Persona 4 Arena is one of those odd and wonderful hybrids that game developers are coming up with in the hopes of appealing to two markets and/or bringing those markets together with one game. Much like Sequence – one of my favorite indie games that combines Stepmania-style rhythm gaming with an RPG system – P4A takes elements that are staples of two types of games and puts them together to create a new beast entirely.
Surprisingly enough, neither of those two games are an RPG. This is likely not what anyone was expecting when they heard ‘Persona’ in the title, because the other four games in the Shin Megami Tensei saga are the very definition of JRPG right down to the high school social sim aspect. Instead P4A’s Story Mode is more in the style of a visual novel, a format that is rare outside of Japan.
Visual novels are exactly what they sound like; the story is told via text that appears on your screen, sometimes framed by static character portraits with accompanying voice acting, and there is little to no choice required of the player. In the case of P4A, there is some branching but it is either very light (and seems to not have anything to do with story-affecting choices), or it leads to one of the “bad” endings.
Speaking of speaking, it will likely come as a surprise to players of Persona 4 that the nameless, silent, oddly colorless hero of the game now has a speaking voice, a character portrait and an actual name; Yu Narukami. His name makes it a little difficult to explain the story to my husband, particularly when I say things like “And then Yu went to the train station,” leading to a spectacular Vaudeville-style comedy of errors. As you are not given a starting name in Persona 4 (like some of the older-school RPGs), up until P4A, everyone playing the game got to name their hero as they saw fit, with Charlie Tunoku and Souji Seta two of the most well-known fan names.
[img_big]center,8927,2012-07-24/p4a_screens_challengemode_04.jpg,Persona 4 Arena[/img_big]
The fighting portion of the game was created by Arc Systemworks, known for their combo-heavy and in depth fighting games such as BlazBlue and Guilty Gear. It’s a beautiful game; I’ve had the chance to play it on both an enormous LCD screen and a crappy little CRT and the graphics retain all their depth and smoothness in spite of the loss of crispness inherent to the latter, so I’m comfortable in saying that it doesn’t matter what kind of screen you use, it’s going to look great.
The characters and their movements are true to the ones introduced in Persona 4, right down to the combos that are named from their spells from the original. Though P4A is less complicated than Arc’s other offerings, there are still a number of very specific combos that can – at least for me – be tricky to master. The Training and Versus Modes are great for figuring these out, and for playing to get ready for Arcade and Story Modes, with scaling difficulty in the matches you play against the computer in Versus Mode.
Arcade Mode is the version of the story that was presented in the arcade version, a condensed version that expresses a very basic storyline that is heavy on fighting as opposed to Story Mode, which tells an in-depth story from the perspectives of each of the characters. It is necessary to see all of the characters’ story chapters in order to get the full story and some characters can only be unlocked after other character chapters have been seen. There are only four or five fights in each chapter, all of which are one-round battles that can be replayed without consequence and feel a bit like an afterthought to the actual story. Both modes are equally fun to explore, depending on what sort of mood you’re in.
[img_big]center,8927,2012-07-24/p4a_screens_storymode_06.jpg,Persona 4 Arena[/img_big]
All this being said, I see Persona 4 Arena having a hard time reaching a broad audience. Though the fighting is more accessible than many of Arc’s other games, the “simplicity” may turn off fans of their more advanced games. Also, RPG players and fans of fighters are often two different entities, and fans of visual novels add a third quantity to the equation. The ideal target audience for P4A is a player who knows and loves the Persona 4 world enough to read 20+ hours of text and fight the occasional battle, though not the sort they’re used to. The Arcade Mode and Versus Mode add an extra layer of value – and replayability – if you’re into fighting games.
For me, this was the perfect game because I’m very attached to the Persona 4 characters and had been looking for a fighting game for a few months. Even in the Arcade and Versus Modes, there are a lot of jokes that come from the original Persona 4, such as Yosuke crashing into a trash can and falling into the screen for his entrance, and then calling Kanji “Closet Buster” Tatsumi. As someone who is a little obsessive over Persona 4, this was hilarious, but to someone who hasn’t been steeped in the game and anime, it would be harder to get into.
Even though I haven’t yet finished it, I have no problem recommending the game to anyone who loved Persona 4 because it gives you a chance to find out more about the characters after the original game’s ending. I would also recommend it to fans of fighting games who are maybe not as hardcore into Arc games, or who are looking for an easy way to work their way up. Unless you’re in one of those two groups, however, it will likely be hard to get into P4A in any meaningful way. If you’re willing to put in the 80 or so hours it takes to finish the original Persona 4 first, however, you’ll love it.