Do Not Adjust Your Set: Persona 4 Arena is Mostly Great
As a fan of the Persona series, I love the art design, sound work, and the general gameplay conceit of evoking demons in a dungeon. As a fan of the Street Fighter games, I like the competitive "Get Hype" adrenaline rush that comes with matching up against other fighters, combo systems that aren't too confusing and provide unique moves, and the (admittedly) strange conceit of telling the story of the same fighting tournament that's been happening for years. Two great flavors that could taste great together, right?
Persona 4 Arena is a good blend of these concepts, a 2D-fighting game done with a BlazBlue combat style. On the surface, that should be complicated and a stopping point for some fighting game fans, since Arc System Works games come with convoluted characters, layers of systems that aren't friendly to newcomers, and a devotion to the competitive scene that shuns all but the best players. P4A avoids this by having only four attack buttons (even some Street Fighter games use six or more), characters that fans of Persona 4 are already familiar with (and even if you're not familiar with them, their personalities in this title are surprisingly fleshed out), and a combo system that comes with depth (if you want it) but also features simple dial-a-combo move sets.
The story and arcade modes both follow the same plot, with the characters of Persona 4 and some guests from Persona 3 falling into the TV world once more in a fighting tournament at Yasogami High School. Both have extremely long dialogue scenes between battles and in story mode, even branching story decisions. This is a weird thing for a fighting game to have and while the "canon" of different characters always ends up in the same place, it is extremely satisfying to see the scenario play out from different perspectives. As an added bonus, for someone who tends to be turned off by games with Anime art styles because of their "straight out of Japan" plot hole weirdness, P4A does not dilute the source material and makes the problems of high school teenagers relatable without being overly dramatic. Be warned though: the pacing of about 15 minutes of written dialogue between fights can make the game same like a manga. The AI puts up a decent fight, but the battles pass by so quickly that, if this were just text, it wouldn't put much of a dent in your enjoyment of game.
The highly recommended tutorial is great and works well at teaching combos and mechanics. There is also a challenge mode and training modes, both which offer ways to improve your play. However, if you're familiar with how the Challenge Modes in recent Capcom games go, most players will give up about halfway through each character because "Stand A (mid-air)-->Crouch B-->Crouch B--->C+D-->Quarter-Circle Back x 2+C" is not something everyone can pull off. Kudos to you if you can.
Versus mode and Online both work great, though there is still some lag input delay online even after the patch for this version of this game was released. Your mileage may vary on playing with a fight pad or a controller, but both work fine and seemingly there are players succeeding with both. In fact, the ranking system per character and per player works so well that you'll always be in a fair matchup (though my low win percentage might say otherwise). If you absolutely hate the idea of Ranked Matches however, the lobbies of Player Match work well and watching other people in the room works much better than in say, the last Mortal Kombat game. There's also a silly word system that lets you tell people how seriously to take titles in fighting games: I'm "Knuckle Punishment Pudding".
The characters fulfill mostly stereotypical fighting game tropes of the all-arounder, the grappler, the turtler, etc., but throwing Personas that compliment these play styles really adds something special to the mix. I play mainly as Yu (Charlie, if you will), which is similar to playing as Ryu, and Labrys, the slow, but heavy damage-dealing character. There's enough variety to keep you guessing against opponents, though I've noticed most people online stick to a few characters and characters like Aigis and Teddie don't see a lot of action. Oh well....
The best part of the whole package is the music, which is a rearranging of songs from Persona 3 and 4 and fits in well with the fights. I can't get BABY BABY BABY BABY YEAH out of my head!
This is an extremely appealing and beginner-friendly fighting game, with a great background and style set in the Persona universe, and one that I will be sticking with longer than I spend time with most fighting games, even though I'm getting my butt kicked online. It speaks to the work Atlus and Arc Systems put in to make a series vested in Japanese RPG ideas work in a compelling anime fighting game. I'd easily recommend it to anyone with inclinations towards any of these things in video games and it may even get me interested in BlazBlue-type games in the future....or maybe I'll just stick to P4A.