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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 Vager

Reading the review pushed me to to buy it on Amazon just now. That's a first.

Posted by Skogen

Im not too big on animu fighters. I'll save my money for TTT2.

Posted by l3illyl3ob

Can you skip repeat scenes if you've already seen them with another character?

Posted by Junpei

Had it pre-ordered (love me the hell outta fighting games and SMT is my favorite franchise across all genres) so I am understandably irritated that my copy did not arrive before I had to leave my house today. Sadly looks like I must wait a day to play. *sniffles*

Posted by Nentisys

P4A TNT?

Posted by MrCosmo

Sold! Pre-ordering for UK release now.

Posted by Cincaid

This review just warms my heart to read; it's clear that Persona 4 had a huge impact on Jeff, and I bet he's glad he did the endurance run with Vinny.

Still on the fence on this title, since I'm really not that big of a fighting game fan, but I'll probably pick it up one day when my budget is better. Maybe that eventful day when Persona 5 is (finally) announced, and I just have to get prepared for the big day. But since that day is probably years away, who knows if I'll be able to hold out until then.

Also, after reading this, it will be very interesting to see how Jeff (and Vinny) will handle the eventual P5 release. Somehow I feel like an endurance run might not be a too crazy thought anymore. But don't tell those guys about it!
Posted by Karmosin

Now for the wait here in Europe...

I never really minded the visual novel style in BB, other than that the story got confusing and almost incomprihensible fast, found the gag reels hilarious though. I think I'll really like this game, seen alot of streams of it and the fastpaced agile way of the fightingmechanics is right up my alley. :)

Edited by Dark_Lord_Spam

I may get this after a price drop since I'm interested in the story mode and that actually sounds workable... I've learned the hard way time and again that fighting games aren't for me.

Posted by Rmack

@damswedon: Ah, you're right. I forgot about those PS2/Xbox MKs to be honest. They weren't bad, though. Guilty Gear X had a story mode very similar to their other games and that came out in 2000, but I don't remember it getting as in depth as it was when XX came out, which I think was the same time around MK.

Edited by JayCee

Who is this Yu guy?

Its either Charlie or nothing man, make it canonical!

Posted by Rmack

@Winsord said:

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.

Is it the dpad or buttons messing you up? If it's the former, the MadCatz Fighting Pads do the trick without having to put down hundreds of dollars. While I took the plunge and finally bought a stick at my first PAX because I have no self control, I keep one of these around for friends or to bring to people's houses.

Posted by Phished0ne

Great, i was just waiting for word about the netcode to see if i should pick this up.

Posted by Winsord

@Rmack said:

@Winsord said:

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.

Is it the dpad or buttons messing you up? If it's the former, the MadCatz Fighting Pads do the trick without having to put down hundreds of dollars. While I took the plunge and finally bought a stick at my first PAX because I have no self control, I keep one of these around for friends or to bring to people's houses.

The D-Pad is definitely a big part of it, but not the sole reason. I've used one of the fight pads and they're pretty good, but I still prefer the weight and general feel of an eight-way gate on a stick, along side the snappiness of the buttons.

Posted by Joker369

Fantastic read. Seems pretty neat from what I've played so far.

Posted by Phatmac

He'll always be Charlie to me!

Posted by Panelhopper

This is definately going on the wish list...

Posted by greenblattsam

THE ONLY MAIN CHARACTER I KNOW OF IS CHARLIE TUNOKU

Posted by iAmJohn

Good thing I love Persona 4 and think Arc makes some of the best fighters out there. It sounds like this game is made for me!

Posted by Pip_Fox

I'm all about DAT P4A.

Posted by Winternet

Man, this just makes me want to play P4 again. Or watch the ER for the umpth time. Must. resist. temptation.

Posted by weegieanawrench

This is my first exposure to an Arc system game, and I have to admit I'm having a real tough time pulling off quarter circle combos. But as Jeff says, the P4 and P3 hook is great. I've had a huge ear to ear grin seeing these characters again and hearing that awesome persona music. I really suck at fighting games, but I think I'm gonna stick with it.

Posted by ashogo

I find it really weird that the Story mode has little actual fighting or gameplay in it. I thought this was supposed to be a collaboration between arc and atlus? Why make it a fighting game at all, if your story mode is going to be nothing but a straight visual novel? I don't mind lots of text, but it seems like they missed an opportunity to do something cool with their new fighter format.

Still, I love persona 4 so I'd probably play this game for the same reasons that Jeff did.

Posted by Beforet

Behold! The closest you will get to a Persona 4 review!

Posted by august

@Mdk5631 said:

Listen to the latest podcast they are begging for more ppl to come here

This is not a thing that happened.

Posted by aquacadet

@Beforet said:

Behold! The closest you will get to a Persona 4 review!

