Persona 4 Arena ReviewBriana Lawrence
I was able to get a small sample of this game back at E3 this year. It succeeded in whetting my appetite, but it left me hungry for real thing.
For those who don't know, Persona 4 was a gem of an RPG that hit the PS2 back in 2008. Its popularity is still soaring. From the upcoming release of the anime to the Vita re-release, Persona 4 mania has hit the U.S. and it's here to stay.
There's something a little different about Persona 4 Arena. It's not quite like the other Persona games.
Is it because the main character has a name -- Yu Narukami -- and has actual speaking dialogue? Is it because Teddie has decided to cosplay M. Bison? Is it because Yu forgot to pick up porn for his bromance bud, Yosuke? All of that is true, but the big thing that makes Arena a completely different entry into the franchise is the fact that it's a 2D fighter. Fighting game fans may remember a little studio called Arc System Works, the group behind fast paced fighters like Guilty Gear and BlazBlue. That studio has come together with Atlus to create the next entry in the Persona franchise.
Right off the bat, Arena has everything working against it. It's not an RPG, something that can turn off fans of the original. It's a fighting game, which is a genre that isn't exactly known for its grand storytelling skills. It's a sequel, which for some RPG franchises can be a terrible idea -- I'm looking at you Final Fantasy X-2. It has a brand new robot girl character being added to an already established cast of characters. It has characters from one Persona game trying to fit into the completely different world of another Persona game.
What sounds like a recipe for disaster has actually created one of my favorite games of the year.
Arena does a lot of things extremely well. It might not be an RPG but it not only has a long story -- as if it is a RPG -- and the story is fantastic. It has one of those stories that sounds simple -- investigating the Midnight Channel once again and forced to participate in some wild tournament -- but as you play you learn that it's so much deeper than that. Old issues resurface, new problems arise, and this little fighting game somehow fits in with not only Persona 4, but Persona 3 and the Persona universe as a whole. As for the newcomer, Labrys, she fits right in with all of the characters. At first glance I did inwardly groan because I love the original characters so much, why do we need a robot schoolgirl -- we already have that role filled with Aigis. But Labrys is a great plot point to the game and I ended up loving her as much as the other characters.
Now if you're a Persona 4 fan who doesn't know the first thing about crazy combos, cancels, super meters, and instant kills -- damn you, instant kills! -- then this game is still a good fit for you. In a way, Arena feels like two games in one. If you choose to play through the story there's very little to do in the fighting department. It's not terribly difficult to win a match and the main focus is discovering the truth being the Midnight Channel's return. There's simple, one button combos that remind me of Super Smash Brothers or the Ultimate Ninja Series for Naruto. Of course, there's plenty of room to become a 2D fighting badass without the simple moves, but if you just want to see what's going on with everyone's favorite sewing beefcake and the other characters then the easy combo option is there.
As for the story itself, it's rather intriguing. The Midnight Channel is back and Teddie is boasting about a P1 Grand-Prix. As you get deeper in the story you discover the true origins of this tournament, but it's a long and interesting journey to find the truth. Don't be fooled by the fighting game package, Story Mode has a plot worthy of any RPG series. There are decisions to make, certain characters have multiple endings, there are save points on the way, and every character's story connects with one another. There are even to be continued moments that force you to play with every character before finding out what's really going on. Suddenly, the small character roster feels as big as any Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter. Thankfully, you'll want to play with everyone, because every character in the game has a good story -- be it serious or just plain fun.
Now if you're just in the game to kick some serious persona booty, then Arcade Mode is where you can really let loose. It has a sort of abridged version of Story Mode, hitting the main points but mostly focusing on the chair throwing and gun shooting. This is also where you can turn up the difficulty and where those easy combos won't cut it. This is also true for online battles -- such is the case with any fighting game -- and especially for Score Attack. Let me tell you a story about Score Attack. It is, literally, the devil. Characters are extremely overpowered, there are no checkpoints, and it's an automatic Game Over if -- and when -- you lose. And no, you don't get to go back to the character select screen and try again; you have to start at the very beginning with each defeat. I made it as far as Naoto -- the second match -- before the detective cried out SHOWTIME before obliterating me.
