Persona 4: Arena Review – JRPG makes a solid transition to beat-’em-up territory

Atlus is known for making some of the best RPGs on the market, from Dark Souls to Persona, although to your average gamer that’s about all they’re known for. For their latest effort, Atlus teamed up with Arc Systems to transform their most beloved franchise, Persona, into a fighting game. Persona 4: Arena has already been released in North America and Japan for close to a year, but now Europe is finally able to throw down with their favourite Persona characters. Was it worth the wait for those in Europe or was all the overseas hype overblown?

Persona 4: Arena, or P4A, takes characters from the 3rd and 4th Persona games, as well as introducing a couple new characters unique to this game. While not every character from P3 is here, it does have fan favourites like Mitsuru and Akihito, and all of the P4 characters are included. With the exception of a couple voices all of the original voice actors return for the English dubbing of the game. It is also dual-coded in Japanese so if for some reason the English voices are annoying then it is an easy switch, which also sticks around for online play. Sometimes it can be a fun psyche-out to switch to Japanese voices because then opponents don’t know if you’re a Japanese pro or just some guy who switched the voice tracks.

P4A has all the fighting game mode staples. There is arcade mode, online, training, score attack, and story mode. There is also a challenge mode for completing and practicing all the combos in the game with each character. While the modes are staples of beat’-em-ups, the amount of story put into the game certainly is not. Indeed, a lot of people complain how fighting games don’t have any story or if they do it is tacked on like an after thought, but here things are the complete opposite — Atlus wrote a book for their story mode. Just be prepared to bring a sandwich though because it is a long read. Thankfully for those not caring about the story there is a skip button available, but it was still nice to see Atlus try and innovate the fighting genre in terms of narrative. P4A’s story mode forces you to play with everyone if you want the full story. Each character has a halfway point that ends the game making you have to switch characters. It requires a lot of time and effort for the story to be fully completed. With that said, the game does allow you to pick up from the halfway point once the second half is unlocked, rather than have to start from the beginning.

This is a fighting game so the bread and butter of any fighter is playing against other people. When this game was first released there were massive issues because of the region locking and nothing has changed. What needs to be emphasized is while the discs might be region locked, the online is region free. As a game that emphasizes online play, being region free is of paramount importance, so you can still compete against anyone from around the world.

The matching system is pretty easy and tries to match players according to their rating. Win a lot and have a high rating and expect to go against others in the same boat. Go on a bad losing streak that tanks your rating and you`ll be back going against lower level players. This is not perfect as sometimes no one else is around except lower or higher level players, but it does a good enough job. One hitch that is common with all online games is lag and P4A is not immune to this. For example, someone in Europe playing against an opponent in Asia may be subjected to some occasional bad lag.

Each character has their own set of moves as well as persona moves specific to their persona in the series. Mitsuru`s persona in P3 used lots of ice magic so she has the same, while Yu`s used lightning and so on. Balance wise there is not any obvious lame duck characters due to the game being an unabashed button masher. This is not a negative point however; due to the block system and burst cancel moves, the game comes off as more defensive than other fighters. One mis-timed move could mean getting caught in a crazy combo, or that perfect block can leave the opponent wide open. The game rewards paying close attention to the little details as the controls are tight and responsive, even without an arcade stick. Attacks also flow naturally, unlike with other fighting games, meaning even if you miss horribly it doesn’t feel like you’re waiting forever for the next action.

Off-setting the power of personas is the ability to temporarily knock them out, which puts the player at a massive disadvantage as half of their attacks are now disabled. Hit the persona when it is making an attack and it loses a life point. Reduce them to zero and you’ll have to endure a noticeable wait until it recharges. Not having your persona also deactivates your instant kill. Unlike Mortal Kombat which lets you do a crazy kill once the opponent is already defeated, P4A lets you do one in the middle of the round as long as it is the round that wins the match. Let your power meter fill up high enough, perform the right commands and hope it hits. It only works if it hits though, making it the epitome of the high risk, high reward euphemism. A simple block negates them, as well as misjudging the range, leaving you open to attack and your power meter drained thus making you regret going for the flashy kill. But when they hit do they ever feel so satisfying.

This game itself is beautiful to look at. All the characters are gorgeously animated, keeping true to the art style the franchise is known for. As P4A is in the future it is cool to see the P3 characters grown up more, and their more adult interpretations compared to their high school versions. Even the highly Japanese-styled opening sequence stays true to itself and the series so fans won’t have to fear that a new genre would ruin its art direction.

Even though the RPG series has its lighter moments, the narrative on the whole is a serious affair. P4A decides to go against the grain however and make a story more tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at all the characters in the P4 game with its more comedic storytelling. Anyone who remembers the crazy midnight channel intros will be happy to see that return but a lot more wacky and playing off their personalities and events from the game like Chie being dubbed “the carnivore who discarded womanhood” or Yosuke being dubbed “captain ressentiment” (pronounced the French way, not English way). The game doesn’t try to take itself seriously but instead knows it is a game and just tries to make things fun.

Not all fighting games are made the same. Every company has its own style for each of their series. Mortal Kombat plays entirely different from Dead or Alive and Street Fighter. As this is made by Arc Systems it follows their system. If you have played Blaz Blue then this game will be like putting on a well worn pair of sneakers. If you`re only a Street Fighter kind of fighting fan then this would be like trying to learn how to ride a bike for the first time. Expect a bit of a learning curve getting used to the style and controls but with time and dedication it can easily be done.

P4A is a well-conceived fighter with all the potential to be a top class EVO selection. While the game is designed to be a bit button mashy it is still deep with strategy that allows anyone to have a fighting chance as long as they try to get better at the game. For those in Europe who waited patiently for it to grace their shores all the hype that came with the game is warranted. The only problem is if you are not into the Arc System style of fighter then it will be a hard sell.

Want to see more reviews from this writer? Check them out here. Want to hear about a slice of life in Japan? Follow him on Twitter.



The Final Word

A great cross-genre splash that gives gamers a new fun and competitive fighting game to sink their teeth into. However, it may not appeal to those unfamiliar with the series.