Uh… Guys… Her Shadow is about to go berserk. Dontcha wanna uh… Do something? Guys?
In the unlikeliest of developer crossovers, Atlus and Arc System Works teamed up to bring us Persona 4: Arena. Laevatein offered his own initial impressions, but I’m here to talk about the game in-depth. How did this joint project into a totally new genre fare for our MegaTen spin-off?
The draw to the game outside of premise alone is that it continues the storyline in Persona 4. Two months after the main character (now named Yu Narukami) and his buddies solved a murder case and took the Midnight Channel off-air, the mysterious program is back advertising a fighting tournament with degrading nicknames for everyone. Some old friends from Persona 3 have gotten sucked in too.
Fighting games are notorious for having a paper thin excuse plot, but with Atlus at the writing helm we can at least hope for something good. What they turned out, however, was extraordinary. While the first few stories turn out rather much like you would expect, building off the basic structure of P4, as you complete more scenarios, the curtain gets pulled back and the story escalates to something bigger than this game alone and will have major repercussions into future games. Fans of Persona 2 and Persona 1, let’s just say Atlus hasn’t forgotten you guys in the least. You’ll get some serious closure to a lot of things from the previous games and have new questions rise up too.
The story is delivered in a visual novel style, which may feel foreign to an American audience. Lots of reading, and really the few fights here can be beaten in ten seconds. After all, the developers want everyone to enjoy and see the story as well as connect with the characters. It wouldn’t be fair if some SNK-style boss stood in the way of someone who doesn’t normally know his way around the genre and just came for the plot. Don’t expect any challenge from the story mode but rather take it in and prepare for a good read.
So what if you actually want a real challenge? There is the standard arcade mode, but if that’s also getting stale, try the brutal score attack mode. Instead of fighting till you drop for best score, you challenge the whole cast and try not to die. Each character is on “boss-mode” with better defenses, more punch, and a unique boost like Yosuke getting permanent Auto-Sukukaja or Naoto’s normal attacks also reducing the instant killing Fate Counter. If you don’t want to spend on the other navigators, good luck completing it with everyone.
Training mode is available as it should, lesson mode is a swift tutorial for the very new, and the typical challenge mode shows off a few basic combos. The gallery lets you see CGs from the story and listen to sound and BGM. And speaking of BGM, Shoji Meguro doesn’t disappoint, especially when a certain someone arrives and you hear the OST switch to “Burn My Dread”. The voice cast is spot-on, as par Atlus excellence. Serviceable assets as expected. Online is rather smooth and with lots of options and ways to organize the lobbies, it does a bang-up job as you climb to raise your rank and “level” for the cast.
But even with a solid story not many RPG fans would instantly pick up a fighting game. If they did, it would be for a few casual bouts at a friend’s place or borrowing the game for a week or so. The thing is that fighters have a certain barrier of entry. You can’t just mash out a combo for the first time unless you’re really experienced with fighting games in general. Chances are you’ll get flustered, feel like you’re not doing what you want to, get your face planted in, and give up. To remedy this Arc Sys took measures of their own to ensure this didn’t happen as often.
Warning! Semi-technical stuff ahead
The game feels very smooth. Your character is mobile, but you don’t feel like you’re floating or on a slip-n-slide; you go where you actually want to go. You are very mobile in this game with traditional dashes, jumps, and air dashes to hops or evasive actions. Thanks to these the game feels fast, but not a total caffeine rush like Marvel VS Capcom 3 where you’re frantically belting out the next move. All the other traditional Arc mechanics are there such as the Burst and the Roman Cancel (called One More Cancel).
There’s lots of mental scaffolding with this game. The RPG lingo, awakenings, status conditions, and the One More all assist players in figuring out the game in a neat and tidy way that uses foreknowledge and binds the games together. The cast is rather balanced. While there are some matchups that I dread, it’s not too overwhelming. Then again, it’s still only been about three weeks in so it’s early to say.
