PERSONA 4: ARENA (2012/13) – ATLUS & ARC SYSTEM WORKS
When the announcement was first made that there was going to be a fighting game based on the universes of Persona 3 and 4, I was eager with anticipation. And then we got news of a delay…no problem, I could wait a bit longer. And then America got it with region locking so no one could import it – and the buzz for the game kind of fizzled out. After almost 9 months since its original release, Persona 4: Arena has finally come out in Europe. Has it been worth the very long wait?
P4: Arena is a collaboration between the architects of the Persona universe (ATLUS) and the people behind the Guilty Gear/BlazBlue fighting series (Arc System Works). Set two months after the conclusion to the events of Persona 4, the mysterious Midnight Channel has returned, advertising a fighting tournament between high school students called the P-1 Grand Prix. Not only that, but Rise and Kanji have gone missing, while Teddie appears to be masquerading as the host of the show. After entering the TV to save their friends, Yu and the rest of the gang are forced to fight each other in the tournament to uncover the mystery behind the Grand Prix. It’s not just the cast of Persona 4 who are letting their fists do the talking however, as Akihiko, Aigis and Mitsuru from Persona 3 have also entered the TV world in chase of an escaped lab experiment.
With ATLUS on board to cover the story side of the game, P4: Arena offers a surprisingly in depth storyline for a fighting game. Each character has a different scenario to play through in Story Mode, and while the basic mechanics might be the same (re-using similar locations, progressing through the tournament in a series of battles), they avoided the temptation of being lazy and having every character endure the exact same story. Each character brings with them a relatively personalised narrative, with a few neat overlaps between events. In particular, the opening to each story before the tournament begins offers some excellent writing (the standout examples being the P3 characters and Naoto’s storyline), and there are clever references and in-jokes to the original games strewn throughout that will make fans happy. An effort has been made to give newcomers as much background information as possible, but the real value of the story will only be felt by long time fans of the series.
Of course, story is only half of the attraction here – the other half is seeing the Persona-wielders kick the tar out of each other. P4: Arena takes the likes of BlazBlue as its template, with animated 2D sprites fighting it out in a mixture of 2.5D landscapes. Controls are split into two types of attacks; physical strikes (press X for a weak attack and A for a stronger but slower attack) and Persona actions (press Y for a quick Persona action or B for a more powerful attack), with a mixture of grabs, sweeps and ‘furious attacks’ (which are powerful but use HP) assigned to two-button combinations. A variety of combos are available for each character by mixing button presses with d-pad movements (quarter circles, charge attacks etc.), with more powerful moves available if a character has the pre-requisite amount of SP, gained by attacking opponents. Taking a certain amount of damage puts characters into an ‘Awakened’ state where they can access even more powerful moves, and finally each character has access to a Instant Kill skill which plays a nice animation before a straight KO.
Anyone who is familiar with arcade brawlers like Street Fighter or indeed BlazBlue will feel right at home with the mechanics in P4: Arena, but efforts have also been made to allow newbies to feel comfortable as well – pressing the X button multiple times for example performs a ‘auto-combo’ move finishing with an SP skill, and there is an easily accessible ‘Lesson Mode’ right off the bat that gets you accustomed to the controls. After a while the inputs for the more powerful moves become second nature, and overall it’s a fluid and very enjoyable fighter with a very good implementation of moves and skills from the original games. Crucially, each character handles differently: Yu is a good all rounder with solid attacks and lighting skills, while Kanji prefers to get in close and beat up people with a chair and Aigis uses her gatling gun and other robotic weapons to keep enemies at distance.
There are several modes to dig into in P4: Arena; the main Story Mode offers the majority of the fun, but some people might find the screens of dialogue monotonous (and to be fair there is a lot of it) and so there is a straight up Arcade Mode for those who just want to get through as many fights as possible. For more experienced fighters, Challenge Mode offers a set of 30 increasingly difficulty combo scenarios for each character which require insane reflexes and lots of patience to master, and for those with truly mad skills there is Score Attack mode, a series of 14 consecutive battles where each character has higher HP, strength, speed and all their buffs from the start…and if you lose, you go right back to the start. Needless to say with my fists made out of ham, I can barely beat the first battle. You can have a scrap with other people locally in Versus mode, or take the fight online – sadly, I haven’t been able to test this mode out due to a lack of Xbox Live. Finally, if you just want to mess around there is a Training Mode for you to hone your skills, and there is a Gallery full of artwork and movies that get unlocked during the Story Mode.
I’m generally a fan of ATLUS’s character designs and artworks, and so I found P4: Arena to be a quite nicely presented game. Initially there can be too much going on when in a fight with battle animations, different gauges and the commentary system getting in the way of each other, but after a few fights you can learn to focus and pick up on the lovely sprite artwork and distinctive menus – in motion it’s not a patch on 3D fighters like Street Fighter IV though. I was also a bit disappointed by the rather basic presentation in Story Mode, which re-uses the images from the games and lip-syncs them to the audio. Fortunately, the voice acting in the game is very good and there is plentiful new material, bringing back the cast from the previous games and anime dubs to offer a sense of familiarity. The music of Shoji Meguro also makes a welcome return, and although some tracks do get overused quite a lot in Story Mode, the original soundtrack for the game is superb.
I do have a few bones to pick with P4: Arena, aside from it being delayed for such a long time. For example, it’s notable that are quite a few spelling mistakes in the walls of text in Story Mode. My other complaints are tied into the thorny issue of difficulty – I’ll happily admit that I’ve never been particularly blessed when it comes to skills with fighting games, but the difficulty curve between starting off and being a master in this game is utterly brutal. After about a week or so I reckon I can hold my own against the computer and I’ve got the hang of button inputs and blocking, but completing the Challenges (which pose combo moves which no-one is realistically going to use when faced against another opponent including stupid air juggles) is rage inducingly difficult, and Score Attack is nothing short of sadistic. I suppose I can let this slide…after all, Challenges are meant to be difficult. Still, I get the annoying feeling that the developers made a game with the express intention that only a handful of people would ever fully complete it, and that niggles at me a bit.
Ultimately, Persona 4: Arena is the product of a happy marriage between ATLUS and Arc System Works – there’s enough here to keep Persona fans happy whilst also accommodating the more hardcore players of BlazBlue, although the eventually level of difficulty and dedication to the source material may throw off some more casual fighting game fans.