’s game regardless of what fighter they picked.
One unique element that helps Persona 4 Arena stand out from other Fighting games is right in the title, the fighters using their Personas. Along with basic weak and strong attack buttons, each fighter also has a weak and strong Persona attack button. Using a Persona attack makes a character summon their Persona, each one as unique as the fighter themselves, and essentially act as a temporary secondary fighter in the ring. Their attacks can be delayed, directed, and even canceled if you’re quick enough with your commands, but more importantly, Personas can be damaged. If the Persona is attacked too much, a Persona Break occurs, where the player in question can’t summon their Persona, and in some cases that means any of their super-attacks and Instant Kills are canceled until the Break wears off. Abuse of such attacks can mean either victory or defeat, and it helps keep every match from breaking down into random button mashing.
As for the roster of fighters to choose from, the list is considerable. In addition to the main cast of Persona 4, characters from Persona 3 show up to make a full roster of thirteen fighters. Each one with various and diverse fighting styles. Yosuke is an acrobatic ninja-like opponent, Chie is a close-range aggressive type, Kanji is a high offense grappler, Naoto is a long-range projectile and trap user, and so on. Each one handles differently enough to not feel like a copy of another character and one isn’t inherently better than another.
Arc’s fighting engine is absolutely gorgeous in Persona 4 Arena. The framerate is crisp, the physics engine is spot on, and the level of detail on the characters’ 2D sprites is an absolute joy to behold. The 3D backgrounds are designed really well but visually don’t detract from the action in the foreground. That distinct art style that Persona is known for is absolutely caked on in Arena as well.
The music in Persona 4 Arena is mostly remixes of various tracks from Personas 3 and 4 with some small character focused tracks from Shoji Meguro’s mix of J-Rock, strings and synthesizers. Voice-acting in P4A is also spot on, with returning talents such as Yuri Lowenthal and Troy Baker reprising their roles. Fans may notice, much to their chagrin or cautious optimism, the changing of voice-actors for the characters of Chie and Teddie. The changes aren’t completely egregious but purists will notice the subtleties. For what it’s worth, everyone still brings their A-game to the experience.
Persona 4 Arena is that weird mix of a video game that is clearly aiming for two demographics but not to an exclusive extreme. If you like Fighting games and need something different from Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter, P4A gives you an interesting, if a bit top heavy, Story Mode, Arcade Mode, Challenge Mode, Score Attack Mode, and a robust Online Versus Mode with a level of polish usually unseen in a genre-crossover. If you’re a fan of the Persona games, the concept of having a favorite character fight and beat up another character might be enough to warrant a purchase, but the quality and attention to detail will make you keep coming back. In the end, the game is a perfect gateway for JRPG and Fighting game enthusiasts to get into one or the other, while also supplying a tight and engaging experience to those who couldn’t care less.
It is easy to write off Persona 4 Arena as appealing to its respective fanbases but the actual game is a well-designed, well-crafted, and just flat out fun experience to be had. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.
AAG Score: 8.5/10
+ Fighting Engine is Top Notch
+ Characters are Balanced and Varied
+ Responsive and Engaging Gameplay Modes
+ Well-Implemented Online Multiplayer
- Story Mode Gets Weighed Down with Text and Dialogue
- Subject Matter May Be Enough to Alienate Some People
Reviewed and Written By Tyler Chancey