Reviewing fighting games is always a tricky proposition given the disparity of understanding and experience that exists among fans. I’ve never been what members of the fighting game community might call “serious” about the genre, but that has never stopped me from enjoying Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Tekken and others. I don’t have any desire to count frames, but I love marveling at a seemingly impossible combo string or, better yet, pulling off a few choice moves of my own.

While I would love to give you a nuanced analysis of Persona 4 Arena on a frame-by-frame level that you might get from someone who aspires to compete in tournaments, it’s not possible. This review is geared to those drawn to the game for its role in the Persona universe and other casual fans of the genre. Persona 4 Arena isn’t just a fighting game with characters from Atlus‘ much-adored RPG series, it’s a narrative sequel to the PS2 classic (soon to be Vita darling). You’ll be happy to know that the developer anticipated that those coming in new (or relatively inexperienced) to the genre would be eager to experience the unique take on the series. It’s not a stretch to suggest that this might be one of the most accessible fighters I’ve ever played.

Persona 4 Arena takes place a few months after the close of Persona 4, with protagonist (originally named by the player) Yu Narukami returning to Inaba to visit his friends. Upon arriving, a series of strange events occurs indicating that the Midnight Channel, an alternate world inside the televisions, has returned. The group enters the nearest TV with the intent to investigate, but encounters sinister doppelgängers and a force that manipulates them into fighting one another.

For most fighting games, that’s about where the story would end. Even the greatest of the narrative efforts in the genre, Mortal Kombat (2011), is thin in comparison to Persona 4 Arena’s story mode. As you take each character through, you’ll learn more about their motivations and insecurities before they reach the end.  While a single play through with any character will reveal the story’s major twist, it’s interesting to go back through. Every cutscene and interaction is unique among the cast. Furthermore, the fighters from Persona 3 that show up (Akihiko, Mitsuru and Aigis) are all woven into the tale in a logical fashion that fits well within the narrative.

But what about those of you (like me) that will be playing Persona 4 for the first time when it arrives on the Vita this fall? Elements of that game will be spoiled for you. It’s inevitable. However, what I have learned about the tale makes me more interested to experience it for myself. More importantly, I had no problem following the dialog given my experience with the series’ PSP entry (Persona 3 Portable). Even without the prior understanding of personas and shadows, I think I’d be able to follow thanks to some well-written explanations. It’s important to note that the Story Mode is exposition heavy, with one-round fights punctuating the dialog and internal musings. It’s a brilliant example of how to bridge a series into a new genre.

If you are interested in just duking it out, don’t want to be spoiled in advance of Persona 4 Golden or simply don’t care about the narrative, there are are other options. The first thing I recommend is playing through the Lesson Mode at least once (probably more). This takes you through everything you’ll need to know from walking forward and hopping backward through the series’ signature All-Out Attacks and persona-powered basic moves.

Unlike Street Fighter, the fighting game that most any gamer has at least some experience with, Persona 4 Arena features four attack buttons rather than six. There are light and heavy attacks for the chosen fighter and for his/her persona. It’s unsurprising that blows dealt by the manifestation are powerful, but they need to be used judiciously.

Just like in the RPG, elemental and status-based maneuvers require the use of a persona. The most interesting of these to execute play off your SP meter. You can Super Cancel a regular special move into one that requires SP. You can also use a Burst to break your opponent’s combo or use it during your own to launch an opponent into the air. You can also send a foe skyward by finishing an All-Out Attack with one of the two persona attacks. There is a great deal of aerial maneuverability with high jumps, double jumps and air dashes. However, it can take damage. Suffer four hits and you’ll have to wait a seemingly interminable amount of time to regain access to those skills. It doesn’t always mean a loss, but without access to two of your basic moves, you’re seriously limited.

One of the things I really like about Persona 4 Arena is the opportunity for a comeback. Once you get down to 35% health, you “awaken,” which gives you 100SP and access to a more powerful skill move. It’s not a “win button,” but it does mean that an early rough start doesn’t necessarily mean a quick finish. There are also Instant Kills. These remind me of Final Fantasy summons, and if you have 100SP and would win the match by taking the round, you can take out your opponent by properly executing it. Nothing is more complex than a quarter-circle motion, and especially given the game’s auto-combo feature, it is an amazing balance of accessible and deep.

Thankfully, a trip through the game’s Challenge Mode offers the tools and instruction to become acquainted with flashy combos that maximize the utility of your “other self” without putting it in harm’s way. As we learned in our extensive RipTen Dojo series, the best way to learn how to play a fighting game is pick a “main” (a single character that you’ll master first) and study up on how best to use him/her. The different moves and strings in each challenge, followed by some time in the Training Mode (which also allows you to save film of your work) will get you in fighting shape to take on the game’s more competitive offerings.

Offline, there is a more traditional arcade mode, culminating in a battle with the game’s boss. Once you become proficient with the ins and outs of your favorite character, you can take on the Score Attack. Going in without a serious set of skills is going to end in misery, since the game puts you against some brutal AI that is simply unrelenting. Of course, the hallmark of any good fighting game these days is how it performs online.

Atlus took a bit of heat in the opening days of the game’s North American release, but after a patch, every experience I’ve had has been silky smooth. Finding a matchup at a skill level reasonably close to my own (that is to say, someone who takes a few moments to whoop me instead of doing it right out of the gate), was consistent. I experienced no lag at all. After each match, you’re given the option to save your replay. For me, it’s all too often a memory better left forgotten. However, it’s a valuable tool for those looking to up their game and expose their mistakes to learn and improve.

The presentation of the game is fantastic. The visuals maintain the same anime-inspired look and many of the effects fans of the series have come to adore (like the All-Out Attack). The soundtrack features solid voice acting and wonderfully remixed tracks from both Persona 3 and 4. I’ve not played BlazBlue, but I have watched a number of videos of it. The intricate animations featured in that series look even better with a Shin Megami Tensei coat of paint. I’m not in love with the now-standard aesthetic DLC on offer (especially since the option for the glasses DLC appears in the paper manual), but it seems that no amount of complaining is going to get publishers to stop shoveling it out.

Atlus and Arc System Works should be commended for smoothly blending two very different genres. As a fan of the RPGs this title is based on, I was absolutely enchanted by the way the duo brought familiar (and soon-to-be-familar characters) into this new realm. The writing, voice acting and pacing are all up to the quality we’ve come to expect from the Shin Megami Tensei series (even “Miss President’s” odd Brooklyn accent). The fighting is tight and accessible, but has a great deal of depth and nuance as evidenced by the extensive challenge mode. If you’ve ever wanted to pick up a fighting game and really learn how to play, Persona 4 Arena is newcomer-friendly without sacrificing the elements that keep hardcore fighting fans coming back for more.

 

Here’s the Rundown:

+ Great tutorial and training modes
+ Manages to weave an interesting story for those coming to the game for the RPG tie-in
+ Accessible fighting that still leaves a great deal of depth for serious competitors
+ Smooth online mode with quick matchups
- Story mode can get a bit repetitive, even when playing through different stories
- Be warned that this game will spoil parts of Persona 4 Golden
-  Aesthetic DLC seems pricey, and it doesn’t help that it’s mentioned in the manual

 8 and 8.5 represent a game that is a good experience overall. While there may be some issues that prevent it from being fantastic, these scores are for games that you feel would easily be worth a purchase.

Persona 4 Arena was developed by Arc System Works and published by Atlas USA. It was released on August 7, 2012 at the MSRP of $59.99. A copy was provided by the publisher to RipTen for the purposes of review.