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Persona 4 Arena Review

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Whether you're interested in the Arc school of fighting game design or reading a Persona 4 visual novel set two months after the events of the real game, Persona 4 Arena has you covered.

A showdown in the music room.

People typically don't come to fighting games for the story. But then most fighting games aren't based on long-running role-playing franchises, either. Persona 4 Arena marries a competent fighting system from the folks at Arc System Works with the characters and storytelling prowess of Atlus' Persona franchise. It's a weird mixing of genres that might leave diehard fans on either side of the genre line wondering if they'd even be capable of fully enjoying the game. But it ends up working out reasonably well. If you don't care about the Persona universe, you get a fast-paced 2D fighter that feels like a slightly more accessible release than most of what Arc is known for these days. And if you care about the characters and happenings of Persona 4 (and, to some extent, Persona 3), you'll get to spend a bit more time with those characters and as you check back in and see what they've been up to now that the Inaba murder case has come to a close.

The story is set two months after the events of Persona 4, and the main character, now officially referred to as Yu Narukami, is heading back to town during the Golden Week holiday to visit the rest of the Investigation Team. That night, the Midnight Channel goes back on the air with an ad for a fighting tournament featuring the core players from Persona 4. Between that suspicious occurrence and the disappearance of a few of their members, the high-school students plunge back into the TV world to figure out what's going on. Inside they find a fighting tournament and a handful of strangers--key characters from Persona 3 and Labrys, an all-new character designed specifically for the game. As you might expect, much of the story is concerned with Labrys, who has direct connections to Aigis and other P3 characters. You'll also see her forge bonds with members of the P4 crew along the way. In short, it's a nifty bit of fan service that lets you check in on a few Persona 3 characters, who have grown up a bit, and the Persona 4 characters, who haven't really changed a whole lot, but again, only two months have passed since we last saw them in action.

You can opt to put the whole game in Japanese, if that's your thing.

The story mode has you select one character at a time, and you'll see the events unfold from that character's perspective. You'll rarely fight in the story mode, and the battles you do encounter there are one-round affairs that feel like they're set on an easier difficulty setting than the rest of the game, almost as if the developers expected that people who might not play a lot of fighting games would be spending most of their time there. Outside of these sparse fights, Persona 4 Arena's story mode is a straight-up visual novel. Page after page of unvoiced text comes your way, usually in the form of your character's inner monologue. When you encounter another character, some spoken lines of dialogue show up, but even then your character is spewing out tons of lines in his or her head.

If you honestly care about the universe and its characters, you'll probably take what you can get in whatever format you can get your hands on, but at times this story feels like it'd be better suited for a short manga series than a video game. You'll occasionally get an opportunity to choose one of two responses, leading to some very light branching, and you'll have to play up to a moment just before the story's climax with a number of characters before unlocking the characters that will tell you the whole tale. You'll also see the same three or four cutscenes more than a couple of times as you play through with multiple characters. It could be better... but as someone who was already hooked on the idea of hearing more about the Persona 4 cast I quickly became enthralled with learning more about how the Persona 3 fighters fit into all this. Either way, the story leaves things in an especially interesting spot that could make for some cool Persona sequels down the line. But maybe you don't care about any of this.

Outside of that story mode, Persona 4 Arena behaves like a "normal" fighting game. It has a lesson mode that teaches you the basics of P4A's various systems and mechanics. A challenge mode gives you combos for each character and, unlike a lot of other fighting games with similar modes, it'll demonstrate the combos to you in order to help you learn the appropriate timing. It also has an arcade mode, which boils the story down to its bare minimum, a versus mode, training, a gallery to hear all the voicework and view unlocked story art, and so on. It also has online play with the requisite lobby battle option that lets up to eight players congregate and fight. There's also a neat title system that lets you piece together unlocked words into your own silly, descriptive phrase. I went with "Forbidden Honey-Roasted Romance."

Unit #031 and Unit #024 share a quiet moment.

P4A is a four-button game with special moves that are mostly easy to execute, even on a standard gamepad. It's heavily reliant on quarter-circle motions with only a few exceptions, and those are usually easy charge moves. There's even an auto-combo that comes out if you keep mashing the weak attack button, giving beginners some guaranteed damage if they can land it and giving more advanced players something to burst out of or avoid entirely. Though it's not quite as esoteric as some of Arc's other work, it's certainly more than just comboing crouching medium kicks into fireballs all day long. You can double jump, air dash, initiate mid-air turnarounds, and two of the attack buttons call out your character's Persona--just pretend I said "stand" or "weird spirit ghost" if you're not sure what that is.

The Persona comes out for some specials (Yukiko calls her Persona out to cast fire spells in your direction, Yosuke calls upon his for wind attacks, and so on) and can be batted away with normal attacks, which can lead to a "Persona break." It should suffice to say that it's more complicated and systems-heavy than the typical fighting game, but if you've gotten at all familiar with previous Arc games, you'll probably find it all to be at least somewhat self-explanatory. As a fighting game fan that tends to dodge games with a ton of various systems and mechanics, Persona 4 Arena is the most appealing and accessible game Arc has made in years--but then I can always fall back on the part of me that is still borderline obsessed with Persona 4 for comfort. Even after playing the heck out P4A and attempting to learn all the different systems I'm still finding myself getting absolutely eaten alive when playing online.

