I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of adapting RPGs into fighting games. As a kid in the SNES era, when Squaresoft was cranking out masterpieces and Capcom’s 2D fighters reigned supreme, I spent quite a bit of time imagining my favorite Final Fantasy cast members in a more pugilistic form. RPGs by nature leave a lot of the action to your imagination, so the thought of spending more time with characters I loved and seeing them move without the hindrance of menus and numbers certainly was appealing.
Fast forward to 2012 and Persona 4 Arena looks to make that concept happen. Atlus and Arc System Works find themselves attempting to marry the Persona series’ stylish, modern RPG lore with ASW’s gorgeously animated, highly technical fighting systems. Needless to say myself, the rest of the Glorio crew, and the devoted Persona fanbase have been very excited about this game since it’s announcement. But as cool as it sounds on paper, is converting a dialogue heavy, dungeon crawling RPG into a blazing fast fighter really such a good idea? Is it possible to retain the personality and appeal of the Persona games while still making a fighting game worth playing? It’s certainly a tall order, but Persona 4 Arena just may pull it off.
Persona 4 Arena (Xbox 360, PS3)
Developer: Atlus, Arc System Works
Release Date: August 7th, 2012
Story: Chances are if you’ve stumbled onto the Glorio blog you’re at least a little familiar with the Persona series. If not, the games are basically centered around groups of high school students who can summon “Personas” – powerful manifestations of their personality that are born out of inner hardship. In Persona 4, a group of these students formed an investigation team to solve a string of murders in their rural home town. P4A picks up two months after the events of Persona 4. The Investigation Team springs back into action after the mysterious Midnight Channel returns, only to find themselves thrown into a tournament where they’re forced to fight each other.
It’s rare that a fighting game is hyped for its story, but given the game’s pedigree and the fact Atlus has touted P4A as an actual story sequel, this is an exception. To be honest, I was still a bit skeptical. Even playing through the first few routes, I thought it felt like a fun but contrived excuse to get get the crew together and fight each other. My opinion quickly changed though as the story really picks up with the next round of character routes. By the time Labrys’ story rolled around I was nearly moved to MANLY TEARS. Needless to say you will enjoy your time getting re-acquainted with all the familiar faces and your anticipation will no doubt be through the roof for future Persona titles when you’re done. I don’t want to say too much, but I will say it’s very clear Atlus plans on continuing this story with this cast in some way in the future.
That may sound great if you’re already a fan, but what about newcomers to the series? There is some basic exposition in the early goings of each story, but not much more detailed than my summary paragraph above. While you may appreciate Labrys’ story, which was built from the ground up for this game, any other references or nuance with the rest of the cast will be lost. I’m not sure I would want to sit through the hours of reading required to reach the end credits if I had not played both Persona 3 and 4. So if for some reason you haven’t played the previous games (you monster), keep that in mind.
Gameplay: In the grand tradition of ASW’s previous games (Guilty Gear, Blazblue), Persona 4 Arena is a fast, combo heavy, super technical fighter. Rather than a clone or successor to those games though, I’d describe P4A as their strange little cousin. P4A is unique in that you are not only fighting with your selected character, but with their summoned Persona as well. The four button scheme has a light and heavy attack for your fighter and a light and heavy attack for your Persona. It’s not quite as complicated as it sounds as your Persona is only on screen when attacking, but it is a unique twist that takes some getting used to.
P4A is a very technical fighter, and there are plenty of tricks to learn even before touching your character’s command list. There are the usual guard bursts and rapid cancels, but the most unique is the “All Out Attack”. Aside from being a nice little nod to the original game, the All Out Attack is a quick and easy way to either launch your opponent in the air or bounce them off a wall for devastating combos. Once you do get into your character, many have their own specific mechanics with more meters and counters to follow. Fortunately, learning how to use every little technique is not necessary to enjoy the game and there are basic tutorial and challenge modes to help elevate your game above the average button masher.
AND SPEAKING of button mashing, that is actually a viable option in P4A. In an effort to bridge the gap between the nimble fingers of the fighting game crowd and the, uhhh, “less used” reflexes of your average RPG player, ASW has added a few simplifications. By tapping the light attack button repeatedly you get a nifty little auto combo that will even cancel into a super move. The damage is scaled down considerably so it is hard to abuse, but it still helps give novice players a fighting chance.
Special moves in general are also simplified, with nothing more complicated than a quarter circle motion or two to pull them off. Fighting game purists might bristle at those kinds of alterations, and they do make entry level battles seem a bit mind numbing. Rest assured there is plenty of meat to P4A’s fighting system though, and a well practiced veteran will still beat a rookie nine times out of ten. I can’t speak for how it handles at top level play, but I’d say for the average person P4A will satisfy.
Once you’ve got the gameplay down, there are several modes beside the Story to test your skills. There’s arcade mode if you want the condensed version of what’s going on, the challenging Score Attack if you really want to test your mettle, and of course your local and online multiplayer. I played a good portion of both and the game ran beautifully. I only experienced a handful matches that had lag online and in every case it cleared up shortly after the match began. Netcode is often an issue with fighting games, but Atlus/ASW got this one working great.
Presentation: There is not a moment in Persona 4 Arena that does not look and sound gorgeous. Everything from character sprites down to the typography is stunning and the constant loop of old, new and remixed Persona music tracks sets the perfect tone. There may be some people out there turned off by the bright colors and anime aesthetic, but those people probably don’t have souls.
As pretty as the game is, I’m most impressed by how they’ve lovingly re-created the Persona universe in fighting game form. ASW has done a great job interpreting how each character should look and move without the constraints of turn based battles. It’s a thrill to see classic special abilities like Zio, Dia, and even status effects thoughtfully translated to their new format. I thought it was especially cool how each character has their own spin on similar attacks. For example, Akihiko and Elizabeth both have Maziodyne but they are very different and more appropriate for each of their characters.
If there is one presentation area that may be an issue for some, it’s the story mode. It is essentially a visual novel, not a fighting game. It reads like a book with pretty pictures in the background, broken up by an occasional battle or dialogue option. If you are familiar with visual novels (as many Persona players may be) then this may not come as much of a surprise. Even still, there were certain action scenes that seemed very strange to be experiencing simply through words. There was one particular action sequence in Aigis’ route that is described completely in text over a static background. No special CG or even the talking head character portraits, nothing. I am OK with having to read to a certain extent and I understand they can’t animate everything, but it does seem like it’s not taking full advantage of the medium at times.
Overall Value: I do think anyone, even someone not familiar with Persona, could pick up this game and enjoy it. But unless you are familiar with the series or you really want to find out more, you’re not getting your entire monies worth. It’s really best appreciated as a stellar work of fan service. Think about how crazy the concept really is: the whole idea of combining the two casts of Persona 3 and 4 in a fighting game sounds like an off the cuff idea some fan would casually rattle off on a lazy afternoon; a dream game you’d love to see but you never thought would happen.
Thankfully both Atlus and Arc System Works have taken Persona 4 Arena much more seriously than that. They’ve backed up every promise they’ve made, creating a solid fighter that retains the personality of the series and combine it with more of the story we’ve all been clamoring for. Perhaps other games have more to offer for the hardest core fighting fanatics, but none of them can deliver the sheer joy of seeing the best RPG series of the past decade make the glorious leap to a different genre. If you like Persona, there’s no debate here: go buy this game. Even if you don’t, at least give it a look. Maybe now is your opportunity to make the leap into the TV.