Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Review: Persona 4: Arena

Persona 4: Arena
Platform: PS3/Xbox 360
Price: £12.49 (prices may vary elsewhere)
Release Date:   Out Now

Okay, to start off, this review comes in two parts: a mostly spoiler free discussion of the actual game itself and a full fat, balls to the wall analysis of the story. If you’re somewhat incredulous that a fighting game deserves a close examination of its plot I’d normally agree with you but in this unique instance I feel a separate look is required. That will follow at a later date, so for now let’s see how Persona 4: Arena stands up.

Persona 4: Arena is the canonical sequel to Atlus’ hugely popular JRPG Persona 4. Yet Persona 4: Arena (hereafter referred to as just Arena) is a fighting game, a far cry from the series JRPG origins. However this particular game was co-developed between Atlus and Arc System Works of Guilty Gear and BlazBlue fame, a marriage of two teams not too dissimilar to the collaboration between Kojima Productions/Konami and Platinum Games for Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. It is with some regret then that, while Arena is a rather well executed title, it underwhelms when compared to both the story pedigree associated with Atlus titles and the fighting game calibre of Arc System Works.

While I mentioned I would leave the bulk of the story discussion to a separate article, I can at least state the premise and how you might fare as a newcomer. Arena is set in the fictional country town of Inaba, Japan (originally considered as the prime location for an Asian adaptation of Midsomer Murders) and features a cast of high schoolers who, having solved a year-long murder mystery in Persona 4, are drawn into a new confrontation with an unseen enemy inside what is known as the “TV World”, which is essentially an ethereal realm representing the collective unconscious of the human race. Inside this TV world our heroes can draw on the power of their own “Persona”, a manifestation of their inner self, to fight and defend themselves. But in Arena, the friends find themselves forced to fight each other as they try to unravel the mystery behind this new threat.

If that sounds like a highly condensed and generalised version of a thick plot, you’d be right. While I have saved the bulk of my story analysis for another time, I can at least state that for new players Arena is welcoming as far as plot goes, but it only accomplishes this with a bland, paint by numbers method of storytelling. Every character’s individual story arc restates the set up I described previously to the point of redundancy, and a lot of what made Persona 4 so charming is glossed over. There is some expectation that perhaps you might know some things about the previous game, but at the same time the concession to newcomers does no service either to them or to returning fans by opting for a flat retelling. Part of this might also be due to Atlus wanting players of Arena to try Persona 4 as a result of wanting to explore the backstories of the characters and the world, but aside from the platform disparity (Arena exists on 360/PS3 but Persona 4 is PS2 or Vita only) this is a tactic, intended or not, that backfires badly.

But that’s as far as I’ll go into the story here. Let’s instead discuss the actual fighting mechanics. As this is a game developed by Arc System Works, those familiar with Guilty Gear or BlazBlue will instantly feel right home with the fast paced, technical gameplay. Each character possesses both their own attacks and Persona attacks, with their Persona functioning as a separate entity for the most part. This creates a fairly unique style of fighting gameplay in that players both must consider their spacing more carefully, as it is possible to have some Personas attacking from a different direction than their host, allowing for tricky mixups and on screen ambiguity. Newcomers need not be discouraged however as most characters simply can have their Persona attacking in tandem to form combos, but the depth is there. Damaging a character’s Persona will for the most part cost a “Persona Card”, of which each character has four. Lose all four and your Persona is disabled for a time along with any attacks which require it. Atlus and Arc System Works have not entirely disregarded the series JRPG heritage though. All of the various character’s Personas and attack styles are faithful to their origins and certain Persona attacks can inflict status ailments such as Poison, Confuse (which inverts your directional inputs) and Charm to name a few, which is a neat gameplay touch that distinguishes Arena somewhat from its contemporaries while making Persona fans feel more at home.

Arena is actually more welcoming to newcomers on a technical level than other games also. Compared to the likes of BlazBlue’s various incarnations Arena sports a few mechanics in game that seem designed to appeal to newcomers and novice players (and possibly reluctant Persona fans who might be put off with it being a fighting game rather than a JRPG). For example, each character has an Auto Combo which is accomplished simply by hitting the appropriate button repeatedly. Auto Combos generate a lot of super meter and also finish with a super if sufficient meter is present. In addition, all characters possess a dragon punch or reversal move called a Furious Action which can be activated with just two buttons rather than the typical shoryuken input. The game also features as usual a solid training mode and Challenge mode to teach you basic and intermediate combos, but much like with BlazBlue or Guilty Gear you will need to take to the internet for videos of high level play and frame data to become truly skilled at the game. It should be noted however that players familiar with BlazBlue or Guilty Gear will be able to drop in right away as Arena shares several mechanics from those games also such as Rapid Cancels and Bursting.

However, where Arena trips up in its hubris to appeal to novice players is that both the Auto Combo and Furious Action systems are actually counter intuitive to their intended goal of helping new players. Auto Combo damage with a super is relatively low, which is to be expected, but the ease of performing it wrongly incentivises new players to go straight for the super ender rather than spending the meter said combo earned on something more productive. Worse though is that Furious Actions, as an easy defensive measure to perform, do not encourage good decision making. Against a player familiar with Arena, new players who rely on Furious Actions too much will find their defences baited and a brutal combo to follow. The game in neither instance either functionally or educationally emphasises that overuse of these system mechanics is a bad idea, and in my early days of Arena I fought many new players who fell prey to both of the above pitfalls.

