Beat-em-up games aren’t generally revered for their in-depth storylines and emotional character development. You could argue that – gameplay aside – this is one of the major ways in which the genre differs from that of the role-playing game. In an RPG, story and character are King. And none more so than the Persona branch of the Shin Megami Tensei series, in which social relationships and friendships actually help strengthen your character for fighting, as well as in terms of story. So it might come as somewhat of a surprise that Persona Publisher Atlus decided to team up with Arc System Works (of BlazBlue and Guilty Gear fame), to develop a fighting game based around the J-RPG series.
Using a series of popular Japanese role-playing games as a launchpad, you would imagine that story plays an important part in Persona 4 Arena, and that couldn’t be more true – the story mode in this game is unlike any other Beat-em-up you are ever likely to have played before. In fact, the story mode is as close to a role-playing game as you could possibly get, complete with different paths for each fighter, a selection of dialogue choices and a heavy amount of text to read through between battles. Some gamers will no doubt be put off by this – especially considering that in a two-hour story mode you are only likely to take art in four or five bouts of actual fighting – the story mode certainly won’t be to the taste of every fighting fan. Add to the fact that you have to complete the story with every character to get the full picture – some characters more than once – and there is probably too much story for some people to get through.
But for those who are big Persona fans, the story will fascinate, and is a direct continuation of the storyline from both Persona 4 and its predecessor Persona 3, featuring many recognisable characters from both games. It is full of emotion and new twists, and the character personalities are well-developed. Written by the regular Persona team, the story is certain to please fans and it all comes across as an authentic Shin Megami Tensei experience. With the emphasis on story over action, playing almost like an interactive novel based in the Persona universe, the fight difficulty is easier too so that those just wanting to experience the story with a minimum amount of fighting will be appeased. The story is also fairly heavily self-referential, so those who have never played a Persona game before may feel a little lost, but then there are different game modes that are more suitable for those looking for a quick fighting fix. The Arcade mode, for instance, still features short story-based cutscenes that tell an abridged version of events, and this will be much more suited to those who have no prior series experience.
The game may be text-heavy when played in story mode, but this is a fighting game, and so no matter how good or emotionally involving the tale is, the game mechanics and experience must also be strong. Thankfully, Persona 4 Arena is a solid fighting game in its own right – which we should have well expected with it coming from such an experienced stable as Arc System Works. As previously mentioned, there are a variety of different modes on offer and these make the game accessible to both newcomers and hardcore fighting fans.
If the Story mode is a slightly simplified and easier ride for beginners, then that is counter-balanced by the Arcade mode, which features tougher, longer battles and a minimal amount of text, whilst still maintaining a light story to follow along with. Then there is the score attack mode, where the difficulty is even higher once again and more seasoned veterans can put themselves up against more challenging opponents in order to set high scores and record their best times. Of course there is also a standard versus mode, which is more likely than not the mode which will hold the longest lasting appeal, as players grab friends or go up against the computer in one-on-one brawls, the bread and butter of fighting games.
The fighting system is both concise and deep – allowing new players to learn and pick up the different inputs – including a simplified air and ground recovery system whereby players can quickly get back to their feet after an attack with only one button press, or the one-button basic combo – which results in an impressive chain of moves whilst not providing the massive damage that more complex combos provide. Arc fighting games have often been incomprehensible to newbies, but these kind of additions help even the inexperienced feel like they can pull off a variety of techniques. There are also a few modes that encourage learning and exploration of the characters. Lesson mode teaches you the very basic inputs, whilst training mode gives you free reign to practice as you wish. But it is probably Challenge mode that provides the best place to learn, wherein the game tasks you with pulling off more and more difficult combos in order to progress to the next challenge. This gives you an objective to achieve, but also helps you learn moves you may never have used otherwise.
But it must be said that Persona 4 Arena also provides a nice learning curve that more seasoned players will enjoy following through to learn the more complex bursts and cancels. A super bar at the bottom of the screen prevents users from spamming the highest power moves, but also allows for super turnarounds mid-fight, where a player can recover from a low health state to win the fight. The addition of Awakening – which occurs when at low health – allows the extension and quicker filling of the super bar, which in turn gives the player an opportunity to pull off some high-powered counters and specials – as well as a super move that can actually kill any character with one hit if you have enough SP and enough time to pull off the long combo.
