Persona 4 Arena review: Scary monsters, nice sprites

As I've had an extensive history with Persona 4 Arena's older sisters BlazBlue and Guilty Gear XX #Reload, I felt I knew basically what kind of experience I had in store with Arc System Works' latest 2D anime fighter. I was wrong, as it turns out, in a surprising and endearing way.

Now, while my knowledge of Arc System Works' back catalogue is virtually all-encompassing, my know-how of the Persona series is substantially less-than, which is to say "nonexistent." What a shock it was, then, to be thrown head-first into a developed, storied world with characters I've never known and places I've never seen, only to come out the other side deeply invested and hungry for more. Without a doubt, no fighting game has ever made me care about its characters like this.

Persona 4 Arena gave me feelings.%Gallery-148152% That isn't to say that I've never been fond of characters in fighting games before – surely anyone who sticks with a fighting game long enough will develop an affinity for his favorite. This was different, though; by the time P4A's lengthy story mode had been completed, I had bonded with Chie – I actually cared about who she was, what her personal motivations were and what personal faults made her human. That never happened with Astaroth, or Ermac, or Sol Badguy.

As ultimately rewarding as it is, however, Persona 4 Arena's story mode can be quite taxing to finish – so much so that it may dissuade some players from playing the entire game. The problem is the story mode's somewhat unorthodox presentation for the genre. Unlike Mortal Kombat's story mode, which was composed of cinematics and was fully voiced, P4A's story mode is a very traditional Japanese visual novel.

This means that while playing, a lot of time is spent reading – the majority of it, in fact. A good 95 percent of the overall story mode is spent advancing text – one sentence at a time, with about 50 percent accompanied by Atlus' terrific voice acting – and watching the very occasional animated cut scene. The actual fighting fills in that remaining five percent: When matches do happen, they last for only one round and can be anywhere from 20 minutes to more than an hour apart.

Where Mortal Kombat's single continuous story arc changed narrative perspective as it progressed, Persona 4 Arena instead allows players to select their own characters and live out slightly different versions of two main story arcs, depending on whether the fighter of choice is originally from Persona 4 or Persona 3.

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Adding to both the length and complexity of the story mode is the fact that the game must be "beaten" with several characters before the true ending of each character's story arc can actually be accessed. Seeing as each character's individual story is easily the length of any standard fighting game's story mode, making your way through P4A's entire narrative takes quite a bit of doing. Visual novels may be at home on handheld devices, but reading for extended periods of time on a television makes for some very tired, angry eyeballs.

Once the key to Persona 4 Arena's narrative climax is unlocked, however, everything changes. What had eventually become a tired retelling of the same basic series of events evolved into the enthralling, captivating and heart-wrenching story of a character that I'd previously cared very little for. Even better, this bridge between the first and second half of each character's story explained all the nagging, unanswered occurrences that had once infuriated with their persistent ambiguity, like Labrys' psuedo-Brooklyn/Cockney 1930s police detective accent. What once passed as a confusing artistic choice revealed itself as the meticulously planned, well-crafted seed of a much stronger, deeper narrative.

The emotional experience of playing P4A is actually quite reminiscent of playing through Catherine, another esoteric title from Atlus, in that the true scope of Catherine's symbolism and brilliance was not apparent until the very, very end of the game. Persona 4 Arena's ending may not be as existential as Catherine's, but after unlocking the plot bridge and finishing Chie's story, I found myself wearing a smile generally reserved for Miyazaki films and Adventure Time. The experience was completely and unequivocally worth it, despite every single hour of reiterative storytelling that made a meaningful payoff seem impossible, and the fact that each character gets its own ending means that after dozens of hours of play, I'd only scratched the surface.

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This would all be worthless, of course, if the engine the game is built upon turned out to be garbage. This is a fighting game after all, with arcade, training, versus and online modes, and most people will be buying it for the combat, not the story. Thankfully, Arc System Works' pedigree of building Grade-A 2D fighting engines has not been diluted over the years, though the modes themselves could use some polish.

