With the exception of Revelations: Persona, the inaugural title in Atlus’s revered JRPG/social-sim series, I’ve played through every available chapter of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona, and while I can say that I’ve never had a subpar experience with any of these games, I can’t help but feel as if the amount of towering praise frequently bestowed on the franchise is a bit hyperbolic. Clearly, the most noteworthy features of Persona have always been its sleek art direction and stirring script work, which ultimately leaves the gameplay trending slightly toward the moderately repetitive side. I often catch flack for this conviction, but I’ve firmly stood my ground for nearly a decade now; the communal simulation aspects tend to detract from Persona’s more essential role-playing functions (i.e. combat, exploration), resulting in a satisfying yet not quite infallible (as it’s recurrently labeled) whole. Which is precisely why, going into the fan-service-heavy, unashamedly showy Persona 4 Arena, a fighting game spin-off/continuation of the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 storyline, I anticipated to be told by my peers that P4A is a near-masterpiece and one of the best fighters of the year. That happened, incontestably, but then I cast aside my snarky reservations and actually committed to immersing myself in all that veteran 2D brawler developer Arc System Works (Guilty Gear, BlazBlue) has to offer. In the end, my Japan-a-centric comrades were mostly on point: I was off with my preconceived notions, and I was left with was a fighting game that slightly edged out Street Fighter X Tekken as 2012’s current champion.
While it’s true that Street Fighter X Tekken is 3D and P4A sports a sheeny 2D shell, there’s enough graphical depth to have the two square off in a head-to-head categorical matchup, as both deal heavily in fanbase appeasement that stretches across all critical areas. Capcom/Namco and Arc System Works couldn’t be more different in their methodology, though; Guilty Gear and BlazBlue are wacky, zany games filled with characters that make the likes of Akuma and Heihachi appear normal by comparison. Additionally, Arc System Works specializes in drastic difficulty spikes, whereas Street Fighter and Tekken are steadier in their progression of strenuousness. Surprisingly enough, while P4A does require hours upon hours of training to efficiently master, it’s much more spontaneously accessible to newbies than the aforementioned Arc System Works creations. Likewise, P4A doesn’t necessitate vast prior knowledge of Persona mythology to enjoy, though longtime followers will unarguably relish in the countless Easter eggs bestrewed throughout the game. Aesthetically, one would be hard-pressed to find a better looking or sounding 2D fighter on the market right now. This is unquestionably one of Arc System Works’s crowning achievements, with each and every frame chocked full of vibrant colors and well-composed background tracks. It’s consistently refreshing to see how well the developer translated the very RPG-bound universe of Persona into a diverse, approachable, and relentlessly habit-forming fighter.
Narrative modes are generally a second thought when it comes to fighting games, but be it that Persona 4’s director Katsura Hashino and his original crew applied their storytelling skills to P4A, making it an original tale set within the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona microcosm, there’s little reason to avoid skipping through the numerous text-ridden cutscenes between battles. Admittedly, continuing the exploits of Yu Narukami and his gifted schoolmates is a facet of P4A directed at canon loyalists, unlikely to wow many an unversed passersby. Still, the material put forth is appealing enough to the senses that it can be arduous to avoid doing some research on the subject and returning when better educated.
A brief primer for the uninformed: Persona is a largely Jungian ideals-inspired allegory that centers around an assortment of teenagers who have the capability to summon alternative versions of their own subconscious into being, dubbed Personas. Obviously, these Personas play key role in P4A’s flashy bouts, but they aren’t the main focus, and don’t subtract from the multitudinous forms of varied applicable offensive/defense action. Many genre basics are present (multi-jumps, counters, air slides, low/high rushes, bursts, etc.), yet because of its unique presentation and diversified input/combo dictation layout, P4A amounts to something truly special, a fighter that seems to suggest limitless possibilities for decimating your opponents. P4A’s exceptional Lesson Mode leaves no excuses to branch out your assault proficiency, providing a step-by-step class on each of the infinitely flexible movesets at your disposal. There’s also sufficient online scenarios to put your tact to the test, and rarely does an altercation session mildly resemble the one that came before; relying on a small set of go-to, cheaply surefire techniques is out of the question, with such tactics only serving those who wish to greatly restrict their quantitative gratification upon securing a victory. P4A’s roster of 13 playable combatants is meager compared to the traditionally crowded lineups of Capcom’s Vs. series, but each character’s Persona, in essence, acts as a co-pilot attacker; correctly syncing your battler with his or her psyche-brought-to-life is cardinal to obtaining superiority over your challengers.
Simply put, the unforeseen pairing of Atlus and Arc System Works is something that probably should have happened much earlier. That they’ve been able to create a product that can jointly pacify the niche Persona bootlickers while immediately luring in fans of fighting games both casual and hardcore is worthy of proportionate accolades. Until persuaded otherwise, P4A is fixedly the definitive amuse-bouche for those looking to see what all the Shin Megami Tensei-related fuss is about.