So, I've been playing some Persona 4 Arena the past couple of weeks. It finally released over here in the UK and the rest of Europe after a fairly agonising nine-month wait. That in itself is something that may or may not be worthy as a separate little ranty post on its own. Atlus are somewhat... incompetent when it comes to getting their games released in Europe. I sort of understand the logistical problems they face, but having virtually ALL of their games releasing in Europe so late after the rest of the world in this day and age is... well, a little annoying to say the least. In P4A's case, it was also region-locked, so importing a copy wasn't even an option.
But alas, Persona 4 Arena is out now. And it's a video game-ass video game, so I'm going to attempt to articulate how I feel about it, as well as just fighting games in general.
Persona 4 Arena is a rather... interesting package. It's a sequel to Persona 4. That game, however, was a PS2 JRPG that released in 2008 ('09 in Europe). I'm not sure anyone was quite expecting a sequel to one of the most beloved JRPGs in recent memory to be a... fighting game. And it's a fighting game-ass fighting game. It's basically BlazBlue, but with characters from Persona 4 and 3. Hell, it's even developed for the most part by the same people.
So what you have is a game that appeals to two very specific audiences: people who enjoyed Persona 4 and want more from those characters and that world, and those who enjoy ArcSys's specific brand of somewhat mechanically-complex fighting games, two groups where you would think there wouldn't be a whole lot of overlap. At least that's how I see it. And while I can't speak with much authority on the latter, there's more than enough Persona in here to satisfy those who fall into that corner.
The bulk of my 36 hours in the game thus far (according to Raptr) has been spent with the story mode. Of the two groups mentioned above, I fall into the Persona 4 group. There was a time where I was (and arguably still am) borderline-obsessed with that game. As you should know by now, I love a game that tells a good story, and Persona 4 tells a pretty damn good story. So, I'll happily take more of that in any form I can get it, even if that form happens to be a reasonably complex fighter that I will never be particularly great at playing.
Fortunately, for those that are only here because of the Persona hook, you don't need to be good at (or even like) fighting games to get everything the game's story mode has to offer. It's essentially a visual novel, with a few very easy, single-round fights strewn throughout, which you play from the perspective of each character separately. So, lots of voiced dialogue, a whole lot of reading, and not much actual gameplay. But for people that really enjoyed the original game, that's not really a detriment. Initially, you only start out with a couple of characters as options, but as you play through more character's stories, other characters are opened up. As I said, you play each story from a particular character's perspective, as if that character was the main protagonist, which left me wondering how they'll treat the canonicity of the story come the next time we eventually hear from these characters again. The plot of the game plays out the same regardless of what character you play as, with only some minor differences throughout, so it'll be interesting (though not a particularly wild guess) who's story will be canon. Or maybe if they make Persona 4 Arena 2, and structure it the same way, they won't have to deal with that. As you could expect from a fighting game, the scope of the story obviously isn't quite on par with it's 60+ hour RPG big brother, but there's more than enough here to keep fans satisfied for the time being.
I won't say much else about the story, since I feel you can't really do much justice talking about it in depth without talking about some of the details of Persona 4's story. And Persona 4's story is one well worth experiencing, in my opinion. Not your typical JRPG fare, but for the most part plays out like something more akin to a Scooby-Doo adventure. It's a nice change of pace from the sort of stuff you'd find from the likes of Final Fantasy and its ilk.
The rest of the modes featured in the game are the standard affair you'd expect to find in a fighting game. Arcade mode, all fighting with a (heavily) condensed version of each character's story; Score attack mode, where you're pitted up against ridiculously hard, souped-up versions of the characters: score attack's difficulty is one higher than the highest selectable difficulty in the options menu and the AI fighters have some insane buffs applied to them; Challenge mode, where you have to pull off a bunch of combos for each character; Practice mode, which is exactly that, and some fairly standard modes for online play. Everything that a fighting game fan would reasonably expect, it's in there. I'm not great at fighting games, but the Persona hook is enough to keep me wanting to play and try and get a little bit better, even if I'll never be at any real competitive level. And if nothing else, it's that much more satisfying on the rare occasions where I actually do manage to come out on top against another human being.
And that sort of leads me nicely into the part where I wanted to talk a bit about fighting games in general. More specifically, the one major issue that I have with the genre in general. I'm not good at fighting games. In fact, I'm downright terrible at them. And while I haven't played every fighting game ever made, I think I've played enough to get to the point where I feel comfortable enough to say what I'm about to say.
Fighting games do an awful job of teaching new players. A godawful job. No fighting game that I have played has made any reasonable attempt to help a new player get better at the game outside of teaching them the very basics. They are inherently inaccessible games.
Persona 4 Arena has a lesson mode, wherein it teaches you all of the mechanics of the game. This is all well and good, except it only gives you a brief description of each mechanic, shows you how to do it (the button combo) and then has you perform it a couple of times, before swiftly moving on to the next one. For someone who's well versed in fighting games, yeah, that's more than enough. But for new players? Almost useless if you ever want to compete at anything above the most basic level. Simply giving examples of the sort of scenarios and situations in which you should or should not use these mechanics would go a very long way in helping new players actually understand them.
There's also a challenge mode, similar to Street Fighter 4, or most other modern fighting games, where the game presents you with a list of different combos to pull off. The game will give you a practice dummy, show the moves (and their commands) you need to perform on the left of the screen, and you have to bust out that combo. Persona 4 Arena goes further (I believe, might be wrong here) than other games that share this mode, in that it'll highlight each part of the combo as you're performing it, and should you mess up, it'll tell you which part of the combo you messed up on. But for me, that's not enough, I want to know HOW I messed up. Did I try the next move two early, too late? Hell, even if I fumbled button presses or stick movements, tell me that as well! This is the sort of information that actually TEACHES the player and helps them to improve. Just saying "nope, try again" doesn't do that.
Timing is everything with combos in a fighting game, anyone who's ever played one can tell you that. And especially in the very fast-paced fighters ArcSys is known for making, those timings can be particularly brutal. There's a particular combo challenge that I can't quite get down. I can perform all the moves that make up the combo, one after another, but my timing on the very last move isn't quite right. And by that, I mean I'm mere milliseconds too early or too late. Which? I'll never know. And because I don't know that, I'm not able to adjust what I'm doing, meaning I'm just floundering about hoping I'll maybe get lucky and pull it off by accident, rather than actually LEARNING how to achieve it.
And sure, to play devil's advocate, all that sort of information is out there on the internet, provided by fans and other players who know the game inside out. But therein lies my issues: the game itself doesn't provide that information. I'm all for a game teaching you how to play through its gameplay: you gain knowledge of the maps and weapons by simply playing a first-person shooter, you gain knowledge of strategies, build-orders and the like through playing online in an RTS, but for intricate, yet absolutely integral things such as combo timings in a fighting game? You're for the most part not going to learn that through simply playing the game. A game should never require you to access external resources in order to learn anything above the absolute basics of the game.
And of course, the fighting game community is often seen as a harsh, toxic environment that doesn't welcome newcomers and while that is far from the truth, it can still be daunting as someone with no fighting game experience who wants in on the fun.