The Persona series returns as a fighting game and it features the best of both genres: An engaging story fit for an epic JRPG and a fast-paced fighting system.
By SHAUN A. NOORDIN
Atlus has a reputation of publishing strange yet awesome games (see: Catherine, Odin Sphere), and the latest odd duck from them is Persona 4:Arena.
Essentially, Atlus took Persona 4, its epic JRPG (Japanese computer role-playing) about school kids solving murder mysteries and fighting demons, and asked Arc System Works (the studio behind Guilty Gear and BlazBlue) to turn it into a frantic, twitchy 2D fighting game.
The combination of slow-paced JRPG and high-speed brawling is a very strange mix, but believe it or not it works amazingly.
It's executed so well that not only does it provide a lot of entertainment no matter what your skill level, it also managed to introduce this reviewer - an avid fan of JRPGs - to the joys of performing chain combos directly into somebody's face.
The original Persona 4 told the story of Japanese teenagers who spent their days attending high school in a sleepy countryside town and battling psyche monsters within a supernatural TV world. (We assume this happens a lot in Japan.)
Arena extends that into a fighting game, bringing the cast of the previous game (and Persona 3) back to investigate a mysterious fighting tournament being held in the TV world.
A lot of elements from the original RPG are translated into the fighting game system, including "Persona summoning" (where you summon avatars of your inner psyche to perform special attacks), status effects (poisoned, charmed, confused, etc), and, of course, the series' impressive storytelling.
Now, there are two ways to approach Arena. You're either coming in as a fan of the Persona 4series (either from the original PS2 game or the 2011 anime series) who wants to see what's the deal with these brawling shenanigans; or you're a hardcore fighting game player who wants to see how this JRPG spin-off stands up to established face-punching dynasties like Street Fighter.
We'll approach this review from the former viewpoint, because - to be honest - this reviewer's so terrible at fighting games he once thought Chun Li could perform a hadouken.
Try the punch
Arena introduces a number of features to the fighting genre's established formula, and the most notable is the aforementioned Persona summoning.
Players can summon their Personas at any time to perform strong attacks, and since those Personas are effectively extra characters on the battlefield, you can execute impressive tandem attacks with your own avatars.
The catch is, summoned Personas can be attacked and temporarily "broken," causing their owners to be extra vulnerable and bereft of their special attacks.
For even more powerful moves, there's an SP bar that gradually fills up during combat, which can then be used to do anything from screen-filling energy blasts to - we kid you not - instant-kill attacks.
Heaven help you if you don't finish off your opponent soon after their life bar drops into the red, because at this point they enter their Awakening State, increasing their SP dramatically and unlocking even more ridiculously strong attacks.
But wait, there's more! There's a Burst gauge that can be used to blast enemies away and break their combos; SP can be spent to cancel out of your attack chains; and there's even a button combo for a hop, which allows you to perform aerial attacks... from the ground. Hmm, we're still trying to understand that one.
You'll need to go through the game's Lessons Mode to even comprehend the shenanigans you can pull off during fights, but if you have the skill to master them, you'll reap the full rewards from the game's finely-tuned fighting engine.
Fortunately, despite the complex systems available, Arena doesn't ask you to have extreme fighting skills.
Beginners can use the auto-combo option, so even if you decide to button-mash your way through the story mode, you'll still be able to enjoy (and win!) the fast-paced battles and watch your characters execute devastating combos in the game's stylish, 2D animations.
The fights can get chaotic and can be over with very quickly, but they're always fun, no matter how good (or terrible) you are at fighting games.
Stay awhile and listen
As you might have guessed, we're huge fans of the series, so one of the biggest draws of Arena for us was the continuation of the Persona storyline. However, the way Arena presented that story surprised us: 90% of the Story Mode took the form of a Japanese visual novel.
(Note: Arena has bilingual audio and text options, so put down that Japanese dictionary. I meant Japanese visual novels as in the genre.)
The Story Mode lets you play through the main story from each character's point of view. The narrative is delivered via huge amounts of texts, voiceovers, static images and - occasionally - animated cutscenes.
Actual fights occur only sporadically throughout the narrative, so your enjoyment of Story Mode depends entirely on how much you like reading.
This really shouldn't be too much of a problem though, as Arena features the series' fantastic storytelling.
Each character - from the tomboy Chie, to the clown-like Teddie, to the robot-with-a-heart Aigis - has his/her own well-defined reasons for fighting in the tournament, and each has his/her own personal struggle that unfolds over the course of the Story Mode.
The plot's never as simple as "I wanna be the champion" or insanely convoluted, as is often the case with many fighting games.
If you aren't already a Persona fan, you'll soon grow to love the characters - they're fully fleshed out individuals, and not just a collection of move sets.
For the record, when we were playing through Yu's (the protagonist of Persona 4) story path, we were so engrossed with the plot we didn't realise it took 20 freaking minutes to get to our first fight.
One character's story path even involved approximately two hours of text, half a dozen tear-jerking moments, and only one battle, yet we still loved it.
Just be prepared to go through Story Mode a number of times though, as several characters and their "true endings" have to be unlocked by finishing others' story paths.
Of course, if you don't have the patience for engaging storytelling, or if you just really cannot stand reading walls of text (wait, how did you last this long into this article?) you can always just ignore the Story Mode altogether.
The Arcade Mode serves as more concise version of Story Mode, Versus Mode lets you pick your own fights and, if you're really confident with your skills, you can take on other players in the Online Mode.
We'd love to talk more about Persona 4 and its story, but we'll save our gushing for Persona 4 Golden, the PS Vita remake of the game.
At first glance, Persona 4:Arena's odd mix of Japanese visual novel elements, twitchy fast combat and anime-styled 2D visuals seems to appear to a very specific niche audience. (That niche being the Japanese.)
Give it a chance, though, and you'll quickly find that despite - or perhaps because of - its idiosyncrasies, it achieves what a great game's supposed to do: Be helluva fun for everyone.
You're going to walk away from Arena either as an established Persona fan with a new-found respect for fighting games, or a fighting game enthusiast with a new appreciation for Arena's engaging storytelling.
Either way, you're invited to step into the arena.
Pros: Fighting system that's inviting to both pros and novices; engaging Story Mode with meaningful characters.
Cons: Lots and lots of text in Story Mode might turn off some people.
Persona 4 Arena
(Arc System Works/Atlus)
2D fighting game fore PS3, XBox 360
Price: US$59.99 (RM180)
Review unit courtesy of Sony Computer Entertainment Hong Kong, asia.playstation.com.