I'd imagine the Venn diagram comparing fighting game players to Japanese role-playing game fans doesn't have much overlap.
These are two wildly disparate genres. One caters to the competitive, requiring quick reflexes and the ability to perform lengthy, timing-intensive strings of input commands quickly and strategically. The other satiates the story-hungry gamer, asking only that they maintain a healthy working relationship with one or two important buttons and that they not doze off during lengthy cut scenes.
Creating a game that successfully caters to both is nigh impossible. Persona 4 Arena places a heavy emphasis on that nigh.
When Atlus first announced Persona 4 Arena, a fighting game featuring characters from Persona 3 and 4, I was incredibly excited. That excitement didn't come from the expectation of a good game, however. It came from a love of the uncomfortable-yet-pleasing shoe-horning of characters from one genre into another one they have no business being in. A love that began way back in 1998 when Square Electronic Arts (remember that?) released Ehrgeiz: God Bless The Ring, a PlayStation fighter featuring several popular characters from Final Fantasy VII.
It was novel, pitting Yuffie Kisaragi against Ken "No Relation" Mishima. Novel and adorably awkward.
I was fully prepared for a little fighting game fluff, Persona-style, but then I realized Atlus had tapped Arc System Works to develop this thing. Arc System Works, the fighting game developer that waltzed into the Capcom and Namco-dominated fighting game scene back in 1998 with Guilty Gear and have been kicking ass ever since.
Atlus was serious about this fighting game thing. Now how do they layer role-playing on top of that?
Quite well, as it turns out. Persona 4 Arena is very much a true sequel to Persona 4 with a dash of Persona 3 crossover added for good measure.
Two months ago a group of friends gifted with the ability to manifest aspects of their psyche as powerful Personas solved a series of grisly murders that took place in the small Japanese town of Inaba, centered around an extra-dimensional world lurking behind the screens of their television sets. This Midnight Channel went away once the mystery was solved, but now it has returned, drawing the friends back in and pitting them against each other in a fighting tournament known as the P-1 Grand Prix.
Meanwhile, in Persona 3 land, the type 5 anti-shadow humanoid weapon Labrys has escaped her corporate masters, sending the robotic Aigis and other, less important characters (love Aigis) on a mission to Inaba, where they stumble into the Midnight Channel themselves.
In most fighting games this would be more than enough plot development. In Persona 4 Arena it's only the briefest introduction.
Each of the 13 characters has their own tale in story mode, each a ridiculously lengthy mix of narrative text, voiced character dialogue and the odd animated cut scene. I tend to use the word 'ridiculously' loosely, but that's not the case here. In some of the stories I played there was nearly a half-hour of exposition before I saw the inside of a fighting arena.
As the pure fighting fans groan, the role-players are gleefully clapping their hands, as well they should. Persona 4 Arena offers hours and hours of insight into our favorite Persona characters, fleshing them out considerably in the process. Told from a first-person perspective, each tale delivers intimate insight into the motivations and desires of these people, written intelligently and with humor sprinkled in just the right spots (if you're a robot trying to convince a human you're a normal high school student, might not want to mention the Gatling cannon). There are no one dimensional cookie cutter characters here.
That fact won't be lost on the pure fighting game fans that opt to skip the story and go straight to arcade or online, either. The individuality demonstrated in the narrative carries over to each character's move sets. No two fighters handle the same way. While gun-toting androgynous detective Naoto Shirogane stands and fires her weapon, Chie Satonaka leaps around like the monkey-ish (I say it with love) tomboy she is. The elegant Yukiko Amagi lets her fans do the talking, while my beloved Aigis unloads the heavy weapons. And Teddy the bear-thing? He's just crazy.
These diverse characters do battle using a very Arc System Works fighting system, a blend of simply button presses with advanced tactics aimed at pleasing both novice and professional fighter alike. A basic tutorial gets the RPG fans up to speed on the more complicated mechanics — cancels, bursts, blocking, etc. — all of which they can then happily forget, mashing buttons in time to perform impressive All-Out Attacks, essentially combos for dummies. With only four buttons to concern themselves with, two for physical attacks and two for the flashier Persona attacks, it's an incredibly easy system to master. The fighting game folks will still wipe the floor with the role-playing folks online, but they might get hit once or twice in the process. Once the role-players get tired of getting sand kicked in their faces they can play through Challenge Mode, which takes them on a whirlwind tour of each character's more complicated moves — a feature I absolutely adore in a fighting game.
Further easing the role-playing series' fans into a fighting mood is Persona 4 Arena's sleek and stylish presentation. The trademark colorful, geometrical menus welcome RPG refugees with open arms, while the musical genius of Shōji Meguro and friends soothe their spirits with a playful mix of rock, pop and jazz. Atlus and Arc System Works have gone great lengths to make sure Persona fans feel right at home here.
The game's online multiplayer, however, could use a little tweaking. Allowing players to create their own mini tournament rooms where they can spectate on other fights while they wait their turn is nifty, but the option to simply find an opponent for a quick one-on-one round is absent from Player Matches — choosing Quick Match brings you to a list of rooms to join.
Ranked matches do allow for quick one-on-one battles, but getting in and out of those battles is a chore. It takes a bit of time to be paired up with someone, and once the match ends I've found myself stuck waiting on the results screen for over a minute until the game freed me to do other things.
Once you're in a battle, however, things go rather smoothly. The opening animations for the fighting stages may stutter, but once you're in proper battle the game compensates nicely for any connection disparity. It doesn't compensate for my hideous losing streak, but that's on me.
The novelty I expected from Persona 4 Arena is still present, but it's nowhere near as awkward as I imagined it would be. I was expecting a fighting game with Persona tacked on. What I got a is fighting game and Persona married with a suave sophistication I never dreamt possible. Will it see fighting game fans downloading The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky and role-players vying for spots in the EVO Championship Series? Sure, that's exactly what's going to happen. Why not?