Saturday, March 2, 2013

GOT 'IM - Persona 4 Arena

I played this game at my buddy @miki_sei's Superb Owl party and bought it a few days later.  I was that hooked.  Here's a review for my newest fighting game experiment: Persona 4 Arena. 

OK, I admit it. This 4 in February business became officially derailed when I started this up.  At that aforementioned party, I played a few short rounds of Persona 4 Arena, and I wanted more.  Everything about P4A's visuals, audio, characters, controls, systems, and extras struck a big chord.  I wanted more, so I bought the full game.  And what do you know, it's my favorite fighting game since Super Street Fighter IV.

First I'll talk about combat.  P4A is 2D fighting game by Arc System Works, popular anime fighting game (AFG) maker of the Guilty Gear and BlazBlue series.  Persona 4 takes a few cues from ASW's other AFGs, with a 4-button basic interface, multiple gameplay systems, very specific character gimmicks, and beautifully animated 2D visuals.  But still, Persona's basic systems and playability is so much more accessible than the Guilty Gear games I've tried that it's actually *renewed* my interest in the AFG scene in general.  P4A has a shallower learning curve than Guilty Gear or BlazBlue, and that's part of why I think it's the best Ark System Works game I've ever played.

P4A's combat revolves around the use of four buttons: light attack, heavy attack, light Persona, and heavy Persona (A, B, C, and D respectively).  Those are all of the buttons used in combos and special moves.  A+B at the same time is an instant overhead that can be used as a cancel, C+D is a throw that can work in the air or on the ground, B+D is a "Furious Action" move that is different for each character but is usually a useful anti-air, and B+C+D is a burst that can break an opponent's combo or be used as a cancel.  All of the special moves in the game are basic quarter circle motions with one of those four buttons (that's fireballs and hurricane kicks for you Street Fighter fans), and all of the super moves (SP Attacks) are double quarter circles with one of those four buttons.  Just a few specific moves, like stance changes and instant kills (more on those later) use different inputs.

Using Persona attacks (both normals and specials) briefly summon the character's Persona to assist in the move.  This creates a cool overall look, with both characters summoning crazy anime monsters left and right, but also a few gameplay wrinkles.  If a Persona is struck mid-action, the action is canceled and its owner loses a "card" on the card meter beneath the health bar.  Lose five cards, and your Persona "breaks" and is unusuable for a good 10-15 seconds.  That might not sound like a lot, but when bursts, half of your special moves, and all of your super moves require help from your Persona, then it's a pretty big deal.  Some characters rely on his or her Persona much more than others; Elizabeth and Arcade mode's final boss in particular heavily rely on their Persona. 

So, that might seem like a lot, but it really isn't.  Street Fighter uses a six-button interface with just as many special conditions (and way harder inputs).  Guilty Gear uses a similar four-button interface, but things like cancels are way trickier and it also has wacky inputs.  Persona 4 only uses four buttons, but it uses them in an elegant and versatile manner.  And if that weren't enough, newbies to P4A can just mash the light attack button to instantly execute a light-heavy-special-SP combo, without any special inputs.  The SP move only lands if the character has enough SP, though, and the combo does about 30% less damage than executing every move in the combo properly.  Hey, you pay the price for button mashing.

Each character has an SP meter that increases with each successful hit, block, or damage taken.  The max SP is 100, and it costs 50 to execute a super move, 25 to execute an enchanced special move (uses A+B or C+D instead of one button on a regular special), 25 to burst, and 25 to cancel.  SP management is a major part of the P4A metagame, but for most players just using them for supers is perfectly acceptable.  When a character reaches below 25% of their HP, their max SP becomes 150, he or she gains 50 SP instantly, and they unlock two new supers that each cost 100 SP (a few characters unlock more).  One of those moves is an "awakened super" and the other is an "instant kill super", which, naturally, defeats the opponent instantly.  Instant kill moves are easy to execute (all of them have the same motion), but difficult to land safely, since all of them are easily avoided.  Still, it's pretty amazing to end the match on one if you can.

To master the combos, specials, and supers of  P4A is... not any easier or harder than other quality fighting games out there.  There's an easy-to-follow Challenge Mode that trains users to pull off basic moves, supers, bread and butter combos, and advanced techs; the Training Mode is an open ended test mode that allows for freedom and transparency in practicing with any of the characters.  ASW games are notorious for being obtuse to newcomers (including fighting game veterans), but P4A strikes a solid balance between its accessible inputs and combos and occasionally arcane systems, character gimmicks, and SP management. 

