Genre crossovers for popular series can be a dangerous proposition. Usually, if it happens at all, we see a smaller entry, a diversion, a hasty re-skin of a more generically-produced game. Fortunately, that’s just not the case with Persona 4 Arena; it’s an official and, oddly appropriate follow up to cult JRPG Persona 4 … just in fighting game form.

While it’s clearly a Persona title, the particular way that Arena adheres to its lineage will likely be a point of contention for some. For Persona enthusiasts, the attention to detail and style will likely be welcome, as will the canonical continuation of Persona 4‘s storyline of high school students facing their idiosyncrasies in physical form from the inside of a television. Seeing that game changed into a fighter, however, may not sit quite as well. The same goes for players simply looking for a solid new fighting game. They’ll discover exactly that with Arena, but may also find themselves turned off by the game’s narrative focus – extremely heavy for this sort of game – as they puzzle through what can be 30-minute-or-more chunks of dialog boxes fleshing out the tale between the action.

Sure, the story can be long-winded, but usually for good reason. It navigates a tricky balance between engaging players new to the series while not boring those well-versed in the universe. For the most part, this is accomplished by carefully conveying context through characters’ thoughts and dialog without resorting to a more obvious info-dump. And as Persona is traditionally character-centric, the result is generally screens and screens worth of internal monologue. Most are interesting enough, but only for those with patience for the method.

For players who can get past Persona being mixed up with their fighter or a fighter being mixed up with their Persona, the heart of the game is solidly built. Eight modes offer up generous content, with Story Mode alone responsible for about 30 hours of play. For the perfectionists, there’s a score-hunt; for the impatient, there’s a quick match; and for the social, there a robust online experience to showcase your skills outside the living room. Each finds a different, fun way to present the game’s combat, a 1v1, 2D, stylized deathmatch.

At its most basic, Persona 4 Arena is a familiar four-button fighter. You’ve got weak, quick attacks paired with slower strong ones and, for the most part, the same goes for your Persona, a sort of large, combat-ready manifestation of each character’s personality. The inclusion of a built-in secondary fighter is probably the game’s most stand-out feature, offering a unique depth that expands far beyond just a basic attack option. Each Persona comes with its own strengths and weakness separate from the character controlling it, making for what are often some really interesting fused fighting styles.

But even with a second fighter to manage each match, the game still feels immediately comfortable after just one run-through of the fifteen-minute tutorial. And even if you still don’t feel confident trying moves that require more than one button after finishing it, you’ll still be able to do some good each match, and more than qualified to give a fair go at the Arcade, Versus, and Story modes while you work to get in tune with the game’s more advanced tactics.

When you are ready to delve into the tricky stuff, Persona 4 Arena has a robust second layer of metagame that should help keep even the seasoned fighting-game-enthusiasts engaged past one playthrough. The more advanced maneuvers focus strongly on deflecting, canceling or countering enemy attacks, with most requiring impeccable timing and quick decision making to execute properly. There are more than a few massive combos ready for study as well, with an inviting “auto-combo” stepping stone for would-be-Arena-champions to start with. Auto-combos, performed by jamming overly-simple sequences, look flashy, but do less damage than one that’s been “properly” executed. The trade off allows more experienced players an advantage for taking the time to train without leaving newbies out in the cold.

Keeping these mechanics in balance are four separate gauges: a health bar with two sub layers, an SP counter that drains and fills as you use moves or soak up damage, a Burst meter that jumps around between a state of charge, completion, and disability, and a Persona gauge that keeps tabs on the health of your companion. Mash all of that together with two fighters each sporting a unique passenger that only appears sometimes, and eight different ailments ranging from “panic” to “charm,” and there is more to account for during any given second of play than most people will be able to manage without some serious practice. Still, each of the systems works fairly well without your direct attention, rewarding you when you can utilize them without punishing you when you can’t.

Using certain fighters seems to carry more risk than reward, with difficult-to-land attacks often providing benefits that seem disproportionate to the difficulty in executing them. When competing against human opponents, this can be a serious deterrent to learning or attempting the game’s more advanced techniques. AI opponents suffer something similar; it’s clear that the computer is better at controlling some characters than others, often making matches either too simple or too difficult.

Still, as strong entry to both the Persona series and the fighting genre, Persona 4 Arena remains an extremely worthwhile pick-up for fans of either. While it may not be exactly clear which party this was made for, those who give it a try from either camp may find themselves discovering new interest in the other.

Bottom Line: Persona 4 Arena is a solid, accessible entry point for both fighting games and the Persona series without disappointing hardcore fans of either.

Recommendation: Whether you’re looking for a new fighter that isn’t just the next Street Fighter or BlazBlue, or simply want a well-made continuation of the Persona series from a different angle, you should find yourself thrilled with this release.

[rating=4.5]

This review was based on the PlayStation 3 version of the game.

Game: Persona 4 Arena
Genre: Fighter
Developer: Arc System Works
Publisher: Atlus
Platform(s): PS3, Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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