Other than the 120 video 99 hour review.

Posted by Mandrewgora

I picked it up today, and enjoying the heck outa it.

Posted by Beforet

@aquacadet said:

@Beforet said:

Behold! The closest you will get to a Persona 4 review!

Other than the 120 video 99 hour review.

Doesn't count!

Posted by WatanabeKazuma

So if it wasn't for the Persona hook, I doubt I'd stick with P4A... but it's a hell of a hook.

Gosh darn it, he's just about summed up exactly how I feel about this game!

If anything, it'll ensure that I have ample opportunity to run up against players of a similar 'quality'.

Edited by bybeach

Charlie will always be the main protagonist to me. Always..Charlie Tuna! Personally I'm not really, beyond the uniqueness of my initial exposure to it, that much into the whole Persona thing. I respect the complexity and the mechanics and the moving parts, but Jeff and Vinny made it the experience that I immensly enjoyed.

So a fighting game, decently done it is judged? Well, right on.

Edited by hakunin

This needs to hurry up and come out in Europe already! Can't wait!

Posted by Petiew
@ashogo: Lots of people are coming into this game as fans of the Persona series and have never played a fighting game in their life. They'll come just for the story and never play the game again once they've finished it. Forcing them to go through numerous difficult fights would most likely put them off the game.
Posted by ChrisTaran

Great review Jeff. As a hopeless Persona addict that's really the only hook I need. The last fighting game I gave a go was SFIV and that didn't hold my interest for very long, but attaching some of my favorite characters in video game fiction should be more than enough to get me through all the story mode and even a couple online fights!

Oh, and this will of course probably lead into my 4th or 5th viewing of the ER. Yes, I have lost count :)

Posted by TwoLines

Cool, might buy it in a couple of months.

Posted by Kowalo

I hardly ever play fighting games, but I picked this up for the story and it's great so far. I'm actually learning how to play rather than just button mashing like I do in other fighting games.

Posted by Brackynews

@Beforet: So what you're really saying is we need a Real Time Strategy version of Red Dead Redemption before that gets a quasi-review? ;D

Posted by MattBodega

I think it is quite telling that this review has more pictures of the story sequences than the actual fighting fights.

Posted by kerse

@MattBodega said:

I think it is quite telling that this review has more pictures of the story sequences than the actual fighting fights.

shhhhhhhhhh

Posted by Beforet

@Brackynews said:

@Beforet: So what you're really saying is we need a Real Time Strategy version of Red Dead Redemption before that gets a quasi-review? ;D

What I'm saying is that Venetian Blinds needs to be rebooted as a cover-based first person shooter before it will get the recognition it deserves on this site!

Posted by Undeadpool

@aquacadet said:

@Beforet said:

Behold! The closest you will get to a Persona 4 review!

Other than the 120 video 99 hour review.

Not to be "that guy," but 155. Which I actually just got through watching again and which is TOTALLY still great. Especially when they talk about what games they're looking forward to and you realize how long ago 2009 was in videogame years.

Posted by RetroVirus

@Undeadpool said:

@aquacadet said:

@Beforet said:

Behold! The closest you will get to a Persona 4 review!

Other than the 120 video 99 hour review.

Not to be "that guy," but 155. Which I actually just got through watching again and which is TOTALLY still great. Especially when they talk about what games they're looking forward to and you realize how long ago 2009 was in videogame years.

Those were the heady days of Uncharted 2 and Batman: Arkham Asylum!

Posted by paulunga

Hey, I love P3+P4 and the Guilty Gear series. I think this is for me!

Posted by theuselessgod

This is literally a match made in heaven. I love Persona 4, and Guilty Gear XX #Reload is one of my most favorite fighting games ever. Hoooooooly crap I need this. And it's so PURDY.

Posted by ch3burashka

Well, I'm fairly satisfied with both the product and review - as expected. Too bad it's not on the docket for TNT, but surely it'll bubble up sooner or later. At the very least it'll lead to some P4 discussion on the Bombcast, which is always the best thing ever.

Posted by 5eNintendan

Should change TNT to this. SO wanna see more.

Posted by TOA5T3R

Sounds like precisely want I wanted out of the game, Super happy to hear it turned out so well. Can't wait to pick it up.

Posted by Brackynews

@Beforet: OMG! In Venetian Blindrage: You ARE The Cover!

"CLOSE IT! CLOSE IT!! We're getting eaten alive here!!"

Posted by spazmaster666

Damn it, I'm very tempted to buy this game. I enjoyed BBCT enough on a casual level and I was a huge fan of Persona 4 so this seems like it would be a great purchase. Though considering I only have a casual to intermediate interest in fighting games, it probably won't be a great value proposition for me.

Posted by Hailinel

I've got my copy. Just need some time to start playing it.

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