A Fantastic Example Of What Fighting Games Should Be
As a kid, I could never really get into fighting games. My slow simian brain could never coil itself around the ideals of quarter circle forewords plus fierce or flash kicks or stun loops; the only reference I could use in order understand such terminology was whatever happened to clumsily be explained in old issues of Gamepro. Now, later, my favorite fighting game, to date, is Guilty Gear XX: Reload. Guilty Gear was the first fighting game I could sit down with and really wrap my head around, actually understanding the bevy of complex mechanics in order to create on the fly strategies for how to end up victorious. For the most part, I’ve been a real fan of most ArcSys games in general, their seemingly having a much stronger emphasis on fairness in combat. The idea that you can pick up any character you want based on any preconceptions you may have and still be able to compete is one of the fundamental elements of fighting games that goes unrealized in this generation of fighting games. Too many games have insanely large rosters where more than 50% of characters simply cannot compete on the more advanced stage. So Persona 4: Arena taking a step back to the days of smaller rosters, balanced characters and flat tier lists is something that sits very well with me.
Now here's the thing, I don't care about Persona 4 that much. Now, I played it, I thought it was a fantastic RPG with a great story and it provided for a lot of interesting commentary which won't be forgotten any time soon, but I don't really care where the source of a fighting game originates. One of my favorite fighting games ever is Naruto: Ulimate Ninja 3, a game based off a series that has lasted too long and has been spinning its wheels for years. I don't necessarily care for BlazBlue due to the feel of the game, even though it shares the pedigree of Guilty Gear, coming from the house of ArcSys. I, personally, always want the mechanics of a game to be sound first and the window dressing to be an important secondary; hell, the My Little Pony fighting game that's in development right now looks pretty good from a technical standpoint. That being said, having just put Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 back on the shelf, I was worried that the popularity of individuals on the roster would drive people up or down on the tier lists (I'm looking squarely at you capcom). After all, the Persona 4 anime just finished in Japan and popularity lists can change the entire focus of decade old plotlines if allowed.
Well thankfully, worrying about such things proved to be a bit of a waste as Persona 4: Arena proves itself to be golden era ArcSys. The game feels a lot like a midrange Guilty Gear XX; the roster is small, it's very balanced and each character is extremely unique, allowing players to find someone that can adhere to their own honed play style. The mechanics even feel similar to Guilty Gear with the burst meter being on full display and Instant Kill “Hail Mary” moves being available to people with full meter (or at least 100 meter). The basic combat is, surprisingly, super inviting to people who don't play fighting games. Every character has an automatic combo that can be executed by mashing the a button, dealing about 15-20% damage. This takes a lot of the stress of having to memorize long complex strings and puts memorization on the backburner while basics like character strength, mobility, range, and durability become stars of the show. This means that it's easier to learn the ins and outs of the roster without being scared off by complexity and allows you to ease into to more complex methods as the auto-combo becomes a liability against better players. Button commands are also super easy, every special move being a quarter circle forward (236), quarter circle backwards (214), or charge move. Personally, I love this because I always have trouble doing complex stuff like two full rotations (720's) or crazy KOF motions like the pretzel (2362142).
But this sort of initial simplicity is mandatory because most people coming to this game won't be fighting game fans. This is, after all, the official sequel to Persona 4, a game held in extremely high regard by the RPG gaming community (especially on giantbomb.com). It's accommodating and inviting, and even if the fighting doesn't tickle your fancy, there's still a great deal of content. The story mode is essentially a full visual novel, covering the timeline of each of the 12 characters available. When I initially went through the first few characters, I put the story mode on automatic and let it scroll across my screen while enjoying a drink and running through a few emails. But in the end, that meant that I was finishing 1 character in around 90 to 150 minutes. You get a full experience and a deep, sometimes too much so, understanding of what the character's motivations are during this crazy event. If you're looking for more Persona 4 before 5 eventually gets announced, you will get your fill and more. However keep in mind, in these story modes, you're only fighting 6, maybe 7 times and each fight is one round. If you're looking for a little more combat, you'll want to cut your teeth on arcade mode, which has quite a bit of story in and of itself, or take it online to fight people around the world.
And friends, the online in this game is superlative. I was pretty scared and vocal when the game shipped for the 360 and had broken online play, but ArcSys and Atlus did a hell of a job making sure that the game was patched within 48 hours, and since then, it has been buttery smooth. I have never played a fighting game online with such fine precision. It makes everything that Capcom has released in the past 10 years look miserable, including the fabled Street Fighter 3:3rd Strike netcode with GGPO. It even takes the absolutely fantastic netcode of Skullgirls to task. ArcSys has set the defacto standard in what it means to play a fighting game online. Even beyond the netcode, the options for open lobbies are staggering, allowing you to control win/lose rotations, skip timers, having spectator mode out of the gate, having the ability to save match recordings, having the option to enter training mode while waiting for opponents, lock out people with bad connections from entering; basically every convenience that you've ever wanted in managing an online lobby is here in full effect and it is glorious. If other fighting games in the future do not have, at the very least, every option found in Persona 4 Arena, they are doing a bad job.
There are a few things I don't like about the game, but they are very minor. The ability to have instant rematches in non-ranked rooms would have been really nice, but then the time it takes to go from the lobby to the game is instantaneous. A proper score attack/survival mode would have been pleasant, and the inclusion of "Mars mode" (which is labeled score attack in P4A) isn't really a good replacement. Mars mode is basically a boss rush of characters on higher than the highest difficulty settings with special properties like super speed or regenerating health. Its fun for players who have been playing for a long time and know their characters in and out, but newcomers cannot even TOUCH this mode, the difficulty is so extreme. And as always, having a button check mode in the character select screen would have solved a world of problems, but that's only relevant for a very specific type of player.
And now that we're in week two, the tier lists are starting to separate a bit and the true colors of characters are beginning to come to light. While it's true that everyone can compete and the game is very well balanced, the name of the method of success is mobility in a big way. Characters like Mitsuru, Aigis or Yu who can move in and out of character's distance ranges whether their combos hit, are blocked, or whiff entirely can rule the battlefield in ways that other characters cannot. The following is all simply opinion, but I think the next balance patch will have to address Mitsuru's physical damage and Aigis' gun firing rate as they seem a little extreme against most of the cast, but only time will tell.
That being said, this game is simply a delight. It's the type of game that doesn't demand perfection from the get go, it eases players into a comfortable position, then steadily coaxes them to learn new skills and abilities in order to increase damage and mobility. It's rare for a fighting game to have such an inviting coating to it, and it's something I hope continues in the genre for the future. It's really hard to say what I would want in a sequel to this game beyond more characters and stages; everything is so pleasant and well expressed as is. But we will see a sequel in the future, and I hope to be just as surprised and charmed by it as I was by Persona 4 Arena.