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Persona 4 Arena Review: Simply Complex

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Persona 4 Arena Review - Chie vs. Labrys

A fighting game serving as a sequel to an RPG? It sounds crazy. RPG fans aren’t necessarily into the absurdly precise input of fighters just as fighting fans don’t necessarily care about lengthy stories. But like the groundbreaking discovery of combining chocolate and peanut butter, Persona 4 Arena really works.

Arc System Works is known for stacking copious amounts of mechanics onto their fighting systems, and Persona 4 Arena is no exception. It’s for that reason that the level of accessibility on display here is so surprising. The tired old adage of “easy to learn, tough to master” is in full force.

General Info:

MSRP: $59.99
Publisher:
Atlus
Developer:
Arc System Works
Genre:
Fighter
Rated:
T (Teen)
Platform:
X360, PS3
Release Date:
08/07/12

Inputs are simple, but the amount of available actions is staggering. You’ll never have to do anything more complicated than a half circle or two for a single attack (no shoryuken movements here). This not only eases the inputs themselves, but takes out a lot of the guesswork when trying out the entire roster before committing their move lists to memory. Tons of universal abilities can be activated simply by hitting two buttons simultaneously. There’s even a full combo ending with a super that can be performed by simply mashing the weak attack button.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xdQM2vGO_k

If you’re among the fighting enthusiast crowd, you might think this is all starting to sound far too casual. Have no fear. People who don’t know what  they’re doing will be utterly destroyed online. That single button combo, for example, is far weaker than performing the super manually at the end of a custom combo. And all those universal two button abilities every character has? Without knowing when to use them, newcomers will quickly be humbled by experienced fighters.

The simplicity at play is, in part, an illusion. It serves to make people unfamiliar with the genre think, “Maybe I’m not so bad at this, afterall!” Then, after having the rug pulled out from under them, they can begin to learn how to make the best use of the many stacked systems available.

Not unlike Arc’s previous fighter BlazBlue, many characters have specific systems to learn that apply only to them. Persona 3‘s Aigis has both an ammunition limit to watch for her guns as well as an overheat meter for an alternate mode. Arena‘s Labrys has an axe that increases in power with consistent combos and gets weaker under other circumstances. Persona 4‘s Yukiko has moves specifically for leveling up all fire-based attacks during a match, and so on.

Persona 4 Arena - Story Mode

Speaking of leveling up, the RPG influence doesn’t stop there. Many attacks induce status ailments like poison, mute, and fear that will last for a time (or until you hit the attacker). It helps give fights a rather unique flavor while doubling as a highly effective nod to the source material.

Of course, what will draw many RPG fans in is the story. And wow, there is a lot of story if you want there to be. The Story Mode for each character is most easily compared to a visual novel and will take hours to complete for each character. But for all its good writing and great characters, I can’t help but nitpick its pacing. Once each story gets going, it hits a certain stride that, while still slow, is manageable. The intros, however, can be daunting in the length of expository sequences. Aigis in particular had me reading internal monologues and listening to bits of dialogue for a bit over an hour and a half before I threw a single punch.

If this doesn’t sound appealing, the Arcade Mode has its own compressed version of the story that still manages to be better than most fighting game story modes. You will, however, miss out on a lot of the finer details the story has to offer. Admittedly, many of the characters have redundant elements as they all individually discover the rules of the P-1 Tournament, but stories like that of the central character, Labrys, are worth experiencing. Without entering spoiler territory, her story is actually quite touching and heartfelt; even moreso than the various human characters.

Persona 4 Arena Review - Mitsuru vs. Teddie

And while the story mode enhances your attachment for every character, what really sells them is how they play. I found myself wanting to “main” every character. Rarely do I find a fighting game roster where so many of the characters are so fun to use, even when they don’t suit the play styles I typically align with. As an initial game, it may not boast the roster numbers of games like The King of Fighters XIII or Street Fighter X Tekken, but (with the exception of one half-clone) these 13 fighters are as fantastic as they are distinct.

Atlus and Arc System Works have created a stellar fighter with Persona 4 Arena. It oozes the signature abundance of style the series is known for. Online play is silky smooth (with occasional stutter in the pre-fight intro). The roster feels wonderfully fresh and interesting. Mechanics are stacked on top of mechanics in ways that will always keep you on your toes. And the balance of accessibility and complexity is genius. Persona 4 Arena is as much of a gateway fighter as it is a wonderful treat for genre veterans. Even if you have no familiarity with the Persona series, this is a collaboration worth your time.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Persona 4 Arena provided to the reviewer by Atlus.

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