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Persona 4 Arena Review
I enjoy many fighting games on a largely amateur level, but I am coming to the Persona 4 Arena table as a fan of the acclaimed role-playing series first and foremost. As someone who has discovered and rediscovered the intricately-drawn worlds and characters of all four Shin Megami Tensei: Persona titles, I am at this point safely addicted to anything Atlus says regarding its beloved cast of misfit world-savers. While I was as flabbergasted as I'm sure many of you were when Atlus announced that their next Persona story would take the form of a fighting game, I've come to find that this tale holds a worthy spot in the Persona pantheon. But what of the fighting mechanics themselves?
Well, those are rock solid too, thanks to the highly-disciplined hand of developer Arc System Works. A developer known for crafting fighting systems as flexible and varied as they are complex, Arc has truly outdone themselves with Arena. While the character roster is limited to a mere thirteen combatants, each of those characters has a truly distinctive style all their own that demands hours of practice to master. Some characters, like Naoto with her ability to fire multiple types of bullets from her pistol, are inherently more flexible and take more time to master than others. Once you've put in the time to master these characters, the rewards are tangible. Pulling off the most complex combos, like Akihiko's rapid-fire, boxing-style combos, isn't just the most rewarding way to play; it's the best way to win, too.
Sadly, that's a path only accesible to those who posses either the experience or the time to commit all of the combos to muscle memory and all of the various character attirubtes to mind. Despite Atlus and Arc System Works promoting the game as accesible to new players, Arena will chew up and spit out all but the most dedicated fighters in practice. A Lesson mode does a great job of getting players acclimated to the various hits and sweeps that form the crux of the combat, many of which are pulled off by hitting two of the face buttons simultaneously. But classroom experience rarely equates to real-world mastery, and it's here that casual fighting fans will struggle when getting into Arena. Simply mashing on the X button will result in a quick combo that eventually ends with a special move, but beyond this super-simple combo and between all of the highly-varied characters, you'll have a lot of memorization to do. That's not necessarily a bad thing; just be aware that as a new player you may be faced with a steep initial learning curve.
The Story mode makes for a great place for Persona-loyal new fighters to duke it out, as it tells a pretty great story that reunites many of the best characters in the series while easing you through the battles. It's pretty clear that plot is where the focus is, as graphic novel-styled cutscenes depict hours of spoken dialogue and beautiful animated cutscenes fill in the gaps. Much of the player input in the Story mode, just like in the core Persona games, comes in the form of dialogue selections. Only occasionally will you actually find yourself getting into a fight, and even then, it'll be a short one-round affair set on a low difficulty to allow players interested in the mythos but not the fisticuffs to breeze quickly past. As an ardent fan of the RPGs, I ate it up. It would be nice if the Story mode had more in the way of selectable difficulties, though, as more skilled players would undoubtedly enjoy strutting their stuff against the game's big baddies.
Opportunities for more nuanced combat come in the more traditional Arcade mode, which removes all context of story and pits players instead against a simple fight ladder, with battles increasing in difficulty as players reach the top of the ladder. It's standard stuff, but a mandatory inclusion in a modern fighting game like this nonetheless. And it also proves one of the most lucrative opportunities to memorize new combos and techniques. Arena utilizes all four of the face buttons for attacks, with two assigned to the fighter and two assigned to his or her Persona. Simply mashing out the X button combo won't cut it here. You'll be forced to examine the depths of each character's repertoire, including deadly Instant Kill moves that will wrap up a round in a jiffy.
The Score Attack mode also makes for a great proving gound for experienced fighters. This addictive mode will pit you against a series of powerful CPU opponents in a battle for leaderboard domination. Skilled play and fast reactions will net you higher scores and better spots on the leaderboards, meaning that this mode could become quite the addiction for competitive players looking to push their skills.
The online arena is the natural last step in the evolution to mastery, and it is here where you will face the stiffest competition. Many fighting games have stumbled when it came down to online play; Capcom's recent games especially have become infamous for their spotty online performance. Arc System Works makes it look easy, though; the buttery-smooth performace of Arena's online battles puts the competition to shame. It's an absolutely flawless victory on the PS3, but the Xbox 360 version stumbles. After hearing reports of a stuttering second round, I went out and rented a copy of the game on 360 to see for myself. Yes, it's true that the second of three rounds in each online bout seemed to slow down to around two-thirds the speed of normal, only to perk up again when the third round came. But Atlus has already promised a patch for the 360 to fix the stuttering, so it's relatively safe to say that this version of the game should be fine, perhaps even by the time you read this. Just know that when I tested the 360 version as of release, it was clearly the inferior of the two online.
Smooth performance is especially important given the animation priority that takes place in such a tightly-drawn fighter. The artwork and animations are positively gorgeous, and among the best in Arc System Works' already shining portfolio. Each of the fighters look just as you remember them from their respective games, and newcomer Labrys fits right in with her fusion cyborg/schoolgirl look. Arena represents the absolute peak of 2D animation technology when it comes to character animations; it's just a shame that the backgrounds don't share the same level of detail. Most are pretty much static portraits. It would have been nice to see more moving parts flying around behind all of the crazy combat.
The audio is similarly pleasing, both as an audiophile and as a fan of Persona. You'll fight to many classic Persona tunes, most of which have been burned into fans' heads for years now and for good reason. They're peppy, catchy, and fun to fight along to.
Persona 4 Arena is a beautiful tribute to the best of the fighting and role-playing genres. The Story mode should please fans of Persona with its surprisingly deep themes and massive amounts of voiced content, while the online and Score Attack modes are deep enough for experienced fighters to sink hours into. Just don't expect the game to go easy on you. As flexible and nuanced a fighter as this is, it'll present newcomers with a stiff challenge. Clear that hurdle, though, and you're looking at one of the finest fighting games on current hardware.
This game was reviewed on the Sony Playstation 3