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.