If you had told me that Persona 4 would end up with two 2D fighting games, a dungeon-crawler in the style of Etrian Odyssey and rhythm game spinoffs six years ago, I would have laughed at you. Now it’s 2014, and the adventures of our beloved glasses-wearing prismatic teens continue with the second installment of Persona 4 Arena, titled Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. Following in its predecessor’s footsteps, Persona 4 Ultimax proves itself to be a capable fighting game that balances both the competence of its diverse roster and the continuity of its already well-established story and an excellent addition to any fighting game fan’s library.
Advancing the plot from the previous game, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax returns to Inaba, Japan with the optimistic cast of the original game a week later; Yu, the protagonist, tunes in to the infamous Midnight Channel, as a video depicting the already beaten P-1 Grand Prix as well as injured members of the Persona 3 cast show once more. Soon after, a red fog begins to leak into the town, distorting it visually and allowing the cast to use their Personas in real life, and a mysterious tower appears. Sounds sort of familiar, doesn’t it?
The story mode is split into two separate ‘chapters’, Episode P4, which focuses on the cast of Persona 4, and Episode P3, which focuses on the established, and newly reintroduced characters from Persona 3. Persona 4’s episode unfortunately falls flat in comparison to its competing option, but both stories are told in tandem and are worth playing if you are already interested in the cast. With Episode P3, you get to see the rest of the highly praised cast its respective game as peradults, including: Yukari Takeba, Junpei Iori, Ken Amada and the adorable shiba inu, Koromaru. The narrative is expressed in the very familiar visual novel style of its original game, through branching character episodes. Starting with one long expository episode to explain the events of the first game, upon completion it splits into multiple other ones, which tells the story from different perspectives based on whose episode you choose to play. Playing one episode unlocks another, and so on. Arc System Works even included an option to have your fighter played by a CPU so you can sit back and enjoy the plot without picking up the controller.
Unfortunately, one of Persona 4 Arena Ultimax’s biggest faults is its exposition. If you choose to play story mode, be prepared to sift through long scenes of narrative with little to no player involvement at all. After reaching the 50% mark of story completion I started to realise that perhaps this wasn’t as streamlined and interactive as say, Blazblue or Guilty Gear’s story modes, but because these are characters I had already been previously invested in, getting through the story didn’t feel too much like pulling teeth.
Even if you aren’t an established Persona fan, there’s still a lot to enjoy with the story, albeit the presence of the game’s sometimes cringe-worthy humour and rocky writing may deter you. As a new player, you may be confused by established plot but it’s still mildly entertaining and can give you the context and character development that people often yearn so deeply for in fighting games. Unfortunately veteran fighting game players may not derive as much joy out of story mode based on the automatic difficulty setting which leaves the one-round matches feeling more like teasers than actual gameplay, it’s still a welcome relief from the considerable amount of reading you’ll be doing.
If that’s not for you, head over to Arcade Mode for some CPU or second player action, Score Attack Mode for a challenge, or alternatively, my new favourite addition, Golden Arena Mode. Reaching back to the RPG roots of Persona 4, Golden Arena Mode allows you to pick a character and a “social link” navigator partner and actually level up your character through dungeon-style streams of battle in various difficulties. After winning a match your character gains EXP and eventually levels up. You can improve upon their stats (such as HP, SP, strength, etc.) through a point allocation system and you can unlock skills depending on your social link choice as well. This leads for a fun, intuitive and challenging experience that will keep even the most experienced fighters on their toes, and caters to those of us who tend to enjoy RPG elements in gameplay a little more. After completing a certain amount of matches, there will be a boss fight and a chance to acquire rare skills through them. With around 150 skills available to learn, every player is sure to have a unique character and experience.
The strongest aspect of the game is the varied cast of characters to choose from, not only do you now have the entire Persona 3 cast in addition to the Persona 4 cast, but you also have shadow versions of them available to play as which really mix the gameplay up. The roster is incredibly balanced, unlike its original, even with the addition of entirely new characters. Junpei, now a baseball coach, has a playing style based off of his sport – the more combos he lands with his baseball bat, the more runners he gets on base which then leads to a homerun and in turn, acts as a strength buff which encourages players to be combative, thus fitting his gameplay style. Yukari is a zoning character, much like Naoto and Elizabeth, but relies on a bow which can be used both in-air and on the ground leaving players with seamless combos unbroken by movement. Ken is a “puppeteer” type character, who, when teamed with his pet dog, Koromaru, can lay on some serious damage through simultaneous ground and air combos.