Then there are the Personas themselves. For those who don’t know, Personas come from the heart of the user – powerful creatures who help fight the Shadows. In the game, these act a little like assists as you might find in other beat-em-ups like the Marvel Vs. Capcom series. The control method in Persona 4 Arena assigns two buttons to attacks from your chosen character, and two to Persona attacks. The knack to the game is timing your Persona attacks wisely and coupling them with your normal attacks to extend and power-up your combos. You can even almost control the Persona separately for some characters, allowing you to attack your foe from both sides at once, for instance. Using your Persona will cost SP, and there is the risk that it can be knocked out temporarily if you time the attacks badly and your enemy gets in a few hits. So careful planning of when to deploy – or not to deploy – the Persona is very important.
The balancing in the game is also tremendous. Unlike a lot of fighting games, the characters actually share many manoeuvres, with many inputs and attacks available to everyone in the game. Whilst each has their own special moves and killer moves, the sweeps, reversals and throws – along with air dashes and double jumps – are all usable right off the bat by anyone, and many of the special moves from character to character share similar inputs. This means that to some extent that Persona 4 Arena isn’t a game where you will need to specialise and learn a massive list of different combos for each character, but you will however need to learn how each one works best and the kind of tactics you can employ with each individual fighter to best suit their speed, agility and power.
The online mode is as solid an offering as we have come to expect from the BlazBlue team. You can join player or ranked matches, and these matches allow for up to eight users in each customised lobby – so that players can spectate on fights and choose who stays on and who rotates into play between bouts. Therefore large groups of friends can all get in on the action together, and recreate the old feeling of banter whilst crowding around an arcade machine. You can choose to save replays after every fight, so you can gloat after your wins or look for your weaknesses after a defeat. The online gameplay is reliable overall and most of the technical issues that the Xbox 360 version suffered from on its North American release have been ironed out – although the game still tends to suffer during the introduction scene for each fight (a common problem with Arc games online). Across all of these different modes there is a lot of content to keep players busy, so you won’t be putting this game down anytime soon.
The graphics speak for themselves as soon as you turn it on – the game looks absolutely stunning across all modes, and the 2D hand-drawn style that the studio is famous for works perfectly for the Persona series. The character sprites are big, bold and beautifully animated, every move in the game is highly-detailed and even the expressions on the faces of the fighters are constantly changing. Arc System Works have perfected this Anime Beat-em-up style across their games catalogue and this shows with Arena performing brilliantly throughout, and never suffering even when there is loads of high-speed action happening on-screen. The art style is further complimented by the incredibly detailed backgrounds, that will be mostly recognisable to Persona fans from the recent games. This is all coupled with the bright presentation and TV show stylings (which tie in with the themes of the story nicely), and the high-quality Anime cutscenes that punctuate the most important moments of the story.
The sound too is top-notch, with the rock music that has come to be a trademark of Arc System Works games melding nicely with many themes and elements taken from the Persona 3 and 4 original soundtracks. Longtime fans will be happy to hear many of the most popular tunes make a return, as well as all of the original cast members lending their voice talents to the title. Gamers are given the option of Japanese or English voices too, so this should keep all fans happy, regardless of their preference.
VERDICT: Although Persona 4 Arena may initially seem a little inaccessible to those who haven’t played any of the Persona titles in the past, the variety of game modes and their different approaches to the canonical story help ease in the uninitiated. In terms of gameplay, whereas Guilty Gear or BlazBlue fans will feel at home straight away, upon playing the tutorial or other teaching modes, gamers with no previous experience playing Arc titles will soon pick things up. This is only aided further by the few additions that make the fighting system a little more accessible than it has been in the past. Regardless of your playing background, gamers will find themselves hard-pressed not to be taken in by the stunning visuals, interesting characters and impressive special moves. Arena is a joy to play or watch, and the only real shame is that it has been delayed for so long in Europe – which will inevitably limit its potential sales figures. Persona 4 Arena deserves to be played, discussed and shared with friends, more so than any other fighting game in recent memory.
BRILLIANT. This is the mark of greatness, only awarded to games that engage us from start to finish. Titles that score 9/10 will have very few problems or negative issues, and will deliver high quality and value for money across all aspects of their design.