I’LL FACE MYSELF… AGAIN
In 2012, the world was graced with an odd little game called Persona 4 Arena. The premise of the joint project was simple: Arc System Works (of Guilty Gear and BlazBlue fame) would make an all-new 2D fighting game using the characters, world, and story of Atlus’ Persona series. It was pretty good! It wasn’t a perfectly balanced fighter by any means, but it wasn’t broken, and saw a good amount of tournament play. Two years later, and we finally received a follow-up: Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. Does this newcomer manage to build on the solid foundation of the previous game?
The story of Ultimax picks up less than a day after Persona 4 Arena’s left off. The mystery of the P-1 Grand Prix Tournament has been solved, the situation defused, and smirking impostor General Teddie unmasked and defeated. The Investigation Team of Persona 4 and the Shadow Operatives of Persona 3 have gone their separate ways, but the latter team has gained a new ally in Labrys, the “sister” of P3’s robot girl Aigis. Hanging out at the Junes food court, P4 protagonist Yu Narukami finally has a chance to kick back and enjoy the remainder of his vacation with his friends. Things are looking up!
But of course, this doesn’t last long. After the Investigation Team splits up for the night, every one of them is on pins and needles as midnight approaches. Silently hoping that nothing will happen when the clock strikes twelve, Yu and (most of) his companions sit individually in front of their TVs. And then, just at the stroke of midnight, all the electronics in Inaba go dark. Everyone barely has a moment to be confused before every TV screen comes to life and begins broadcasting the Midnight Channel once more. The face on the screen is that of General Teddie, announcing the beginning of the P-1 Climax tournament. Once again, the Persona-users will have to fight each other, but this time, the tournament takes place not in the world inside the TV, but in the real world itself (where most of the cast cannot use their Persona ability). With his parting words, General Teddie claims that if a winner is not declared within the hour, the world will end. Well… damn.
After the announcement, everybody turns around to see that the town of Inaba has been covered in a choking red fog, not unlike the fog that overtook the town in Persona 4. Knowing that this is clearly not good, the members of the Investigation Team make a mad dash to their meeting spot at Junes to try and solve this latest crisis…
The story of P4AU takes a different form than P4A’s did. It’s still a series of lengthy visual novel segments with far-too-short one-round fights in between, but it won’t take you quite as long to see the whole thing this time. Much like Arc System Works’ recent BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma, there is no longer one story for each character. Rather, there are only two larger storylines to follow: Episode “P4”, which follows the Investigation Team, and Episode “P3”, which follows the Shadow Operatives. Both are more-or-less the same story, but you have to clear Episode “P4” before you can play Episode “P3”, a decision which seems kind of arbitrary. It’s probably true that playing through the Investigation Team’s story first is the better way to go, but I don’t think anything major would be spoiled by doing it the other way around, for people who are more interested in the P3 characters.
I bring it up because, in comparison to the previous game, Episode “P4” is really kind of dull. You’ve got the same tournament setup that structures the entire narrative, but there’s not really much of a mystery to solve. In P4A, nobody knew exactly what was going on, and I kept playing because I was interested in finding out. In P4AU, everyone knows what’s going on, because the villain pretty much declared it right at the end of the previous game. There’s still the question of why the villain is doing what he’s doing, but even that question is given an answer not too long into the story. Everything in the plot is either too obvious or given away too early. When that happens, not even the incredibly strong ensemble cast of the Persona series can distract from the fact that this has just turned into another “fight the next opponent in order to get to the villain” story.
But what about the other story, Episode “P3”? Again, it’s pretty much the same, only it’s somehow infinitely more interesting to follow. It could be the fact that Persona 3 is where most of the new characters for this game are drawn from (Yukari, Junpei, and the duo of Ken and Koromaru are now playable), but it’s also littered with plot points that either tie this game strongly to the events of Persona 3 and 4, or clearly hint that this isn’t the last we’ll see of the Persona 3/4 duology. A number of new characters are introduced or given new importance, and specific lines of dialogue seem to suggest they’ll have a greater role in future titles. While Episode “P4” left me dissatisfied, Episode “P3” was a delight for me as a Persona fan. For those who aren’t fans of the series though, I’m really not sure the story is worth it, both because it assumes a lot of prior knowledge, and because all of the best parts will not be nearly as exciting if you’re not a series fan. (For what it’s worth, you could say the same thing about P4A’s story mode.) I was a little bit disappointed that Elizabeth’s really interesting story arc from P4A was not continued in any substantial way, but as long as future games are being hinted at, I can be patient to see how that turns out.