Where Arena does succeed though is in its presentation, replicating the yellow colour scheme and style of Persona 4 and bringing back Shoji Meguro as composer. Whilst each character gets their own musical theme, and all are good Persona style tunes to be sure, the game also brings back a lot of the environmental and incidental music from the Persona 4 as well either in its original form or as a remix. Personally this doesn’t bother me as it’s a nice nostalgia touch for fans of the series and is not overly excessive. Aesthetically the character sprites are drawn just as fluidly as those you’d find in any BlazBlue iteration and it’s nice to see the various characters given a 2D rendition with fully featured movement and animation as opposed to the relative stiffness of their 3D representations in Persona 4. The game also has a consistent design of making everything look like a TV show, with the KO noise being a ringside bell to the post fight victory screens being a television interview, not to mention the inclusion of many Persona characters as announcers who commentate on the match as it develops. It’s a consistent and neat design that helps Arena fit into the Persona series despite its markedly different gameplay.

The roster features thirteen playable characters in total. From Persona 4 the entirety of the Investigation Team return (excepting Rise, but she was never able to fight anyway despite whatever nonsense the anime might have to say about it) and we also have the pleasant inclusion of several Persona 3 alumni, with Aigis, Mitsuru, Akihiko and Elizabeth all present. Two new characters, Labrys and Shadow Labrys, are also introduced here. Each character feels unique and not just by merit of their Personas, and it’s clear that Arc System Works and Atlus hashed out in detail ways to make the characters feel and play differently while remaining faithful to their JRPG incarnations. Yukiko for example still focuses on setting everything on fire and Akihiko as you’d expect is all about his boxing, being not as reliant on his Persona as other characters. However, much like BlazBlue: Chronophantasma the balance is a bit off, with some matches being ridiculously unfavourable for certain characters such as the Kanji versus Elizabeth matchup which I’ve seen ranked at a staggering 3 – 7 in Elizabeth’s favour. Only about half the cast is truly viable at a high level, and while I concede this is the first iteration of the Arena series the fact that some characters have ridiculously powerful options (such as Chie’s okizeme being far too strong) is a mark against the game. The characters certainly have avoided feeling homogenous, but this seems to have been at the cost of a more even power balance between them.

Offline there is, as always, Arcade, Versus, Score Attack and Challenge Modes. A gallery is present but is strangely devoid of anything short of in game art from cutscenes and the like and you won’t find any concept art or separate illustrations. Story Mode is present of course as well and is told in the visual novel style Arc System Works uses for the likes of Guilty Gear and Blazblue, but I find with Arena this actually impedes the storytelling, as all characters do is stand and deliver dialogue and exposition at each other without any sense of scene setting, body movements or the other ingredients that make for watchable drama. In fact, even compared to Blazblue which featured a lot of individual character art for various poses such as fighting stances or collapsing in the defeat, the static and lifeless nature of the visual novel style here really hurts what, in its JRPG form, was a well directed, living breathing world (the fact they even chose the visual novel style over making a dungeon overworld of sorts frankly staggers me). Worse, the final nail in the coffin, without getting into major spoilers, is that the story is not structured to avoid the old fighting game plot pitfall of “every story is canon, therefore none of them are canon”. Yu’s story has him defeat Yosuke in single combat, but for Yosuke’s story the situation is reversed, and this fight in both iterations happens in the same room and in the same fashion. Only one of the two can win, but if both claim they won, either one of them is lying (not exactly a good thing for well-loved characters in an established franchise) or the writers messed up, which for Atlus of all people is shocking, and is only just one example of where the story structurally stumbles and falls.

Online you’ll find your usual suite of modes such as Ranked & Player Match, although the more recent persistent lobbies and multi-match rooms of Blazblue: Chronophantasma are not to be found. Thankfully Arena sports a fairly solid netcode and feels superior to Chronophantasma in the fluidity of its online play, but beyond that there’s nothing really of note that distinguishes Arena’s network multiplayer. It’s solid, it works, but it doesn’t excel or innovate, seeking only to replicate the options offered by Blazblue: Continuum Shift Extend and not the richer selection of features that other fighting games now have by default.

A sequel, Persona 4: The Ultimax Ultra Suplex Hold (inspired by many a word salad wrestling move and in complete defiance of the old axiom that brevity is the soul of wit), is now out in arcades in Japan with a console release scheduled for Fall 2014. Some balance issues such as overly powerful okizeme options have been resolved but otherwise I can state that my issues with the core gameplay have not been resolved as such, with Auto Combos and Furious Actions still serving as traps for the unwitting newbie, but I shan’t offer any further opinion until the game is in my hands. But I can state this: for newcomers to the Persona franchise you are far better off in both pocket and time to pick up Persona 3: FES from the Playstation Store, and for fans of the series interested to see where this next chapter takes these beloved characters, well, I suppose I could say to treat it like how I treated Terminator 3: Solid & well executed, but forgettable and, dare I say it, irrelevant.

-         - Shadon1010 once fell into his TV. The screen smashed into a thousand pieces. Needless to say, he felt like a right tit.

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