Persona 4 Arena's fighting engine has more sub-systems than you can shake a stick at, but the matrix of flexibility upon which those sub-systems are built allows for effective play at any skill level. Some mechanisms, like a simplified air/ground recovery system and one-button Auto Combos, make it easier for new players to acclimate to the engine and effectively defend themselves against more seasoned players. Even without the use of advanced techniques like One More Cancels, which allow the player to spend super meter and end an ability's animation early, it's possible to pull off impressive looking combos and do well enough to enjoy yourself.

High-level play didn't require so much effort that I was too busy concentrating on one-frame links, but it also wasn't so easy that any sense of accomplishment had been removed. It's exquisitely balanced between making the players work for something amazing, and making them feel amazing when it happens, as every perfectly executed combo carries with it an intoxicating sense of self-congratulatory accomplishment.

Obviously, those who master P4A's nuances will have an advantage, but complete mastery of the game isn't a prerequisite for fun. Either way, the resulting experience is a delectable nougat center of combo deliciousness, firmly sandwiched between a crunchy wafer of Guilty Gear complexity and creamy, smooth BlazBlue-style character design. Movement during a fight is akin to the graceful fluidity of a choreographed dance, rather than the sputtering staccato rhythm of Street Fighter 4 and/or Mortal Kombat matches. The fighters themselves have a satisfying sense of weight and momentum about them, as do their attacks, and landing an incredible combo in the middle of that beautiful chaos is satisfying.

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The game's Lesson Mode does a great job of teaching every aspect of every system, and Challenge Mode is a decent way of learning bread-and-butter combos, though it would benefit greatly from a system that teaches input timing in addition to the inputs themselves. Arcade Mode also falters in its execution. Rather than a stock, fighting-only experience, Arcade Mode serves as a condensed/Reader's Digest version of the main Story Mode. This means that, depending on the fighter chosen, the player fights the same series of characters every single time they play through the mode.

Not only does this remove most replayability, but it's also one of the rare instances in which a game spoils its own story – by completing Arcade Mode before Story Mode, many important plot points are revealed ahead of schedule, so to speak. A randomly-generated Arcade Mode with no story elements would have been much more appropriate, though Versus Mode functions as a somewhat viable alternative as it allows the player to choose a CPU-controlled opponent.

Like so many other modern fighting games, Persona 4 Arena's online match architecture suffers from Street Fighter 4 syndrome, meaning that there is nothing on offer beyond ranked matches and 8-person player lobbies. Propers should be given, however, for the amount of customization options available when creating a player room. Region, signal strength and a dozen other parameters can be set by the room's host, who can also advertise what characters they regularly use and what attitude the room has (competitive, casual, etc.).

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Persona 4 Arena's online play is powered by the same netcode that underpinned the Blazblue series, which has historically been very strong. Unfortunately, an error in the code's implementation on the Xbox 360 version (and only the 360 version) of P4A has caused both Ranked and Player matches to reach virtually unplayable levels of lag.

Atlus has acknowledged the 360 version's problem and has confirmed with Joystiq that the patch currently being tested in Japan will head to North America as well. In their current state, however, matches crawl along at single-digit frames-per-second intervals and are hardly worth even attempting.

Meanwhile, the PlayStation 3 version is completely fine. Joystiq EIC Ludwig Kietzmann tested and confirmed that P4A's online modes play without issue on the PS3. Synchronization between players was quick, and aside from Arc System Works' trademark match-intro slowdown, fights proceeded without major framerate lag or input delay.

Persona 4 Arena and its characters have a special place in my heart now, but not for the reason that fighting games usually take up shop under my left ventricle. I am in love with this engine, true, and I probably spent as much time finding combos in Training Mode as I did finishing Story Mode, but it was Story Mode that got me honestly choked up. These characters are more than just concept art and frames of animation; they're people, haunted by their own weaknesses and limitations and yet stronger because of it. Atlus has raised the bar for mature, coherent storytelling in the fighting game universe.

This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of Persona 4 Arena, provided by Atlus. Some multiplayer testing was also performed on the PlayStation 3 version.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.