The netcode in P4A seems fine on the PlayStation 3 and decidedly less fine on the Xbox 360. You may have seen this coming, as reports from Japan indicated that this was already a problem over there, but on the 360, this appears to manifest itself as a consistently awful second round. After one round of proper, decent-feeling fighting, round two seems to run at two-thirds of the normal speed for a bit before snapping back into action and finishing clean. Atlus claims a patch is on the way, but if you're making a choice right now, choose PS3. The PS3 version also has an optional install to help you speed up load times.

So if it wasn't for the Persona hook, I doubt I'd stick with P4A... but it's a hell of a hook. Getting the opportunity to check in with these characters is a real treat, even if it comes as a wall of text. It's full of recognizable locations and familiar music from the Persona franchise, as well, which helps tie all the fan service together into a great little package. Alternately, if you're a fan of Arc's previous work, you'll probably have an enjoyable time with the fighting. But you should realize that these are pretty specific groups and this is a pretty specific recommendation. If you don't fall into one of those groups, you'll probably just find the whole thing confusing.

Jeff Gerstmann on Google+
139 Comments
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Posted by Mijati

Just need to wait for European release now...

Posted by Video_Game_King

Wait, it got a review now? That was quick, but more importantly, surprising. I just came to check if Rise's a playable character, and I saw the review. (Don't tell me if she is. Clearly, I can find that out quickly from here.)

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Posted by Drayco90

Still considering getting this, glad to see Jeff liked it.

Posted by AlphaDormante

See guys? He likes it. We can all take a breath of relief now.

Posted by Milkman

I am not into Arc System fighters but I GUESS I'll give this a shot.

Posted by Simulacrum

I was totally expecting a three star review.

Posted by leinad44

Damn, waiting in the UK to play this game now :(

Posted by MattyFTM

@AlphaDormante said:

See guys? He likes it. We can all take a breath of relief now.

It got 4 stars. Jeff obviously thinks it's the worst game ever made.

Someone is going to come to that conclusion sooner or later.

Moderator
Posted by ghostNPC

Great review Jeff.

Posted by nickux

ONLY 4 stars?! Get bent!*

*joke comment

Edited by JJOR64

SSF4 > Persona 4 Arena. You heard it here first.

In all seriousness, the game does seem neat. I'm not the biggest Arc System Works fan, but maybe I will enjoy this more the BlazBlu because it seems a lot easier to play then BB. Sad the story mode is just a bunch of text. BB was like that and it was mad boring. I mainly just skipped all the text and went straight to the fights. Also, I hope the online for the 360 is fixed.

Posted by MrGtD

@Video_Game_King: Rise's the announcer, she's not a fighter.

Posted by csl316

Pleasantly surprised with the rating. It looked neat, but not what I expected based off Jeff's Blazblue review. Though the Persona thing is the only reason I wanna play it.

Posted by TheYear20XX

Aha! Is this our chance (for more Persona 4)?

Posted by Saijobob

Also waiting for the European release - and still hoping for confirmation of Persona 4 Golden coming our way!

Posted by Atom

The story mode seemed dull (and kinda pointless to me, personally) , but this and the QL make it seem good enough for my casual fighting game requirements. Buying it next week

Posted by Goldanas

So I don't really like Arc fighting games, mostly for the character design and all-around aesthetics, but the mechincs seemed sound enough. I also don't care for their animations. Their art is fine, but their animations are chunky and stilted. SNK is much better with their animations and overall spritework and character design and I love their mechanics (a sort of half-way point between Capcom fighters and Arc fighters).

I feel like you and I are in the same camp in regards to how we feel about Arc fighters,

Posted by RetroVirus

Good thing I fall into one of those specifc groups. Nice review.

Posted by Larsa

Sweet, was expecting 3 stars.

Posted by Lunar_Aura

Wow. I was also expecting 3 stars. Guess I'll buy this way sooner than later.

Posted by vorpalparasite

Nice review Jeff!

Posted by Rmack

I'm glad Jeff gave an Arc fighter a shot. Guilty Gear X2 is one of my favorite fighting games ever, and I think that game and BlazBlue's very similar story modes paved the way for stuff like MK9.

Posted by punkxblaze

So what you're saying is it's about an 8.8.

Posted by metalsnakezero

Good to see that Jeff likes it. 4 Stars is a high score coming from someone who not into Arc games.

Posted by MeatSim

Never really played fighting games before but damn it I am sucker for just about anything Persona 4 related.

Posted by l4wd0g

Thanks for the review. Charlie > Yu

Posted by Slayer78

I am terrible and beyond when speaking fighting games, though I drive like a demon, so I'm not going to buy this one. But, since I like other Atlus games, I sincerely hope this title do well. Fine review, of course, of course since there aren't many better around than Giant Bomb when it comes to all things related to gaming. None, I'd say, but Eurogamer and Joystiq is OK too. Now, please allow me to shut the hell up.

