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Persona 4 Arena Review

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  • X360
  • PS3

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 WJist

I would really like to stress how bad and inconsistent the netcode in the 360 version is: I have had slowdown in random spots during the match, not just the second round. The kicker? Sometimes there are matches where it is perfect...WTF? Otherwise, I agree with Jeff - the game's Persona hook is pretty awesome.

Also, surprise - people are really good at this game already. If you are going for the "win an online match" achievement, do it now while people are still learning before you are locked out forever!

Posted by LethalKi11ler

Based from the ILM I was expecting less than 4 stars but glad to see! Won't be able to pick it up for a little while longer but definetly will later.

Posted by dagas

Not much for fighting games but I'll get it for the story when it comes out in Europe.

Edited by DarkS2K

I'm loving this game. but man I must suck at fighting games or something. I played about 10 matches online and I couldn't win a single one. =(

Posted by dudeglove

OH FUCK GUYS JEFF GAVE A PERSONA 4 GAME LESS THAN 5

Posted by vinsanityv22

This is such a weird, such a Japanese thing...I am really curious to hear how it does, sales-wise, for Atlus. Arc's fighting games are niche (and, having played Blazblue, I can see why. Those characters are so nauseating), and Persona is niche. Is a combination of the two going to expand their audience, or grab just a fraction of it? I know that, in Japan at least, it's already BLOWN past expectations. But here in the West? I'm eager to see...

I think Atlus should stick to King of Fighters XIII, personally. I'm not fan of Japanese 2D fighters anymore - there are too many people like Arc and whoever makes Rumble Fish who make terrible, modern anime cliche characters and storylines. But KOF ain't bad. More importantly, why is no one making interesting new 3D fighters? I guess Platinum is making Mad Anarchy or whatever. But I seem to recall when Japanese teams were pumping out games like Fighting Vipers, Power Stone, Plasma Sword, Darkstalkers, Soul Blade, etc. Why are all these teams scared to innovate like they did in the late 90's/early 2000's? I suppose it's the same reason why western developers are intent on making fucking dogshit and calling them First Person Shooters nowadays - another genre noticeably less creative nowadays than those in the late 90's/early 00's.

Posted by ashogo

@Petiew said:

@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.

They could have easily implemented a difficulty system.

Posted by damswedon

@vinsanityv22: There was a thread (that I can't find, so it might of never existed) that claimed that Persona 4 Arena was the 3 best selling fighting game in Japan sold in the last 5ish years. 1+2 were those Final Fantasy PSP games.

Posted by ashogo

@damswedon: I think you mean this thread?

Posted by Terrents

I agree completely great review jeff

Edited by biggiedubs

@DarkS2K said:

I'm loving this game. but man I must suck at fighting games or something. I played about 10 matches online and I couldn't win a single one. =(

You don't suck, that's just commonplace for fighting games, ESPECIALLY an Arc Systems fighting games. You've probably got to play about 100 matches before you even get a proper grip of everything. Keep at it, dude.

Edited by atomic_dumpling

Does this one have sudden death finishing moves, too? I played some Guilty Gear X2 #Reload and I won all the hard fights with that. It took a lot of tries, but when it came out and hit -- just awesome.

Posted by dbz1995
@atomic_dumpling said:

Does this one have sudden death finishing moves, too? I played some Guilty Gear X2 #Reload and I won all the hard fights with that. It took a lot of tries, but when it came out and hit -- just awesome.

Yeah it does. Chie has her Galactic Punt and Kanji has a bro-fist with his Persona. It is awesome.
Posted by dropabombonit

Great review. I will be getting this next month when it comes out in the UK

Posted by ofcbilly77

Because! Rainbow Dots...

Posted by ofcbilly77

@vinsanityv22: They're probably scared to innovate because of how risky it is. If they put something out there that changes up how people usually play similar games, they may not take to it. It was more common to experiment with that stuff 10 or more years ago because it didn't cost nearly as much to put out a retail game. If their game doesn't sell extremely well, they could risk losing their jobs, so some developers feel that it's better to play it safe.

We all know how infamous JRPG developers are for making essentially the same games for years. The problem is that Japanese gamers tend to like that and don't want anything new. We could compare it to shooters here. RPGs are Japan's shooters; they're what's popular, so they'll keep making them.

Posted by chilibean_3

@ashogo: Unless I misunderstand you, there is totally a difficulty setting. I'm playing on easy. But holy crap is Jeff on it with the visual novel description.

Posted by Adaurin

@ashogo: There is a difficulty option, but it's in the options menu that's only accessible from the Main Menu. They definitely coulde have made it more obvioud. I also wish you could increase the number of rounds in the story mode.

