When Atlus first announced Pesona 4 Arena (P4A), a fighting game based on its popular RPG series, it was confusing. However, we learned that Arc System Works, the team behind Guilty Gears and BlazBlue, would co-develop the project and it started to make a little more sense. To say Persona 4 Arena was a surprise is an understatement. It was a game and genre that shouldn’t work together, but it did, and incredibly so.
For that reason, Atlus’ announcement of Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, a sequel to P4A, was met with great fanfare. Fans were interested to see how characters from Persona 3 and Persona 4 would further develop. Ultimax delivers improvements to the storytelling and combat system while also including more characters and game modes to create a fine fighting game package.
The story mode takes place almost directly after the events of Persona 4 Arena where the team showed Labrys off. Sadly, it would seem like the TV world is leaking out into the real world and shadow versions of the cast run amuck, fighting to win the new P-1 Climax tournament all while a mysterious new figure named Sho Minazuki has appeared. All of your favorite characters return in Ultimax, along with the inclusion of five others: Persona 3’s Junpei Iori, Yukari Takeba and Ken Amada (assisted by Koromaru), Persona 4’s Rise Kujikawa, , and the mysterious new Sho Minazuki. The roster itself has been upgraded from thirteen combatants to seventeen and if you count their Shadow counterparts, the number doubles. There’s a much stronger variety this time around, even giving those such as Rise time to shine rather than being benched on the sidelines. In addition, there are two free downloadable fighters (Adachi and Marie) that were made available at launch, along with Margaret to be released in the near future at an unknown price.
Unfortunately, the excruciatingly long story mode has a significant flaw, and it’s not the length. It’s the dull and filler dialogue that dampens the experience. It feels artificially stretched out when so much of the game could be cut from existence and we’d still understand the story and events that transpire. Persona games in the past have generally had clever and well thought-out dialogue, but a lot of it here feels forced, trying too hard to appeal to fans rather than exploring new and fresh ideas. Hours upon hours of plot flies by with little character development. This is mainly because the story is broken up into segments between characters that we don’t actually get to better know the cast. Fortunately, an interesting twist is that there’s two interconnected scenarios that follow both Persona 3 and Persona 4 members. The Persona 3 section is significantly better between the two as you get to learn more about Junpei, Yukari and Ken’s personal lives. It’s just unfortunate they’re placed in a throwaway story.
Those who are familiar with Persona 4 Arena will have a perfect grasp of what to expect gameplay-wise,. This is more or less the same engine and mechanics we’ve become accustomed to, just with some alterations and tweaks. The combat itself can be surprisingly deep, setting up massive combos, performing various cancels and even readying counters, but at the same time, newcomers to the fighting game won’t have much trouble adapting. There’s a strong balance between accessibility and depth, allowing for everyone to have fun. The online mode will no doubt be there for those who are looking for a challenge, while the story mode itself is far from difficult. As for the new characters, they are strong additions to the existing roster. The dual wielding Sho is fast and doesn’t contain any Persona traits, Rise and Yukari use their range to get the advantage on their opponents, Junpei is a much more up close fighter, and Ken has the freedom of going between both thanks to his lengthy spear. The shadow versions of characters are an intriguing twist as not only are there altered attack patterns, but Bursts are turned into a move called a Shadow Frenzy, reducing the cost of SP for a given time. Because of the rather disappointing story mode, it’s the gameplay that most people will come to love Persona 4 Arena Ultimax for.
By far the best and biggest new addition to Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is the Golden Arena Mode, which is an RPG-style Gauntlet challenge, consisting of four courses with different difficulties and 50 levels to conquer. Every fifth floor is a checkpoint, and characters earn experience from each battle to level up. Players earn skills and attribute points as they progress through the mode. Health carries over from each battle, so managing health is important to get deeper in each course. The mode adds a different spin on gameplay and takes cues from Persona RPGs.
The combination of hardcore RPG and fighting is bizarre, but Persona 4 Arena Ultimax not only works, it works better than its predecessor. Thanks to a more sophisticated and logical narrative structure, some tweaks and improvements to the combat, and the addition of the Golden Arena mode, Ultimax caters to both Persona fans and fighting game players. The robust roster also means every type of player will find a character that satisfies their style of play. Even though all the frills are great, what makes Ultimax succeed is how much enjoyment it offers when playing with others.
The game is $59.99 and comes out on both Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 and was released this week.