Fighting games, of all genres, have proven the most resistant to the "RPG elements" embraced by shooters, puzzlers, and even rhythm games. It's a genre predicated on the notion of a level playing field. Street Fighter and its ilk are hard enough to balance as it is without throwing in added variables like stat bonuses and special equipment.
That's to say nothing of the fact that the play styles are oil and water. Fighting games are competitive, twitch-based affairs – not the best fit for the average RPG fan who enjoying whiling away the hours constructing an optimal party. Probably the closest thing we've had to a true fighting game/RPG hybrid is Dissidia Final Fantasy, which was definitely an interesting spinoff with some solid RPG elements, but couldn't really be called a traditional fighter. Persona 4 Arena, by contrast, is a classic 2D fighter that wholly embraces its setting and even adds to the overall lore. It's also more or less devoid of RPG mechanics though, which might be a tough sell for traditional fans of the series.
So will fans of the Persona series find this unlikely spinoff to their liking? Here are a few thoughts from the perspective an RPG enthusiast who happens to be pretty bad at fighting games.
One thing that immediately jumps out at me about Persona 4 Arena is that the original game's protagonist has both a name and actual dialogue. His name is Yu (get it?), and his look and his tone of voice are very much in line with the average Japanese protagonist – quiet and serious. Compared to the other, more colorful characters on the roster, he's actually a bit boring. But he's got that mysterious air about him, which might explain why everyone was so eager to get to know him in the original game (aside from, you know, the whole solving mysteries and fighting demons thing).
Everyone still looks up to him in Persona 4 Arena – Chie refers to him as sensei – but it's even more of an ensemble drama this time around. The story picks up a year after Persona 4, and takes the time to throw the spotlight on each member of the cast (plus a few immigrants from Persona 3). Chie, for instance, wants to try and become a police officer. As they did a year ago though, they must confront their inner demons, all while solving the mystery of the "midnight tournament" that has them fighting one another.
If it all sounds familiar ... well it is. A large part of Persona 4 Arena is aimed at evoking memories of the original game, so it doesn't go out of its way to introduce many new elements to the story. The arc of the narrative itself is pretty simple as well – I'm guessing that it could be solved in a night or two if it were a quest line in the first game. However, it also provides a somewhat rare glimpse at the internal monologue of the rest of the supporting cast.
Personally, I really like the casts of Persona 3 and Persona 4. Mitsuru, Yukiko, and Chie all stand out as strong, interesting female characters with highly divergent interests, personalities and talents – something of a rarity in the video game realm. All three of them are in Persona 4 Arena, and I assume that each one gets their own chapter in the story mode (I say "assume" because I've yet to unlock Mitsuru's chapter). The story mode itself is something of a homecoming, featuring high-definition text boxes and artwork straight out of the original game. There are even some simple choices to be made between battles, though there's sadly no time for fans to put their visions of a Chie and Akihihiko hook-up into practice.
'Persona 4 Arena puts in a grand effort at turning one of the toughest, most in-depth modern RPGs into a twitchy, high-speed fighter.'
Altogether, it's an odd but appealing package. It's fun to see all the little ways that the RPGs have influenced the actual fighting – the "all-out attacks" that are actual moves, the function of the Personas, and the individual styles, among other things. Arc System Works even found a way to squeeze the original Persona 4's "one more" – in which characters get an additional attack after finding an enemy's weak point – into the combo system. That's some pretty impressive attention to detail.
I want to stress again that I'm not a fighting game expert. Hours of playing Street Fighter II growing up has left me with some vestigial knowledge, but hardly enough to compete online, or even against knowledgeable friends. With that caveat, I've been pretty impressed by how easy it is to pick up Persona 4 Arena. Yukiko and Chie are easy enough to pick that I found myself able to pull off multi-hit combos without even trying. Let me be clear: I never pull off multi-hit combos. At times, I even feel like I know what I'm doing. I've finished Chie's story mode chapter, and I've yet to hit a barrier where I simply can't continue. I do want to say, however, that I am staying as far away from the score attack mode as possible. That mode kicked my butt from here to Inaba.
But apart from running afoul of the score attack mode, I've been really enjoying myself. If nothing else, it's stunning to look at, replacing the flat 3D character models from Persona 3 and Persona 4 with genuinely stunning high-definition sprites. At some point, the constant fighting may get a little repetitive, but I've yet to see even a hint of that. I may even be brave enough to venture online at some point.
Anyway, I stand by my earlier point about roleplaying game and fighting games being an odd fit. I will, however, say that Persona 4 Arena puts in a grand effort at turning one of the toughest, most in-depth modern RPGs into a twitchy, high-speed fighter. It wrings every last bit of detail out the original Persona 4, then manages to squeeze out a bit more.
Will Persona fans enjoy it? I suppose that depends on whether or not they are fundamentally opposed to picking up a fighting game. I will say that I don't think you have to be a fighting fan to enjoy Persona 4 Arena. Fighting game or RPG, its quite enjoyable enough to stand on its own merits.
For more on Persona 4 Arena, check out Joystiq's review.
Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.