Delays can kill a game. Interest quickly wanes in this paciest of industries, and potential customers, resentful of the company that caused the delay, move on to the next big thing and never look back. This European release of Persona 4 Arena, coming nine months after its US release and over a year since its debut in Japanese arcades, could have sunk without trace. Worse still, it couldn’t be imported, taking the unwanted stigma of being PS3’s first region-locked game.
Yet if anything the delay has helped: the intervening months have seen the release of Persona 4 Golden, the retooled remake of the 2009 RPG that still stands as Vita’s best game. A particularly niche entry in this most niche of genres – an anime fighter from the developer of Blazblue and Guilty Gear, spun off from a Japanese RPG – finally arrives in Europe with a significantly larger potential audience than it would have enjoyed had it launched day and date with the US release last August.
There’s certainly plenty here for those who have finished the Vita game and are keenly feeling the absence from their lives of Atlus’ witty high school drama. The story mode, which is smartly set up to let you play around with the 13-strong roster by weaving an interlocking tale that requires you to finish part of one character’s arc to unlock others, picks up three months after Persona 4 Golden’s climax. Our protagonist, whose name in Golden was chosen by players but is here called Yu Narukami, returns to sleepy rural Inaba to visit his friends during Golden Week. On his first night in town he turns on the Midnight Channel – a TV show which only appears on rainy nights and which, in Golden, alerted Yu and his investigation team to imminent murders – to find it up and running again.
And, clearly, all is not well in Inaba. Teddie, the sentient stuffed bear who served as the party’s guide in Golden’s Shadow world, appears to have gone rogue, and along with fallen pop idol Rise Nakamura is hosting a tournament in which, it seems, characters from Persona 4 (and, to fill out the roster, Personas 3 and FES) are to fight to the death. It doesn’t quite work out like that, of course, but while there’s plenty of game here – involving, apparently, Atlus’ biggest-ever dialogue job – the script lacks Golden’s wit and easy charm. There are pacing problems, too, with the ratio of exposition to action weighted too heavily in favour of the former, and while you’re required to play around with the cast, the sporadic one-round battles aren’t enough to really give you a feel for each character’s idiosyncracies.
Which is a shame, because the battle system beneath it all is a delight. While it has Arc System Works’ DNA in the same four-button ABCD control setup used in Blazblue and Guilty Gear, there are two other factors at work: the RPG source material, and Atlus’ presumed request that the game appeal not just to hardened fighting game fans, but RPG players too. This means that the A and B buttons are used for your character’s light and heavy attacks, while C and D do the same but summon your character’s Persona for harder-hitting, longer range blows. This, however, must be done with caution: if your Persona is hit four times in short order they’ll be unavailable until a meter recharges. It makes for a cautious game of probing with normal attacks, only calling on Personas in combos or when you know they’ll be safe.
There’s another nod to the source material in the super meter, named the SP gauge after the source of Persona skills in Golden. In addition to the usual super moves each character has a move which can kill instantly, like Street Fighter IV’s Ultra moves taken to ludicrous JRPG extremes. When your health is low, your SP gauge automatically extends by 50 per cent and boosts your defence.
For beginner players there’s the All Out Attack. In Golden these saw the entire party pile in on a downed foe in a cloud of fists and feet; here, you press A and B together and your character sprints towards your opponent. If it connects, furious mashing of A will dole out a flurry of blows, while finishing off with a different button will knock your foe to the other side of the screen or up in the air where the combo can continue. Every character has access to one basic, but powerful combo: as long as your SP gauge is half full, successive taps of A will perform a three-hit chain, followed by a special move, cancelled into Super. There’s an extensive tutorial, too, that’s every bit as thorough and helpful as Blazblue’s but is, oddly given the story mode’s excesses, pleasingly less text-heavy.
It’s a smart balancing act: respectful to the source material and accommodating to beginner players, while still deep enough for experienced hands. At high levels it’s quite the spectacle, with the sort of extended juggle combos that typify Arc’s games – and the studio’s signature Burst combo-breaker is here too, and sorely needed lest you lose half your life to a single air combo. Those expecting a tale on par with Atlus’ remarkable RPG may be disappointed, then, but Persona 4 Arena’s thoughtfully designed combat system has been well worth the wait.