Persona 4 Arena arrives on these shores after such a long wait that it's been presumed dead by most Europeans - especially since its (region-locked) US release last August. This is a shame; while its JRPG heritage makes it more niche than the likes of Injustice, this is another fighting game that's loaded with content.
Having already worked its magic on Fist of the North Star and Capcom's Sengoku Basara series, this isn't the first time that Arc System Works has adapted an existing franchise into a competitive fighting game. But while these experiments lacked the refinement of its flagship fighters, Arena doesn't feel like a rough version of BlazBlue. If anything, it matches its stablemate on the visual level, while offering a fighting system that feels less daunting without compromising too much of its mechanical depth. It also does an outstanding job of adapting the turn-based cast into real-time fighters.
Anyone who's familiar with BlazBlue knows that Arc System doesn't short-change its fans when it comes to Story mode. Arena is no exception. The game takes place two months after the events of Persona 4 and sees the Investigation Team reforming after the Midnight Channel becomes active once again. The Persona users pass through the television screen and are forced to fight in a tournament that's being run by Teddie. As they edge closer to the truth, they learn that not everything is as it seems.
Instead of one main story, each character follows their own path through the Midnight Channel. There are no branching pathways in the BlazBlue sense, but that doesn't mean the story is lacking in substance. There are times when you'll be reading for a good 15 minutes before finally reaching the next fight, and while this may irritate players who just want to get down to business, the writing doesn't fall short of the main Persona games. That said, the active part of this interactive novel holds little challenge for anyone who can pull off a basic combo or two.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Score Attack mode. All you have to do is beat every character in a straight run. Sounds easy, right? Not when they've been buffed to boss-like proportions with everything from triple health to an unlimited super meter. Kanji Tatsumi - the tough knitting enthusiast who fits the role of Arena's main throw character - gets a massive damage boost to all his grabs. Let him touch you once, shame on you; let him touch you twice, shame you're so dead.
On top of the Story and Score Attack modes, there's the compulsory Arcade tour and a Lesson mode that teaches you the basics. Much like BlazBlue, this game isn't short on interwoven mechanics and systems. This is a four-button fighter where you have a light and strong attack for your character in addition to a light and strong attack for their Persona. And rather than the inelegant Beginner Mode control system from BlazBlue: Continuum Shift, every player has access to a basic combo that dials out whenever you tap the light attack button repeatedly.
Some might see this as a cop-out, but the Auto Combo does far less damage than an optimised assault. It's just there to give first-time players a legitimate stepping-stone without rocking the boat. Another addition is the All-Out Attack that works as a universal overhead (hits a crouching opponent) and leads into a mid-air combo opportunity or a space-building knockback. What's interesting is that you have to mash the attack buttons - in a similar style to some Marvel 3 supers - to get as many hits as possible before launching your opponent. It sounds messy on paper, but it really adds to the drama.
Despite dialling back slightly on the intensity, Arena displays all the hallmarks of an Arc System fighter. There are chainable attacks, air dashes, bunny hops, Alpha counters, instant kill moves and a flexible Burst system that functions as an instant metre builder, combo extender and get out of jail free card. And while there's no need to worry about your guard being broken, summoning your Persona outside of a guaranteed combo is risky, as they can only absorb a few hits before breaking temporarily. Lose your Persona and you can wave goodbye to your supers and some of your special moves.
Although 13 characters might seem like chump change compared to the competition, Arc System has a knack for crafting fighting styles that feel genuinely distinct - and if you're fortunate enough to be a fan of both fighting games and the Persona series, then learning the unique properties of each character's Persona is a real thrill. Elizabeth can set up one-hit kills with her Persona's cursed seals, Yukiko can play a devastating keep-away game with her Persona's hidden flames and Akihiko can drag his opponent into pummelling range with his Persona's gravity well. Some characters even have special gauges. Labrys, for instance, gets a damage boost the more she connects with her axe.
Putting each character through their paces before settling on the one that suits you is a large part of any fighting game's appeal. Arena personifies this mantra with style - and just in case you have trouble understanding each character's potential, Challenge mode offers a total of 390 combo trials that range from pedestrian to painstaking. But even if you're the type of player that couldn't care less about improving your combo execution and match-up knowledge, Arena still shines on the surface as well as beneath it. Indeed, everything from the select screen portraits to the mid-match animations has been handled with the attention to detail that we've come to expect from Arc System, the 2D powerhouse.
This is also true of the online modes. Playing a Ranked Match against another European opponent is a consistently pleasant experience thanks to the capable netcode. It's easily in the same division as Tekken Tag Tournament 2 and Arc System's own Continuum Shift. You can also customise the eight-player lobbies to target certain characters or to bar players with slow connections. Another quirky feature lets you build a three-word title out of a huge list of over 3000 words. You could be Captain Booty Slap or combine the words Mother, Lover and Dead in any order you choose. The choice is entirely yours.
For players with even a passing fascination for fighting games, it's hard to fault Persona 4 Arena in any area besides the long-winded narrative and the fairly safe selection of game modes. You could even say that, while Atlus is responsible for each character's personality, Arc System has fashioned their temperaments into something more tangible. In fighting game terms, I'd have to describe it as the midnight carnival meets the midnight channel for some midnight bliss. It's also proof that sometimes, just sometimes, good things come to those who...