As for Rise, a new fighter but already present hostess, uses a microphone as a weapon, has a unique combination of zoning and analytical attacks that affect the opponent’s weakness – Rise even has a mini rhythm game which can deal serious damage if you have excellent hand-eye coordination. Sho, who has two modes – one with a Persona, and one without, has incredible speed in addition to smooth transitions between light and heavy attacks, and a huge hitbox leaving him a bit more capable than the rest of the cast but not in a way that makes everyone else seem weak in comparison. For a week after release, Marie and Tohru Adachi, who comes with his own story mode told from his perspective, will be free to download, but afterward they will be joining Margaret for a retail DLC price of $5, being cheaper than usual for an Arc System Work’s fighting game.
The shadow versions of the characters (with the exception of Elizabeth, shadow Labrys, and both versions of Sho Minazuki), though a seemingly cheap way to further expand the roster, are made for offense as they build more SP quickly, and use Awakening SP skills with 100 SP, as well as have high HP and a low damage percentage to encourage expansive combos. Shadow characters also have access to a mode where they have unlimited SP for a short amount of time at the cost of bursts and awakening. I promise, by the time you pick up this game, you’ll have these terms mostly memorized. If you’re already an Arc System Works fighting game fan, you’re all set to go.
Unlike many other games of its genre, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax does not punish inexperienced players; it instead has an auto-combo mode, which slowly introduces players to the basics of fighting game mechanics and allows to hold their own against technical players, but is less rewarding than manual combos. Continuing with this uniqueness, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax also has an extremely useful tutorial mode, which orients players to the intricacies of the RPG-fighter by breaking combos down and rewarding them for successful execution, except the amount of Shin Megami Tensei jargon may take some getting used to. It is complicated, with dozens of systems working simultaneously, but does not make the game any less enjoyable – if anything, it makes it stand out a little more.
Arc System Works finely tunes already introduced systems by adding in things like Skill Hold, for players who are inexperienced, All Out Attacks for rapid combo usage and launching, and multiple burst modes for combo-breaking. Arc System Works may have drastically improved upon its controls from the previous game, but the controller still feels rather cramped and there are so many different circumstantial moves that you may find yourself delightfully entertained or extremely overwhelmed at first.
The artwork and gameplay visuals of Persona 4 Arena Ultimax are bright and memorable, as the game has a balance of anime cutscenes to keep the story visually interesting, Shigenori Soejima’s iconic art and Blazblue artist Toshimichi Mori’s lovingly rendered sprites reminiscent of Blazblue. The only thing that really stuck out to me was the fact that the character portraits in the visual novel narrative just move their mouths, which looks a bit uncanny with how still the portraits are, but that does not detract from the well-rendered backgrounds or how truly gorgeous Shigenori’s art continues to be through Persona. The soundtrack is what you’ve come to expect from Persona titles, coming from Shoji Meguro, the balance of guitar and piano is familiar to any fans of the franchise which is both a plus and negative on the game. I find that the character themes meld into one long song from their similarity, taking away a certain feeling of individuality that a match can have, but that’s not necessarily terrible considering Shoji Meguro’s and Shihoko Hirata’s, the vocalist for some songs, music is still great to hear. I’m still humming the theme song.
Online play includes a lobby with a customizable profile to identify yourself with, and from the limited amount of online play I was able to experience, gameplay ran coherently and I did not feel outwardly challenged by my ineptitude at fighting games – everyone felt evenly matched, which is something I think all long-time fighting game fans will enjoy the nature of, unless you like being the best, of course.
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is a nearly perfect addition to Persona 4 Arena, so perfect that it entirely renders the original game obsolete, providing players with a balanced index of characters who never lose variety in gameplay, an interesting story that refreshes some old faces in the Persona franchise, and an intuitive and balanced mix of both RPG and fighting game elements that will keep players yearning for more. It’s definitely not just another fighting game.