Persona 4 Arena Ultimax (Playstation 3[Reviewed], Xbox 360)
Reviewed by @Levito
Satiating the desires of several different communities with a single game is a difficult task for any developer, and it is one Arc System Works and Atlus have dealt with in their Persona 4 Arena series for some time now. The challenge being creating a title that appeals to the hardcore fighting-game fan well-versed in Arc’s history, while also satisfying the fans of Persona‘s traditional RPG roots. The first game attempted this and it was successful in varying degrees, depending on who you ask of course. Now Arc is taking another jab at the concept with Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, and it is time to see if it fairs better than its predecessor.
Note: Slight spoilers for the first Arena in the following couple paragraphs
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax’s narrative picks up immediately after the events of the first game, with both the Investigation Team and the Shadow Operatives heading their own separate investigations to discover the true identity of the elusive antagonist of the first game. Though there’s not much in the way of investigation to be done as Inaba becomes engulfed in a layer of red fog that gnarls the landscape into something sinister. General Teddie returns to announce that another P-1 Grand Prix is about to take place, insisting that if the entrants do not participate that the world will come to an end. Also, a mysterious young man named Sho Minazuki seems to be at the center of all the wrongdoings.
If you are one of the people that was not a fan of the story of the first game, Ultimax is not much of a step up in regards to the quality of the writing. While I believe it’s undeniably better than the first game, it’s certainly not up to the standard of the RPG series from which it originates. My biggest issue is there is not a lot in the way of character development, particularly on the P4 side where it feels like some characters have even regressed from the growth that occurred in Persona 4. The story mode certainly has its moments, especially on the P3 side, but overall you should probably approach this with a “dumb fun” mentality rather than expect a truly gripping narrative. While normally I would never expect an excellent story from a fighting game, it stings a bit because they tried to set up a big overarching plot line over two games and in the end it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
Probably the biggest improvement to Ultimax’s story mode over the first game is its presentation. In order to see the entire story of the first game, you had to play through every single character’s individual story route. Normally that wouldn’t be an issue, but each path was more or less the same plot points retreaded over and over with lots of fluff in between. This time around however, Arc opted for a more concise approach to how the story plays out. There’s a large branching tarot card tree that basically allows the player some degree of choice to see how the story unfolds, with each tarot card representing a small portion of the story you can choose to play. That’s not to say that the narrative has a lot of branches and it’s affected heavily by play choice, but it cuts things up into smaller bite-sized chucks while also removing the repetition that plagued the story mode of the first game.
While Ultimax’s narrative is lacking, the things it *needed* to get right like the gameplay, it got absolutely right. Now anyone that listens to the podcast knows that asking me about the intricacies of a fighting game is like asking GWAR advice on how to keep an audience civil during a concert. However, despite my lack of knowledge with regards to the technical merits of the actual mechanics, Ultimax succeeds where most other fighting games have failed for me: it genuinely filled me with the desire to learn all about its inner workings. Whether you decide to play through the story mode at first or just start with the basics in the wonderfully helpful tutorial mode, the game does well to not overwhelm novice players like myself. Furthermore, things like auto combos will help you to not feel useless in your first few bouts with other players; though make no mistake, a skilled player will laugh at your attempt to auto combo your way to victory. It’s a game that is easy to learn on a fundamental level, but you’ll have to really work to understand it to actually be any good. My advice for players just starting out would be to choose either Chie or Mitsuru as a starter just to get a feel for combat, as both of their attacks have quite large hitboxes. Of course you should experiment with everyone on the roster and choose a main that really accentuates your strengths, and more importantly, someone that you enjoy playing as. In my case I’ve taking quite a liking to how Yukiko plays– big fan of the zoning game she’s got going on.
Like with most fighting games the majority of your time spent with the game will probably be with others, and for someone like me it can be difficult playing with others as there is not really a local fighting-game scene where I live. Thankfully the netcode for Ultimax is pretty freaking fantastic. In the numerous hours I have spent battling with others online, I can count the amount of awfully laggy matches on one hand. When you initially start an online match, there’s a brief stage intro that will play that seems to act as a bit of a time buffer for players to smoothly connect to one another. Usually these stage intros will stutter a lot initially but will progressively smooth out as both players get a decent connection. It’s a great way to compensate for the initial lag build up. There’s also a multitude of different lobby systems that help easily bring you and your friends together to keep the pace of matches smooth.
Earlier I mentioned that the presentation of the story mode was an improvement from the first game. Well that excellent presentation extends over to the visuals in the game too. Ultimax sports some of the most gorgeous 2D sprite work that Arc has ever put into a project. The new playable characters really highlight how much better the animation is over that of the first Arena. Rise in particular is the standout; her standing idle animation is perfectly in line with her personality, and all of her moves are like throwbacks to Elvis Presley’s stage antics. All of the characters’ personalities are well defined in their sprite work, it’s really a testament to how excellent the art direction is. Even despite the fact that the game is only available on last-generation hardware, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is one of the most gorgeous games released this year.
Ever since the original release of Persona 3, the series has become well known for having excellent soundtracks. A tradition that carries over to Ultimax as well, for the most part. The main theme “Break out of…” sung by Hirata Shihoko & Lotus Juice is arguably one of the best songs in the history of the franchise. There have been several instances where I found myself just sitting at the title screen listening to that song. Probably my only real complaint with the soundtrack though is there isn’t quite enough new music, or at least not enough that resonates the way the main theme does.
Probably the most surprising thing about Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is the fact that it’s absolutely brimming with content. The story modes for the P3 and P4 casts (and Adachi’s campaign if you download him) are likely to run you around the 14-18 hour mark. Not to mention the strangely addictive RPG-like Golden Arena mode where you can level up and increase the stats of whichever character you choose. Really though, when it comes to “bang for your buck”, Ultimax delivers and then some.
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax walks a fine line in its goal of appealing to both the hardcore fighting-game fan and the fan of the Persona RPG series. Obviously I can only really speak on behalf of one side of that duo, but as a whole I would say the game is quite successful in what it sets out to accomplish. More than that though, for the first time in years a fighting game has hooked me to the point where I want to learn all of its intricacies.