Keeping an existing brand fresh without reverting to its standard genre is no small feat: you need to make sure that the genre switch makes a lick of sense. For the Final Fantasy series, having its main heroes and villains clashing against each other in high-flying one-on-one fighting seems logical. Atlus and Arc System Works are also taking that turn with the Shin Megami Tensei Persona spin-off, titled Persona 4: The Ultimate in Mayonaka Arena. The results seem astounding based on our recent playthrough of the title's debut at the 2011 Tokyo Game Show.
The game's story is set two months after the events of Persona 4. Teddy, one of the party members of the game, is promoting a fighting show called the P-1 Grand Prix and somehow goaded the main cast to go into "TV World" to find out what's really going on. If you've played titles like Guilty Gear and BlazBlue, you'll feel right at home with Persona 4: UMA. Characters can dash, air dash, and double-jump all over the screen to maneuver the battlefield. Combos are chained easily just like Arc System Works' past titles. And yes, the 2D graphics, backgrounds, and animations are crisp and pretty to look at.
Attacks are mapped onto four buttons: A and C are your punch and kick buttons, while B and D are your light and heavy Persona attacks, which are moves where a character's guardian angel of sorts shows up to land a damaging blow in the fighter's stead. Pressing A and B together unleashes an auto-combo chain for each character. Pressing A and C makes your character roll away, while pressing B and D does an emergency evade called R Action that makes you do an invincible side-step dodge at the cost of a sliver of your life.
Holding down on the joystick while pressing A and C together makes you pull off a short hop just like a King of Fighter's short jump. This not only dodges low attacks, but sets you up with any move since it's meant to give you a frame advantage. In true Guilty Gear and BlazBlue fashion, pressing A, C, and D makes you do a guard burst to break out of a combo or relentless assault at the cost of a burst gauge. You can do this only once, so spamming this move is not an option, which also means the tactic of burst-baiting still comes into play here.
From what we had gathered from the long lines and endless play sessions on all four cabinets at Arc System Works' booth, the main character of Persona 4 (now Yu Narukami instead of his past default manga name Souji Seta) is the popular choice among fighters. He has a beginner-friendly moveset (projectiles and fast uppercuts) thanks to his fighting style being a hybrid of Guilty Gear's Ky Kiske if he had a long-reaching stand a la JoJo's Bizarre Adventure.
This isn't to say that the rest of the cast are outshined by him; Yosuke Hanamura is a fast character with dive attacks, knife projectiles for short-term zoning, and a Persona with a delayed gas attack that can stun opponents temporarily. Yukiko Amagi can control space with her feather-armed Konohana Sakuya Persona and fan projectiles.
Chie Sakamoto also hits fast like Yosuke but doesn't have the range he possesses, while Kanji hits hard with his long-reaching electric attack coming out of his Persona while also surprising enemies with a super move grab. Aigis from Persona 3 is also in the game, but she isn't playable in this build. We suspect that she may be a zoning-heavy character as she has displayed attacks using her rocket fists and miniguns in her RPG appearance.
Persona 4: The Ultimate in Mayonaka Arena will be out in Japanese arcades in spring 2012. The PS3 and Xbox 360 versions will be out in summer 2012.