Developer: Arc System Works in coordination with Atlus

Publisher: Atlus US

It’s been a middling year for fighting games.  Some have taken this as a sign that the fighting game renaissance has already peaked, that publishers are doomed to repeat the same mistakes they made 10 years ago when fighting games were last at their height of popularity.  Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 burning fans by being released mere months after the original, revisions of Super Street Fighter 4 that cater only to the most hardcore player, and the horribly mismanaged stumble that was Street Fighter X Tekken are all signs that fighting games are on the downturn.

But then, from the darkness, comes a new game, a game that understands that fighting games need to be more than what they are now, a game that may have finally cracked the mystic balance between “accessible” and “challenging”.  That game is Persona 4 Arena, and it is quite possibly the best fighting game released this generation.

Technically a sequel to the critically acclaimed PS2 RPG Persona 4, P4A oozes the same stark, clean style as its predecessor.  All the characters from Persona 4 are in attendance, including some guest characters from Persona 3 who lend some nice variety to the cast.  I’m happy to say that the distinct Persona mood has remained intact in the transition from RPG to fighter.  Every character is voiced by their original voice actor and Atlus’s localization crew has once again done a superb job of translating the game’s story.  This is a true successor, not a spin off.

Graphically, the game is a hand drawn wonder.  Every character moves with perfect fluidity and style, wonderfully at ease in the 2D style.  I would actually say the characters translate better to P4A than they do P4.  There’s just something about Persona’s art style that gets lost when committed to 3D models.  Hand drawn sprites, on the other hand, feel like concept art that was magically ported from the artist’s table directly into the game.  I’m not lying when I say this is a beautiful game to watch and a testament to the craft of Arc System Works’s art team.

Describing the gameplay system as whole is an endeavor that could fill several tomes.  The game is the culmination of Arc Systems Works’s design philosophy.  On the surface, the game looks the quintessential japanese style, anime-inspired fighter.  There are lots of gauges, constant chatter as characters perform special moves, and long, flashy, difficult looking combos.  But once you get under the hood, start poking around the engine, it quickly becomes apparent that the game is so much more than its shiny coat of paint lets on.

For one, the game’s tutorial is one of the most intuitive of any fighting game, ever.  Not only is every system described, but their purposes and uses are detailed as well.  This is a godsend to players who’ve never played fighting games before, alleviating a large part of the frustration that went along with initially learning a fighting game in the past.

And trust me, you will need all the help you can get when playing this game.  When a roster only has 15 characters, you need to compensate by making each individual matchup as different as possible.  Kanji, the grappler of the group, needs to be played entirely different when fighting Chie, the Bruce Lee idolizer, versus, say, Aegis, a robot with machine guns and rocket launchers.  This is a game that definitely rewards research and experience over reflexes and combo memorization.

And speaking of combos, special attention must be given to the quick combo system implemented by Arc Sys.  If there is ever a moment where the player becomes flustered or forgets a combo, they can simply mash on one of the buttons and their character will automatically enter a simple, but effective, combo.  Some of these basic combos do a fair bit of damage and are the perfect stepping stone for new players.

It’s a brilliant system because, unlike nearly every other system in a fighting game designed to help new players, it actively helps ease players into understanding the real core of the game.  Combos may be an integral part of fighting games, but they are also stuck in an odd design position.  They require large amounts of time to commit to muscle memory, but any pro player will tell you that knowing your combos is secondary to understanding concepts like spacing, poking, and baiting.  The quick combo system partially alleviates this problem by immediately giving players the tools to jump into online and feel like they can hold their own.  Just getting them to play online and letting them feel the rush of puling off a combo, of punishing a whiffed uppercut, of really feeling what makes fighting games so special to play is usually all it takes to send them online looking for the real combos and to turn them into dedicated fans of the game.

And once you really get into the game, you will have no trouble finding a game online.  The net code implemented for P4A is amazing.  Arc Sys uses its own proprietary net code (unlike the industry standard GGPO code) and the results are incredible.  Even cross continental matches run smoothly and seamlessly, with no perceptible lag except for the opening round banner.  This, however, doesn’t really come as a surprise.  Arc Sys has consistently had the best net code in fighting games, starting with the incredibly smooth BlazBlue back in 2009.

Also remarkable about the game is that it possesses that fabled rarity amongst fighting games: a brilliant, well written story.  P4A was written and planned by the same team that made the original Persona 4.  The game’s story, told from the perspective of each of the 15 characters, easily takes up to 30 hours to complete, 40 if taken at a leisurely pace with a few practice room breaks.

Of course, no matter how good a fighting game is, a scene still lives or dies based on company support.  In this Atlus has delivered in spades, promising funding for tournaments, prizes and dedicated community support for the foreseeable future.  P4A is Atlus’s big game for 2012, and they will not let it fail.

Honestly, if you have even a passing interest in fighting games, you owe it to yourself to pick up Persona 4 Arena.  The game is beautiful, plays even better, and offers enough story and substance to warrant a purchase from single-player gamers.