WARNING: Completely uncritical raving ahead!
When I saw that the Persona series was going to have its own fighting game, I was pretty skeptical; what's an RPG series going to do with a fighting game that makes it worth getting as such?
But hey, I didn't have any fighting games for PS3, so I put it on my Christmas list; at least it would feature characters I knew, so that was a plus.
Before I go on, I will state that as a fighting game, it's a solid entry. It's of the "Street Fighter" style, 2-D combat, which isn't my preferred mode (I'm more into the Virtua Fighter/Toshinden/Tekken/etc. 3D fighters), but it's quite pretty, has some lovely moves/combos, a varied cast of characters, smooth controls, and lots of different play variations to keep it fun and interesting for individuals as well as groups.
I knew, of course, there was a "story mode", but I didn't expect much from it; I've played a number of other such games with "story modes" which were at best thin excuses to get people to fight with a little personal involvement.
This was so not the case with Persona 4 Arena.
As of this writing, I have finished all paths in the Story Mode; all of them were fun and entertaining; many – despite a huge number of common elements – were gripping.
And some were uplifting to the point of literal tears.
Yes, tears. I've cried (from joy or sadness or anger) at very, very few stories of any type – written, movie, TV, or video game. In video games, I think I can only think of three examples: Chrono Trigger (at Crono's revival), Final Fantasy VII (Aerith's murder)… and now Persona 4 Arena.
Some spoilers for Persona 3, 4, and Persona 4 Arena follow; don't read farther if you're spoiler-averse.
Persona 4 Arena leverages the deep background that it has magnificently. The main story, as implied by the title, seems to spin off from Persona 4, in which the main characters discovered that there was an alternate world that certain people could reach by literally passing through TV screens (for good reason, it turns out). The events in the TV world had been heralded by the "Midnight Channel" – a short program which would be seen at midnight on rainy days which showed bizarre and disturbing imagery associated with people in danger. Once the main characters finally dealt with the cause of the murders and other events, the Midnight Channel disappeared.
But now it's back, and three of their own have also disappeared. The remaining characters – Yu, Chie, Yukari, and Yosuke – set out to enter the TV world and discover the meaning of the "P-1 Grand Prix" fighting tournament shown on the Midnight Channel – a tournament that appears to feature the characters themselves, with peculiar and insulting taglines.
But that is only the beginning, because other events and forces are involved… as you discover as you play along, and unlock a whole set of other characters – Mitsuru, Akihiko, and Aigis, three of the main characters from Persona 3. They are tracking down a stolen, and possibly rogue, android weapon, the 5th-Generation Anti-Shadow Suppression Weapon Labrys (Aigis is properly called the 7th-Generation Anti-Shadow Suppression Weapon Aigis). In addition, one other playable character appears – Elizabeth, former resident of the mysterious "Velvet Room", a being of incredible power seeking something that is, nonetheless, beyond her current power or understanding.
Every character's story has certain points in common… but significant differences, depending both on point of view, and on the fact that, due to the way the "P-1 Grand Prix" works, only the winner of each combat can continue onward, thus changing outcomes; after all, if you defeat Yu Narukami, that means he's not going to be the one confronting the Big Bad in the final battle – he'll be stuck back wherever you beat him; if you're playing Yu, on the other hand, he's inevitably going to be the Big Hero.
The characters stay in character throughout – meaning that some of the stories verge on pure comedy, while others are extremely poignant. None, perhaps, are more affecting than the story of Labrys herself… and of her younger sister, Aigis, and how the two finally find each other.
It was the ending of Aigis' story that left me with tears running down my face, when I realized how the writers had tied together all three games, and the stories of the two sisters, mechanical weapons with human feelings and spirits, so that Aigis had, all unknowing, fulfilled the last and most heartfelt wish of Labrys on the day we first met her… in the very spot where Labrys had made that wish.
Persona 4 Arena ends its story mode – no matter what the character – with the clear knowledge that another, greater mystery and challenge lies ahead. I hope very much that if that game is made, it is a true RPG – there is too much story potential there to leave to another fighting game, even though this one astounded me with the depth and feeling it could evoke. Call the sequel RPG, perhaps, Persona 3+4 – I understand they're already writing "Persona 5" but rumors have implied none of the prior characters are in it, so it's not the adventure whose beginning we see in Persona 4 Arena.
I know that if such a game is released, I'll pre-order it the day it's possible, and play it the day of release.
I have not finished a game and felt such a simultaneous sense of satisfaction, joy, and yearning for more, I think, since I finished Chrono Trigger, all those years ago. Few books or movies have left such an impression on me. I am… utterly stunned.
And it's "just" a fighting game.
I have yet to play a match against another player in this "fighting" game, which is usually the only way I find them fun. And if I never DO play against anyone else… I'll still have gotten vastly more than the purchase price for this game.
Thank you, Atlus. Please… give us the rest of that story. All of it, from Yu and his nakama to Mitsuru and her friends… and Elizabeth on her impossible, wonderful quest to achieve what others have said is beyond hope. Let us live that adventure with them… and for a little while live in a world where the human spirit can illuminate even the darkness beyond the stars.