For a fighting game, there sure is a lot of talking in Persona 4 Arena. Whereas the story mode in Mortal Kombat or Injustice flies along with a brisk, dunderheaded glee, your favourite combatants fighting each other and engaging in dialogue that can be boiled down to 'NO U', you'll be watching a hell of a lot of character dialogue between fights in Persona 4 Arena. It's mostly not annoying, as there's a fairly intriguing, odd tale to be found. No surprise given it's based on an RPG praised for its storytelling.
It's set a couple of months after the events of the original Persona 4 title, and features all the characters from that, as well as some from Persona 3, so the guy wearing the Persona hat in the room with the Persona wallpaper will be happy at least. Events conspire against the characters, naturally, and once again and they're all sucked into the TV world to take part in a fighting tournament. The competition has been curated by an egg shaped character called Teddy (see what I did there? Curated? Egg? Shut up), who was one of the heroes in the main game. Just what is he up to? Is everything as it seems? Will there ever be a character in a Japanese fighting game with a proper haircut? In addition to all that, characters are given insulting subnames, like Bloodcurdling Beefcake Emperor, or Spunky Dragon with Deadly Legs. I quickly surmised mine would be 'Ennui-stricken Moron Fixated on the 90s.'
It'll take who knows how long to get through the story stuff here. Each character has their own arc, and you could cook and eat a three course dinner in the time it takes between fights, so they've not skipped on narrative content at least. If anything, it gives fans of Persona more plot stuff to sink their teeth into.
However the winding plot stuff really is for Persona fans only. Fighting fans ain't got no time for confusing quasi-mysterious alternate world anime shenanigans. They're here to fight, and if nothing else, Persona 4 Arena is pretty adept at sating their animated bloodlust.
Persona 4 Arena is by Arc System Works, the chaps behind BlazBlue and Guilty Gear (all I remember about my few dalliances with Guilty Gear is that there is a character with a bag on his head who pokes people with a scalpel. Roger Ebert was wrong). This hasn't been palmed off to some know-nothing toerags, these people know what they're doing, and it shows, as Persona 4 Arena is good stuff.
It's fairly similar to other Arc fighters, given that it's all on a 2D plane, with beautifully animated sprites unleashing dazzling, headache-inducing special attacks with the aid of their personas (ostentatious looking alter egos that allow the characters to survive in the TV world). It's good at ushering in newcomers, and initially all seems fairly simple (it's possible to unleash fairly devastating combos through repeatedly whacking the X button), but once in the heat of battle, it's a fraught, desperate affair, and you'll find your health whittled away to naught if you're not concentrating.
The same simple combos you relied on simply won't work against more skilled opponents, as they counter and block, leaving you open. However, Arc System Works aren't beyond pitying the incompetent, as once you hit under 35 percent health you'll enter an Awakening state, where your defence is boosted and your special bar refills, allowing you to go out with all swords blazing if needs be. Two buttons are used for regular attacks, while the other two call your Persona in to play, though more skilled players (ie; gits) can attack your persona, rendering it useless for a while. and leaving you ripe for even more humiliating trouncing.
It's a bit less complex than Blazblue, but by no means are we talking about a brainless button masher here, as it's still loaded with depth and all kinds of tactical guff. Again, you'll get absolutely pummelled if you try anything that as one-note as single-button combos online against someone who has counters to your counters' counters and makes you pay with an instant death move out of nowhere. Finding someone online to fight can be a bit of a battle in itself though, given that the game came out last year and most of its community has likely moved on.
Once the game releases properly over here it'll be a bit more lively, and have a few more people going at it. You'll get bossed around like anything at first, but that is the way of the beat em up. For those that can't possibly handle being called a spammer or a rude epithet over Xbox Live, however, there's plenty else to do offline. Story mode is huge, arcade is good for quick blasts, and challenge mode is pretty extensive too.
Some will likely find the presentation off-putting, and admittedly, it's unusual finding a fighting game that takes so long between, y'know, fights, with a boatload of exposition and easily skippable nonsense breaking up the action. Voice acting is comparable with the majority of video game/anime stuff (meaning it's largely annoying and diabolical, but oh well). However, it's all well-presented, looks nice and most importantly, is a lot of fun to play. It's a proficient interpretation of Persona's world with Arc System's beat em up smarts.
Version Tested: Xbox 360
Played through the entire tutorial and some of the challenges. Completed the story mode for three characters and went through arcade mode various times with a few others. Went online and inevitably got destroyed by people with working fingers.