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Persona 4: Arena PS3 Review

You have to hand it to Atlus. Originally released on the PS2, Persona 4’s critical acclaim in both the East and West quickly gave rise to a slew of marketing spin-offs, including an anime series and movie, mangas and novels, and even a live stage performance in Japan. Eventually, the game itself saw a re-release as an expanded PS Vita port under the title Persona 4: Golden, which as of this writing remains the Vita’s one and only killer app. With all other avenues exhausted, it was only a matter of time before Atlus would take the next logical step with their increasingly popular Persona series.

That logical step would be the long-delayed Persona 5, but with no news on the sequel, the developer chose to create a fighting game instead. Thus we have Persona 4: Arena, the fighting game spin-off no one particularly asked for, but has ended up as another must-have title all the same. To handle the task of bringing the 3D RPG cast to 2D button-mashing life, Atlus has contracted Arc System Works to develop the game. Previously known for their work on BlazBlue, a franchise predominantly set as a fighting game but no less anime than Persona, Arc’s expertise in creating stunning HD sprites and multiple layers of gameplay mechanics made them the ideal candidate to bridge the RPG and Fighting Game genres together.

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Set two months after the events of Persona 4, the premise of Arena pits the unwilling heroes of the original game against each other inside the Midnight Channel, a bizarre world that exists inside televisions that is crawling with monstrous Shadows and distorted illusions. Coined the “P-1 Grand Prix”, the tournament is hosted by Teddie, the comical bear-like teammate of the group, whose motives and sudden maliciousness remain a mystery to the rest of his friends. With their options depleted and the rules set forth, the young men and women of Persona 4’s “Investigation Team” work together to solve the latest mystery…even if it means fighting each other to get to the bottom of it.

For anyone who has played a 2D fighting game in the last couple decades, Arena’s controls should feel familiar; characters can move left or right, jump up and crouch down, block high and low attacks, and so forth. There are also the usual modern-day fighting mechanics including air blocking, cancelling one special move into another, and expending an additional meter (called the SP meter in this game) to unleash a screen-filling life-draining super move. Fans of Arc’s previous fighting games will also recognize additional parameters seldom seen outside their titles, including the Burst meter (which allows players to interrupt an opponent’s combo, sparring themselves from the full brunt of the attack).

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But the most unique mechanic in this game is the use of Personas; utilizing four buttons for four different attacks, the first two buttons are attacks performed by the character, while the other two are attacks carried out by their Personas, which momentarily manifest in battle like an assisting team member. The closest approximation would be the tag assist feature from the Marvel vs Capcom games or the Stands from JoJo’s Bizzare Adventure. While the Personas are limited to individual attacks and commands, an astute player can learn the best method to link their character’s attacks with their Personas for maximum combo damage. Bear in mind, however, that Personas can also be attacked by the opposing player, and should they receive enough damage, they will temporarily be rendered unusable.

The use of Personas is just one of several mechanics thrown into the game, and while the numerous systems may seem daunting at first for rookie players, Arena also features several shortcuts to help streamline the process; simply mashing one attack button will result in an auto combo, which will even automatically trigger a super move should the character have the sufficient SP. The shoulder buttons have also been mapped to specific button combinations to trigger further actions (such as throwing, launching attacks, etc), and characters also share most of the same input commands for special attacks (including Instant Kills, which are only available during match-point rounds but can immediately take out an enemy should it connect). There is also an extensive Lesson Mode that accurately teaches players every mechanic, as well as tutorial videos, making Arena one of the more accessible fighting games as of late.

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But don’t expect to stand toe-to-toe against a seasoned player, offline or online. As with most fighting games, practice makes perfect, and Persona 4: Arena is no different when it comes to the old adage of “easy to learn, difficult to master”. That said, the game is still substantially more beginner-friendly than most fighting games, which was no doubt the result of easing in the RPG side of the Persona fan-base who may or may not have had experience with fighting games prior. Ultimately, it is those fans that will appreciate Arena the most, especially in regards to the visuals: following the same professional level of hand-drawn HD animation as BlazBlue, Arena may just be Arc’s best looking game yet. Character animations are diverse and silky smooth, and stage backgrounds are littered with eye-popping detail. Every other facet, from the in-game menus to the delightfully Engrish soundtrack, all pays respect to Persona 4’s unique aesthetic and art style.

Ironically, the meatiest portion of Arena lies within Story Mode. Like with BlazBlue, the story mode follows a Visual Novel approach, featuring self-narrative text, copious voice acting and player-based decisions that can alter the story in radically different ways (not to mention multiple endings, often comedic in nature). While there are AI opponents to fight in each character’s story, they are secondary to the point that they pose no challenge whatsoever and are often sparse compared to the RPG-length narrative. As a direct sequel to Persona 4, your enjoyment of the Story Mode will largely depend on whether or not you have completed the original game, as the new story draws numerous references and in-jokes from the RPG original. The same goes for Persona 3, as Arena features four returning characters from that game, setting up further elements that could potentially play a role in the inevitable Persona 5.

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Fans who have completed both titles will delight in seeing their favorite characters returning, and Arena’s pseudo-sequel pays respect to the development each has gone through following the end of their respective games, while also playing up their (often amusing) quirks and traits that have cemented them as some of the best written RPG characters in a long time. The voice work is as strong as ever, both in English and Japanese, though the flapping mouths tacked onto the existing character portraits may prove to be an initially odd sight. That aside, the only real downer is the inability to save your progress at any time in the story; instead, players must wait for the game to offer the option to bookmark your progress during checkpoints, which tend to be spread out rather infrequently.

Much like Dissidia: Final Fantasy and Super Smash Bros., Persona 4: Arena is a fighting game spin-off tailored for the fans, first and foremost. Whether or not those fans also enjoy the fighting game genre in addition to RPGs, there is enough content and callbacks that make this purchase a no-brainer. As for fighting game fans unfamiliar or uninterested in the original RPG series, the simplistic-yet-robust mechanics and gorgeous visuals should be enough to lure them in as well, as the overall end product is much more competent and complex as a fighting game than the aforementioned spinoffs. And should the gorgeous aesthetics and loveable cast prove intriguing enough that they may result in new audiences trying out the cult RPG series, then so much the better.

9 out of 10