Persona 4 Arena has taken a long journey to reach European shores. Initially expected at the start of the year it was then delayed indefinitely. Now we are finally getting the chance to see the characters of Persona 4 in a new environment, but can it hope to live up to the precedent set by its RPG forebear?
This is certainly one of the more unique collaborations to have happened. The game basically takes the story elements from the Persona team and adds in a fighting game developed by the makers of Blazblu. The music, art style and voice acting will be familiar to Persona fans and it certainly sets the scene very well.
The story is set a few months after the events of Persona 4 (and several years after Persona 3), and has our hero returning to Inaba to visit his friends. Upon arrival it soon transpires that something isn’t right, a feeling that’s confirmed when the midnight channel bursts into life once more to show all the main protagonists as targets for a strange new tournament.
From then on our team decide to dive into the world inside the television once more and soon become locked into a battle against each other. It’s fair to say that as plots go it’s completely crazy. It makes the plot of the original Persona 4 look positively normal and realistic in comparison. But it’s best not to think too much about it and just go along for the ride.
Along with the main playable cast from Persona 4 there are also a couple of the investigation team from Persona 3 and some new ones thrown in for good measure. The thematic choices in storyline and design of the boss character may ring a few bells with Blazblu fans and it has Arc Systems personality stamped all over it. That isn’t to say characters from Blazblu are copied over to here – far from it in fact, but there are certain times you can see the core of a Taokaka or Nu 13 spread across a couple of the characters move sets.
A fighting game lives and dies on its combat system and Persona 4 Arena has one unlike any we have come across before. Arc Systems have not created a Persona 4 version of Blazblu and have instead tried to produce something that fits the characters and game world more completely.
Along with the usual super and special moves there are a fair few unique things to look out for. Attacks are designed around the four face buttons with the square and X buttons making your character perform light and heavy attacks. The interesting part of the system comes with the triangle and circle buttons. These are used to summon your persona to attack. If carried out carefully and precisely it’s possible for both your character and their persona to hit at the same time. This opens up the possibilities for big combos if executed successfully.
It’s also possible to disable an opponent persona by striking them. Do this enough and they will need to recharge before being used again. This gives a major advantage to the attacking player as it effectively cuts your opponents move list in half.
The combat system is deep and will take a very long time to master. It is also not really comparable to other fighting game systems which means for hard core fight fans you are going to need to re-wire your brain to think in a new way in order to get the correct flow and timing. Luckily there is an extensive tutorial and challenge mode available to get you used to the new characters and the way the game works.
Hitting the square button continuously while your special bar is filled carries out an auto combo that leads into a super move. This may well be aimed at getting more casual players involved but it doesn’t really serve much of a purpose and can certainly end up being overused.
Something else that may need levelling out in an update is the ‘awakened’ mode that characters drop into when they fall below a certain amount of health. In our experience, both against the computer and other humans, this proved to be far too powerful. Opponents who simply weren’t in the contest suddenly managed to destroy our health bars, sometimes within seconds of awakening. We are all for leveling things up but we hate to think how this could be used by someone who had put hours into training.
The other thing that seemed to be slightly off was the games focus on trapping characters against walls. Again, whether playing against the computer or a human it seemed far too easy to be forced against the edge of the screen and simply be spammed over and over by the same cheap move (even the computer does this). The ability to attack as two separate characters often seemed to leave no way out.
We’re sure with training all these points can be counteracted but new comers to the genre may well be put off by the high entry level required to progress. That said, is Persona 4 Arena really the type of game that anyone other than a hard-core fan might buy? You could argue it isn’t. But then we can envisage a fair few RPG fans picking it up, maybe not that familiar with other fighting games, and being roundly ground into the dirt by it.
This frustration is also compounded by the fact the standard PS3 pad doesn’t seem to be up to the input requirement needed. An arcade stick works fine but this is certainly the most precise input we have come across in any console fighting game. When a Street Fighter veteran can’t pull off a double fireball input every time you know something is a little off. Again, this may well be worked out in a patch but for now perfect precision is key.
Negatives aside, there is much to like about this. The story mode in particular captures much the same feeling as that of the original Persona 4. The story itself is interesting and told in a dedicated story mode where players will take control of each of the characters as the mystery unfolds.
There has also clearly been a lot of care and attention into making this game feel a part of the Persona universe. All of the characters remain true to types and act in the way fans will expect. The presentation and art style is also of the highest of standards and ticks the boxes for both bringing up nostalgic memories of the original source material and excitement about seeing it used in a new way.
The game does throw up some truly spectacular battles as well. When you find a character you’re comfortable with and get to grips with the game system it really does open up into a veritable wealth of different attacking options. It certainly isn’t lacking in flashy special moves either and at times things can become a blur of sparks and colour as characters and personas smash around on screen.
This game will find fans with both Persona 4 players and gamers who spend their days mastering combos in Street Fighter, Blazblu and King of the Fighters. The fight engine is solid and the game is filled with charm. Be prepared to have to put the hours in though, this is a game that needs to be mastered in order to get the most out of it.