Fighting games aren’t known for their fascinating (or even terribly interesting) plots, but Atlus’s premiere intellectual property Persona certainly is. With Persona 5 making its way to both PS3 and PS4 next year, Arena Ultimax is both a series of improvements to 2012’s Persona 4 Arena as well as a swan-song for the P4 line in terms of last-gen exclusivity. The latter is a tall order, and despite its spinoff nature, Ultimax manages to weave an interesting tale while improving core fighting mechanics and drawing from both Persona 3 and Persona 4 fiction. Disclaimer: the previous statements are only 100% true if you’re already a fan of both fighting games and Persona. For the rest of us, it’s not quite so simple.
The events of Ultimax are, admittedly, pretty tough on the P4 cast. Can’t these guys at least catch a break to rest and recharge? Within 24 hours of the events of the original Persona 4 Arena, a “red fog” emerges and blankets the town of Inaba and the surrounding areas. P4 players have likely already guessed that the red fog has something to do with Shadows, the Midnight Channel, and the world within Inaba’s TVs, and as the threat worsens in severity the game’s cast of characters are called into action. And so our adventure begins.
Ultimax’s story does nice job roping in new characters for use in combat, expanding the total fighter count by five with the likes of Junpei Iori, Ken Amada, Yukari Takeba, Rise Kujikawa, and an odd new villain by the name of Sho Minazuki. Sho is behind the craziness the game’s plot centers on, and is unique because he doesn’t actually use a Persona in battle. Instead, he wields two large, narrow blades which, though slightly illogical when facing the series’ trademark Pokémon from Hell, do look incredibly awesome. These additions bring the roster total from 13 to 17, which is nice already, but stating it as such does developer Arc System Works a bit of a disservice. There are also Shadow counterparts to each fighter, which look and play quite differently. Its an impressive wealth of options, and you’re unlikely to become board due to lack of fighters.
In terms of the fights themselves, tweaks from the original Arena are modest-yet-notable, while the game’s graphics and general fluidity remain truly top notch. As far as anime-style fighters go Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is easily among the most beautiful, and its smooth framerate and superb animation only draw further attention to that fact (especially against its also-impressive predecessor). As someone who reviewed AquaPazza, I can tell you with confidence that P4AU is the cream of the crop.
Mechanical adjustments may go unnoticed by those who didn’t play the original Arena, but they certainly exist and are certainly appreciated. Devastating combos are now easier to pull off and chain together, while effective damage is less simple to dish out my merely button mashing. The overall feel of Persona 4 Arena has always been about speed and chaos rather than landing blow after calculated blow, and while there’s certainly strategy and skill involved, your blood really gets pumping when you’re half planning your attack and half flying by the seat of your pants. Having an interesting plot definitely makes jumping from fight to fight more compelling, and though it’s not Persona proper calibur material, it won’t have you cringing all too often either.
Additionally, story progression has been divided into digestible chunks this time around, a move likely inspired by complaints that the last game featured too many lengthy bouts of dialogue and reading. Story is delivered in a visual novel style, and though there are still scenes that last a bit too long, it’s never tedious or frustrating. I noted that the story is interesting, and it is, but what the story unfortunately lacks is emotionally powerful or stirring scenes. It’s fun to learn about what P3 characters like Ken and Junpei have been up to, but there’s little substantial character development to speak of — and that holds doubly true for P4 characters. In other words, the narrative will hold your attention and pass the time, but don’t expect it to deliver raw emotion or gut-punches to the feels. Atus, understandably, is saving that for Persona 5.
Otherwise, P4AU outside of story mode is sectioned into a number of play options, including Score Attack Mode, Challenge Mode, and Versus. There’s also ranked online, which in my experience was quite laggy. Given the peer-to-peer nature of the connection and the fact that everyone I played against was geographically distant (the game releases in North America tomorrow), the lag is forgivable and will likely correct itself soon. I wish more games would pull a Mario Kart 8 and host their games on servers, but it’s not something I explicitly blame Atlus or Arc System Works for. The original Arena’s online matches were eventually rendered hiccup-free, and I expect that will be the case in time for Ultimax as well.
The only real problem with Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is that most players are unlikely to be die-hard fans of both JRPGs and fighting games, and if you’re not, certain things are going to bother you more than they otherwise might. Even after completing the story, I simply couldn’t determine how to consistently defend against certain combos chains and devastating “super” attacks. It’s at moments like these where casual fighting fans start weighing their time investment options, and with a new Super Smash Bros. just released and a new Dead or Alive redux slated for next year, my own subconscious logic instructed me to take it easy. The opposite could be true for fans of fighting games who loathe RPGs; those folks may have the mechanics down pat in half a dozen hours, but roll their eyes during all the anime. Unfortunately, it’s a symptom of a product as niche as this and can’t really be helped.
Regardless, I definitely recommend Persona 4 Arena Ultimate to fans of either genre whose backlogs aren’t already inundated, and for what the game is worth you’re more likely than not to find yourself having a good time. In the event that that happens, the lovely visuals, entertaining plot, and compelling combat are plenty to keep you hooked for at least a few weeks. It remains to be seen whether or not this is a truly balanced and crafted fighter for professional and competitive play, but we’ll leave that to the fighting game junkies to figure out. You can run a Google search in a month if you’re curious about such things.
Griffin Vacheron is an Associate Gaming Editor for CraveOnline. You can follow him on Twitter @novacav.
PS3 copy provided by publisher. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is available on PS3 and Xbox 360.