Atlus has had to bear the brunt of much criticism from gamers due to its decision to region lock Persona 4 Arena, giving eager European fans no option but to wait a frankly preposterous length of time for the game to release. There’s no denying, however, the quality and brilliance of Arc System Works' take on the fantastic Japanese RPG series. Whether you’re a fan of the shadow-slaying franchise or of 2D fighters, there’s more than enough here to keep you thoroughly entertained.
If you've been fortunate enough to lose yourself in Persona 4 Golden, the characters and atmosphere of Arena will be instantly recognisable to you. The whole investigation team is back to solve another mystery which takes place two months after the events of Persona 4, giving fans the perfect opportunity to hang out with the likes of Yosuke and Teddie again. Only this time, you won’t be taking turns whacking shadows and grinding for experience – you’ll be mashing buttons, pulling off outrageous combos, and performing instant-kill moves against the same group of friends that you've come to love.
Likewise, if you've played any of the BlazBlue games – Arc System Works' popular fighting franchise – then you’ll know what’s in store here. But while there are definitely similarities – namely the gameplay’s rhythm and technical depth – this is still a title that feels unique, mostly due to the adoption of Persona’s enigmatic art style, coupled with many new mechanics and quirks.
Upon loading up the release you’re greeted, rather unsurprisingly, by a cheery Japanese rock song and an opening animation that shows off the cast. You’re then thrown into the main menu, where a myriad of game modes sweep down the left side of the screen. From a fully fleshed out and extremely lengthy story mode to your basic training options and everything in-between, the amount of content on offer puts many fighters to shame. If you’re new to the title, you’ll probably be jumping straight into the easy-to-understand lesson mode, which if nothing else, does a good job of getting you used to the basics.
The foundations are generally all you’ll need to know to be successful – at least against the easier AI difficulties – but the intricacies of weaving combos, movement, dodging, and blocking form the basis of competitive play. There are numerous cancels which allow you to instantly switch from offense to defence at will, tricky air combos, and instant kill moves to master, and even several special attack gauges to keep an eye on. While there’s no doubt that the game’s eventual learning curve won’t be to everyone’s taste, there’s still plenty to enjoy even if you find yourself mashing buttons. This is mostly thanks to the auto combo system, which allows you to pull off flashy chain attacks by simply tapping the square button repeatedly. Although the damage they deal will never be quite as much as a fully developed combo, they serve as a brilliantly balanced way for newcomers to adapt to the flow of combat.
So far, just about everything we've described is to be expected of your modern fighter, but Arena throws a spanner into the conventional works of the genre, by giving each character the ability to summon their persona into battle with the push of a button. The franchise’s other-self staple cements its place as an intriguing twist on the one versus one formula; they can add to your combos, grant temporary damage boosts, or even inflict status effects upon your opponents.
The title may only boast a small roster, but the inclusions are all impressively unique, and their varying fighting styles are complemented by their personas. The charismatic Yu Narukami – also known as your main character from Persona 4 – can bring out the heavy-hitting Izanagi, adding some considerable clout to the impact of his attacks, for example. Meanwhile, Yukiko Amagi – the party’s magic-based member – is best utilised as a long range combatant, flinging fireballs and creating walls of flame from the edge of the stage with the help of her other-self, Konohana Sakuya.
You certainly won’t be left wanting for opportunities to show off your skills, given the game’s wealth of modes. However, it’s likely that you'll spend a lot of time exploring the robust online component, which is supported by reliable netcode. Making lobbies is easy, and there are plenty of options to tweak to your liking. We encountered almost no lag, but admittedly we found it hard to locate opponents at times. Judging by the overall polish of the online functionality, though, it’s unlikely this is because of connection problems, and is probably due to a lack of players. We can only hope that the numbers start to pick up in the near future. Thankfully, even if you aren't able to find a human adversary, the AI can prove to be a capable opponent – especially when duelled on advanced difficulties.
Outside of network play, Arena features a story mode. While it isn’t as big as the gigantic storylines the franchise is built upon, it’s still a tale that far exceeds the traditional expectations of the genre. Split into multiple chapters that each feature a different character, you’ll be spending a lot of time here if you want to explore the reason why this group of friends are busy kicking each other’s teeth out. It’s a plot that isn't quite as deep as the game’s JRPG counterparts, but it’s interesting nonetheless, mostly thanks to solid writing and voice work. That said, an excessive use of dialogue tends to really drag out proceedings at times, and this isn't helped by the fact each battle only lasts one round, giving you neither the time to adapt to your chosen character or attempt to make the fight a suitably epic clash.
Unsurprisingly, the story makes more sense if you've played Persona 4 or its handheld remake, since Yu and the gang tend to make a habit of squeezing in-jokes into every other line of dialogue. However, near the beginning of each chapter there’s always some sort of recap on past events from the perspective of whoever you’re playing, so even total newbies will at least be able to follow what's happening and get a feel for the personalities involved. It's also safe to say that the story mode is relatively spoiler-free besides some minor plot details, so don't worry if you haven't yet experienced the game where it all started.
Arc System Works' fluid, fast paced combat is brought to life by Atlus’ superb sense of style. The pixel art is masterfully done, and although the presentation is a little shaky in places – mostly in menus – everything feels slick and well realised. To top it all off, the title plays host to a stunning soundtrack, mostly consisting of battle themes taken from the main series, with several remixes thrown in for good measure. The audio was suitably fantastic when taking part in turn based combat, but here it goes beyond that – providing the perfect back-beat to intense clashes. It all comes together to create an aesthetically outstanding title, whether you’re a spectator or a player.
Sporting satisfyingly deep, yet accessible fighting mechanics and a diverse range of gameplay modes, it’s hard to fault Arc System Works' intense entry into the Persona franchise. Persona 4 Arena is a focused and polished brawler that will appeal to both fans of the series and fighting aficionados alike, and has proven to be well worth the wait for European gamers.