As you might guess from the title, Persona 4 Arena is a fighting game spin-off of the Persona 4 RPG. 2012 has been the year of P4, beginning with an anime that premiered late 2011, and now closing out with two games: P4 The Golden and P4 Arena. I was able to spend some time with P4A, and while I’m far from mastering the game (or exploring all its content), I wanted to write about what this means to me as a Persona 4 fan and a fighting game fan.
The first thing I do in any fighting game is to go into any training or tutorial modes to learn the mechanics. P4A does have a “Lesson Mode” but it’s more of a crash course, rocketing you through very short tutorials explaining all the game’s mechanics. This didn’t really give me any time to assimilate the info that has been presented – out of the two dozen or so lessons all I remembered was double jump, dash, and the one-button combo – pretty standard 2D button mashy stuff.
It sounds bad, but the reality of fighting games (and probably one of the biggest barriers to entry) is that to get good, you will need a lot of rote repetition. There’s no way around it. You’re learning a large array of mechanics, and you’re playing a type of game where you’ll need to be able to recall all of them at any given moment. The tutorial mode is simply a catalog of the game’s mechanics. To be any good you’ll have to revisit it over and over until you know each one by heart.
P4A serves as a sequel to both Persona 4 and Persona 3, taking place two months after the end of P4. The protagonist (now named Yu Narukami like in the anime) returns to Inaba to see bizarre images in the Midnight Channel, and gathers the investigation team to see if there’s new danger inside.
I expected P4A to have little more than a token story bolted on to a series of fights, but Arc System Works has gone to surprising lengths to really make it feel like P4. It’s weird but the best way to think of the experience is “P4 lite”. It keeps the narrative format from P4, but where there would be traditional JRPG combat, you get a fighting game instead. There are also a few parts where you can choose dialogue options, though I’m not sure what effect that has on the story yet. No you don’t get side quests to build social links, and you don’t get to run around town, but the core of the Persona 4 experience is there. Arc System Works is a good fit as the developer because they’ve done essentially this kind of thing for their other games (BlazBlue comes to mind). I find the story here more meaningful and interesting as it plays on the tropes of the Persona world.
Having only played through Yu’s story mode, I have very little feel for the fighting system. I can say that the way Arc System Works translated the RPG’s mechanics into a fighting game was pretty cool. The obvious example is calling the super meter “SP”, as you expend it to use special skills. Your character can fight on his own or attack with his Persona, just like in the RPG. You can even get hit with negative status effects.
The fighting as you’d imagine is fast and frantic, to the point where the screen might get so cluttered that you completely lose track of what’s going on. A little bit of conservatism on ASW’s part would have improved playability, I think. There are a lot of special actions and combat tricks you can use, but I haven’t advanced past the Street Fighter II mechanics – jump, block, super combo. Speaking of combos, apparently you can execute them just by mashing the light attack button repeatedly. I guess ASW was designing this game mostly for fighting game newbies. The system does seem deep enough but given the way story mode is constructed, I haven’t had much chance to explore it.
Welcome back, partner
Usually the health of a fighting game lies with its competitive community, but maybe Persona 4 Arena will be a different case. Though I am a fighting game fan, I got P4A because of its ties to P4, and the experience bears a remarkable similarity to its namesake. There’s still a large chunk of the game I haven’t seen, but so far this game has given me everything I’ve wanted.