Posted by wumbo3000

OH GOD I NEED THIS

Posted by crusader8463

Kind of torn on this game. I want to see more P4 story, but I hate fighting games and know that the game part of this game will get in the way of me enjoying it. I would normally say that I will just pick this up on the cheap, but sadly Atlus games seem to have a long shelf life of staying over priced. Oh well. Guess I will just have to use the magic of the interwebs and hope someone posts a LP of it of youtube or something.

Edited by Xymox

4 stars from someone who could never get into blazblu etc seems pretty good to me. Huh, interesting. So Labrys was a unique character for P4A? I thought she must've been from P2 or P1, which is the only one's I hadn't played yet. " Outside of these sparse fights, Persona 4 Arena's story mode is a straight-up visual novel. Page after page of unvoiced text comes your way," -- so it's basically multi-hour long social link sequences, which was probably my favorite part of P4. That sounds great, and I think making the storyline fights a bit easier was a smart move. "Forbidden Honey-Roasted Romance." made me chuckle, that's a great title. I fall within the obsessed with P4 group, so it looks like a purchase. Hopefully the 360 problems are sorted before the euro release, will have to keep an eye out for that.

Posted by Th3_James

I'll give it a try.

Posted by jimmyfenix

charlie will never die :(

Posted by SpunkyHePanda

Neat. I really struggle with fighting games, but Persona 4 is the best. I'll probably pick it up at around the $30-40 range.

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Posted by Veektarius

I would play a game that was like Persona 4 except replacing the dungeons with a fighting game. This doesn't sound like it's quite there, so I'll pass. Maybe the next one. The idea of getting away from the totally ghetto Persona dungeons is astep in the right direction.

Posted by Parsnip

I'd love a PC version, but that's never going to happen.

Posted by Brendan

This was a good review. I feel like Jeff explained his position well enough that anyone can figure out what about, and how much they will like this game based around Jeff's opinion.

Posted by Peanut

The second I hit my first Galactic Punt I was sold. I'm in absolute fucking LOVE!

Posted by VisariLoyalist

I would play this but it's a fighting game and I have never yet been able to get into a fighting game. I think when fighting game veterans call fighting games accessible they've just lost perspective on the market nowadays. Even the easiest fighting game is pretty inaccessible and frustrating for completely new players.

Posted by Little_Socrates

Obsessed with P4, but poor at the moment. We shall see in the upcoming weeks, though I'll probably get to try it at a friend's in the next couple days.

Posted by Skanker

Clearly, the GB crew are all 360 fanboys.

Posted by damswedon

@Rmack: I haven't played the Guilty Gear games but Mortal Kombat has been playing with story modes since Deception back in 04. Ed Boon and those guys have been banging away at that for a long time.

Posted by Chibithor
A challenge mode gives you combos for each character and, unlike a lot of other fighting games with similar modes, it'll demonstrate the combos to you in order to help you learn the appropriate timing.

Wow, I knew ArcSys games had pretty good training modes but this is something I've wished existed in SFIV's trials countless times. As a fan of Persona who's recently been looking to get into an ArcSys game it's pretty much perfect for me...apart from the region lock.

Posted by Godlyawesomeguy

@punkxblaze said:

So what you're saying is it's about an 8.8.

That's what I'm picking up from this review as well.

Posted by _Dust_

thanks for the awesome read, Jeff!

I'm currently getting sucked deep into Persona 4 and the Endurance Run and cannot wait for this to hit the EU.

Edited by mutha3

 Huh. I'm surprised Jeff dug the story. I liked the character stuff in it, but I felt the things they were setting up were decidedly not interesting.
 

 The localization wasn't up to par with Atlus USA's usual output either and I did not care for the way the story was structured. It almost feels like you need to approach the story with a guide in order to not get sick of seeing the same times over and over again.

Also, there's actually some gag endings, but I don't think Jeff found any of them going by the review. Kanji's in particular is pretty damn funny.
Posted by BigChief

Should be delivered tomorrow, super excited. I'm actually surprised, I wasn't expecting Jeff to be a fan of either the Arc System Works mechanics or the visual novel storytelling.

Posted by rjayb89

You love Chie. Conflict of interest. And I'm talking about that other, very inappropriate love.

Edited by Brackynews

The persona still burns. A tale of Soujis and Tunokus, eternally retold.

*puts $20 on the table for Kanji/Voldo fanart*

Edited by Winsord

I enjoyed Guilty Gear X2, but haven't played any of the BlazBlue games. I'd really like to get this game, but I feel like I need a fighting stick first; my experiences with using the 360 controller for SFIV and MVC3 was less than satisfactory, and even though this is going to play a bit differently, I think I'll probably hold off. I'm probably mostly looking to get this for the story stuff though, and less so the actual fighting game.

Posted by Xeirus

@MattyFTM said:

@AlphaDormante said:

See guys? He likes it. We can all take a breath of relief now.

It got 4 stars. Jeff obviously thinks it's the worst game ever made.

Someone is going to come to that conclusion sooner or later.

He says at the end "So if it wasn't for the Persona hook, I doubt I'd stick with P4A", haha, called it

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