I don’t know about you, but we’d almost given up hope of seeing Persona 4: Arena on British shores. Based on the popular JRPG franchise of the same name, ArcSystem Work’s animé brawler has been in release limbo for absolutely yonks. The game even arrived on American soil last year, prompting thousands of European gamers to weep into their copies of BlazBlue, while shouting obscenities on forums all over the internet. Good things come to those who wait though, and we’re happy to report that Persona 4: Arena is as brilliant as we’d hoped.
Part of the brawler’s success is down to ArcSystems Works, who co-developed the game. Having previously worked on such masterpieces as Guilty Gear and BlazBlue, it’s fair to say the studio knows how to make a first-class fighter. Indeed, the game retains much of the studio’s trademark ‘feel’ – from the blistering sense of speed, to the unbeatable animations, and attack chains that explode into elaborate combos.
It’s certainly one of the most energetic fighters we’ve played, too. There are frenetic air dashes, powerful bursts, insta-death combos and other signature mechanics from previous games. Borrowing from such a fine heritage also ensures the game is instantly familiar – perfect for those for both newcomers and veterans who want to master every character.
Speaking of characters, newcomers to the franchise are definitely in for a treat. While most fighting games trade in characters that are devoid of substance, the brawlers in Persona 4: Arena have a unique sense of identity. This brilliant characterisation is bolstered by a brilliant story mode, which picks up shortly after the events of the RPG series.
The story revolves around a mysterious fighting tournament, broadcast on the Midnight Channel – a shady TV programme that has been involved with murders in the past. Terrified by their inclusion in a promotional video for the tournament, the gang begin to investigate who’s behind the plot.
While it might sound a tad daft, there’s a surprising amount of depth to be found in the story mode. Initially following four main characters, the plot branches out with additional characters to unlock and a spellbinding ‘cliffhanger’ finale that’s sure to make you scratch your head. Primarily told through cutscenes and dialogue boxes, it’s a welcome change to the traditional fighting game structure – and one that we’d like to see replicated in future brawlers.
Of course, the fantastic plot would stand for nothing if the brawler underneath was absolutely terrible. Needless to say, that isn’t the case. What makes Persona 4: Arena stand out in the genre is its use of Persona guardians, essentially ‘summons’ that are character specific. In many ways, Personas are similar to assists in the Marvel series, albeit as an extension of your character as opposed to a one-off novelty.
Personas even have their own attacks, special moves and health bars, so you’ll have to use them carefully to win each fight. Take too many hits and they’ll absent themselves from the brawl, leaving you more vulnerable to attacks. It can be slightly confusing at first, but the Persona mechanics really come into their own after a few attempts. The mechanic also breathes new life into characters, from Mitsuru’s long-range whip that petrifies foes, to Shadow Labrys’s huge behemoth that looms over the arena, tormenting opponents with a wide array of moves.
Thanks to its sense of speed and simple combos, Persona 4: Arena doesn’t feel quite as difficult as other fighting games. Of course, that’s not to say it can’t be mastered. With personas, special moves and counters that need to be built up, Persona 4: Arena certainly sorts the wheat from the chaff. There’s even a detailed tutorial to play through, which should get most players up to speed with the genre – especially if they haven’t played the likes of BlazBlue.
Of course, it’s Persona 4: Arena’s sense of style that truly wins us over. With plenty of gorgeous stages, from classrooms to fully-fledged arenas, it’s an absolute beauty to behold. What’s more, the excellent animation imbues each brawler a unique feel and personality, making it difficult to find a favourite character - as you’ll almost certainly want to master them all.
It’s also a game of considerable substance, even once you’ve completed the sprawling story mode. In addition to fairly standard arcade and challenge modes, you’ll also find rich online functionality. While we were worried that the delay would mean empty servers, you’ll be glad to hear that there are many American and Japanese players to challenge at all skill levels. There’s minimal lag during fights too, thanks in part some rather brilliant ‘net code under the bonnet.
It’s taken a lifetime arrive on European turf, but Persona 4: Arena is most definitely worth the wait. With its stunning visuals, enormous substance and strong online community, it’s a fighter that comes easily recommended. You see, good things really do come to those who wait.