Fighting games are always going to be a hard sell for people. In no other genre of games do people expect that they should be able to mash buttons and win. While Persona 4 Arena does provide a lot of depth and strategy for hardcore fighting game fans, it makes bigger steps toward including newer players and fostering interest in the genre than just about any other title this generation.
There was some outcry when Persona 4 Arena (released in Japan as Persona 4: The Ultimate in Mayonaka Arena) was announced, and that the game would be developed by Arc System Works of Guilty Gear and BlazBlue fame. Die-hard RPG fans cried foul, thinking that a fighting game follow-up would be a waste and a quick cash-in, and fighting game fans rolled their eyes, recalling unbalanced, not-even-close-to-competitive RPG tie-in fighters like Dissidia: Final Fantasy. With the game actually out, which side does it cater more to?
The answer, surprisingly, is both--Persona 4 Arena is a canon sequel, taking place two months after Persona 4 and adding in characters and story points from Persona 3. A lot happens in the game's extensive Story Mode, and the game's fighting system is on par--and in many ways better--than this year's recently-released major fighters. Persona 4 Arena does what was once thought impossible--it's able to provide an exciting, refreshing and above all fun experience that can also be enjoyed in an intense, well-designed competitive setting.
While super-hardcore games like Skullgirls are great for the small audience of dedicated fight fans, Persona 4 Arena takes some smart steps in reaching out to that much larger "everybody else" audience. The game provides an easy-to-learn, but difficult-to-master system built around a four-button control scheme (two normal attacks, two Persona attacks), meaning players won't have to wrangle their way around playing a six-button scheme on a pad, or shell out extra for a fight stick.
The game's diverse cast of 13 characters allows players to choose somebody and get right into playing, instead of being intimidated by a massive cast. Movelists are simplified as well: everybody has quarter-circle motions, a few characters have charge motions in addition to those, and all supers have universal movements. I'd recommend that everybody who picks up the game immediately goes to Lesson Mode, which teaches the basics of the game as well as giving newbies an excellent primer in the physical part of playing fighting games--doing quarter-circle motions, backdashes, and the like.
In fact, I'd say P4A's Lesson Mode and Training Mode do more for new players than Skullgirls' Tutorials--while Skullgirls teaches the mental and tactical aspect of fighting games, that doesn't mean a thing if players can't actually do the moves. By focusing solely on the basics, P4A gives players a solid base from which to start actually learning how to play fighting games. My beginner guinea pig also found the learning curve to be less insane than Skullgirls and its sudden jump in tutorial difficulty.
Persona 4 Arena uses a simple and surprisingly effective compromise to let players of all skill levels compete and have fun: the Autocombo. Simply by mashing the Weak Normal button, players get a short combo that can end in a super if you have enough meter. While it sounds like something that can really be abused by high-level players, ending Autocombos in supers lops off a little bit of health. Longtime fighting game players: do you really want to intentionally lose health in a match? Casual fans: do you care? By providing this interesting dividing line, Persona 4 Arena is able to comfortably ease players into a more advanced fighting mindset without building up a confusing and ultimately abandoned new system (hi, Street Fighter X Tekken).
DON'T DO IT, I BEG OF YOU
Along with providing a great fighting game for beginners, people who aren't at all interested in competing and are just interested in the story and characters of Persona 4 get a lengthy Story Mode. Each character gets a roughly hour-long individual story with different encounters and lots of dialogue. Picking up two months after the ending of Persona 4, once-silent protagonist Yu Narukami returns to the small town of Inaba, where he and his friends put an end to the murderous urban legend of the Midnight Channel. However, the Midnight Channel has seemingly returned, and it looks like one of Yu's closest friends may be at the center of it.
The Story Mode is done in a purely visual novel style, with still images and limited animation, but is completely voiced except for characters' inner monologues. Some people might be put off by the sheer amount of text, and there are very few fights between pages and pages of (admittedly interesting and very well-written) dialogue. One character's Story Mode has one fight for a roughly hour-long story--if you're more interested in the actual game, Story Mode doesn't offer much. However, Persona fans will be right at home with the witty banter and occasional branching pathway. Arcade Mode provides a more standard single-player fighting game experience with seven opponents, story progression and a boss battle.
Even with all these concessions made for casual players and series fans not as familiar with fighting games, Persona 4 Arena is still a very solid and competitive fighting experience that will keep fight fans spending long hours in training mode and online. With the recent online patch for the 360, both versions have solid netcode, although on the PS3 version games will lag if you skip pre-match intros. Up to 8-player lobbies can be set up for online play with plenty of great options--you can set lobbies to "Winner Gets Next," "Loser Gets Next" or my favorite, "Random Gets Next." You can also put conditions in your lobbies, setting a minimum connection quality or not allowing players with high disconnect rates to join your lobby.
While newer players can Autocombo their way to glory, experienced fighting game players will have to get used to the rather tight execution windows of the game. Universal movelists make it a case of who uses each character's tools better, and each individual character has noticeable differences, from Chie Satonaka's rushdown game and high mix-up potential to Teddie's unpredictable random items. Many major additions to fighting games are present in P4A--EX moves, cancels, universal overheads (that link into a free combo/blowback), Bursts and instant kills are joined by the very welcome and RPG-like addition of status ailments. Over the course of battle, characters can be struck with obvious statuses like Poison (health slowly decreases) or Charm (super meter slowly decreases) to more unexpected and game-changing afflictions like Rage (increased attack power, but lose your ability to block) and Panic (your controls are reversed).
RPG fans, don't pass on Persona 4 Arena simply because it's a fighting game. You get the next chapter in the Persona 4 story, and more time spent with some of the most likeable characters in JRPGs. Fight fans, don't dismiss P4A as a weak gimme only made for the RPG crowd--this is a quality Arc System Works fighter with a very high level of polish. Above all, this game feels complete. If you're a fighting game fan looking for the next big challenge, a Persona fan wanting to see the next big mystery unravel, or just wanted to find a way to start "getting" fighting games, Persona 4 Arena provides more than enough for all of you.
+ Beautiful graphics with smooth animation and a lot of personality
+ Smartly-designed fighting system that's welcoming to newcomers and challenging for experienced players
+ In-depth Story Mode with excellent dialogue that continues the plot of Persona 4, with Persona 3 guest characters
+ Comparatively small cast of characters is diverse, interesting, and balanced
+ Good netcode with minimal lag on both platforms (now that 360 is patched)
- Story Mode is a wall of text--it can be a turn-off for people only looking for the next fight