The characters play uniquely, each catering to distinct archetypes and playstyles. Some of the cast are a bit dry in their array of options, but you’re armed with the basics and the Persona system opens its own depth. Considering how two of the four buttons command your character and two command your Persona, smart management of both makes up for the dearth of specials. This extends to an extent where some characters make you feel like you’re really playing two characters at once i.e. Yu and definitely Elizabeth. What you can do with SP is also varied and versatile from usual supers and cancels to guard reversals and SP boosts. Meter management is moral of today’s story, in all the ways you can spend it.
The end result is a game that plays at good speed for an Arc System Works game. It’s got that rush and free-flowing air mobility options that we’ve come to know and love from ASW, but it’s a controlled chaos that you are guaranteed will never devolve into a turtle-fest, part of why I’m not too crazy into Capcom fighters actually. Sounds great, man. But there’s a bit more to this game than the usual air-dashing, gold/blue bursting fare, it’s very easy for newbies to pick up.
Firstly is the simplification of the game’s inputs. Remember doing your first Hadoken in Street Fighter as a kid? Rolling the stick or d-pad just right to make sure you didn’t end up crouching or jumping and then pressing one of the punch buttons at the right time to loose the fireball. Then there was the “nightmare” of doing your first Shoryuken, which amounted to a lot of stuttering and accidental Hadoken attacks. You may scoff now, but to people who aren’t already on-board with these traditional conventions, every special move is like the Geese Howard pretzel twist.
To assuage these fears Persona 4: Arena has only quarter circle motions (and only one “charge character”). Traditional Shoryuken style attacks are mapped to simply pressing the two heavy attack buttons at once called a Furious Action. The daunting Shoryuken can be used just like that but this is far from “dumbing down” a good fighting game. These reversal attacks temporarily sacrifice some of your HP and slowly give it back to you unless you get hit, much like Focus Attacks in Street Fighter IV. Spam at your own risk.
Then there’s the auto-combo. If you mash the light attack button, your character will go through a pre-set combo and if you have enough SP, finish with a super. Now I know what you all are thinking, folks at home,
“But wait! Isn’t that a ‘casual’ mechanic? Gross dude!”
Ah the dreaded c-word of video gaming. I’ll tell you the auto-combo is anything but a destruction of skill. In a smart move, Arc gave the auto-combo itself important pros and cons. If you auto-combo, your damage output is significantly less than if you did the same combo manually and it also costs a bit of your HP too. See? That’s not too bad. If anything, it helps players ease into the game and gives them a sense of at least knowing they can do something cool while starting out.
“But I’m still never gonna use it! Hmph!”
I don’t know, man. I think you might not wanna write it off immediately. The early hits of the auto-combo, at the expense of damage, give you a bit more SP and refill slightly more of your Burst gauge. A skilled player can utilize the early hits of the weak auto-combo to gain advantage in meter and then run out the gate with a powerful meter-splurging combo. This is where I think Arc System Works is shining with this game. Instead of merely designing a crutch mechanic or lame “beginner mode” we’ve seen in the past, we have a tool that is user-friendly but can be optimized by experienced players.
I think we’ve confused “toning down” or making “casual” with “ease of access options”. The point of simple inputs isn’t to have players, especially new players unfamiliar with fighters, thinking “if I can only do that weird motion” but instead “is right now the right time to use this move?” or “how can I incorporate this skill into my strategy?” The auto-combo is an early reward to whet the appetite, but it teaches a basic framework and encourages the learning player to try the challenges, seek better combos, and get a little creative. But with a better knowledge about how SP and Burst work, they can come back to the auto-combo and peel back a layer of depth and learn how to use it to meter build instead of a “press A and hope I win.” I think these aforementioned skills are what we want new players to be learning first. The pretzel twists will come with time, but the fast strategic thinking and fun in doing cool things with your favorite character starts now.
And those are my thoughts on Persona 4: Arena. I think it’s more than complex enough to get a competitive scene like other games and it’s one that can introduce a new crop of fighting game players. Outside of the tournament ring, Atlus has given us a great story that advances SMT: Persona as a whole instead of shoehorned fanservice. From a meaningful story, characters one can relate to, to breaking down walls around the fighting game genre, it’s no wonder P4:Arena sold the numbers it did. Join me next time when I fight to the death to win some fun stickers and a clamshell.
Developer: Arc System Works
Available on: PS3, Xbox 360
Reviewed on: PS3
Release date: August 7, 2012