Hmmmm, a fighting game spliced with an RPG? Seems about as likely as a FIFA/Call of Duty crossover (surely a game that would make all of the money). Well, while FIFA of Duty remains in development hell until the bigwigs over at EA and Activision can keep their toys in the pram long enough to get the game green-lit, we’ll all just have to do with Persona 4 Arena, a game as unexpected as it is brilliant.
A fighting game by mechanical design but an RPG via its aesthetic and storytelling, Persona 4 Arena manages to marry up two of the most diametrically opposed genres out there by somehow creating a technically advanced fighter with all the appeal and depth of a full Persona RPG release……no mean feat.
By getting Arc System Works to essentially develop the game, the core fighting mechanics of Persona 4 Arena are as tight and nuanced as you would expect from a new Guilty Gear or BlazBlue release. Despite using only four buttons and, on the surface, being a tad more user friendly than your average Arc developed fighter, peak under the hood and you’ll find as much depth and refinement as the finest fighters out there.
While Persona 4 Arena is home to enough basic pyrotechnics to make button-mashing an option for those looking to take in the story rather than the cultured mechanics, a brief introduction to cancels, bursts and other relatively advanced techniques at least makes gamers aware of the depth hiding behind the pretty visuals.
Despite being a sequel of sorts to both Persona 3 and 4, with all the aesthetic nods one would expect from an Atlus release, this is inarguably an Arc System Works game. Despite the characters being unmistakably of Persona dissent, this still looks and feels like an Arc game and anybody that has played a Guilty Gear or BlazBlue title will know that’s by no means a bad thing. This is a fast, fluid and surprisingly balanced fighter, one that, despite being a somewhat bizarre RPG/fighter crossover, could easily find its way onto the pro fighting circuit.
It’s not all punching and kicking mind; there’s story too – and lots of it. With 13 characters from Persona 3 and 4, Arena is in no rush at all to get you onto the battlefield. Ahead of each battle you will often be met with a mixture of fully animated, still, voiced and unvoiced cut-scenes that are as eager as a full Persona RPG release to get inside the head of its exceedingly eclectic cast of almost universally brilliant characters. Of course, fight fans can skip past all of this, and for the uninitiated, much of the story and characterisation will pass comfortably over their heads, but for fans of the series, for those with a love for Aigis, Naoto Shirogane, Chie Satonaka and Yukiko Amagi et al, there is more than enough additional insight into these character’s personalities and motivations via the elaborately told story mode to make Arena worth a shout for those without even a base line knowledge of the fighting genre.
This deep characterisation doesn’t just benefit fans of the story though. Each characters’ unique sensibilities and characteristics have been captured expertly by Arc via the extremely distinct combat mechanics of each character. Much like the story, on the battlefield, no two characters are alike with all 13 of the primary cast delivering completely unique skill and move sets. For anybody doubting how seriously Arc and Atlus have taken this crossover, one need only look at the mechanical diversity on display; there are no Ryu/Ken’s or Sub Zero/Scorpion’s here – it may not be the biggest cast to ever grace a fighting game, but it’s certainly one of the most varied, and certainly one of the most unique.
Beyond the story mode and its wealth of dialogue, there is also a challenge mode for those looking to master the many intricacies of each combatant and while latter challenges are inevitably aimed towards the true fighting game pros, for those relatively new to the genre, the first few at least offer up a little insight into some of the skills available to each of their favourite characters.
As always though, it’s online that fighting games are at their most unforgiving, and unsurprisingly, Persona 4 Arena is no different. With the usual options of Ranked, Unranked, Quick Match and Tournament options, it’s technically solid and as competitive as you might expect. Newcomers might get a few victories here and there thanks to the slightly more forgiving core gameplay, but for the most part, the road to any kind of success will be a rocky one, and, I hate to say it, but probably quite a demoralising one to boot. Still, online is always a place for the pros to strive and it says something for the underlying mechanics that top tier players are able to put away button mashers with such ease.
Despite being an Arc Sytems Work fighter first and an Atlus RPG second (and a distant second at that if we’re to be honest), there is more than enough Persona DNA here to make it a worthwhile investment for those who usually wouldn’t give a 2D fighter a second glance. The story, characterisation, delivery and presentation are all top notch and totally befitting a core Persona release. Story aside though, this is still a fighter at heart and a rather fantastic one at that. Accessible yet deep, familiar yet diverse, RPG yet fighter, Persona 4 Arena is a carefully constructed balancing act in just about every facet of its design and surely one of the finest genre crossovers ever released.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 3 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.