Persona 4 Arena Ultimax – Review

Title   Persona 4 Arena Ultimax
Developer  Arc System Works, Atlus
Publisher  SEGA
Platform  PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Genre  Fighter
Release Date  November 21, 2014
Official Site

It can be difficult to be a Persona 4 Arena fan in Europe. After suffering through an agonising nine-month wait for the original P4A to make the jump across the pond – that’s a whole pregnancy worth of waiting for no apparent reason – it looked like we were going to luck out with Ultimax because, in comparison, two months isn’t all that bad really. It was time enough for one more kick in the teeth though, when it was announced that DLC characters that were free – admittedly for a limited amount of time – in America, we would need to pay for.

But, do you know what? After getting really stuck in, I’m not even mad. I’m impressed.

It’s probably worth mentioning now that I loved the original Arena. I played it a ton, and for a while it was my go-to game for local multiplayer. I knew what I was getting into, or at least I thought I did. Ultimax has inherited plenty, but it is its own beast in almost every way possible.

In the very barest bones, there is little to pick between the two. Characters have four attacks – a light and heavy normal, and a light and heavy persona attack. Allied with this set of basic attacks are a variety of bursts that serve as combo breakers or combo extenders and are the key to dealing massive damage, and the special moves that are accomplished in classic fighting game fashion; half or quarter circles with the directional inputs combined with an attack buttons. Even novices to the genre can hold their own through the standard combo that each character performs when the light attack button is repeatedly pressed. This is an inherited feature that has been clearly tweaked – most obviously in the new combos now performed by the returning cast.

Another tweak is the new style of character introduced in the form of Shadow versions of each and every playable character. They have access to a Frenzy mode at the cost of their Persona Burst, giving them an aggressive edge over their standard versions. Some shadow versions of the returning fighters even have the old style simple combo their normal version used in the previous game.

Between alternate versions and newcomers, the roster has exploded from a sedate thirteen to a heady concoction of more than thirty different matchups. The new characters – sourced almost exclusively from Persona 3 – add dynamics that weren’t there in Arena and, more pleasingly, are completely justified by the story, which is almost a miracle for a fighter.

In fact, the story is not only strong, it’s downright expansive. For anyone accustomed to blitzing through a story mode in one afternoon, prepare to knuckle down. Spanning two separate chapters told from the point of view of characters from the two source games – Persona 3 and 4 – and multiple endings, the tale takes a fair chunk of time to complete. It’s worth the investment though – the somewhat unexplained happenings of P4A are tied up alongside the new plot threads into one satisfying conclusion.

Alongside this overarching story are the more focused snapshots of the arcade mode; they function as a sort of Story-Lite, occupying the space of a traditional fighting game story mode. It adds a spark of relevance to the mode, but if that’s not your speed, then there is also the Time Attack mode, where the idea is just to blitz through the fights as quickly as possible.

As if that weren’t enough single player content for anyone, there is also the new Golden Arena mode to get stuck into. I’ll be honest here, this is my favourite mode by far. Taking inspiration from the dungeon-crawling mechanic that the core Persona games use, you climb through the floors of the Arena by defeating their inhabitants. Every victory is rewarded with experience, and as your character levels up, so do their attributes – Strength, Magic, Energy, Agility and Luck. You can choose to add points to whatever fits your style, so your character will be just right for you. At certain levels that character can also learn skills that do everything from extra damage to healing, with some of the more impressive skills only obtainable by defeating a boss floor. Golden Arena is amazing because it harnesses all the grindy goodness of an RPG and injects directly into a fighting fan’s veins. I find myself returning time and time again to refine just how my stats are worked out or to try and beat the occupant of my highest floor. It’s completely addictive to watch that progression, and this mode is basically genius.

The opponents are pretty dopey though, so if you want to get the real Ultimax experience, online play is the only way to go. If you manage to infiltrate the confusing menus into searching for a match, be prepared to search long and hard. Even in launch week the ranked match lobby is completely bare of players, with the few who do play online to be found in the low pressure player matches. In those lobbies, or if you’re lucky enough to have a friend with the game, the initial signs are worrying. Intros to the fighters and arena grind along jerkily, but as soon as the fighting begins things get buttery smooth. Apart from the standard hint of lag that comes with all online gaming, the action is tight and everything happens when you expect it to. I can’t say I performed particularly well online, but Ultimax did its bit well enough. It certainly doesn’t lose much in comparison to the offline modes.

As much fun as it can be, Ultimax is not without its problems. Dopey opponents who barely put up a fight fast become boring, and the insistence on ending fights in most single-player modes after a single round is downright infuriating. The story mode is great, but long winded, and the balance of the roster is downright abominable. I want nothing more than to play Junpei every match, but unfortunately I also like winning, and those two things are not compatible. It’s not unreasonable to want a fair chance at winning no matter who you play, and that’s just not the case here.

Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is an infuriating game. It’s not going to be for everyone, but when it clicks it is maddeningly, frustratingly brilliant. It makes you want to throw your controller across the room and then pick it up and try again. It makes you want to hit that insane combo that you saw once when a dude used it on you online, and when you finally do nail it the excitement is so out of control that you lose the round in pure joy. I hate how much I love it. It’s not perfect, sure, but it’s a load of fun and, in the end, that’s what is important.

  • Easy for anyone, even fighting game newcomers, to pick up and learn
  • Solid, relatively lag free multiplayer action
  • Amazing story mode
  • Jam packed with content enough to satisfy anyone
  • Sleepy AI
  • Balancing problems
  • Horribly confusing menus

Part of me wanted to be able to dislike Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. The disappointing news of having to pay for DLC that the US combined with the frustrating wait to leave me a prickly mess of annoyance and anticipation. I have to admit though, the wait was worth it. P4AU is a mass of content and madcap fun, and it’s easy for even the greenest of genre newcomers. An improvement over its predecessor in every way, I just can’t bring myself to dislike it.

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