The frenzy of light and colour in one of Persona 4 Arena's battles might appear bafflingly complex to the uninitiated, but the onscreen action belies a mechanical simplicity that helps ease in new players. Arena builds on the successes of its spiritual predecessor, BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger, retaining the depth familiar to Arc System Works' fans while introducing an accessibility to players unfamiliar to the genre.
Persona 4 Arena's battles see you summoning personas using two of the attack buttons, with their precise behaviour depending on the summoner's motion and position. A persona can be damaged and even knocked out, effectively halving a character's abilities during the healing period. The four-button combat system has only strong and weak attacks, each for you and your persona, and features single button autocombos to ease novices into the mechanics. The "Burst" combo provides a get-out-of-jail-free card (if you have a full burst meter)--if you're getting hammered, you can knock your opponent away with a short stun and a little damage. The hardcore needn't despair though, as further combos and quarter-circle specials allow flowing chains of satisfaction, with the added interplay of simultaneous persona and character combat bringing a host of techniques to the table.
The game's fully voiced story mode kicks off two months after the events of 2008's Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 and treats long-term fans with some (appropriately aged) Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 characters as well. The studio promises a story enjoyable to new and old fans alike with characters from the 13-strong roster enjoying two hours of game time each, following the same events from different perspectives.
A Lesson mode is also included, a welcome feature in a notoriously inaccessible genre, developing on BlazBlue's Tutorial with smoother transitions between exercises. The mode provides lessons, from moving all the up way to runs of combos and the game's three types of guard. Arena's online Versus mode, with all 13 characters available from the off, utilises the same successful netcode as BlazBlue, promising a smooth experience at broadband speeds. If you're trying to move from intermediate to advanced level, you'll benefit from the "record a combo" feature, where you can teach the computer to attack with a specific move, allowing you to perfect a counter. Arena's Challenge mode, similar to Lesson mode, allows fluid transition to the next task with no bothersome loading screens to break up the flow of play.
Persona 4 Arena's character models were lovingly created by building real 3D models before converting them back into two dimensions to provide depth and realism. Pretty effects accompany attack animations, bringing style as well as substance to the sophisticated combat system.
With the recent resurgence of the 2D fighting genre, Arena has the potential to outdo its big brother, BlazBlue. Its aspirations to the competitive scene will be tested by its balance at a high level. Thankfully, its arcade manifestation in Japan has shown good promise over the last three months. Series fans can get excited about an as-yet unspecified Collectors Edition, and while the game is currently limited to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, other platform versions have not been ruled out (BlazBlue recently hit the PlayStation Vita). Persona 4 Arena has big ambitions: to tell a story that's equally enjoyable to newcomers and fans from the PlayStation era; to build a fighting mechanic that is both accessible and satisfying to the hardcore; to make a splash on the competitive scene. Find out if it succeeds in mid-September.