I absolutely love fighting games, the Persona series, and Arc System Works, the masterminds behind Guilty Gear and BlazBlue, so naturally one would think this game would be a smash hit. Technically it is, where in Japan it's become the number one selling fighting game in recent years, and if there's anything to be learned from that it's that fighting games aren't dead, despite the lack of "commercial" accessibility.
Luckily, ASW addresses that issue in Persona 4 Arena, which became almost instantly identifiable when I jumped into Challenge mode with Akihiko. I was expecting a GG or BB control scheme, complete with all sorts of different attacks for a single button that can be performed through simple directional inputs (e.g. 2C, 5C, 6C), which consequently opens the doors to long combo chains. Although that's quite fun, ASW left that system in those games and simplified things considerably here.
And by simplified, I mean that during the early days of this game's cycle you'll probably see a lot of players online spamming Auto Combos, which certainly look impressive and would be more difficult to perform normally, but as you can plainly see by the notation (a string of five A attacks, for example) the combo is pretty braindead. Before you shake your head in dismay, though, remember Marvel also has braindead combos (and characters), and it's a game that's easy to grasp yet hard to master. And as far as impressions go on day one of release, Persona 4 Arena seems that way as well.
Persona 4 Arena looks, plays, and feels in almost every way like an ASW title. It has multiple single player modes, such as a comprehensive tutorial, challenge mode, extremely robust story mode (understatement of the year!), and a training mode with more bells and whistles than you can shake a stick at. The SP meter (super meter) is identical to BB, not just in how it's measured but also in how you build it; there is a burst system; you can combo after throws; and you have two Persona normals that feel like a Drive attack in BB. One cool aspect of the Persona attacks, though, is that your Persona has a health bar, too, in the form of four cards which if depleted deactivate it for about 10 seconds. This is huge. Several attacks and combos rely on Personas, and some characters are useless without their Persona. Think of the implications this could have in matches and tournaments.
Despite the heavy ASW flavor so far, Persona 4 Arena's attack buttons aren't as multi-purposed as other titles from the company. As mentioned previously, A, B, C, and D for the most part all have one attack without multi-directional counterparts, which is actually a really nice departure that simplifies combat a lot. There's one weak and one strong attack; one weak and one strong Persona attack; and a sweep performed by hitting down, plus A and B. Simple, right? Another unique feature is Furious Actions, which is just a combination of B and D at the same time. For some characters this is a simple DP (Dragon Punch), for others it's a counter, but what makes it interesting is that it reduces your HP slightly (which auto recovers, though) and usually has significant recovery (but can be used in combos if used properly). All Out Attacks are also somewhat unique, but for the most part feel like modified versions of Dust attacks in GG. This is basically an attack that hits once and sends the opponent spinning backwards allowing you to follow up with a launcher or a "grounder," both of which allow for combos afterward. You simply hit A and B and viola, you have an All Out Attack.
What also makes the game unique is probably the most obvious aspect, and that would be the Persona characters which will immediately guarantee a sale for any diehard Persona fan even if he/she isn't into fighting games. The same trend happened when BlazBlue released in 2009; plenty of anime fans flocked to the game because of its visual aesthetics and elaborate story mode, the latter of which not typically associated as a strong suit for fighting games. The Persona writing staff is luckily on board for this title, though, and with that comes certain expectations in terms of quality and content, which have been exceeded with leaps and bounds as far as I can tell so far, since this is after all a proper sequel to Persona 4.
Despite all this, however, the game's strong suits may be its undoing. As popular as Persona may be, it is still a niche series made even more niche by becoming a fighting game, a pill that gets harder to swallow when you have to master combos and fighting game techniques such as footsies and spacing which can be grueling trials of endurance for a novice player. After story mode has been completed, the sheen might fade and diehard fans might not be compelled to play online despite the numerous tools ASW has provided to make any fight a button mashing affair. Of course, I hope I'm wrong, but we saw it happen to BlazBlue; hopefully, ASW will find a way to keep the game fresh, and the community will find a way to make it relevant because it would be a shame for such a gem to fade into obscurity as countless other amazing games have.