The Persona series – also known in Japan as Shin Megami Tensei – is a well-established JRPG franchise that has gone from strength to strength in Western markets with the release of Persona 4 Golden on the Vita achieving rave reviews. Admittedly an acquired taste, the story revolves around a group of Japanese high school students drawn into a bizarre alternate world through the Midnight Channel – an urban legend made real. Rumour has it that watching the channel on a rainy night will reveal your true love at the stroke of midnight. In Persona 4 Golden it doesn’t reveal your ideal partner; instead it reveals unlucky victims soon to be murdered. Relationships are forged, battles are fought and countless hours whittled away in a truly great JRPG and anticipation was high for a sequel. It was a surprise then to see the familiar elements of Persona transformed into a fighter from the developers of BlazBlue. Although there was a lengthy delay between the US and European release, its long-awaited arrival has finally come along with a few extra bonuses to sweeten the deal – namely a CD soundtrack enclosed in the box.
Amalgamating JRPG elements with a fighter is an initially disorientating move. Reams of dialogue and stream-of-consciousness narrative begin the story mode, introducing each character and their individual situation. It’s a relief for people who haven’t played previous games in the franchise, laying out the state of affairs from the end of Persona 4 and explaining some of the more obscure details without sounding like a recap. Each character has their own story, overlapping and criss-crossing at different points in the overall narrative, offering an already staggering amount of replay value. Dialogue choices further fragment the narrative and certain points in the story require time spent playing as a different character to progress. Applying the RPG approach to storytelling, instead of a linear campaign such as that in Injustice: Gods Among Us, creates a multi-layered, intricate web of perspectives. Fighting game purists may find the lengthy interludes an unnecessary distraction but fans of Persona, JRPGs and intriguing plots will find an awful lot of effort has been invested for a fighter campaign.
The consistent narrative thread sees characters from Persona 3 and 4 reunite to rescue a few members of the Investigation Team who have been trapped in the Midnight Channel. Personalities appear to have been warped and hostilities are encouraged between friends and enemies alike. While not as subtle as Persona 4, each character retains their individuality thanks to expert localisation and it’s almost guaranteed that favourite franchise characters will make an appearance. Story Mode and its interwoven character threads will give the average player plenty to while away the hours but for those pressed for time (or who prefer their fighting games with proportionally more fighting) are well served by the Arcade Mode. Here the stories are stripped right back to the bare-bones of the plot and consist of fight after fight with a few lines of dialogue scattered between bouts. It lacks the quirkiness of the in-depth Story Mode but doesn’t sacrifice the immediacy of Arena’s pacy, mesmerising fight system.
Persona 4 Arena looks absolutely gorgeous, sitting somewhere between the day-glo trappings of eighties MTV and the hand-drawn detail of top-class anime. Yellow and pink contrasts everywhere and the outlandish presentation of the P-1 Grand Prix – the tournament ostensibly serving as a way to get these characters to fight – has all of the glitz of a Las Vegas pay-per-view. The introduction movie is one of a handful of full-animation cutscenes that crystallise what makes Persona 4 Arena great – superb voice acting, great production values and a remixed J-pop soundtrack only surpassed by that of Jet Set Radio Future. Although there’s precious little animation during dialogue scenes (making those cutscenes all the more treasured), the reams of voiced-acted script and beautiful backdrops more than hold your attention.
Throws, heavy hits, counters and blocks make up the skeleton of a balanced moveset – doubled in effectiveness and complexity thanks to the deployment of character-specific persona (representations of their inner-feelings, made physical). The fights themselves can be a confusing onslaught of visuals for anyone just starting the game – gauges and bars framing the battle between players and their persona. Luckily there’s a step-by-step tutorial for newcomers guiding you through the basic concepts and moves, setting you on the path to greatness. Moves are mapped to the face buttons and triggers on the controller, fully customisable should a different scheme suit. Even clicking the sticks (L3 and R3) are a part of a complicated but graspable moveset – intricate thanks to the inclusion of persona during the fight. Therefore, each player has a set of moves assigned to both character and their Jungian counterpart, often chaining together to spectacular effect. Button-mashing is a viable way to win – especially against computer counterparts – although special moves will require a lot of practice to successfully initiate, let alone master. Special moves sit between the Street Fighter style and easier, more sequential button presses. Directional inputs combined with certain buttons will unleash moves of exponential complexity, although the casual mode (where buttons do the job of a combo) err towards the more casual Injustice style. The pyrotechnics when a special move hits? It’s like watching the stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey for a few brief seconds.
Using a persona during a fight is really what sets the game apart from the competition. In a way, it’s like a tag-team fight rolled into a 1 v. 1 match – each persona can be summoned as long as there is sufficient energy to do so (indicated by one of the many onscreen gauges). If your opponent is able to land a few blows to your persona then a Persona Break occurs – too many of these rendering your persona unable for use until energy has been recharged (represented by four card indicators). An SP Gauge allows for defensive and offensive tactics – successful hits generate SP. Damage taken reduces the meter; once whittled down by the opponent your character enters Awakening Mode, upping your defensive capabilities as a last stand manoeuvre. If it all sounds complicated it’s because it is to begin with, compounded by the lightning fast style of combat. Add in characters suited to ranged attacks or defensive plays and you realise how deep and well-rounded Persona 4 Arena’s combat can be, especially for a newcomer to the fighting genre. Fighters are often all about keeping a safe distance from your opponent – with Arena and its persona abilities you’re never quite sure how far that safe distance might be.
Exploring the intricacies of the fight system can be fully realised in both the Challenge and Score Attack modes. Challenge Mode serves as an extended tutorial, presenting you with moves of ever-increasing complexity to perform while Score Attack is a battle against the computer to score as many points per round as possible. The Network Mode allows for standard 1 v. 1 online play as well as the ability to spectate other matches. Competitive readers will jump at the chance to try out their skills against the world, although the title still suffers from occasional lag – something you wouldn’t think would afflict a game with a year’s headstart in other territories. Given Persona’s popularity in native Japan, it’s common to be matched against Japanese players. Good luck with that. The chance for cultural interaction, however, is one aspect of the game that Japanophiles will appreciate.
Whether the combination of fighter and JRPG is to everyone’s taste is arguable; there’s far more fighter DNA in Persona 4 Arena than the latter, especially given the modes that cut out any extraneous storytelling. JRPG fans might find the story too glib, despite gameplay time totalling around thirty hours or more for the dedicated. Then there’s the esoteric, c-c-c-crazy nature of the Persona series – the series mascot, Teddie, can be enough to put off the casual gamer. But, for those who are willing to try something that’s wild and shamelessly addictive then Persona 4 Arena might be a wise if not readily-obvious choice. It’s successful on so many fronts; a new entry in the genre that stands aside long-term franchise veterans, deftly combining a worthy story with the fighter structure and painting believable characters that don’t overstay their welcome or pander to fanservice. All of these points and more make Persona 4 Arena a balanced, thoroughly enjoyable fighter. Even though it does school you from time to time.