We’ll just say it up front: Persona 4 Arena marks the best initial entry in a fighting game franchise to date. This genre-bending hybrid is akin to a decadent dessert: a fluffy, fulfilling fighting game cake, covered in heaps of lore-intensive JRPG icing that’ll delight diehard fans. With the combined efforts of Atlus and Arc System Works behind it, P4A is a guaranteed grand slam for its target audience of RPG and fighting aficionados.
As you might’ve guessed, this fantastic-looking fighter’s based on Persona 4, Atlus’ 2008 cult classic JRPG (which, wouldn’t you know it, is due for a revamped release on PS Vita). P4A sees the preceding game’s Investigation Team of energetic high school students trading in turn-based battles for one-on-one 2D dueling. Arc System Works have made a name for themselves in the fighting game community with their work on such combo-happy classics as Guilty Gear and the recent BlazBlue series. They’ve honed down the “anime fighter” genre to a science, and we can’t think of a developer who’d be a better fit for bringing the Shin Megami Tensei series into the realm of sprite-based brawls.
As a four-button fighter, P4A plays like a mix of BlazBlue's frenetic one-on-one battles mixed with ethereal assistance akin to the ghostly Stands found in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. Each combatant can summon a Persona, a phantom projection of their inner selves, to assist them in delivering a brightly-colored beatdown to their opponent. Personas aren’t invincible apparitions, mind you – smack an incoming Persona attack enough times, and the opposing player will be forced to fight solo while they wait for their Persona Gauge to recharge.
Every Persona is entirely unique to its owner, complementing their fighting styles and guaranteeing that no two pugilists play quite alike. That said, P4A also boasts some of the genre’s best balance right out of the gate: You can rest easy knowing that no matter which character you choose, you’ll be given a fair fight regardless of who you’re up against.
Best of all, you’re very likely to find a fighter who perfectly suits your playstyle in the P4A roster, thanks to the varied character compositions. Naoto and Aigis are a projectile enthusiast’s paradise, while Kanji and Akihiko like to get up close and personal with their heavy-hitting chair/fists. Even Teddie, the cartoony bear who would’ve been reduced to a joke character in any other game, has a distinct design that’s downright devastating when used properly.
As with Arc System Works' BlazBlue, P4A’s graphical styling is a feast for the eyes, with high-res hand-drawn sprites whirling about during each combo. The crisp, clean visuals aren’t reserved for the actual gameplay, either – every aspect of the game’s “Midnight Channel” vibe has a polished sleekness. That goes double for the soundtrack, which is filled with toe-tapping tracks of ethereal synth, smooth jazz, and invigorating rock. The game's style might not appeal to every gamer’s sensibilities – but for our money, P4A is one of the most aesthetically-pleasing fighters yet.
The RPG side of things shines through in the games’ ridiculously in-depth narrative, which even extends past the insanely lengthy 30+ hours of Story mode into the bite-sized sagas seen during Arcade playthroughs. Yes, over 30 hours – all of it canon, with charismatically voice-acted cutscenes in your choice of English or Japanese. The mileage you get from the game’s single player plot will be in direct correlation to your tolerance for static character cut-out cinematics; as luck would have it, ours is quite high.
P4A’s plot will be a delight for those already familiar with the series, especially when P4 and P3 characters come face to face; even if you typically don’t delve into these sorts of anime-esque plotlines, you’ll soon have a hankering to play the original RPGs in between bouts. But be warned: Because the story takes place after the events of Persona 4, the previous plot twists and revelations are constantly being brought up during dialogue. If you’re wary of any spoilers, you should hold off on P4A’s Story mode until completing the earlier game’s plot.
Mechanics-wise, P4A packs the absurd amount of complexity that fighting fans will be accustomed to, with Bursts, Instant Blocks, Evasive Actions, and much, much more. It can be a lot to parse through for those making the transition into 2D fighter territory, but the game’s excellently paced Lesson mode ensures that you’ll be up to speed before your first fight.
It also incorporates a beginner-friendly Auto Combo system that lets you mash out flashy combos with repeated taps of a single button, meaning anyone can pick up, play, and look cool using an unknown character (with the fair trade-off of reduced damage on these combos). This greatly increases the game’s general accessibility, but it’s a double-edged sword: Auto Combos are a rush to bust out, but some players might grow to rely on them, never truly delving into the game’s intricate combo system. It’d be a shame to eschew the higher-level mechanics in favor of spamming Auto Combos ad nauseam, especially when the game's solid Training mode is at your disposal. Ultimately, it’ll be up to the player if they feel like putting the work in or not.
Additionally, with so much to keep track of during each match – health bars, super meters, Persona and Burst gauges, and inventive RPG-like Ailments that inflict poison damage, paralysis, and so on – the screen is often extremely busy, and hard to “read” at a glance. Newer players might experience sensory overload until they’ve clocked a few requisite hours of training.
Challenge modes and online play have become necessary features for any great fighting game, and P4A delivers them in spades. The Challenge mode ramps up nicely from simple inputs to complex combo strings, with video demonstrations for every single trial. Also of note is the fact that the finale to each character’s 30 challenges is a puzzle-like undertaking, tasking you with a demanding objective without providing the usual button-by-button breakdown. It’s a fun final exam for experts who think they’ve mastered everything a given character is capable of.
The online play offers the standard ranked and player matches, with leaderboards and replays to boot - but it has a few features that make it stand out from the pack. After each match, you’ll be given a breakdown on the factors that determine your experience gains; this is much more satisfying than the nebulous, behind-the-scenes math done to determine our rankings in other fighters. It also has a great title system: Instead of canned labels, P4A gives you a giant lexicon of goofy words and lets you go nuts combining them. We took great pride in our “24/7 Chicken Catharsis” call sign – though we’re not certain it instilled any fear in our online opponents.
Here's the bottom line: If you’re a JRPG or fighter fanatic with even a hint of interest in the other genre, P4A is an absolute must-buy. With such a wealth of story-based content laid on top of the game’s steadfast 2D fighting foundations, P4A’s impressive debut sets the bar high for all forthcoming fighters.