Persona 4 Arena is a collaboration between RPG specialists Atlus and the creators of the BlazBlue fighting series Arc System Works. Interestingly, the result is a game that offers a variety of modes catering towards fans of 2D arcade fighters along with a lengthy story mode that’s essentially a visual novel with a few fights thrown in for good measure.
Persona fans will undoubtedly enjoy seeing characters from Persona 3 and 4 come together for the first time, but if you’re new to the series then you may have a hard time relating to the complex universe and thematic elements of Atlus’ supernatural franchise.
Persona 4 Arena takes place two months after the conclusion of Persona 4 and three years after Persona 3’s ending. Persona 4’s protagonist, Yu Narukami, returns to the rural town of Inaba to visit his friends while some characters from Persona 3 are simultaneously trying to track down a humanoid robot called Labrys, who was recently stolen. One thing leads to another and they all find themselves inside the ‘TV World’ where much of Persona 4 took place.
Two individuals resembling Teddie and Rise from Persona 4 are holding a fighting tournament called the ‘P1 Grand Prix,’ and throughout the story mode they find ways to manipulate the participants into squaring off against one another despite their initial protestations. The game’s narrative is told from multiple perspectives depending on which character you play as, and is decidedly linear compared to the dialogue choices and occasionally branching narrative of Persona 3 and 4.
Arcade mode features a very condensed form of Persona 4 Arena’s plot and all of the narrative elements are displayed before the start of certain matches as you fight nine opponents on your way to winning the P1 Grand Prix. Persona 4 Arena’s story mode, on the other hand, is essentially a visual novel where you get to partake in a single fight every twenty minutes or so in-between listening to dialogue or reading text. While this may sound like a recipe for boredom, the beautifully drawn backgrounds and character portraits that accompany all of the listening and reading, as well as the entertaining dialogue itself, is sure to be of interest to Persona fans who already view these characters as old friends.
One of the great features of the game is that you can choose between Japanese and English voice-overs for every spoken line in Persona 4 Arena, meaning that you’ll have the opportunity to be exposed to the Japanese voice actors for Persona 3 and 4 for the first time if you’ve only ever played the English versions of these games.
Atlus has claimed that Persona 4 Arena’s story mode offers over thirty hours of gameplay, and a handy percentage completion icon informs you of your progress every time you enter story mode and there are multiple chances to save during each character’s story arc if you don’t have the time to complete it all in one go. One major gripe I have with the game’s story mode is that there are no dialogue choices outside of Yu Narukami’s chapter so the experience feels very linear.
The backgrounds during the visual novel portion of this mode are also completely static and are repeated ad nauseam once you’re inside the TV World. In fact, my favourite part of this mode is the opening portion of each character’s chapter where you’re occasionally treated to high definition drawings of some of the locations from Persona 4 such as the living room area of Yu’s uncle’s house.
Aside from arcade and story mode, Persona 4 Arena offers a number of modes that are purely about honing your fighting skills or beating your opponents to a pulp. Lesson mode introduces you to the basics of the game’s fighting system while challenge mode lets you practice each character’s combos. You can also compete online (without the need for an online pass) or tune into other people’s matches if you just feel like being a spectator. Online matches seem laggy at first but thankfully once the fight has started latency improves dramatically.
Persona 4 Arena’s fighting system isn’t the most complex or technical in the genre but is nevertheless rewarding and fast-paced, and looks fantastic thanks to flashy effects, a smooth frame rate and sprite-based characters featuring fully animated clothes and hair. Fights take place on a 2D plane although you can dodge opponents by ‘flying’ through them after performing a certain move. Two of the controller’s face buttons perform character-based attacks while the remaining two perform Persona-based attacks (each character has their own unique Persona which is explained in the series as a manifestation of a person’s strength of heart).
This setup works well and more powerful attacks and throws can be performed by pressing two face buttons at once. There’s also a super meter to take into account that allows you to add some devastating blows to the end of a combo, but only when there are two or more bars of this meter available. Disappointingly, although each character and their corresponding Persona has a unique range of melee and projectile attacks, there are only about ten stages in the game and none of these feature interactive elements such as breakable walls.
It’s difficult to know how players who don’t know anything about the Persona series will respond to Persona 4 Arena, but as a fan of the franchise the game’s extensive story mode is a welcome opportunity to return to Inaba and meet up with familiar characters who are as interesting and entertaining as ever.
The game stays very true to the themes and atmosphere of the Persona series although it’s somewhat disappointing that more player interactivity wasn’t pursued. Persona 4 Arena is a unique mash-up of the fighting and visual novel genres that transports you to the arcades and homes of Japan in a way that few games do.
(Persona 4 Arena was reviewed on PlayStation 3)