Persona 4 Arena - the 2D fighter for everyone.
Coke or Pepsi. Marvel or DC. Cats or Dogs. We're such an 'or' society most the time that it can be rather painful, and games are some of the worst offenders. Call of Duty or Battlefield. 2D fighter or 3D. Mario or Sonic. Well nowadays everyone's going to say Mario, but you see the point. And it gets worse the deeper you dig - fans of 2D fighters aren't fans of all 2D fighters. They'll continue to debate over Street Fighter or BlazBlue (or Guilty Gear) for eons until one flashes red and falls over in slow motion. As Black Sheep, the almighty scholars of 1991, once said, "You can get with this, or you can get with that".
That last conflict is understandable though, as much as I lament it. Despite being residents of the same genre the focus' held by Capcom and Arc System Works' premier fighting franchises are markedly different. Street Fighter is built on the principles of measured teasing, it's about tentative pokes and tweaks as you analyse your opponents troupes and tells. BlazBlue, on the other hand, puts aggression top of the agenda as it smulches two hugely agile fighters against each other, with fights constantly moving left, right, up and down with rarely a second free to think - finger gymnastics at their finest.
Persona 4 Arena is the perfect middle ground. Developed by Arc System Works it features the studio's patented air dashing style - as well as their trademark, lip smackingly gorgeous character sprites - but it's also far more malleable in terms of offence and defence, and builds a system and range of characters that should endear the game to any fan of two dimensional fisticuffs.
Persona 4 Arena then, despite being based on the RPG series of the same name, is a fighter. You control one of 13 fighters against another in heated acrobatic combat until one of you falls over. The most obvious influence of the RPG, and the most interesting twist on the typical fighter setup, is that each combatant has an attached 'persona' - a spirit they can use to assist them during combat. Like Peter Pan's shadow these spirits are part of your character but act as a seperate element in play, and if they take too many hits they are temporarily disabled. Learning to balance their use is an obvious way to improve your play.
But I'm getting ahead of myself and I don't want to disuade you. Persona 4 Arena doesn't break the mould too much with fights that play out largely as you would expect. Punches, kicks, special moves, super moves, Persona 4 Arena's characters posses all the established methods of aggression upon pressing the A or B buttons. There are two other attack buttons however, C and D, and these summon that Persona mentioned previously. Persona's add to a character by creating new methods of aggression and covering the typical weaknesses of fighting character archetypes. Persona 4 Arena's grapple character, for instance, can use his Persona to attack far away foes while its rush down experts can use their Persona to move their adversaries around the arena or pull them towards them. The Persona quickly becomes a formidable tool, and just one of many options.
Many, many options. You can dodge forward by tapping A and C, that's handy for zipping past obvious rush-downs or skipping around projectiles in a new, unexpected manner. Then there's the all-out attack, a spin on Street Fighter IV's focus attack that lets you punish overly aggressive foes – it absorbs standard attacks and can be followed by a launcher for big air combo potential. Then you have BlazBlue's defensive bursts, EX attacks, big finishers. It's a lot to take in and even though Persona uses simple button shortcuts for all its elements it can still be quite daunting, really.
But don't be put off! The game's story is huge and custom built to teach the ropes - it's not that hard, and it's easy to hop in and just have fun. Of course it's far from easy too, the game's chocolate coating of animé funk and easy to grasp mechanics hides a concrete chestnut snuggled in the centre - this is as hectic, nuanced and tense as Arc's best work if you want it to be.
Actually you know what? Persona 4 Arena is just an incredibly awkward game to talk about. Persona 4 Arena does appeal to new players with simple to access mechanics and special moves that stick mostly to easy-to-understand quarter circles, but it's also a truly tough game to master as those myriad of easily activated mechanics become a frighteningly versatile offensive and defensive suite in the hands of a master. Persona 4 Arena makes everything easy to find and activate, yes, but this only helps to bring the actual playing to the forefront. And if other 2D games take anything from Persona 4 Arena, that's one of its best lessons.
Persona 4 Arena is a hard game to talk about because it does so much so absolutely fantabulously. The problem when a game casts its net wide enough to catch everyone from the spectrum of RPG fan to tournament attending bruising enthusiast is that to describe any of it's individual successes on one end of the spectrum runs the risk of boring and dissuading those the operate on the other. So as much as I want to analyse and explain all of Persona 4 Arena's features and triumphs in microscopic detail like some shaggy haired videogame Sherlock I fear that doing so would put off those more interested in the game's natural playability and in your face spectacle, doing this expertly crafted fighting collaboration a criminal disservice in the process.
Because Persona 4 Arena works - it really, really works - and that's all you need to know. Like a BBQ on a rainy day it shouldn't exist but, through some alignment of the planets, it does. That makes it something truly magical. Novices have a fun, huge story mode written by Atlus themselves, an appealing aesthetic style and welcoming, easy to grasp controls and mechanics. Then fighting aficionados, those that will spend a questionable amount of time neglecting personal hygiene to work out that extra combo string, they have a beautifully designed array of elements and ideas to really sink their teeth into alongside characters and unique systems that effortlessly imbue creativity into anyone's established style.
And Persona 4 Arena achieves this wide spread appeal without the overbearing Japanese-y-ness that has criminally hamstrung the likes of Arcana Heart and BlazBlue in the past. Persona 4 Arena deserves the love of fighter fans and non-fighter fans everywhere as, put in blindingly simple terms, it's a brilliant game.
So Street Fighter fan, BlazBlue fan, Mortal Kombat fan or even King of Fighter fan, it doesn't matter - you'll love it. Heck; Battlefield fan, Pepsi fan, Lion King fan, Crocs fan (if any actually exist), Banana fan, whoever you are just get in here. Persona 4 Arena deserves your attention whoever you are. It's fluid, involving, gorgeous, boasts a varied roster and has a thoughtful, useful range of combat tools. Ultimately, and this isn't something I say lightly, Persona 4 Arena is quite possibly the best 2D fighting game ever made, and you owe it to yourself to give it a chance. As Black Sheep, the almighty scholars of 1991, also once said, "I think you'll get with this, for this is kinda phat".
Words by James Bowden (Twitter: @Dalagonash)