And look, you can have plenty of fun with P4A without mastering bursts, burst cancels, One More! cancels, EX moves, Furious Actions, or even advanced combos.  You might have to go into those if you want to win a ton of matches online or beat the game's Score Attack mode (more on that later...), but Story and Arcade are definitely beatable with a little practice.  Like many of the best fighting games, Persona 4 Arena is pretty accessible for newcomers, but offers a ton of depth for those who want to invest some extra time to kick some extra ass. 

Now let's talk about characters.  The cast of Persona 4 Arena is the seven playable characters of Persona 4 (natch), four popular characters from Persona 3 (cool), plus two new characters (avoiding spoilers, but they're very similar in look; VERY similar).  Rise from Persona 4 is the default round commenter and plays a large story role, and in story mode you meet several other NPCs from both Persona 3 and Persona 4. 

So I liked Persona 3 and 4 a lot, and both games have a really appealing cast.  As a result, of Persona 4 Arena has one of the best casts of characters in any fighting game in years.  Mitsuru and Akihiko from Persona 3 have undergone major redesigns - Mitsuru dresses in a (SMOKING HOT) catsuit and furt coat, and Akihiko wears only boots, shorts, bandages, and ragged cape (STILL KINDA HOT).  This sort of fits their new roles, as Mitsuru has become a globetrotting head of a Shadow-hunting team of secret operatives and Akihiko has been walking the earth as a wandering hero of justice, seeking means to become stronger.  Well, those two had ridiculous, over-the-top personalities in the RPGs, and the fighting games take it up a notch. 

The other returning characters (P4's MC, Yosuke, Chie, Yukiko, Kanji, Teddie, Naoto, Aigis, and Elizabeth) all have their basic look from the RPGs return.  The P4 MC uses the name "Yu Narukami" from the anime adaptation of Persona 4.  Each character feels distinctly different, and and the learning curves for each character vary strongly (for example, Yu is one of the easiest characters to learn while Aigis is one of the hardest).  Just about every character has tools for multiple situations, but a few old fighting game generalizations still apply.  Notably that heavy characters (pretty much just Kanji and the Arcade boss) struggle MIGHTILY against good zoning characters (incl. MC, Naoto, Yukiko, Mitsuru, Aigis, and Elizabeth).  Poor Kanji....

After many hours of playing Story, Arcade, and Online modes, I have to say my favorite characters are the MC (...I prefer calling him that to Yu), Mitsuru, and Kanji.  All three have good Furious Actions and a number of decent Super setups.  Mitsuru's setups are a little tricky to get to work properly, but she has excellent pokes and I love the EX versions of her two regular moves - her dash is so fast it's almost like a teleport, and her backwards Bufula has incredible potential for shenanigans.  Kanji is a lot of fun and deals HUGE damage, but struggles badly against good zoning characters, like I mentioned earlier.  Still, getting his two grappling specials to connect is extremely satisfying, and he has some tricks to get inside quickly that can work pretty well.  You can kill some characters easily in just two or three combos.  MC is one of the best characters in the game, because he has some great setups (especially when the opponent is knocked down) and his basic moveset (a projectile, two dashes, beam super, melee super) is well-rounded and effective.

Now, those three characters that I use the most are exceptions, because none of the three of them have special gimmicks.  Around half of the characters in Persona 4 Arena have special "systems" that contribute to their effectiveness.  Naoto, for example, has a "Death countdown" that begins at 13 in every round.  When Naoto lands a trap special, a throw, or a magic super (both of which deal low-ish damage) that countdown lowers by 1 to 3 points.  If the countdown reaches zero, then Naoto's two magic supers both become instant kills.  That's pretty cool.  Yukiko has a fire meter that increases if she uses her Fire Boost skill, increasing the damage of her Supers and Persona skills by a set amount, and she can also use a Fire Break skill to make her Persona skills briefly unblockable.  Also cool.  Six or seven characters have special systems like these, and they rarely break the game or are too confusing to keep track of.  Some fighters are challenging to use at first, but a better understanding of their systems make them among the game's most powerful characters (looking at you, Aigis). 

