A game after mine own heart.
I am of the opinion that Persona 4 is a very peculiar piece of wonder, even if that magical awe is incidental. For all I know, it was an accident that Atlus’ schoolkids-and-tarot cards RPG/dating sim brushes with psychological issues, gender politics, family dynamics and does so with surprisingly affable characters. I mean, Persona 3 wasn’t this intelligent. Likewise, I have a fond place in my heart for Arc System Works’ fighting games. They move fast, have crazy combinations without tipping the scales in favour of people who memorize lengthy strings of button presses, featured numerous heavy metal references and were pushing high-resolution sprites before pushing high-resolution sprites was cool.
So Persona 4 Arena is this unlikely dream combination game that is somehow perfect for me. Maybe it’s a dream combination for several other people. Such people whom are as crazy as I was have already bought the game opening day, and subsequently ripped the included Arranged-scores soundtrack onto our mobile device of choice. (Yeah I don’t think the Arranged songs are especially pleasant. But it’s hard to usurp iconic musical pieces on my playlist like Abbey Road or Reach out for the Truth.) So for the several million others on the planet Earth that aren’t as erratic as me, they may be wondering if Persona 4: Arena’s brand of teddie-bears-with-claws-crazy is for them.
If you like fighting games, well then the answer is an emphatic, slightlyhomoerotic yes. This is a 2-D fighter that doesn’t stray far from Arc’s past works. Which is to say that there are air dashes, over-powered super attacks and moves that kill in one hit (and the requirements for such one-hit-kills are such that well, the person executing them may as well be awarded a victory by default of overwhelming dominance anyways.) What Arena doesn’t have from the Blazblues and Guilty Gears of the world is their excessive complications. There is NOT a litany of convoluted systems in place, nor are there characters with very esoteric play strategies, or even complex button combinations.
Each of the game’s 13 characters (a natural combination of school kids, sexualized young adults from Persona 3, a cyborg, the cyborg’s evil half and a teddy bear) are differentiated from each other in a way in which their play styles and strategies are easy to interpret. Almost every special move combination is a quarter circle motion. You can perform a basic combination ending in a super by mashing weak punch, a seemingly game-breaking concept that also balances itself by draining some of the player’s health. Accessibility is a priority, but not in a way as to sacrifice depth. Arena is a fighting game that wrests power away from the dial-a-combo crowd in favour of people new to the genre and open to the idea of the mental strategy of the fight. (Those crazy-digited cats can have Skullgirls anyways.)
It’s not baby’s first fighting game, but with fighting games having become so needlessly complex since Street Fighter 4 brought fighters back to the masses, it’s nice to see someone try to bring fighting games back to the masses…again.
But say you want to come to Persona 4: Arena for the Persona 4-half. Well the good news for you is that Persona 4: Arena is fucking bananas in the way you want something related to Persona 4 to be fucking bananas. Like Persona 4, there is an awful lot of yellow-and-black fonts in the game. Most of the characters you expect a Persona 4 fighting game appear, feeling very chatty, making all the key references to cross-dressing competitions, steak, scoring or otherwise. You can unlock assorted announcers to provide no valid fight commentary or analysis. All of the characters have exaggerated nicknames based on their insecurities, giving you a chance to make light of their psychological woes.
Or invent your own awful nickname based on a mini-dictionary of random goofy terms for which to take the battle online. And I have seen some real gems online. The netcode on the PS3 version of Persona 4 Arena seems sound enough; an initial bout of lag during fight introductions is tolerable before an often-smooth battle ensues.
For players that are so timid of the challenge of strangers or the threat of Kanji touching them, maybe they would prefer a more docile experience. The experience of say, reading many pages of text that can’t defend themselves. Many, many pages. They will value the story mode more than most. The story mode invents a scenario one year after the events of P4, where a very strange, decidedly contrived scenario leads to the Investigation Team entering the television for a fighting tournament.
I don’t think I can stress enough that story mode really is a literary experience first and a video game tenth. You read an awful lot of dialogue, mostly spoken by *most* of the voice cast of Persona 4 (both English and Japanese tracks are available if you most know.) The dialogue is very much true to form to the source material. Teddie’s self-esteem is very much booming. Kanji’s sexual confusion is also in peak condition. There are moments of humour. There is very much a legitimate reason for Akihiro, Mitsuro and Aigis from Persona 3 to appear with more curves than ever. Sometimes you’ll have a one-round fight that can be easily won by mashing weak punch.
But there is a sense of redundancy in viewing each character’s plotline, all largely a different take on the same story arc. Especially since each story is about as wordy as, well, Persona 4 the video game was. It takes a certain degree of devotion to the source material to plow through the many hours or literature to reach the cliff-hanger conclusion. (Because Arc System Works always iterates on their fighting games. Guilty Gear X2 alone got many, many sequels, never one called Guilty Gear X3.) This is very much the part of the game that’s not made for fighting game fans.
However, that story mode very much succeeds at being the overblown fan service that Persona 4 fans may appreciate. Likewise, there’s a pretty outstanding fighting game buried in there. One that can be appreciated by most anyone with a mild interest in watching one person punch another person to death with a super-powered alter-ego. And for me, Persona 4 Arena is a game after my heart.
4 stars for most people. 5 stars for me.