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Fighting-game stories were once just a flimsy pretense for having a bunch of colorful people beat each other up, but now they have become a selling point. The recent Mortal Kombat reboot garnered rave reviews for its cinematic narrative that covered the folklore of the franchise's early days. Meanwhile, the 2D wizards at Arc System Works earn praise for the lengthy narratives of its BlazBlue series. Now, it has teamed up with Atlus to make Persona 4 Arena, based off a Japanese role-playing game that already has a fully realized world.
The only problem is that if Arc System Works’ narratives are the gold standard, than the genre still has a long way to go. I cringed when I heard that P4A’s story would be at least 30 hours long if you complete all of the character arcs and branching paths, and I was able to confirm my fears within 10 minutes of playing it. Just because you can have an long story mode in a fighting game, it doesn’t mean you should.
ASW games function as a “visual novel," which means it depicts the action using plain text, dialog between mostly static images, and the occasional special effect or picture. The approach is more popular in Japan than the West, and even though there isn't anything inherently wrong with the format, it can lead to verbose writing that takes forever to click through. The BlazBlue games suffered from this habit, and this title is no different.
For example, the opening sequence of Yukiko’s arc is that she is cooking at her family’s inn. There, she discovers that The Midnight Channel — the alternate TV reality that she and her friends travel to in the RPG — is back and that one of them is missing. She then calls one of her other teammates to discuss the events. This takes 12 minutes to depict.
I understand how some people like me who might not have played previous Persona games will need a quick primer, but every other line of dialog transitions into an internal monologue about how Yukiko isn’t fond of the inn’s image or how great her friends are. Once you get to an actual fight, her opponents goad her into combat, yet each time it happens we have to sit through 200 words about how hurtful and out-of-character these insults are, as if we’re too stupid to grasp the context.
This isn’t to say the plot itself is bad. P4A’s story is probably the equivalent of a TV reunion special compared to the RPGs. It does, however, imply that while a "dream match" game is exciting for fans, it's cruel to the participants and requires mangling their personalities to fit the needs of the plot. Persona 4 Arena did make me more interested in the franchise, and I liked the characters, voice acting, and humor.
The problem is that the time it takes to tell that tale does not fit the genre it appears in. It’s OK for a RPG to take 40 hours to complete because you spend a lot of time in random battles, exploring, and various other tasks. A fighting-game story that devotes an hour to dialog and five minutes to actual battles is grossly imbalanced. It’s like an action movie that drags on. The actual fights are formalities that neither teach you how to play nor offer a challenge.
I’ve played a fighting game that did Persona 4 Arena’s tale better, and that was Project Justice, a Sega Dreamcast-era title. This sequel to the obscure Rival Schools franchise has a similar premise: Highschool classmates are trying to solve a mystery, but they end up battling other students in a chain of misunderstandings. Since Project Justice appeared in arcades, however, the story bits had to be quick and to the point, and the result is something more substantial than the usual fare, but doesn’t impede the pacing.
Persona 4 Arena’s Arcade Mode is similar to Project Justice as it features a truncated version of the narrative that hits most of the plot points with a better balance between gameplay and writing. I would definitely prefer something longer than this version as it is too stripped down, and ultimately Story Mode is for the longtime fans of the franchise. I would just like it to be longer by a thousand words, not ten thousand.