Persona 4 Arena review
Atlus and Arc System Works deliver a quirky and memorable timesink

The good:

- Varied and balanced cast of all-star members of the series
- Extremely fast-paced combat with plenty of depth as per Arc System Works standard
- The combat has a learning curve, but it's manageable and the combat is easy to get into
- Atlus-quality story
- Plenty of unlockables

The bad:

- Extremely boring telling of the otherwise great tale
- Spamtacular AI
- Blatant sequel hook
- Bland backgrounds


I'm not very experienced when it comes to fighting games - my experience is limited to the PS1 Mortal Kombat game and the newer ones my brother brings to play when he visits from time to time. Despite my wetness behind the ears (a fine euphemism if I've ever heard one), I find myself seriously enjoying Persona 4 Arena. This game is more appealing to fans of the other Persona games, who may be skeptical of the transition from turn-based JRPG to 2D fighter - I know I was. From what I understand, Atlus did the writing and made the characters and such, and Arc System Works was responsible for the guts of the game: The fighting. This combination works beautifully: In addition to being a solid fighter in its own right, the feel of using a Persona is captured perfectly by the binary mechanics.

Each fighter can use both themselves and their Persona for combos, special attacks, and opening planet-sized cans of whoopass. If your Persona gets hit too many times, however, you suffer a Persona Break and have to wait a few seconds to be able to use it again. Some characters rely more heavily on their Personas than others, and a Persona Break for these characters is practically a death sentence, while others will just be unable to use certain special attacks and combos. Finding your favorite character and maintaining that perfect duality between yourself and your Persona is key to victory.

Most of the characters are fast, and much of the fighting is extremely fluid. This makes for a face-meltingly fast-paced experience with both fighters scrambling about the screen and unleashing super moves and combos to keep the other at bay or in close. Finding nirvana in this frantic chaos allows the player to really feel the power behind the fighters, and visuals worthy of any Persona game truly capture the nature of the series.

There are the standard modes to satiate the appetite of fighting fans - Versus (local 2-player or fighting against the AI), Network (fighting other players online), Challenge (more of a puzzle than a fight, with the point being to perfectly perform more and more ludicrous combos), and Score Attack (fight against an AI armed with extreme advantages and buffs) are all present, as is Story mode (as odd as the story being important to a fighting game sounds, Atlus was involved), and they all work well except for one.

Atlus' crack writing team excelled again with a short story of mystery and confusion that fits perfectly into the series. The story mode, however, is also by far the game's biggest flaw. Its presentation is similar to Persona 3 Portable's visual novel style, only with even more words. About half of the story is told largely through text narration as the narrating character relates what's happening and reflects on the events, and the other half is dialogue between portraits of no more than two characters at a time. While some prefer it, compared to what could have been done, there's a single word to describe this method - terrible. Persona 3 and Persona 4 both had portraits as well, but there were also other models to provide additional context and meaning to what we were hearing and seeing. I thought one of the first rules of video games was to use as few words as possible to convey your narrative. Don't tell us that the stranger in front of you snarled with rage and swung wildly at you, show us instead. It's almost impossible to take seriously, and only a big fan of the rest of the series will be willing to sit through more than one character's story. Most of the endings are an obvious sequel hook. While it's not a bad thing, since the story doesn't feel like it just stops halfway through, it still miffs me.That said, it's a sequel hook done right, giving us just enough information to speculate on what the future of the series will hold, and all 13 characters get their own stories with different events and paths and endings, providing plenty of replayability for those that don't mind the awful presentation.

There are plenty of portraits, sound bytes, cutscenes, and story images to unlock and view in the gallery, which also provides for plenty of replayability if you're into that sort of thing. Thankfully, all of the fighters are available from the start and you don't have to unlock tracks or levels to use in Versus mode either. Since most of the game is set in a school, almost all of the levels are samey and boring and you'll get tired of them fast. The music, however, is made up mostly of classics of Persona 3 and Persona 4 with some new additions, and they're still just the right type of background noise to not get annoying after 80 hours.

The fighters themselves, made up of main characters from 3 and 4 with two new characters (it looks like, at least so far, Atlus has an in-broad-strokes view of the first half of the canonhood of the Persona series), are extremely varied: you have your keep-away glass cannon, your grapple-happy bruiser, your lightning-quick melee specialist, one that focuses on attacking from the air, and everything in between. While 13 may or may not be a very large roster, the characters are different enough that no two feel the same and it appears extra care was taken to make the characters' playstyles correspond to the way they functioned in previous games. Characters are more useful against some than others, and being able to deal with problem fighters is a huge part of the challenge and depth of the game.

The online mode, while sparse, is still fairly populous if you're patient enough to wait for a match. There's very little lag on the PS3 version, and it's just as fun to fight other people around the world as it is to fight the AI - perhaps even more so, because in an odd reversal of common sense, the AI is spammy while the users are classy. While in Arcade mode, it was nearly impossible for me to beat Yu because he used his ranged attack, Zio, and his traversing sweep over and over. And over and over and over and over and over and...

Persona 4 Arena is definitely a solid fighter. If you're a fan of the series, Arc System Works' other titles, or 2D fighters, it's definitely worth checking out. If those three groups aren't you and it doesn't make you curious, you won't enjoy it. How much the appalling presentation in Story mode sets the game back depends on how much you value the story, but for me, it holds back what would have otherwise been a phenomenal and novel experience, but I still love it to bits. I spent 20 dollars on it and I feel that it's easily worth twice that. Time-wise, you can easily get dozens of hours of enjoyment out of all the different modes even if you're unable to take the game online. If you enjoy 2D fighters, it's not a travesty to give this a pass, but you're definitely missing out on something unique.

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