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First Impressions: Persona 4: Arena

12:00 PM on 03.04.2012 // Elliot Gay

I'm going to keep this intro short.

Persona 4: Arena released in Japanese arcades on March 1. 

I played the game for a total of four hours over the weekend, taking a load of photos and off-screen video while making notes about the gameplay and finding the answers to questions that you, dear readers, sent to me via twitter. 

Follow me after the break as we bathe together in the deliciousness that is Persona 4: Arena, and I shower you in delightfully warm gameplay details. 

Just don't forget to bring a towel. 

Persona 4: Arena  (Arcade)
Publisher:  Atlus
Release Date: March 1, 2012

Known here in Japan as Persona 4: The Ultimate in Mayonaka Arena, P4A is an Arc System Works designed 2D fighting game based on the popular Persona franchise. In particular, this game brings characters from Persona 3 and 4 together in a high speed, flashy brawl that I'm sure no fan of the franchise ever could have expected. For those of you unaware, Arc System Works is the developer behind both Guilty Gear and BlazBlue, two anime-styled games with pretty big fanbases. I for one am a big fan of both, so you can imagine my excitement when P4A was announced. 

Called to the TV world once again, Yu Narukami finds himself forced to battle his old friends from Inaba, one after the other. For some strange reason however, they don't seem quite themselves. Teddie appears to be behind the strange event, but as things unfold, it becomes clear that he's an impostor. Defeating his friends one by one so that he can free them from their trance, Yu must once again use his Persona abilities to get to the bottom of the P-1 Grand Prix. 

In the arcade version at least, the story is a sort of non-presence. As you fight each of your opponents, certain encounters will yield a brief dialogue scene that eludes to a more complex story-line. Very little is explained and if you have any experience with the BlazBlue arcade mode, know that it's very similar to that. Arc System Works did an amazing job on the BlazBlue story mode, so I'm really looking forward to getting the full package. I have some theories about possible connections to Persona 5, but I'll leave that for another time.

P4A plays closer to Guilty Gear and BlazBlue than it does Street Fighter. You're able to air dash, block in mid-air as well as execute throws. There is also a Burst meter which allows you to escape a combo by pressing any three buttons in tandem. Once your Burst is used however, you have to wait until the meter recharged before you can use it again. In that sense, the mechanic is a lot closer to what Guilty Gear players are used to. 

The button layout might seem foreign to some. The buttons are A, B, C and D, which should come as a surprise to no one. Where things get tricky is that A is positioned directly above B, and C is above D. The A and B button are your basic physical attacks, light and heavy. The C and D button however are used for summoning and manipulating your Persona. If you've played BlazBlue and ever tried Carl Clover or Relius Clover, the way you control their dolls is very similar to your Personas in P4A. The biggest difference is that a Persona only appears onscreen to attack, disappearing shortly after the animation if completed. 

You can summon your Persona mid-combo to extend your attack chain, and they're also useful when playing keep away. I made the mistake early on of simply not taking advantage of the mechanic, leading to several crushing defeats. After I started getting used to having a second controllable character onscreen though, I found myself improving. Your Persona is physical vulnerable once onscreen and can be hit by your opponent's attacks. When that happens, your Persona immediately disappears regardless of where they were in their animation. 

At the top of the screen, just below the health bar is a series of four cards. Every time your Persona is hit, one of these cards gets crossed out. When this happens four times, you lose the ability to summon the Persona as well as use your Burst. This leaves you in an incredible vulnerable situation as the C and D buttons essentially become useless until the cards recharge. Some players will be tempted to spam Persona attacks as their range and damage output are significantly better than normal physicals, but a good player will most certainly take advantage of their vulnerability. 

One gameplay element that I'm still not too sure about is the use of the A button to automatically execute a combo. By pressing the A button multiple times, your character will use a basic combo on your opponent, finishing with a super attack if you have the meter to pull it off. This would appear to have been implemented to help novice players, but it's also incredibly easy to read. I didn't find myself using it much at all because the other arcade players would simply anticipate and counter appropriately every single time. I'm curious as to whether the A button combos are going to be made optional when P4A comes out for consoles. Instant kills are also present here, only executable in the final round when you have a full meter.

The arcade version of the game currently has ten playable characters, all of which have previously been revealed. The newcomer, Labrys is not usable in the current version. You do however face her in combat as a boss character, giving a pretty good idea of what players can expect once she receives the appropriate nerfs. I don't think the game ever states what the name of her final Persona is, but it's likely this will be revealed in the full story mode. As is typical in any fighter, you can select from a variety of different colors for your team In a neat twist though the game gives the option to customize your Persona separate from your player character. 

I spent most of my time playing with Yu Narukami and Chie Satonaka. Yu looks to be a solid character all around, with his own dragon punch, decent range and damage output. I can see a lot of early players picking him up to get used to the way P4A plays. Chie on the other hand is a lot more nimble but does less damage. Her combo mixups are also a lot trickier to defend against, containing some difficult to read overheads and lows. To be honest, four hours with the game isn't enough to be able to comment in detail about the different ways in which each character plays so take this info with a grain of salt.

I'm sure you can tell just by looking at the videos above and the images in the gallery, but P4A is super fast, colorful and fun as all hell. The animation is about as solid as BlazBlue's and the CG backgrounds are really quite beautiful. There are some amazing remixes of P4 themes in the game as well. Yu's character theme, which is a remix of Reach out to the Truth, had me grooving to the beats while getting my ass kicked.

I can't tell you if Persona 4: Arena is tournament worthy, or whether or not it's going to really take off. It's far too early to make those kinds of judgments as far as I'm concerned. What I can say, with great confidence, is that P4A is a blast to play and a love letter to Persona 3 and 4 fans. It's flashy, beautiful, on the eyes and ears, fun to play and controls like butter. When I was at the arcade shooting footage and taking pictures, the machines were filled with players despite it being the middle of the day. Everyone was having a great time and the atmosphere was charged and filled with enthusiasm. 

Persona 4: Arena is definitely one to keep your eyes on. In the meantime, if you have any questions about the current build of the game, feel free to leave them in the comments below. I'll leave you with one final video of Yu vs Yosuke goodness!

Photo Gallery: (75 images)
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Elliot Gay, Contributor
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Elliot is an associate editor for Japanator and can be found contributing to Destructoid on occasion. He lives in Japan and can be found on Twitter @RyougaSaotome. more   |   staff directory

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