The best part about the battle system in Arena is that it's so true to the characters. The character attacks are moves you can imagine these characters doing back in their normal, RPG universes. Chie is a kung-fu kicker while Yukiko is full of fire and long range attacks. Yu is skilled with a sword and electricity while Yosuke is fast like the wind itself. Kanji is a tank, plain and simple, while Naoto is full of traps and bullets. These types of details apply to the Persona 3 cast as well, Mitsuru dancing with her sword and ice, Akihiko boxing, and Aigis full of bullets and robot power. As for Ms. Elizabeth? Oh man, she's just... Elizabeth. As you play you can just feel how much work went into this game, how the developers did their research to make sure these characters stayed true to what Atlus originally created.
There are also little niceties to the game. Just in case you haven't played Persona 3 or Persona 4 or both, when you play Story Mode each character has a moment to explain things. It's a good summary of what happened in the previous titles, especially since Persona 4 was released back in 2008 and Persona 3 was back in 2007. There is a nice gallery where you can look at the gorgeous art or any videos you've unlocked. You can also switch the dialogue to its original Japanese in case if you're one of those fans who prefer those voices over the dub.
Speaking of voice acting, fans may be surprised to hear the main protagonist actually talking. Most Persona protagonists only speak in battle, calling their personas and nothing else. But with the anime coming out fairly soon here it was inevitable that the bowl-cut hero would speak. It actually didn't take as long as I thought it would to get use to him having a voice -- it's a rather nice voice, by the way. As for Chie and Teddie's new voices they work out well, too. Teddie sounds just as excited as he ever did and Chie is still a fierce warrior with a smile that lights up the room.
I do have small complaints about the game. It's probably a good compliment, actually, that I want more cutscenes because the story is just that good. There's lots of reading, lots of narration, and very few cutscenes or special art for moments. There's the same cutscene of the Midnight Channel, and a different cutscene for the Persona 3 characters, but I wish there were more. I know fighting games aren't heavy on cutscenes; Persona 4 didn't have too many cutscenes either, but there are things that I would rather see. Naoto going through an airplane hijacking, or when Yu is running through the hallways where you can hear his feet running across the floor. Some characters' stories take a very long time before even getting inside the television world. The story is interesting, yes, but it's a bit boring to sit and hit the button to make the text go on and on. At least there's voice acting so we can hear the interaction between characters, nothing tops Naoto being called Nao-doll by Kanji, or Akihiko expressing his love for protein. Well... there's the moments with Teddie, the moments with Elizabeth, Chie and Akihiko's fierce battle, Yosuke, Yukiko, Aigis, Mitsuru and her snazzy fur... just... it's such a lovely story I wish it were animated more.
This game does a similar thing to what Mortal Kombat did with its 2011 release. As great as the action of Mortal Kombat was, its story was just as interesting. In fact, the Story Mode in Mortal Kombat was just as important as the fighting. Arena is the same way. The fighting is great, but the story is just as strong. There's more reason to play than to just throw down online or against friends who are hanging out at your place. Games like Arena and the 2011 Mortal Kombat show how important a good story is in a game, even if it's a genre that seems to lack in the story department. Gamers want more than a two minute ending video of Ryu moving on to train some more. We want dialogue between fighters. We want plot. We want to care about these characters and their reasons for fighting the good -- or tragic -- fight. Arena succeeds in both story and gameplay, just like Mortal Kombat did, so hopefully this is a step in a direction where fighting games are more than just wham, bam, thank you ma'am. I want a reason to play through each character's story on top of having fun playing it. Arena does that. Arena gets that. It gives me a reason to happily drop $60 on a game because once I spend three hours on one half of someone's story I've got a handful of characters left to play through. Most importantly, I care about what happens to each character and enjoy watching them develop.
An RPG? A fighting game? Arena is the perfect blend of both. It's the perfect entry into the Persona franchise and a must own for any fan of the Investigation Team, S.E.E.S, Persona in general, or if you simply have a soft spot for silly ol' bears.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.