But now to the game itself. It looks really nice, but in all the important areas, it looks exactly the same as the previous game. Returning characters still use the same sprites (really beautiful sprites though, mind you), and there are plenty of returning 3-D backdrops with only minor details altered. The HUD in story mode and the pre-battle versus screen look just like the last game. It’s par for the course for the fighting genre, I suppose, but it also goes a long way toward making this feel like Persona 4 Arena 1.5 rather than a complete sequel. The new characters are drawn with just as much style as the existing cast, the new backgrounds are pretty cool, and the overhauled, visually intense menus are really cool and do a great job of getting you amped up for the game. And speaking of amping you up for the game, the new opening theme “Break Out Of…” is one of my favorite tracks in the history of the Persona franchise, a P4-inspired pop-rock anthem with an amazing energy that really gets your blood pumping. All the character themes for the new fighters are similarly well-done; I always looked forward to fighting series newcomer Sho Minazuki just for the background music. The game also features a much deeper catalog of background music selected from P3 and 4, from P3’s tense, understated boss themes to P4’s groovy dungeon-crawling music. In summary, the game looks and sounds a lot like P4A did, but a bit more colorful and with some really cool additions.
I mentioned before that the game looks like it could be called Persona 4 Arena 1.5, and this could be said of the gameplay too. If you’re playing a character that was in the previous game, you might have a couple new moves at your disposal, and the minute details of a couple previously-existing attacks might be tweaked, but otherwise, it feels exactly the same. For the uninitiated, the game plays similarly to BlazBlue, but perhaps a bit easier to play. Your four face buttons are all used for attacking; two are assigned to light and strong attacks, while the other two summon your Persona, who uses their own light/strong attacks. Special attacks, similarly to Super Smash Bros., are assigned the same inputs for almost all characters (usually quarter-circle motions plus a button press), drastically reducing the ramp-up time before you’re effective with a given character.
Each character has an SP gauge that increases upon giving and receiving damage. SP can be spent on a variety of things, from powering up your basic specials to immediately canceling attacks (“One More!”) to unleashing hard-hitting “SP Skills” that can really bring down your opponent’s life gauge. Every character has their own unique Evasive Action and Furious Action; the former is simply a dodge maneuver that can be used to avoid damage and reposition yourself, while the latter is a skill with lots of invincibility frames that can be used to turn the tide of the match (though it costs HP to use). A “Burst Gauge” that works similarly to BlazBlue is present, which allows you to break your opponent’s combo or put distance between you and your opponent, subject to a massive cooldown time. Finally, when your HP is low, you enter an “Awakening” state that increases your SP cap and unlocks even more devastating SP Skills that can be used to make a comeback. It’s a well-woven set of systems that, while it may feel a bit overwhelming at first, gradually begins to come together after a few hours with the game. Once you’re used to it, you’ll find yourself strategizing on a larger scale, which is when you start to get hooked. Just like any good fighting game, you realize that it’s not about who can hit each other the most times, but a dance of positioning and careful resource management. Is it perfectly balanced? Nope. Some characters are still noticeably better than others, but no character is so unusable that you won’t have fun playing as him/her.
So, all that stuff is returning from the previous game, but is there anything new? Well, in terms of the gameplay system itself, not much. The game adds another crutch for newcomers in the form of the “S Hold” system, which allows you to hold the light attack button to charge up skills without performing their inputs. The thing is that it takes forever to do, so you’re left extremely vulnerable (while simultaneously telegraphing exactly what you’re going to do). I can’t see this being useful except against other total newcomers, in which case you really don’t need to use it anyway.
Also, the number of Persona Cards each character gets (representing the number of times you can let your Persona be hit before you temporarily lose it) is different from character to character, unlike the previous game where everybody got four. For example, Akihiko doesn’t rely on his Persona much, so he only has two cards; you can break his Persona easily, but it won’t be long before he gets it back. A character like Shadow Labrys, who relies on having her Persona out all the time, gets six cards, meaning you have to work harder to break her Persona, but she’s left vulnerable for much longer if you pull it off. I like this change a lot, and it’s a sign of the game maturing and fixing some of the imbalances present in the original P4A.
