Most gamers don’t play fighting games for the story. Outside of the most recent Mortal Kombat, I can’t think of a single fighting game that had a story worth mentioning. That’s why when Arc System Works and the Persona 4 development team at Atlus announced Persona 4 Arena, I was hesitant to applaud; but after clocking several hours into the game that set out to turn the fighting genre upside down, I’m left wondering why I ever doubted them.
The story of Persona 4 Arena is set two months after the events of Persona 4, where a group of high school students entered televisions to access the Midnight Channel and solved a murder mystery with the help of their “Personas” and a cuddly bear that tells un-bear-able puns (editor’s note: wait, what?). Not much has changed with our heroes since we’ve seen them last, but it is nice to see them around and about again. The silent protagonist of Persona 4 was given the name “Yu Narukami,” and a voice in Persona 4: The Animation; and the same voice actor returns in Persona 4 Arena with the intentions of keeping him talking. Sadly, some of the original voice actors did not make the cut. Erin Fitzgerald, most notably known as May Kanker from Ed, Edd n Eddy, replaced the voice actress that previously voiced Chie in Persona 4. She’s a wonderful voice actress…but she’s no Chie.
If you are not a fan of static anime-style cutscenes, you’re going to have a hard time drudging yourself through Persona 4 Arena’s story mode. The majority of dialogue takes place as text in front of motionless characters having a chat. The inner monologue of all characters do not have voices, so prepare for an ample amount of reading when the character decides to quietly ponder something, which can go for minutes. The reading isn’t necessarily a problem, but the pacing is. It took what felt like an hour to finally get to gameplay after the waves of spoken text. The story in Persona 4 Arena is considerably less interesting than the RPG it spun-off from, but if you have emotional investment in the characters, you will likely want to see the story as it unfolds. The pacing of the Persona series never has been its strong suit, so it’s only natural that Persona 4 Arena would suffer from that as well. There is an option to skip past all the cutscenes and go straight into the fray, but that ultimately defeats the purpose of playing through the story mode.
Trying to stay true to its RPG roots, Persona 4 Arena is littered with minor dialogue choices throughout the game. They barely impact the game and are just there as a throwback to the RPG series Arena is based on.
As someone who likes to skip training modes whenever possible, I dove right into the story mode excepting to have my hand held to an extent, but boy, was I wrong to assume such a silly thing. There’s no tutorial mode in the main story, which I found to be a letdown. With the emphasis on story, it would have made sense to have some kind of story-oriented training before the first proper battle. If you dive straight into the story mode without dipping your toes into the standalone training modes, you’re going to have a hard time keeping up with the intense battles where failure has steep consequences. If you loss a battle, that’s it. There’s no quick restart or round two; they are all single fight affairs that will end in under a minute. You can restart from the beginning of your last battle if you saved prior to starting it, but that requires a lot of unfortunate menu hopping and loading, which draws you out of the experience.
Combat is as fast paced and brutal as you would want in a fighting game. Personas phase in and out near the character while fighting, and act as an extension of the character to help link combos and special attacks. The fight mechanics are more tailored for a newcomer than a fighting genre pro, but there’s plenty of reward for those who take the time to master the list of unique personas, combos, and special attacks each character brings to the table.
All the basic modes you would expect from a fighting game are present in Persona 4 Arena. Lesson Mode is the tutorial mode to help you learn the basics; Training Mode is there to help you hone your skills and Challenge Mode is for learning combos. Let’s not forget about Network Mode, although I would like to at times. Network Mode is Persona 4 Arena’s online mode, where you go head-to-head with players around the world. When it works, it works wonders; but there’s the occasional combo-breaking lag spike that renders the mode useless. Atlus has since patched the game for this very issue, but I’ve encountered my fair share of lag issues before and after the patch to not mention the problem that plagues the mode that will get the most mileage.
I cannot say enough good things about Persona 4: Arena’s soundtrack. The music is a wonderful mix of J-pop, jazz, alternative rock and remixes of popular tracks from previous Persona games. The style fits in well with the weird, wackiness of the Persona series and the remixes are a welcome fan service. If you don’t get the remixed “Reach Out to the Truth” stuck in your head, you’re not human.
Graphically, the game looks beautiful. The hand drawn sprites are complimented with fluid animations that make it feel as if it’s caught in a world between 2D and 3D. The background behind your fighters takes on a life of its own while you are duking it out. Car windows will turn to static and ghostly figures will walk by, giving the levels a feeling of depth. The few full motion anime cutscenes are also expertly done and exactly what you would expect from high quality Japanese animation.
If I wasn’t a fan of the Persona games, I doubt I would have even bothered playing Persona 4 Arena. The setting is interesting and a great hook for fans of the series that are not necessarily a fan of the fighting genre. The crossbreeding of two unlikely genres works surprisingly well, but not well enough to bring in new contenders. If you’re a fan of Persona, it’s worth your time to check out the franchise doing something different. Arc System Works and Atlus are a great tag-team and their lovechild is a solid fighting game that will surely hold over fans of the series until a proper Persona title is released for current-gen consoles.