Persona 4 Arena
PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Reviewed on PlayStation 3
The quirky, the odd and the eerie. As a videogame publisher, Atlus has become the expert in making the strange into the popular. It released Demon's Souls, a horror-filled role playing game that was so unrepentantly unforgiving, even hard core gamers complained (even as they continued playing). Last year, Atlus' Catherine was a long meditation upon the nightmarish angst and fear that can emerge when trust fails a young relationship.
Last week, the company released a peculiar spinoff of its 15-year-old Persona role playing game series. Persona 4 Arena is a fighting game that takes place in suburban and rural Japan, not in the glitz of Tokyo. Often, a fighting game relies on superheroic characters like the vituperative, blade-wielding Nightmare in the SoulCalibur series. Or they can be caricatures of human types like the superpowerful Ryu in the Street Fighter series.
But Arena substantially sets itself apart from these other games of pugilism because the Persona series has rarely relied upon the more well-worn stereotypes of heroes or humans in its games. Instead, the Japanese franchise features a passel of teens who can reach into their burgeoning brains to summon their alternate beings. The Persona games' inspiration is partly derived from Jungian psychology, including the idea of collective unconscious and of archetypes.
When you begin Arena's story mode, you feel as though you're reading a graphic novel that's occasionally animated. The text-filled tale, as complex as it is long-winded, revolves around one of the four high schoolers you choose to become in the game. I became Chie Satonaka, a tomboy-ish high school junior, because I was drawn to the quirky description below her name on the main menu. It says she loves justice, kung fu ... and steak.
As the teens come together for a reunion, Chie, who wants to join the police force when she grows up, begins to investigate a re-emergence of something called "The Midnight Channel." Within the channel is a TV network that's also a portal to a world where Chie's Persona can be called upon as she battles very close friends who have unexplainably become enemies. "The Midnight Channel" is made into the weirdest of Twilight Zone episodes by Teddie, an anthropomorphic, cross-dressing bear who's been transformed into a cigar-smoking general. (I told you the game was curious.)
So when a character like Chie constantly second-guesses herself and within moments pumps her ego up to the point of swagger in Story Mode, it works because you expect anything and everything to happen. And when you finally play her character within a TV show co-hosted by what can only be described as the Japanese version of Gossip Girl, you understand fully her motivations, her weaknesses and her strengths.
Before each match, each character uses the nastiest of psychological throwdowns to get a leg up in the coming round. The battles that ensue are rife with speedy action. Chie becomes kind of a mash-up of Gabby Douglas and Claressa Shields, flipping and spinning and dragon kicking, punching, bouncing, double jumping. It's an amusement park of acrobatics. Then with the press of a button, she turns into her Persona, Tomoe, a samurai who wields something that looks like an oar with blades on either end. All the while, there's beauty in the strangeness, in the rendering of the protagonists, in the wide-ranging story and in the gameplay.
Persona 4 Arena features hundreds of fighter moves and eight spirited fighting modes, including online battles with a broadband connection. But it's the Story Mode that compels you to continue, because Chie and her cohorts feel real even when their world is at its wackiest. Chie makes you remember the gnawing ache of learning to grow and mature in a world that seems to be against you. And she makes you happy that you don't have to relive that particular bout of teenage mishegas. After an hour or so of play, you can leave the story and the arena for an adult world that is only sometimes rife with indecision, self-doubt and pain.
Harold Goldberg is the author of All Your Base Are Belong to Us: How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture.