Two months after the events of Persona 4 Golden, lead character Yu Narukami returns to the rural town of Inaba to visit friends and family. Soon drawn back into the warped parallel reality of the Midnight Channel, he’s forced to fight against the people he cares about most, while uncovering the secrets behind the otherworldly tournament they’re made to participate in.
Such is the reasoning to pit the formerly close-knit group against one another in this beat-‘em-up follow-up to the superb RPG. Despite the switch in genre, it’s a true sequel, one with a lengthy and involving story mode offering a narrative that’s every bit as deep as its predecessor. In fact, it may even prove too slow, at least for fighting game aficionados eager to leap into the fray. For them, Arena also offers a traditional arcade mode, plus a fantastic selection of challenges, unlockables, and a robust online mode.
Each playable character – the main stars of Persona 4, plus a handful of guests from Persona 3 – battles with a mix of strong and weak physical attacks, plus similarly balanced powers granted by their summonable Persona spirits. Developer Arc System Works have done a cracking job of making the battle system both intuitive and complex. Basic combos can be pulled off with a rhythmic tapping of the square/X button, but anything more complicated demands players learn the minutiae of the game. The inclusion of debilitating status effects, triggered mid-fight by specific moves, is a stroke of genius, one that’s reminiscent of the series’ role-playing roots while adding a game-changing dynamic. Managing statuses and mastering the vast range of blocks, counters, and breaks is necessary to gain any sort of progression, though the learning curve may be too steep for some.
Fans of the original games (and attendant anime series, even) will be pleased to hear voice actors for both the original Japanese and English casts return, and the beautifully animated cutscenes will be a treat too. However, although the in-game background art is gorgeous, it would have been nice to see sprites upgraded to full HD rather than maintain their vaguely pixellated appearance from the arcade edition of the game. That and the overall difficulty are forgivable flaws – and ones fighting game purists may even prefer – in an otherwise excellent game.
Reviewed by Matt Kamen