While most fighting games only have to reach out to those who already enjoy the genre on either a competitive or casual level, Persona 4 Arena must also please fans of the franchise. That’s a tall order considering Persona is mostly known for its role playing games, anime, and manga. Thankfully, Atlus and Arc System Works were able to focus on their strengths and make a game that is sure to please both groups.
P4A’s greatest strength is easily its roster. While there are only about a dozen characters, most of them pulled from previous Persona stories, they offer a lot of variety between them. They can easily be sorted into archetypes like grappler, keep-away, rushdown, and so on, but all of them have something unique and fun. For some it’s the titular Persona, a fantastic creature they summon that either enhances an existing strategy or covers for a major weakness. Others take that even further and have special systems in addition to their Persona, such as Yukiko’s ‘fire boost’ that gradually improves her fire attacks or Labrys’ ‘axe levels’ that make her hit harder and are a direct reward for aggressive play. This mix of familiar and more creative elements helps make the game relatively easy to learn, without making the characters copies of what we’ve seen before.
While the 2D, four-button, 1-on-1 design is meant to be accessible, it still offers complexity since players have several options for movement and attack. Air dashing, double jumps, hops, evasive maneuvers, and more are available to get your character where they need to be. On offense, players can do things like turning around mid-jump to do a cross-up attack, try the risky All-Out Attack (a ‘mash combo’ that offers big rewards if done properly), or take advantage of some generous cancel mechanics. While you’re given the tools to do big damage, your opponent’s health isn’t the only thing you can attack. Some characters can inflict RPG style status ailments, and it’s possible to hit their Persona. Do so enough times and the opponent will temporarily suffer ‘Persona break’, a situation where they can’t use any attacks that call the Persona. Thus, smart players will know when to safely call their Persona and bait the enemy into misusing their own. Perhaps more controversial is the inclusion of ‘automatic combos’, done by pressing A repeatedly. While these are an obvious nod to less experienced players, they have some strategic depth. Most auto combos aren’t optimized for damage or positioning, but they build notably more meter than a normal combo, so there may be times where even someone with good execution will want to use one.
Defense is still important, and every character has some way to keep themselves safe. There are obvious choices such as blocking, teching out of throws, and back dashing, but other methods exist. Most characters can press B + D to spend a little health and do an invincible attack, though some perform a counter instead. You can also Burst out of the opponent’s combo, though the Burst meter refills very slowly afterward so it isn’t a substitute for good blocking. It’s important to note that air blocking and back dashing aren’t available in certain situations, ones meant to discourage obvious ‘chicken blocking’ and avoiding wakeup interactions with your opponent. Combined with a Negative Penalty system where you take extra damage for running away too much, P4A definitely wants you in the thick of the action.
Netplay also needs to be discussed, as there are currently some issues depending on which console you play on. Early reports spoke very well of the PS3 version, yet mentioned serious flaws on the Xbox 360. Atlus has confirmed the problem and already sent a patch for testing, but it was not available at press time. There was a patch released on or around August 6, but it didn’t address netcode issues. PS3 users should talk with your peers, and make sure it’s still holding up well in post-release conditions. As for Xbox players, the smart choice is to wait for that patch and confirm it fixes online play before spending your money. 360 players with a strong local community might pick it up anyway, but that’s a decision you’ll have to weigh for yourself.
Basic tutorials are joined by a good training mode. It offers most of the expected features such as adjusting health and meter totals, along with toggling counter hits, Negative Penalty, and even selecting ailments. The training dummy can also accept recorded input, and even has multiple recording slots. Even more interesting is the option to set it to always, never, or randomly obey certain rules; this can be used to change its use of engine features such as air or ground recovery. Another menu lets you adjust character-specific meters, so it’s possible to set up most situations you would want to test. There may be a few omissions, but overall the training mode is useful for learning more about your character.
While the competitive play is excellent, fans of the Persona franchise also get to enjoy a full story mode. Once you select a character, their plot is told through voice, text, and art segments between fights in a method very similar to BlazBlue. Each character gets their own chapter, and they’re of decent length. It’s true that a good fighting game doesn’t need much of a story, but in this case it’s included on top of a solid versus experience. Skilled players shouldn’t have much problem clearing it, and inexperienced ones can get through a good portion of it with by blocking well and using the aforementioned auto combos. For those of you who don’t want to bother with the story and associated art gallery, don’t worry! All versus content is unlocked from the start, so this is a new Persona tale only for those who want it.
The concerns of tournament players were noticed as well, and there are details you’ll appreciate. These range from things like being able to save replays of online games, to more subtle touches like the button configuration. Not only can you remap your controls at the select screen, but it lets you simply push each button to set it to a specific action rather than having to scroll through one option at a time. You will have to press up or down to move through each button, but it’s still very quick and easy to do. It’s true that these are minor touches, but they are very nice to have.
Overall, Persona 4 Arena manages a tough balancing act. It offers a compelling fighting game, one with smart design and a good roster that will entertain even those with no interest in the Persona franchise. Yet those less devoted to the genre aren’t neglected either, as an extensive story mode and simplified controls should please them. That makes P4A a strong choice for either crowd, and even better for those who expect to enjoy both aspects of it!