So this is a pretty solid group of characters with plenty of gameplay diversity.  Of course, fans of Persona 3 and Persona 4 will get more out of enjoying the cast, but overall it's a solid group.  P4A also sells its pedigree by including character and RPG references throughout its basic gameplay, Story Mode aside.  You can afflict opponents with any of the status effects from Persona 4; there are miniature health meters and visible damage shown in a small window just like the Persona 3 and 4; and every character uses several of their representative weapons and techniques from their in-game movesets.  Sure, the MC is limited to using Izanagi and lightning attacks, and none of the P4 cast us their upgraded Personas, but it's a lot of good fanservice.

Visually, Persona 4 Arena is stunning.  Character sprites are large, detailed, and beautifully animated.  Backgrounds look great, with twisted, shadowy takes on several locales from Persona 4.  The whole game looks great, but I guess you need to have an appreciation of anime / cartoon aesthetics to enjoy it.  If you're looking for hyper-realism, look elsewhere.  The musical score is okay, with several remixed tracks from Persona 3 and Persona 4 and new musical tracks for 10 of the 13 characters (Narukami, Aigis, and Elizabeth get special remixes as their character themes).  Good in general, great for Shoji Meguro fans.  

So that covers most of the gameplay and technical basics, let's go into gameplay modes and narrative. Persona 4's selection of modes is pretty strong, with a bare-bones Arcade, helpful Intro, Training, and Challenge modes to work on combos and techniques, and a detailed selection of extras in Options, System, and Gallery modes.  The online combat is quite good; when I played I was able to find matches pretty easily, and there was rarely any lag.  When I did have lag, it was either from an obviously bad connection or in the game's loading screen as pre-battle synchronization.  Then you have the two "most special" gameplay modes, Score Attack and Story.

Score Attack Mode is hard.  Real damn hard.  It's like Arcade, except completely devoid of dialog and you always fight the game's entire cast in the same order.  And every character has special skills.  And max SP.  And extra status and priority.  It's brutally difficult to the point of unfairness and I beat the first character (Yosuke, with max SP and permanent Masukukaja) once, after trying over and over for an hour-plus.  A bunch of trophies are unlocked by beating Score Attack with multiple characters, but fuck that.  If you've beaten Score Attack with ONE character, then I salute you, sir or madam.  That shit is too hardcore for me.

Story Mode is slow.  Real damn slow.  It's like Arcade, except with several minutes of context-creating dialog between each fight and an exceptionally long intro.  It's also a little complicated how you unlock different Story Modes.  You start out with four characters.  You get to a cliffhanger with one character (roughly the 60 to 70% mark), and you unlock two additional characters.  You get to a cliffhanger with a second character, and you unlock four additional characters (we're at ten total now).  Now, when you've reached the cliffhanger with one of the first four characters AND one of the three Persona 3 characters, then you unlock the boss's story chapter.  That chapter is over an hour of nothing but dialog before a single fight near the end.  After that, you're allowed to move past the cliffhanger in all of your previously unlocked story chapters.  Once you've *COMPLETELY* beaten the story chapter of one of the first four characters and one of the P3 characters, THEN you unlock the final story chapter.

So, basically, to beat Story Mode, you have to do at least four and a half hour-long visual novels punctuated by single-round fights.  It's slow, weird, and did I mention slow?  It's awesome to see the casts of Persona 3 and Persona 4 back in action; the dialogue is solid overall; and a few of the story details are pretty neat to behold (poor, poor Labrys...), but completing the entire story means a LOT of dragging internal monologues and seeing the same events over and over with maybe one or two characters in slightly different roles.  Completing Story Mode (or I dare say completing all twelve story mode chapters) is only for big fans of Persona 4 Arena's cast.  Like this guy.

So is that enough?  Did I sell you on it?  Persona 4 Arena is easier to get into than ASW's older games, but boasts remarkable depth and elegance in its controls and systems.  It's the game that changed my opinion of Arc System Works, and also the game that got me back into the wonderful world(s) of Persona 4 and Persona 3.  If you're in the center of that Venn Diagram of Persona fans and fighting game fans, then you really need to check Persona 4 Arena out.  I'm ready to pounce on forums and echo any outcry for a sequel. 

Games Beaten: 2013 Edition
1. Persona 4
2. Pokemon White Version 2
3. 10,000,000
4. Persona 4 Arena

Targets: 2/13


I'm almost finished with Psychonauts (which is part of my 13 in '13 bit) and I've barely started Metroid Prime (also 13 in '13).  But in spite of those small progresses, I've officially failed in my bid for 4 in February.  I was badly sidetracked by Arena, a replay of a different game, random cell phone games, the internet, and real honest-to-God in-person socialization.  Darn. 

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