Posted by damswedon

@ashogo said:

@damswedon: I think you mean this thread?

Yeah, I did. Thanks.

Posted by NickTheZombie

This game looks quite impressive, but ultimately it makes me want that Persona 4 Vita release more than anything.

Posted by Phatmac

Really liking this game and the story mode so far. I still suck ass at this game. I mostly came for the story and it has delivered so far.

Posted by Chet_Rippo

Good to hear jeff likes it!

Posted by Guntank81

Game is definetly a must buy, it's not just your average fighting game it's actually good and even people who aren't into fighting games but love the persona RPG will enjoy this game since it's quite easy to get into.

Posted by Curufinwe

@dudeglove said:

OH FUCK GUYS JEFF GAVE A PERSONA 4 GAME LESS THAN 5

And nobody's upset.

Posted by phantomzxro

Color me surprised jeff gave persona 4 arena a good score!

Posted by eccentrix

I don't like fighting games, but I'd enjoy a Persona 4 visual novel. This seems alright for me.

Posted by shishkebab09

I've never played an Arc Systems game before, but I'm a huge Persona nut. My buddy has never played Persona, but is a huge Arc Systems nut. We just played a few rounds online for the first time, and were actually almost perfectly evenly matched. He had the advantage of being good at fighting games, and I had the advantage of knowing how each character should fight without having seen them in Arena before.

I'm blown away that the playing field was as level as it was. This perfectly sells what I love about this game: both Arc Systems and Atlus put a TON of work into their respective parts of the game, and it turned out beautiful.

Posted by Bigheart711

I got my copy yesterday. It's awesome as hell! I had a lot of fun playing P4Arena with the guys back at my college campus.

Posted by artofwar420

I like the P4 story, and I'm okay with a fighting game. I think I qualify.

Posted by katelyngadd

360 netcode is patched (patch went up a few hours ago). Fixes the second match issue, at least - if you get paired up with a player on a 56K modem it still runs awful. But you can at least play now.

Edited by Sooty

@vinsanityv22 said:

This is such a weird, such a Japanese thing...I am really curious to hear how it does, sales-wise, for Atlus. Arc's fighting games are niche (and, having played Blazblue, I can see why. Those characters are so nauseating), and Persona is niche. Is a combination of the two going to expand their audience, or grab just a fraction of it? I know that, in Japan at least, it's already BLOWN past expectations. But here in the West? I'm eager to see...

I think Atlus should stick to King of Fighters XIII, personally. I'm not fan of Japanese 2D fighters anymore - there are too many people like Arc and whoever makes Rumble Fish who make terrible, modern anime cliche characters and storylines. But KOF ain't bad. More importantly, why is no one making interesting new 3D fighters? I guess Platinum is making Mad Anarchy or whatever. But I seem to recall when Japanese teams were pumping out games like Fighting Vipers, Power Stone, Plasma Sword, Darkstalkers, Soul Blade, etc. Why are all these teams scared to innovate like they did in the late 90's/early 2000's? I suppose it's the same reason why western developers are intent on making fucking dogshit and calling them First Person Shooters nowadays - another genre noticeably less creative nowadays than those in the late 90's/early 00's.

Persona isn't that niche, 4 sold very well in the US and is even more popular in Japan. This game is getting a lot of positive attention in the fighting game community so it should sell pretty well.

It's not like Red Orchestra levels of niche for example.

Don't see why you're hating on Japanese fighting games, they still make the best and most competitive of the business. Whether you like the characters or not isn't really a big deal - or the story, the fact is Arc make good fighters with deep systems, as do Capcom and SNK. That hasn't stopped and probably isn't going to with a new Darkstalkers coming.

and come on, no fighting game truly has a good story. MK was pretty fleshed out but that was still an awful story.

Posted by mpgeist

Is it weird that I got a little choked up from the story mode? Tell me I'm not the only one, lol.

Posted by metalsnakezero

@mpgeist said:

Is it weird that I got a little choked up from the story mode? Tell me I'm not the only one, lol.

Your not the only one man, the story was that good.

Posted by kerse

@metalsnakezero said:

@mpgeist said:

Is it weird that I got a little choked up from the story mode? Tell me I'm not the only one, lol.

Your not the only one man, the story was that good.

Yeah I just started Y...I mean Charlie's mode and I can't help but smiling constantly lol. What surprised me the most though is how much I didn't notice Chie's voice until she gets loud, when she's talking normally it sounds great.

Posted by Phatmac

@mpgeist: Elizabeth's ending got me chocked up so you're not the only one.

Posted by Fitzgerald

"I hurt my finger real bad..."

Posted by Elyk247

Looks like a really great fighting game. I can't wait till Christmas.

Edited by Matterman

@mijati: Seven fucking months later