The most important feature of a fighting game, in contrast with many other games, is how methodical and accessible its tutorial is. In the fighting genre, more so than any other, there is a mixture of subtly different mechanics which set a game apart from competitors, and complex fundamentals of the genre which need to be mastered. Understanding these skills – and understanding what genre knowledge is transferrable between games – is a vital prerequisite of play and so a comprehensive tutorial explaining both basic knowledge and advanced nuances of a specific game is a key feature of a well-designed fighting game.
Persona 4 Arena succeeds here; it is among the most accessible and easily-comprehensible fighting games around yet the desirable complexity of the genre never feels compromised. This is a result of its three-level tutorial system – firstly a “Lesson Mode” which explains controls and fighting-game staples, then moves into explaining how it specifically differs from other games of its type. This is followed by a “Challenge Mode” of the sort many games have, systematically explaining and teaching each character’s movelist and combo timings. Finally there is the staple customisable training dummy, allowing a player who has mastered the system to try applying it in fixed conditions.
What differentiates it from other fighting games is the deceptive simplicity of each character’s move list. The standard four main attack options mapped to the controller’s four main buttons are present, but there is much more emphasis on differentiating the characters with small libraries of very different moves. A fighting game like Dead or Alive or Street Fighter gives all its characters a large basic moveset of combos – combinations of light, heavy and medium kicks and punches – as well as a smaller number of unique special moves. What Persona 4 Arena does is have its four groups of attacks be light and heavy “attack” strings (kicks and punches in combination) and “persona” attacks (projectiles or easily-used basic specials). These are supplemented by health-draining character-specific techniques and throws. This adds spectacle to the game, with summoned assist characters an integral part of combat, but also adds variety as each character’s attacks are unique to them. The result is like a more refined version of the Blazblue games in which the characters feel far more differentiated mechanically, and characterful as a result. What this means in game terms is that the player is more strongly encouraged to focus on a smaller number of favoured characters since there are fewer transferrable strategies.
This much more focused design is inherently divisive; the quite disparate cast of characters can make finding one that suits a play-style require significant time investment and practice and changing character requires learning an entirely new style. This is in some way mitigated by the standardisation of inputs to simple quarter-circles (each characters’ moves require the same basic library of inputs – meaning the challenge is entirely predicated on learning the reach and timings of the attacks). Indeed, as one plays the game over time the apparent lack of ability to transfer learned skills between characters becomes less of an issue – understanding of the game’s systems remains transferrable. The diversity of design is built on an elegant framework which is as predictable and learnable as any fighting game – and it is this which is Persona 4 Arena’s mechanical draw. The simplifications (such as the automated one-button combos and the standardised inputs) add a strategic element since they provide a learnable basis for strategy. Basic attacks are always short-ranged and always chain in similar ways. Persona attacks factor into these combos in known fashions and can be interrupted – a successful “Persona Break” forbidding their use for a period and impacting certain characters far more harshly than others. The small movelist, in comparison to other games, thus becomes a strategic factor. Furthermore, the prebuilt combos are as restrictive as they are accessible – getting locked into unfavourable move sets can backfire.
The emphasis on differentiation of characters is not only mechanically useful but thematically vital; Persona 4 Arena, unlike many fighting games, not only has the narrative emphasis of a game like Blazblue but also a heritage in an RPG series predicated on socialising and friendship. Rivalries and friendships are the defining thing of the Persona series and so their importance within the fighting game spinoff is significant. Without the series ties – in fighting style, in characterisation and even in UI design and general visuals – all the strengths of the game would be worthless. It is important to note that although the game’s story mode is a continuation of Persona 4‘s plot, it is a lighthearted one which explains salient plot points from the original for those who have not played it and seems quite self-aware in its justification for turning former allies against each other. The “feel” is Persona through and through, and long-time series fans will appreciate the references and story in a different way to a newcomer.
Thus, Persona 4 Arena is a standout game; it marries theme and mechanics closely, and through its apparent simplicity that allows a total novice to enjoy it adds levels of strategy for advanced play based on positioning and timing rather than specific dexterity at inputting attacks. This much more strategic aspect is almost a way of translating RPG combat to a fighting game and changing the focus much more towards system mastery. As a result, it accentuates the strengths of fighting games while working to avoid the inaccessibility and confusion that can make them offputting. Most notably, its concessions to accessibility do not compromise the strategic depth, or add alternate control schemes such as one-button special moves only for those players who choose to use them (which simply means that such players are disadvantaged by the simplification against opponents not using it, and do not get a chance to learn the full game); there is one method of playing, applied to all, but that method is easily-understood and standardised.