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EGM Review:
Persona 4 Arena

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Posted on August 7, 2012 AT 08:00am

Pummeling My True Self

At the risk of readers potentially accusing me of having some amount of predetermined bias for the game, I will tell you that Persona 4 Arena is a dream come true for me—literally. As a longtime fan of Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei franchise—and all its associated properties and derivatives—I would, at times, longingly daydream about the idea of the more popular characters coming together in a gorgeous two-dimensional tournament of combative competition. (An obsession only fueled by the fact that various fan artists around the Internet had the same idea and mocked up numerous images showing what such a game might look like.)

So, the day that word came down that Atlus would be joining forces with Arc System Works to create Persona 4 Arena, my heart nearly couldn’t take it. Sure, it wasn’t exactly what I’d imagined—it would focus on the heroes and heroines of Persona 4, not characters from all across the MegaTen universe—but I was still floored by the fact that such an idea was going to exist at all.

In terms of what it is as a fighting game, Persona 4 Arena is clearly an Arc System Works joint; information sheets and title screens tell you that, and playing confirms it. The projects that the teams at Arc put together have their own unique feel, one that’s helped the studio become a legitimate alternative to names such as Capcom and SNK in the fighting-game genre. Even so, P4A isn’t just BlazBlue with a new coat of paint and a new roster of characters—it’s something that feels new and different, yet also a little familiar and recognizable.

Another interesting contradiction is how I felt when first getting into Persona 4 Arena’s gameplay. In my early hours with it, the fighting engine seemed intimidatingly complex yet strangely simplistic. The systems that Arc has built into the game can, at first, feel overwhelming—you’ve got a wide variety of situation-specific techniques and maneuvers to learn, and those are then complicated even more with Persona-themed RPG-style elements. And yet, pick a character, get into an actual match, start to learn what your chosen combatant can do, and the roster of moves can feel a little sparse.

There’s good reason for this: Two of your four main action buttons are tied to the attacks and skills of your faithful Persona. For those not familiar with the Persona series, a Persona is an ethereal being of sorts that’s born from a person’s inner self—one that can aid their masters in battle against demonic forces. That element is transferred over into fighting game form much like how Capcom integrated a similar concept—Stands—in their 1998 release JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Part of a character’s moves roster includes the abilities of their Persona, and inputting a Persona-related command calls him/her onscreen to unleash their associated move. After a moment, the player’s Persona will vanish once again, or additional commands can be entered to keep them active and performing other maneuvers. One twist on this idea is that a player’s Persona can actually be hurt by an opponent’s attacks. Receiving enough damage will cause a Persona to temporarily be removed from the fight, leading to players suddenly finding themselves unable to perform half of their moves roster.

It can be tough to get this idea into your head at first—we’re used to standard fighting games where we’ve got one character who does a bunch of moves, and that’s that. Because of this, it’s easy to become conditioned to expect to handle the entire match with just your character. Here, of course, that’s the wrong way to do things. It takes a bit for your brain to fully grab hold of the fact that you’re controlling two characters; once that concept clicks, the real Persona 4 Arena begins, and you get a better sense for the game’s true depth.

As someone a bit more used to the slower, more focused nature of games like Street Fighter IV or The King of Fighters XIII, Persona 4 Arena can feel almost Marvel vs. Capcom 3–esque at first. While in reality, the game isn’t quite as chaotic as Capcom’s Vs. titles can be, I’m also not sure that this is the perfect option for those who find fighting games as a whole to be somewhat daunting.

It really goes back to that particular type of depth that I was just talking about. A series like Sega’s Virtua Fighter is incredibly deep, but that depth comes from a long journey down the path of mastering your favorite character. The rulesets those characters exist in are relatively simple, and it’s what they can do as an individual that then gives the game complexity. In contrast, Persona 4 Arena is a game of variables. What can my character do at any one moment? What can my Persona do if summoned? How can I combine my character’s ability with those of my Persona? What status effects are currently in play on me and my enemy? Do I use my SP Gauge for a Super, do I save it for a character-specific Skill Boost, or do I save it for an attack cancel? Can I even summon my Persona currently, or are they knocked out? Is my Boost Gauge full, and if so, what should I use it for?

Arc System Works’ other franchises—Guilty Gear and BlazBlue—are certainly popular, but they’re also popular with a particular segment of the fighting-game community. With Persona 4 Arena, their style of fighting game is now going to be given exposure to a lot of other players—players who are coming in because of the brand and not its creator. For those new to Arc’s efforts, I expect a decent amount could be completely overwhelmed by what Persona 4 Arena has to offer at first. Some might even completely give up on the game—but that would be a shame!

Even though my current win/loss record when it comes to online multiplayer will prove that I’ve still got a long way to go, my time spent with Persona 4 Arena so far has been extremely enjoyable. Predicting what a fighting game will become once the community has been able to put serious time into is can be near impossible—for example, I liked Street Fighter X Tekken, but its receptions has been rather lukewarm among the hardcore—but I’ve got hope for P4A in that regard.

I wasn’t really sure at first; as I said earlier, my initial reaction to the game was that it felt far simpler in its game engine than I’d been hoping. Online was where that opinion really started to change, and where my appreciation for what Arc System Works has put together here grew. Even though I was getting absolutely slaughtered in my early goings online, I kept wanting to come back—and I kept wanting to get better. And, even more surprisingly, those feelings weren’t because of my love for Persona 4 as a collection of characters or as a world to host a fighting game. In fact, the character I was sure I’d be playing as (Chie) isn’t who I’ve ended up with (Yukiko).

