Developer: Arc System Works
Publisher: Atlus USA
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360
Release Date: September 30, 2014
ESRB: T for Teen
This review is based on the PS3 version of the game
It always seemed strange to me that the teenagers of Persona 3 and Persona 4 who had difficulty standing on their own two feet in turn-based battle have transitioned to full-fledged badasses by the hand of Arc System System Works. Yet, just like that, Persona 4 Arena was that peanut butter & jelly combination that fans of the classic Persona 3 & 4 RPGs did not know they wanted it until the series arrived as a fighter.
As with fighting game tradition, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax serves as both a direct sequel and an enhanced release two years after the original P4A debut. Is it worth it to take another admission to the P-1 Grand Prix or can one only hope that its Dark Hour quickly passes?
Like the original release, Ultimax continues the smart approach of bridging the gap between fans of fighters and those well-versed with the RPGs. The P-1 Grand Prix Tournament returns once again, taking place only a few days after the events in Persona 4 Arena. General Teddie forcibly summons the cast from Persona 3 & 4 to participate in this tournament by enveloping the town of Inaba in a eerie red fog, reminiscent of P3's Dark Hour, and threatens to destroy the world in one hour if they fail to do so.
As you would expect from the storytelling, it is told as a fairly in-depth visual novel, with the occasional fight, and it is dense with callbacks to the RPGs. Just be warned, Ultimax“s plot has a much bigger disregard toward spoilers for both P3/P4. If you haven“t played either of P3/P4 to completion (or at all) you probably should not even consider touching Ultimax“s story until doing so, especially since the RPG stories are way better told.
For as big of a fan as I may be towards P3/P4, I had pretty fundamental problems with the storytelling in the original Persona 4 Arena. This is primarily because of how P4A was written in way that characters from both entries honestly felt like caricatures of themselves, where significant character development from the original games was disregarded and how much time they spent retreading old story devices and jokes. Ultimax pays more respect to how the cast are written and has better pacing than Arena, but it still falls under a pretty redundant, predictable, and heavy-handed overall storytelling procedure. Not unlike the villain, Sho, I became rather fatigued by the end of it because of how much the phrases â€œfriendsâ€ and â€œbondsâ€ were regurgitated, almost as if Tetsuya Nomura fed them lines in the script.
At the end of the day, though, I still really enjoy Persona 4 Arena Ultimax as a fighter. It“s frenetic, very stylish, visually stunning, has tight controls that are easy to learn, and Ultimax is just a ton of fun to play almost regardless of skill level. Of course, there is a lot of depth to it in spite of its more intended approachable design. But, as most who know about series are probably already aware of those things and are wondering what is actually new with this release. What is new aside from the storytelling is the changes to modes, additional characters, general re-balancing, shadow forms, and a ton of fanservice laced throughout.
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax has at this point gotten pretty close to having almost every main character from P3/P4 playable with few exceptions. Most of the new characters play quite varied and bolster the roster by eight more from P4A, three of which are technically DLC. In the game by default are new characters like archer/actress Yukari; the enthusiastic baseball coach Junpei; the duo of the spear-user Ken and his knife-wielding dog companion Koromaru; the bubbly idol Rise; and lastly, the villain figure (shadow) Sho Minazuki, who teleports around and slashes foes with his dual katanas. From a roster that was arguably too small in P4A, the new characters serve as very welcome and enjoyable additions in Ultimax, even those unfortunately relegated to paid DLC. Atlus USA also went the extra mile during localization by bringing English voice talents from the original RPGs, which hits a soft nostalgic place for me as a fan.
It is a shame that the Shadow characters and (normal) Sho Minazuki are not as interesting or, arguably, as enjoyable as the main cast. Shadow characters are basically clones that play as faster, but generally weaker, versions of most characters with a new combo-centric mechanic called â€œShadow Frenzyâ€. Despite some occasionally neat stuff, like special intro/victory poses, most Shadow characters feel like an afterthought and are generally just less viable to play as in the current release.
Due to narrative context, there are also two versions of the character called Sho Minazuki. Unlike the character Labrys, who has a counterpart that plays fundamentally different, (normal) Sho Minazuki and (shadow) Sho Minazuki don't exactly feel that way. (Normal) Sho Minazuki doesn“t have a persona and feels really out of place because of it, especially when (shadow) Sho Minazuki has a relatively similar moveset, in addition to a fairly cool Persona which changes it up a lot.
Online play in Ultimax is structured pretty much identically to Blazblue: Chrono Phantasma“s, which is a very good thing. The nifty lobby structure returns, which has custom player avatars roam around a virtual arcade, and also initiating specific ranked/player matches is still pretty seamless as you play the other modes (except story, unfortunately). Thankfully, the netcode is still excellent and, like the original, is the best I have ever seen in a 2D fighter. One cool aspect that sort of stood out to me is that certain unlocks also occur as you are playing online matches, so players don't have to complete the fiendish Score Attack modeâ€¦ as much for extra content.
Aside from netplay enhancements, the only mode that is actually completely new is Golden Arena. This mode brings an RPG progression to what would otherwise seem like a standard survival mode in other titles. Just like the RPGs you can level up and distribute stats, as well choose which passive abilities you want to slot in with a lot of familiar Shin Megami Tensei spell/skill names. It is presented in a nostalgic way, but I wish it had more variety overall, opposed to pure back to back fighting with the occasional "level-up", since it feels like it has a lot of potential as an interesting time-sink.
Every other mode is what you'd expect from most fighters and have received fairly subtle to negligible changes; the only difference that stood out to me was that Score Attack is no longer purely unapologetic SNK Boss Syndrome and has now toggleable difficulties. That said, my favorite, seemingly throwaway detail added to the options is being able to change the main menu as well as online lobby music to the fairly huge song selection from both P3/P4 as well as the original Arena and Ultimax tracks.
To this date, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax remains as easily one the strongest examples of a licensed property in a fighting game space. Your mileage may vary from what you get out of the in-depth visual novel storytelling, even as a fan of the RPGs, but in every other regard it is more than up to snuff as a fighter considering the high quality bar of its source material. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax doesn't boldly go past the original foundation too much as a whole, but it still proves itself as quite a thoroughly enjoyable fighter.
+ Very frenetic, accessible, and yet surprisingly deep core gameplay
+ Most new characters are very fun to play
+ Better storytelling than Persona 4 Arena
+ Online play is well-designed and overall netcode is excellent
- Storytelling is predictable and heavy-handed
- Shadow characters and (normal) Sho Minazuki don't add much to the game
- Golden Arena mode could be more fleshed out
Overall Score: 8.5 (out of 10)
While not necessarily the biggest step forward in terms of overall content, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax should delight series fans, both old and new, as a worthwhile enhanced release of an already great fighter.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS3 code provided by the publisher.