Europe finally has it. After a delay of almost nine months, the fighting game that was widely proclaimed Fighting Game of the Year from many outlets in 2012 is now available to buy. Persona 4 Arena at first sounded like one of those oddball ideas that would never come to fruition outside of Japan. It was confirmed for a UK release long before the wonderful Persona 4 Golden – the PlayStation Vita HD remake of the original PlayStation 2 game that has this writer smitten to this day. Sure, some of the shine has been smeared by the fact this game was on hold for so long, but is Persona 4 Arena, a marriage between Atlus and BlazBlue developers Arc System Works, one made in heaven?
Despite the delay over here, it’s hard not to be gobsmacked by just how pretty it looks in motion. Borrowing heavily from the style of BlazBlue, 2D sprites on lively 3D backgrounds are simply a joy to look at in Persona 4 Arena, with their fluid, eye-catching attention right down to the smallest detail. Commitment to including music from both Persona 3 and Persona 4 shows just how passionate this collaboration was, but the new music manages to be brilliant in its own right with memorable themes you might never get out of your mind.
A good thing then that Persona 4 Arena is also huge fun to play because of its “simple to understand, hard to master” mentality. A quick play through of the game’s Lesson Mode teaches you all you need to know in perhaps the most solidly produced fighting game tutorial to date. If you’ve played a BlazBlue game, you’ll already know what modes to expect. Online matchmaking was a little shaky on the Xbox 360 version, but nothing drastically off-putting.
Perhaps its biggest boon is the combat itself. Two buttons are assigned for your character to attack, while the other two are for your Persona. Each character has their own one button juggle combo, making it accessible to beginners, but the joy is discovering the more unique combos on offer as they all do significantly more damage. SP skills burn off accumulated SP gained from hitting your opponent, while certain attacks shave off a bit of your health. Should you lose two-thirds of your life bar, you’ll enter an awakened state where more SP skills are open to you, while having 100SP on hand during a match point situation grants you a chance to land a spectacular instant kill. So far, this is normal for an Arc System Works game.
What Persona 4 Arena does differently is include an RPG staple: status effects. Certain moves that are landed during battle will have one of a variety of different ailments that severely affect whoever is affected. Some are self-explanatory, such as poison and shock, but others introduce new restrictions that may provide a tactical advantage. Being panicked for example reverses the directional input for that character for a short time, while rage disables the ability to block but doubles damage output. Characters also might have their own quirks to aid them in battle, such as Naoto’s “Fate Countdown” which decreases as the opponent receives damage from high-powered moves, eventually reaching zero to allow Mudoon/Hamaon skills to instantly kill the opponent, while Labrys’ axe charges with every attack up to a rather devastating level of power. Learning the ins and outs of the combat for each character is a deeply rewarding experience, especially when you win in an online battle.
Yet somehow, the thing that lets Persona 4 Arena down the most is the exact thing that made Persona 4 and Persona 4 Golden great: the main Story Mode. The Persona 4 cast are gearing up for a reunion with the main protagonist – here named Yu Narukami, but have to put celebrations on hold while they comprehend the fact that the Midnight Channel has returned, featuring a mysterious fighting tournament. Meanwhile the Persona 3 cast led by Mitsuru Kirijo are chasing after stolen cargo, which leads them into the TV world.
Mysteries are slowly unravelled, with interesting details spread over the multiple characters’ storylines. You’ll more than likely still be scratching your head long after achieving 100% completion of the Story Mode, as the game is clearly attempting to set things up for a follow-up in the timeline. Yet somehow it is the delivery that doesn’t work very well, as fights are too sparsely laid out among vast reams of exposition. Mercifully, you do have the option to skip all of this, should you so wish, but that shouldn’t be a feature. The visual novel presentation worked well in Persona 4 because of the social interaction, but this blend of visual novel and fighting game doesn’t work well structurally. A vast gallery of unlockables is present to help you work towards something, but once the main story is told once there isn’t much cause to go back to dull button clicking when Arcade mode presents an abridged version that is tons more fun.
Delays haven’t really hurt the game’s integrity itself, as Persona 4 Arena is by far one of the more complete feeling fighting games released in years. Despite having a rather long-winded and convoluted Story Mode that quickly outstays its welcome, all the other less obvious inclusions are what make this game great. Solid fighting mechanics, status ailments, even the Personas all contribute to making this a highly enjoyable brawler. Those fascinated with the series will still love it regardless of the Story Mode’s dawdling nature, but even those just interested in a solid tournament-style fighter won’t come away disappointed with this beautiful, awe-inspiring game. We may be several months too late to this shin-dig, but Persona 4 Arena was most certainly worth fighting for.