Review: Persona 4 Arena Ultimax (PS3)

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Title: Persona 4 Arena Ultimax
Format: Blu-ray disc / PlayStation Network Download (11.2 GB)
Release Date: September 30, 2014
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Arc System Works
Original MSRP: $59.99
ESRB Rating: T
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is also available on Xbox 360.
The PlayStation 3 disc version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy.

Gameplay:
When Arc System Works announced the first Persona 4 Arena game, it seemed like a wild idea. Pulling in characters and mechanics from the RPG’s Persona 3 and Persona 4 into a traditional fighting game? Crazy! But they pulled it off fantastically with a game that was fun to play, but still felt like it deserved the Persona name. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is the sequel to the first game, boasting the same great gameplay but with some new characters, modes, and updates.

That “same great gameplay” is the typical Arc System Works formula. Ultimax is a 2D fighting game, so the players are limited to two dimensions of movement, and much like the Arc System Works games Guilty Gear or BlazBlue, and the game is very quick-paced with a lot of movement options (compared to, say, Street Fighter).

Of course, it wouldn’t feel like a Persona game if the characters didn’t have access to their personas (powerful physical manifestations of the user’s psyche) so the game splits up the attack buttons so A and B are character attacks while C and D are persona attacks. Persona attacks tend to be more powerful but are also a double edged sword as the persona can be damaged and rendered unable to be summoned for a short period. Different characters rely on their personas in different ways, sometimes playing to the strengths the fighter already has for an all-in character, other times to the weaknesses for a more well-rounded character. In either case, the variety of characters and personas provide a wide range of possible playstyles, giving Ultimax’s cast a lot of different fighting styles to choose from.

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One of the things that makes Arena and Ultimax particularly good is how accessible they are to new players, probably to accommodate players coming from the RPG’s. Arc started making steps towards accessibility with recent BlazBlue iterations by featuring alternate, easier control schemes but Persona bakes that feature right into the basic moveset allowing players to lean on it as a crutch if needed, but allowing access to the full moveset at the same time. Called autocombo, this feature is activated by rapidly pressing the A button as the character performs a combo, automatically including a super at the end if the requirements are met. More experienced players can get more damage out of the characters by finding more in-depth combos, but the feature is a great way help ease newcomers into the game.

The game isn’t all aimed at new players though. There are still a ton of bells and whistles under the hood for the advanced player. Mechanics like the Furious Attack, All-Out Attack, One-More Cancel, Bursting, etc., all give the game the legs it needs for more competitive play. Fortunately there is a tutorial mode in the game that helps explain a lot of these advanced mechanics to help bridge the game for newer players to start using them.

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Ultimax brings a few new changes over Arena. Naturally, a bevy of balances and tweaks have been applied to the existing characters. Six new characters join the roster: Rise from Persona 4; Yukari, Junpei, and the Ken/Komaru duo from Persona 3; and the new character Sho Minazuki who comes in two forms (explained in the story). In addition, almost all of the characters have a new “Shadow” mode, which takes away some of their defensive options for the ability to perform an SP burst, which allows unlimited use of specials for a short period.

Although they mostly all boil down to the same actual gameplay, Ultimax does give a variety of modes to fight through. Arcade mode and Score Attack are pretty common modes, consisting of a run of back-to-back fights, and Ultimax also features a Story mode that continues the story from Arena (more on that in a bit). Golden mode is a new mode though, giving the fighting a bit of an RPG feel. Battling in this mode levels the player’s character, boosting their stats and giving them access to special abilities. The normal array of training options are here too, such as a Training mode to practice in and a Challenge mode that trains the player to perform specific combos. A few online modes round out the options but I’ll discuss those more in the appropriate section below.

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Story mode makes up a pretty big part of the single-player experience in the game. Picking up almost directly after the events of Persona 4 Arena, Ultimax sees the town of Inaba again being caught up in a Grand Prix hosted by General Teddie. This time, however, it seems to be taking place within the town itself, rather than in the TV world, so Yu Narukami and the Investigation Team find themselves fighting to save their town. Although the game gives a short summary, the story is probably best experienced after having played Persona 3, Persona 4 and Arena (yeah… at least 150 hours of gameplay right there). For those that may have skipped Arena, that game’s story is available to play in Ultimax as DLC.

The story itself is kinda mediocre. It’s more interesting than the story most fighting games have, but not to the level of the RPG Persona games. A big problem for me was that they set it up as a mystery, “Who’s the culprit!? Who’s the culprit!?” when it’s pretty obvious who the culprit is. Still, the story is a fun way to see the characters from the original games again and does offer some fun interactions between the Persona 3 cast and the Persona 4 cast. And the story does wrap up some of the parts of Arena’s story that were left as loose ends.

