It’s weird that Persona 4 Arena exists. On paper, combining a niche JRPG with an Arc System Works style of fighting game sounds a bit crazy, but surprisingly, it works. Even those with no experience in the Persona series will be happy to find a competent 2D fighting game with gorgeous visuals.
The reason most people will approach Persona 4 Arena is the story. The story mode plot take place a few months after the events of Persona 4. The protagonist of Persona 4, now named Yu Narukami, is returning to Inaba to visit the odd collection of comrades he met during his adventures, but what was originally going to be a cheery reunion of comrades takes a dark turn when the infamous Midnight Channel returns. Soon enough the cast of Persona 4, and a few folks from Persona 3, find themselves inside the T.V world once again. If none of this makes any sense to you, you’ve just encountered the game’s main flaw. The story from the Persona series is eccentric enough to those willing to invest the 80-plus hours necessary to complete either of the previous entries, but without that, the narrative just feels nonsensical. A commendable attempt is made to try and convey the events preceding Arena, but there’s only so much a few paragraphs can explain.
Battles are sprinkled throughout, but the story is essentially a visual novel, as pages of dialogue surround a select few encounters. Each fighter has their own series of battles, and tells their own unique perspective of the events that are unfolding. As someone who is familiar with the Persona series, it’s great, but much of this is lost with no prior knowledge. Lengthy explanations do fill the story mode, but it wont really mean anything to those unfamiliar with the series. But to fans of the series, Arena overflows with fan service. The internal monologues can, however, come across as stilted and repetitive as they recount, in detail, the events of Persona 4 time and again, but they don’t do enough to sour the experience. Overall, it feels like an exciting romp with old friends, and even hints at certain possibilities for Persona 5.
Arena does have more going for it beyond the story mode. A multitude of other modes litter the main menu, adding a good amount of content outside of the fan service. The usual arcade mode tops the list, along with a score attack mode, and a challenge mode which is great for learning the intricacies of all the fighters. All in all, there is enough content to keep both veterans of the genre and newbies busy for days. But what will really give the game legs in the long run is the multiplayer.
Online battles aren’t perfect, but they function as well as can be expected. Lag occurs, but most of the time it clears up before the actual fight begins. The 360 version was a different story at launch, as the frame rate would drop drastically after the first round. Since Arena’s launch, Atlus has since released a patch which seems to have fixed most of the problems.
Arc System Works, famous for the Guilty Gear and BlazBlue series of fighting games, left their fingerprints all over Arena. Battles control in a similar fashion to these games, but in a simplified manner. Inputs boil down to two weak and strong attacks, but the combos are just as flashy and high-flying. Characters will be soaring through the air, pulling off insane combos with the flair Arc System Works is know for. Each fighter also has a ton of abilities which nod to their JRPG counterparts, using familiar spells and abilities that are worked into the combat in some really creative ways.
But the combat it is a step down from the often convoluted systems Arc creates. Here is where the balancing act Arena plays is most evident. Fans of Arc’s previous titles may find that the fights cater too much to the casual crowd, but the fact is it’s still fun. After learning a few simple combos, a player new to the genre can easily hold their own against the competition. But, instant kill combos and things of that nature do still exist, so top tier players have something to strive for that can set them above the chaff.
The visuals are exactly what you’d expect from Arc System Works. Each fighter has an amazingly-detailed sprite with animations that are unmatched in the genre. Backgrounds are complex and full of life, but never enough so to distract you from the action. Flashes of color burst from each resounding blow, and Arena does it all with a great frame rate. Bigger combos often lead to epic sequences, all of which are jaw-dropping. The game has style, it’s as simple as that.
Persona 4 Arena is a fine game, but to those without any investment in the original Persona 4, the experience will be somewhat empty. Two very different genres have been smashed together, and there is the possibility that die-hard fans from either side could be turned off by the dilution this causes. But, this doesn’t change the fact that Persona 4 Arena is a well-made game. If you’re a fan of the Persona series, this game is a love letter to you. Do yourself a favor and play it.
Persona 4 Arena was developed by Atlus and Arc System Works and published by Zen United and Atlus. A PS3 copy was purchased by the editor for the purposes of review.