So, my interest in the game has now progressed from an attraction to the brand to an attraction to the game itself. That’s exactly what Persona 4 Arena needed to do—and why I hope those series fans will give it a real chance beyond those initial first few hours.

What if fighting online against others proves too daunting, or you simply prefer to enjoy fighting games more for the single-player experience? While I can’t exactly identify with that situation—I come to fighting games for the multiplayer, and usually that alone—I can tell you that Persona 4 Arena definitely benefits from Arc System Works’ dedication to solo-focused content. The typical elements are all here—a tutorial, training mode, score attack, character-specific challenges—but it is the game’s story mode that was the most exciting. It’s typically a mode that I spend little to no time playing, but here we get lengthy text-adventure story segments that give you a different look at the events unfolding in the game depending on which character you picked. Persona 4’s cast is a fantastic one, so getting to spend more time with them and see them coming together again for another adventure is something I was interested in. The focus of this mode is clearly that of storytelling—fights are few and definitely feel like a secondary focus—but what plays out is engaging, fun, and fully voiced either in Japanese or English.

(As some will have heard by now, two of Persona 4’s English-language voice actors could not return for Persona 4 Arena—meaning that the characters of Chie and Teddie now have different voices. I loved what Tracey Rooney did with the character of Chie in P4, and while I dearly miss her, Erin Fitzgerald’s take on the queen of kung fu will grow on you; Sam Riegel isn’t bad by any means as Teddie, but he just doesn’t give the character the charm that Dave Wittenberg did.)

Playing through Persona 4 Arena’s story mode, I kept having one specific thought: “Man, is this character portrait art beautiful. I don’t remember it looking this good!” Of course, it didn’t—Persona 4 was on the PS2, and thus was not yet part of the HD generation. For that alone, P4A will be a treat for fans of the series, giving us a small taste of what we could be in store for in Persona 5.

All around, though, this is an attractive game. The menus and interface have Atlus’ trademark stylish flair; in-game, we’re treated to the old-school-but-not-old-fashioned 2D sprite work that Arc System Works has become known for, not to mention backgrounds that are stunning both in terms of design and decoration. There is, admittedly, a bit of a clash of visuals: The serious, detailed look that Atlus artist Shigenori Soejima gives the Persona 4 crew is quite a contrast to the more cartoony style that Arc produces. Yeah, I’m not completely happy with how the cast is presented—but it’s hard to complain too much given the obvious about of time and care that was put into these sprites. With so few companies still putting real effort into 2D fighters, beggars can’t always be choosers.

Beyond the big question—if Persona 4 Arena has what it takes, long-term, to grow into a legitimate fighting-game franchise and if the community will embrace it as such—I’m otherwise left for now with only two real hesitations. The first is the game’s new face, Labrys. (Or, I should say, technically she’s a new face—she’s been referenced as a character before, but this is her first real introduction.) Adding another robot to the Persona mythos just serves to negate the specialness of Aigis even more, which is a path I don’t want to see the series walk for multiple reasons. Plus, her design just seems to pander too much for my liking to a segment of fandom that I typically don’t associate with the various Shin Megami Tensei stuff.

The other is a far bigger concern, one that I hope—and, really, expect—will be temporary: issues with the game’s online netcode. As of this writing, those with access to the Xbox 360 version of Persona 4 Arena have reported some massive issues with lag when playing online, even when fighting against others in the same general area of the world. Arc System Works is known for their amazingly stable and capable netcode, so this comes as a bit of a surprise. However, BlazBlue also suffered from similar issues at launch—issues that were quickly squashed.

So, while I do give potential Persona 4 Arena owners warning about that problem with the Xbox 360 version of the game, I’m also not considering that problem when giving the game a final score—both due to my not experiencing those issues on the PS3 version of the game, and due to my expectation that this won’t be an issue for long. Should that lag not get sorted out for those playing on Microsoft’s platform, then obviously that will be a required point of consideration before picking up Persona 4 Arena. Should we reach that point, though, I’ll honestly be shocked.

Otherwise, there’s a whole lot to like about what Atlus and Arc System Works have given us in Persona 4 Arena, and not a whole lot to dislike. As what will hopefully be the start of a new and fruitful franchise, you know it can—and will—get better. However, as a game to kick off a new series, it doesn’t feel as if it’s missing anything or underdeveloped in any way, like how many other “first attempt” games can come off. As a Persona fan, I’m glad that I could live long enough to see my dream come true—and to a degree probably better than I could have expected. As a fighting-game fan, I’m also happy with the results—and now wait with baited breath to see what the rest of the world thinks.

SUMMARY: I’m not totally convinced that the copy of Persona 4 Arena that I’m holding in my hands is real, because the idea of a Persona-based 2D fighter actually existing still baffles my brain. For as long as it does exist as something that I can play, though, it’s an elaborate yet engrossing fighter that packs a ton of content, charm, and competition for those willing to put in the time required to master its offerings.

  • THE GOOD: A game that in no logical way should ever have existed now exists.
  • THE BAD: The complexity of the fighting system might be too much for some potential players.
  • THE UGLY: Seeing Persona characters in HD and hearing Persona music again just makes me that much more desperate for Persona 5.

SCORE: 8.5

Persona 4 Arena is available for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Primary version reviewed was on PS3. 

Eric L. Patterson, Executive Editor
Eric L. Patterson got his start via self-publishing game-related fanzines in junior high, and now has one goal in life: making sure EGM has as much coverage of niche Japanese games as he can convince them to fit in. Eric’s also active in the gaming community on a personal level, being an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming and consumer rights. Stalk him on Twitter: @pikoeri. Meet the rest of the crew.

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