Just be warned, the story mode is a lot more story than fighting. The first fight isn’t even until an hour into the story, as Glenn found out when trying the game last month. Story mode even lets the player turn on an “auto” mode, where an AI takes over the player-character during battles, for those who want even more of a hands-off experience in their story.

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Visuals:
If Arc System Works is best known for one thing, it’s the visual quality of their 2D fighting games. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax does not disappoint. The character sprites are all beautifully drawn. The animations are wonderfully fluid. The backgrounds draw from the world of Persona and are all faithful and great to fight in. Fans of the RPG’s should keep an eye out for the tons of little nods packed into character animations and into the backgrounds.

Persona 4 Arena Ultimax even captures the brilliant style of the Persona RPG’s. Everything feels distinctly “Persona.” The menu designs especially have that odd quirkiness that Persona 4 has, giving it a great style while still being functional and elegant.

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Audio:
A large portion of the songs in the soundtrack for Ultimax are remixes from Persona 3 and Persona 4, and I’m okay with that. Both games have great music and the songs lend themselves well to this game. There are more than a couple earworms in this soundtrack though, so be warned if you’re the type to easily get songs stuck in your head.

Atlus commonly forgoes the Japanese audio in their games so it is a pleasant surprise that the Japanese voices are present in Ultimax, sort of. The story mode only has English voices but the game can be set to use the Japanese or English voices in battle and for other modes. The English voice actors do a good job and the overall quality should be familiar to those who have played Arena or Persona 4 Golden. Battle voices are fine as well although the usual fighting game problem is still present here: voices can get somewhat repetitive after playing the game a lot. That’s not really an issue with the game itself, but just with the normal routines of a fighting game, especially when practicing.

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Online/Multiplayer:
For the competitive players, multiplayer is the bread and butter of a game like Ultimax. Players who have honed their skills can take it into 1v1 local multiplayer or one of three different online modes. Ranked online is the most competitive, using set rules and tracking the player’s wins and losses to determine their ranking. Player mode is a more casual mode, allowing players to set up a room for up to eight people. Only two people play at once, while the others spectate, and the host can tweak the rules of the room with options such as allowing/disallowing boss characters or changing how the actively playing players rotate. Finally, Lobby mode sets the player’s avatar in a virtual arcade where they can pick and challenge their opponents. It’s a funny little way to fight against people, but I do worry that having two different casual modes might fracture the player base as the number of people online starts to dwindle. All three modes offer the ability to save the replay and watch it later, a great feature to help players learn from their mistakes.

The biggest question about a fighting game’s online modes is always how good of a connection you can get with your opponent. Naturally, this depends on a ton of factors so Ultimax, like many of Arc’s fighters, rates the connection to your opponent on a scale of 0-3. You can see their connection status before you fight them, even in ranked, which is nice for avoiding laggy fights. When I managed a 2 or 3 connection, the matches were pretty good. Maybe the occasional hiccup but the connection was good enough to be confident that I won or lost the game based on my skill. With a 1 or 0 connection, games were a lot less solid, with decent amounts of lag and some slowdown during matches. Local competitive play is always going to be better but Ultimax can be solid online, if you’re picky about who you face.

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Conclusion:
Fighting games always have to appeal to a wide range of players, from the hardcore competitive folks to the casual couch-multiplayer-with-friends folks. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax expands that even further to trying to appeal to fans of the RPG as well. For all but the most competitive players (whom I won’t try to speak for because my experience at that tier of play is very limited), I’d say Ultimax offers a good experience. The fighting systems are robust and offer enough options to give advanced players an edge but also plenty of tools that the newer players won’t be floundering. Even those RPG fans should be able to enjoy the story and Golden modes for an RPG-like experience.

Probably the biggest question, though, is whether it is worth switching from the previous game to Ultimax. For those who didn’t play Arena, Ultimax is entirely an upgrade so there’s no reason not to go for it (especially since Arena’s story is available on the cheap as DLC). But for the Arena players out there, is this enough of an upgrade? I would say that it is. There may not be huge changes to the returning characters nor to the overall game mechanics, but the new characters, new story, and revitalized online scene should ensure that those who enjoyed Arena will also enjoy Persona 4 Arena Ultimax.

Score:
8.5

* All screenshots used in this review were provided by the publisher.

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Written by Andy Richardson

Andy Richardson

A longtime PlayStation fan who enjoys JRPGs and rhythm games when he’s not tweeting about his parrot.

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