The most interesting addition is that most characters now have a playable Shadow version, which changes the rules a bit. A Shadow character gets more HP, but has reduced attack strength. They cannot Awaken at low HP, but they can pull off their Awakened SP Skills at any time provided they have the SP to spend. They cannot pull off the flashy Instant Kill finishers that their normal counterparts can, but with a full SP gauge, they can enter “Shadow Frenzy” mode. This mode allows you to really put the pressure on your opponent, giving you far more options for combo strings (any special can be canceled into any other special!) and reducing your SP consumption. Your SP gauge slowly drains during this mode, and when it runs out, you return to normal. Playing as a Shadow is probably the most different-feeling experience that game has to offer, but the attack strength penalty and lack of bursts really make them hard to use. (And indeed, tournaments so far have shown them not to be competitively viable, unfortunately.) It’s a fun addition, but not one I can see many serious players using. (This makes that trophy about facing every Shadow in online play rather annoying…)
We can’t have a fighting game review without talking about game modes, so let’s do that. All the modes from P4A are present; the Story mode that we’ve already discussed, as well as your standard Arcade, Score Attack, and Combo Challenge offerings. Online mode works well; all the matches I’ve played suffered from little to no lag (except during the character intros, which is weird; once the match started it was fine). Within the Online mode, you’ve got the usual Ranked Match and Lobby match options, all correct and functional, with no major problems to report. The only thing to note is that, even though the game just came out in the States, many players have been playing the Japanese release for a while now, and have gotten quite good. Even at the lower ranks, Ranked Matches will be pretty brutal, especially to newcomers.
P4AU introduced one new mode, and it’s my favorite of the bunch. Inspired by BlazBlue’s Abyss Mode, the Golden Arena mode tasks you with completing several “dungeons” by bringing down a continuous stream of opponents, punctuated at regular intervals by challenging “boss” versions of characters. Your lifebar carries over from battle to battle, with only minimal healing available. The twist is that every fight you win earns your character experience points, which are of course used to level up your character’s stats permanently. In true Persona fashion, these stats are Strength, Endurance, Magic, Agility, and Luck; the Luck stat increases your rate of experience gain, while the others are self-explanatory. As a character levels up, he or she will learn passive “skills” that will help you survive as your opponents get stronger and stronger. Just like BlazBlue’s Abyss Mode, it’s a really addicting blend of RPG-style character progression with fighting game mechanics, and it’s the mode that I can see myself going back to over and over again; if it can make me sit through 50 fights in a row and not be bored by the end, it’s doing something right.
The Verdict: 7.2 out of 10.0
All in all, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is a decently strong fighting game, mechanically speaking. More importantly, it’s fun. Even people outside the Persona fandom can enjoy this game, especially if they like Arc System Works’ other fighting games. In fact, if anyone is looking for an introduction to the fighting genre, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax would be one of my first recommendations. The game is designed so that Persona fans, who aren’t all fighting game pros, will be able to pick it up and enjoy playing, while maintaining enough balance that it can be well-enjoyed at a more competitive level. The biggest overall criticism of the game is that it’s not much changed from its predecessor, yet it’s presented and priced like a full-blown sequel, which will bother some players more than others. Though for me personally, the worst disappointment was the Story mode. I really don’t mind that it makes no concessions for non-Persona fans, because the Story mode only exists so that fans of P3 and 4 can follow their favorite characters for a little while longer. The problem is that it felt extremely same-y, and even the fanservice didn’t pull me in until after clearing the story once and replaying it from the other characters’ point of view. It might be a sign that, if Atlus wants to keep milking the massive popularity of Persona 3 and 4, that there needs to be some major changes in the way the story is told, and I say this as someone who loves the cast, setting and story of the Persona 3/4 sub-sub-franchise very much. Just like the cast of characters that made the Persona franchise famous, this game is noticeably imperfect but lovable all the same.
For more information about what the score means, check out our official review scale.
Aaron Dobbe is an Associate Writer at MONG specializing in Nintendo but playing a bit of everything else too. Follow him on Facebook and pester him to get a Twitter.