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At the time of writing I am having a blast as I indulge myself in a Persona gaming spree. After saving the town of Inaba from being engulfed by a supernatural mist, in the exceptional Persona 4 Golden, I have gone on to watch the game's anime adaptation, beat its PSP predecessor Persona 3 and am now cracking skulls in the product I am reviewing today - Persona 4 Arena. Even before becoming enamored with all things Persona, I had an interest in giving this game a go after spying its exciting fast paced combat at last year's London MCM Comic Con. Yes you read that right, fast paced combat. Although the Persona franchise is known for its tactical turned based RPG play, Arena buckles the trend by taking the series into the world of 1v1 beat-em-ups.
Despite the shift in genre, Arena is the canonical follow-up to Persona 4. The game takes place a mere two months after the events of the aforementioned RPG, focusing on Yu Narukami's return to Inaba. Narukami's homecoming was meant to be a relaxing trip were he could meet up with his relatives and catch up with the high school chums who previously aided him in foiling a serial killer's murderous rampage. Alas things are never that simple. Yu's reunion is scampered by news that two of his pals have vanished without a trace. Former teen idol Rise Kujikawa and Teddie (the perverted resident of the shadow world were a number of the killer's victims met their demise) appear to have gone AWOL. Their whereabouts are a mystery until they are spotted on the midnight channel hosting what appears to be an outlandish fighting tournament.
Once again Yu and friends find themselves having to enter the inhospitable TV shadow world in order to uncover exactly what is going on. Little do they know that the challenges awaiting them will see friends become foes as an unknown force manipulates the Persona users into partaking in a deadly contest were they must duel each other. The setup isn't as intricate as Persona's 4 plot, which was packed with surprising twists, but for a fighting game it serves its purpose in explaining why P4's cast are now at each others throats.
Even if the narrative lacks substance, fans of Atlus' RPG are sure to appreciate seeing how the gang are faring since their last adventure. The wordy story (that often involves reading for 15 minute spells before a fight is triggered) is delivered in a visual novel format, which may not be to everyone's taste. Fans of the series will squeal in delight as they read the often humorous interactions between Arena's contestants, but those not acquainted with the older games will feel lost as little is done to explain the backstory. If you are in that boat you may wish to plump for the arcade mode instead that delivers an abridged version of the plot via quick cut scenes and some light banter between participants prior to a bout. Or you could just play Persona 4 first... which wouldn't be a bad idea as it's a brilliant game.
Atlus commissioned Arc System Works to develop Arena and they managed to deliver a combat system that is robust enough to satisfy hardcore fighting game fans whilst at the same time making the controls accessible enough for the franchise's core RPG followers (who may not be proficient at memorizing the complicated button combinations many modern day brawlers demand for success.) Arc System's stellar design should come as no surprise to anyone well versed in the gaming industry as they have a pedigree for producing solid brawlers such as the popular Blaz Blue series and exemplary Guilty Gear (that happens to be one of my favorite 2D fighting games of all time.)
What makes Persona 4 Arena such a joy to play is that the fighting engine has the depth you would expect from an Arc Systems release without alienating more casual players. Although I am normally fodder when it comes to playing fighting games online I still managed to have fun playing through the story on the normal difficulty setting. The challenge on offer was just right as it wasn't a dull cakewalk nor did it present me with insurmountably powerful opponents that would have to be refought a frustrating number of times. Anyone with rudimentary Street Fighter experience will be able to manage just fine by learning how to block and execute the simple to pull off special moves.
The controls utilize the Playstation's four face buttons to perform two weak attacks and two strong offensive moves. One thing that distinguishes Arena from other fighters is that your character gets to inflict pain not only with their fists, but by also summoning their Persona (a mythical avatar, which is the embodiment of their psyche.) Calling forth your Persona is as simple as pressing a button and those predisposed to button bashing will revel in how simple it is to string flashy combos simply by tapping the same button over and over. Those who become overly dependent on Personas doing their dirty work should however be wary of counter attacks that can harm their faithful servant. Personas can be struck just like the regular characters and will be temporarily disabled should they sustain too much damage.
In terms of presentation Arc System Works once again showcase that they are the masters when it comes to 2D fighters. The cartoony art style they are renowned for and Persona's anime character designs are a marriage made in heaven. The auditory content on offer is just as good, although that shouldn't come as a surprise given that the composers could call upon the excellent soundtracks of earlier Persona games. There are however some original rocking tunes created specifically for the game, which really get the blood pumping during each encounter. As far as voice acting goes the series' continuity is not disrupted as most of the cast from the original games return to reprise their roles and perform their parts admirably.
Overall I can highly recommend Persona 4 Arena even if my opinion may be tinged with some bias, as I am unabashedly a big fan of the series. The only complaint I could levy at the game is that the roster of characters on offer isn't as expansive as what you would get in something like Marvel vs Capcom. Still the selection of fighters we get all feel unique and despite being branded as a Persona 4 title the game manages to sneak in some Persona 3 favorites to pad out the numbers. It's neat seeing Chie share the screen with Mitsuru (who seems to be using her company's wealth to buy fur coats) or Kanji tangle with Akihiko (who has abandoned his smart uniform in favor of fighting topless... I'm sure his fan girls will approve.) Although I'm sure most people would prefer a full fledged RPG sequel, Persona 4 Arena is worth picking up and should keep fans happy until the promised time when Persona 5 finally hits gaming store shelves.